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In a Flyover State: Picking New Shows Is Really Easy, Right?

Despite the glitz and glamour and confident proclamations you will see this week, Network execs have about as much clue of what’s happening as that guy who unknowingly live-tweeted the bin Laden raid. 5/16/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

I was emailing back and forth recently with one of the top network honchos,
and I was sent the following, which I have to leave as anonymous
because I’m sure they would like to keep their job: “After over 20 years
in the television business, I’ll be the first to admit that one of the few certainties
is that no one can predict when and where a hit will come from. Anyone who thinks they have a formula for creating hit
television shows is either (i) lying, (ii) delusional, and/or
(iii) an agent. In my experience, hits happen by accident
and bear little relation to cost or auspices—it’s usually
the last pilot ordered, the script paid least attention to,
the series kept on the air for lack of anything to replace
it with, and so on (there are many examples of this—
Seinfeld, Survivor and CSI are just a few).”

So, with that cheery set-up, welcome to Upfront
Week! That’s right, a top network exec just basically told
you that despite the glitz and glamour and confident
proclamations you will see this week, they have about
as much clue of what’s happening as that guy who unknowingly
live-tweeted the bin Laden raid.

But upfront veterans will tell you every year at this
time that there are actually plenty of certainties, though
none of them are new shows.

You know things will take place, like hearing the same
pop song in multiple pilot clips at every upfront, everyone
checking watches if an upfront creeps too long past the
hour mark, and Jimmy Kimmel trashing a lot of people
at ABC’s show on May 17.

And what’s certain, unfortunately, is that less than half
of the shows that get introduced this week will be on the
schedules next fall. Which is why it bears asking every
year at this time: Is there really no recipe for a hit? And
of course, the answer is no, there isn’t.

No one knew American Idol or Survivor would work;
that’s why everyone passed on them at least once. You really
think the networks enjoy their upfronts resembling a Mets
game, where everything in the lineup is wildly expensive,
but most of it inevitably ends up sucking every year?

Still, as I thought back to two of the newer shows that
really popped in recent years, trying to find some common
ingredients, I did come up with a couple of things I
would look for in a new drama if I was choosing what to
put on the air. Because, you know, reverse-engineering a
hit in television is an awesome idea that is sure to work.

Anyway, here’s what I’d look for in a show if I was
picking them:

• Something men and women can watch together.
In other words, something between UFC, which is too
violent for my wife, and HGTV, which she loves but
makes me want to bludgeon myself.

• It had better play in the flyover states. Take the
pilot to Minneapolis and Kansas City and places where
real people live and test them there. Shows that work in
New York and Los Angeles will impress your friends and
the 900,000 people who will watch; shows that work in
the Midwest go for $2.3 million an episode in back end.

• Closed-ended episodes with an ongoing story
If you want that $2.3 million per, it had better
have both, but especially that first thing.

• A lead character you can’t figure out. You want
someone who keeps you guessing, who sometimes you
want to be, while other times you can’t believe how stupid
they are.

• Lots of hot people. It’s OK to admit it: Television
is better when you think unsavory thoughts about one
or more of the characters.

• Hot same-sex couples. The gloves—and the rest of
the clothes—are off when it comes to same-sex couples
on network primetime TV. Go there.

• Great, great, great writing. It goes without saying, but
it’s amazing how rare it is. A great concept and lots of cool
special effects don’t mean anything if you can’t get goose
bumps and the occasional tear out of your audience.

When you add all this up, what do you get? You get
one of the consistently best shows on television—The Good
—which I fundamentally can’t believe more people
don’t watch. If I am CBS, I am spending tons of time and
money nurturing this show and getting more people to
watch. It has all seven of the points I make above, doing
many of them better than anything else on TV.

Or you get another show that, when it is good, it’s fantastic:
Glee. It is undoubtedly gutsier than The Good Wife, and
the breath of fresh air network TV so desperately needed.
It just needs to be a bit more consistent week over week to
keep growing beyond the phenomenon it’s become.

Both shows have all or most of the above components,
and both are shows that have broken through as hits at
a time when the broadcast networks are struggling to
make new ones.

Obviously, picking shows with the above points means
absolutely nothing. There are many more things I could
have mentioned, from “always picking the passion projects
of writers” to “picking at least a couple of shows that are
unlike anything else on the air” to “picking shows with big
stakes each week.” Just go back to what the network exec
said at the top of this column and see how useless this all is.

But when you look at the very few breakout shows from
the past couple of years—and obviously Hawaii Five-0
warrants mention, based on the big payday it already got
in off-net—there are some common themes. Of course,
you can’t reverse-engineer a hit, but give me a bunch of
good-looking people reciting fantastic writing and appealing
to my (and more importantly, my wife’s) Midwesternlike
sensibilities, and you at least have a shot. I think.

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