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Why Good TV Isn't On TV

7/25/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

In one of his observational comedy bits, George Carlin used to wonder why the AM radio dial came to a crashing halt at 540. "What kind of great stuff are we missing on 420?" he'd ask. These days, we ask about TV, "Where is the great stuff, period?"—and who's to blame for there not being more of it?

Well, according to the Writers Guild of America—in the midst of another round of extended wrangling with major studios over a new contract—part of the problem lies with what you don't
see.

The latest issue of the organization's magazine, Written By,
focuses on unproduced television scripts. The issue even carries excerpts from a number of thoroughbred writers who, for whatever reason, didn't make it out of the starting gate with a pet project.

Although this might sound like something of an excuse—like Carlin's lamenting the nonexistent radio channel—there is something to be said about what's not currently getting made.

The networks, after all, have gone into the franchise business, with a fourth edition of Law & Order
and third CSI
due this season. Beyond those direct spinoffs are a slew of copycat procedural crime shows, as well as a pair of new "medical mystery" dramas, NBC's Medical Investigation
and Fox's House,
which seem to be the product of convergent evolution.

Throw in the expansion of so-called reality television, as well as more-traditional time-fillers like newsmagazines, movies and sports, and the shelf-space available for scripted shows in the broadcast space clearly isn't what it used to be.

Allowing for a few exceptions, nor does there seem to be much interest in taking chances. With massive conglomerates owning networks, mitigating downside potential is a priority, which means trotting out programs that can be easily marketed and "monetized" on profit-and-loss statements.

From a business standpoint, this makes a good deal of sense, especially with the audience so fragmented. If people like CSI,
then why not give 'em CSI?
Putting a Starbucks on every other corner doesn't seemed to have hurt the coffee retailer.

Yet for writers who'd like their best and most distinctive work to reach the public, it's a prescription for frustration. "Distinctive" programming has mostly migrated to other regions, underscored by HBO's record haul in this month's Emmy nominations. The pay service has consistently dared to be different, a template other cable networks, from Showtime to FX, are emulating with varying degrees of success.

Being distinctive also comes with risk. It can turn out to be The Sopranos, whose much awaited moment in the Emmy spotlight seems inevitable this year, or Carnivale, the incomprehensible period piece that HBO, with its novel business model, has the luxury of renewing, catering to the brave few souls with the patience for it.

The challenge is that if great power brings great responsibility, to quote that noted philosopher Spider-Man, then great artistic ambition heightens the chance for big, painful belly flops. There's also some truth to the notion that every writer/producer has a critically acclaimed ratings dud inside them, just waiting to be unleashed— once they acquire the clout to get it made.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that network honchos haven't been shy about blaming writers for their role in scripted television's diminishing portfolio, citing a shallow talent pool and poor execution among the key factors, along with the misguided choices of the execs that preceded them.

After wading through stacks of unproduced teleplays, Written By
editor Richard Stayton came to a different conclusion, marveling at "the exclusion of so many great scripts. It strikes me as a crisis not of your making."

Further validation has come from cable's tiny Trio channel, which expanded its Brilliant but Cancelled
umbrella to include pilots that were brilliant but were never even ordered. And next month, there will even be a special titled The Best Shows That Never Were,
highlighting worthy flops, airing on, of all networks, ABC.

Admittedly, TV hasn't been especially nurturing to quality in recent years, with plenty of sparkling shows getting the bum's rush from viewers. Take Fox's Emmy-nominated new sitcom Arrested Development, which, as a sheer numbers game, garnered a second season strictly on hope and faith—the name of a mediocre ABC sitcom, by the way, that has done considerably better in the ratings.

Nor is there much latitude any more for noble failure, unless those responsible wish to be nobly unemployed.

So maybe the writers have it right and forces have conspired to keep much of their best stuff in the dustbins. Being right is nice, but my guess is, given their druthers, most would rather be produced, even if it means not being quite so brilliant.

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