If Critics Ran the Networks: A Multiplatform Roundtable
Five top thinkers tell us how they'd fix what's broken about broadcast TV.
Five top thinkers tell us how they'd fix what's broken about broadcast TV.
TV critics have it easy. They get to voice their strongly held opinions about what networks choose to fill their airwaves. So we decided to offer five of the industry's top critics (listed below) a keener challenge: Tell us what each of the broadcast networks is doing right, and what you would do to fix what they're doing wrong.
The timing for this lively roundtable couldn't be better. We've seen a development season plagued by a writers' strike, digital uncertainty and a recession. And with few pilots to view in advance of this week's broadcast portion of the Television Critics Association confab on the West Coast, the fall 2008 season may be the best-kept industry secret since the merger of UPN and The WB. There's plenty to talk about.
Below is an edited version of their conversation. Click on the accompanying links to hear audio clips of the roundtable and watch video Q&As with the critics.
ABC: Try Bringing in the Family
MARISA GUTHRIE: ABC has had a very hard time developing a comedy hit, so they picked up Scrubs and this Mike Judge cartoon The Goode Family, which seems like it would be more at home on Fox than ABC. So how is all of this going to fit in with the network's DNA?
MATT ROUSH: Well, there are just so few comedies on their air right now. So basically, they're starting from scratch. Where ABC to my mind succeeds is the fact that their best comedies are hour-long comedies. They just haven't succeeded with the half-hour yet. But a lot of their so-called dramas are actually funnier than most other networks' comedies.
ROBERT BIANCO: I think it should be said that the network of Pushing Daisies and Eli Stone and Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives is not the network that I would worry about next fall, even acknowledging the need for comedy.
That said, ABC does have this strange fondness for the unfunny comedy, which they keep repeating again and again, these things like Carpoolers. I do think the salvation would be to go back to their roots. Go back to Roseanne and Home Improvement and the kind of blue-collar comedies they used to do so well and kind of trashed with According to Jim.
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DAVID BIANCULLI: As long as they're doing shows like Caveman in the half-hour, it's clear that they don't have any taste or know what they're doing. But the "TGIF" franchise that ABC had a generation ago -- considering how successful Disney is with everything right now on Disney Channel aiming at that tweener audience, they really ought to say OK, on Friday nights. let's just do this again.
AARON BARNHART: I'd be careful with that if I were ABC Family [and Disney Channel], letting ABC have that franchise back. I think ABC has probably figured that their real money lies, as far as the kids' audiences, with cable.
And to me, it seems like ABC has so many pieces to its media empire, as do all of these networks, that this is one area I think that they're just willing to admit they're not very good at, that they would rather plug an hour with some low-budget reality show than with two half-hour comedies that really haven't done very well for them.
BIANCO: But I want to go back to David [Bianculli's] point about the tween audience and why ABC and all the other networks, except for The CW, have turned their backs on this when it's clearly so lucrative on cable. Why have the networks just given up on the whole idea of the family audience and the tween audience when you can really tap something that's quite lucrative and popular and could actually turn it into some decent television if you do it right?
I think that's a real blind spot for everybody but in particular ABC, because it is part of the Disney family. You think they might be able to take advantage of that on their network in an area where they're really struggling. So that's a real puzzlement.
GUTHRIE: Ben Silverman has tried to shake things up, but is this smoke and mirrors from the fourth-place network? What are their prospects with all of this stuff that Silverman is billing as new and different?
BIANCO: I don't mean to be rude, but like anyone who was at the upfront, the first question should be: Is Ben Silverman even still at the network? I mean, it was all Jeff Zucker. Everything during the strike was Jeff Zucker. Other than giving production deals to his ex-company, I'm not sure what impact Ben Silverman is having on that network at all.
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Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart discusses how broadcast networks can distinguish themselves from their cable competitors...
BIANCULLI: I know one impact -- the fact that he made a TV movie out of Knight Rider and then saw it and then went to series with it anyway.
MAUREEN RYAN: Kath & Kim I thought was a fun series, but it was on Sundance [Channel] and it's a very narrow slice of comedy, at least the original was. And in terms of what they've done, isn't the biggest thing on their schedule an Office spinoff about which we have pretty much zero details except maybe one cast member?
BARNHART: I was staggered by NBC's announcement in [April] that the fourth-place network would not have more ideas, more big swings that it was willing to take. Very puzzling.
And this is the network that has to some degree the most upside in that they've really figured out how to deliver their shows to the online audience and through iTunes and the DVR [digital-video-recorder] audience. They have a connection with young people through Heroes.
I guess for me it's really just a matter of if they had just brought a few more things for us to talk about, you wouldn't be getting that very nervous feeling of is NBC not only going to skip the upfronts, are they going to skip the fall season?
BIANCO: Yeah, the imprint so far of Ben Silverman is to revive The Apprentice and keep ER.
ROUSH: And renew Lipstick Jungle, what's that about? Look at that Wednesday lineup -- Knight Rider, Deal or No Deal, Lipstick Jungle -- that's a train wreck right there. And then we haven't seen anything, so it's really unfair to judge their new shows, but you almost wonder whether they're just putting these titles out there for empathy, like My Own Worst Enemy and America's Toughest Jobs on Friday. That's NBC in a nutshell right there.
GUTHRIE: CBS has aging police procedurals and they need new ones. The Mentalist with Simon Baker, could that fill the bill? They also famously tried to be daring and different last season.
BIANCO: That's like the wedding band that plays “Proud Mary” for the young people.
GUTHRIE: But why didn't it work?
RYAN: Because they didn't commit to it. I think the one show where you could argue that they did make a passionate or at least a realistic or reasonable commitment to doing something different was Swingtown, which is now, as we all know, out in the middle of the summer.
We all watched that pilot for Viva Laughlin; that was a BBC [British Broadcasting Corp.] series and it was sensational and it had a really terrific cast, but you had to fully commit to it.
Imagine Ugly Betty if it weren't Ugly Betty but a knockoff of Suddenly Susan. No, you had to really commit to that particular concept and get a show runner who was really gonna go for it. Because Lost, Ugly Betty, sometimes with a particular show you have to embrace one sensibility, one creative vision and go for it.
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BARNHART: I think it's fascinating that CBS would take a show like Moonlight and remove it from its schedule and then put a show like The Mentalist on, which is essentially a bunch of CBS executives sitting around saying, OK, which of our bankable stars have we not plugged into a forensic detective drama yet? Oh, Simon Baker.
And so what we have is The Guardian airlifted into a police procedural. Until CBS really starts to tank with this approach, I think that their conservative programming strategy is probably not such a bad thing.
ROUSH: With CBS, again it's a thing about execution. It wasn't just that weird shows didn't work last year, because Pushing Daisies was at least a creative triumph. But at CBS, when they tried to go off the charts, they just didn't, like Mo [Ryan] said, commit to them, or they just didn't execute.
And this time they've gone back to their strengths. I think that their Monday-night comedy is strong. The Mentalist, kind of a thin concept, but Simon Baker brings a lot of charm to what he's doing and it really fits into their mode. And we haven't seen the full pilot of The Eleventh Hour yet, which is this new trend of creepy procedurals with a little bit of a science-fiction aspect to them.
But that might work for CBS because it's within the procedural format. So they're playing it safe, but I think playing it safe after last year is probably the right way to go.
BIANCO: I have to say if I'm forced to choose, I'd rather go with ordinary competence than extraordinary incompetence. I'd rather have The Mentalist than Viva Laughlin, as much fun as it was to make fun of Viva Laughlin.
And I thought CBS' slate this year was surprisingly strong. I don't know that The Mentalist will make anybody's best list, but I think in that time slot it will be a solid contender, just an ordinary, entertaining TV show.
GUTHRIE: And now Fox: How much longer are they going to be able to rely on American Idol to come in and save them and clobber everything in its path? And will Fringe live up to the hype?
BARNHART: Having seen the Fringe pilot, I question whether that has got the kind of large-tent potential that Lost did, just because the pilot that was made available to us was incredibly violent and intense in sort of the way that made X-Files a fringe hit.
But [considering] where each of the four networks stands, Fox still looks the best. And it's not just because they figured out a way to bring the audience back to Idol, but because Kevin Reilly and Peter Liguori know how to recruit and bring top talent and put them in a position to succeed. The promotion machine is second to none. I think it would be very surprising if Fox did not have another very good year next year.
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ROUSH: There's a lot of really neat things about Fringe but it may be more of an occult hit, a media-buzz hit for sure because it's going to have a lot of angles for the media to get excited about. And airing after House is not such a bad thing. But it does fit within the Fox schedule to me. And I think Fox will do OK in the fall.
And then American Idol; no end in sight for that juggernaut. I mean, even if it's diminished from what it was last year, it still is one of the biggest things going in a given year because they don't overdo it. They just play it once, and that's probably the smartest thing they could do.
BIANCO: Remember at one point Idol was down what, 5%-7% of its audience? Idol could lose 30% of its audience next year and still be the No. 1 show.
RYAN: [Fringe and Dollhouse] are swing-for-the-fences shows; they might fail. But I would definitely make the case that right now, Fox is the No. 1 network but is doing more. NBC should be doing this sort of thing, just going to some really talented people and saying go for it, present us with something that's out there, because that's what Heroes was. But I think Fox is pretty smartly trying to figure out its next move; they're in good shape and they're trying to get that next double or even triple.
BARNHART: And while we're talking about talent, we should definitely mention Joss Whedon at the head of Dollhouse, but also Mitch Hurwitz and Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, three credentialed comedy writers who are doing a series called Sit Down, Shut Up for them. The talent just goes on and on at Fox.
BIANCULLI: Fox right now is doing what NBC did a long time ago to rebuild from last place. And it's exactly what you've said NBC should be doing now. But this is the top-rated network that's being aggressive and still grabbing the talent that we want to see.
I trudged through the upfronts and it wasn't until the last day with Fox, getting a taste of Dollhouse and Fringe, and only a taste, that I finally found something that I would make as appointment television.
RYAN:Gossip Girl is not really a huge ratings success, but it's something that helps them across a lot of different properties and platforms. I think they're gonna aggressively go after [young women]. And I think it's depressing in that it does trod a lot of the same ground that ABC is doing with well-to-do people behaving badly. But I think that's the way to go.
ROUSH: They keep making the same show over and over again. I mean, 90210 looks like it'll be just a West Coast steal of what Gossip Girl is doing -- rich, spoiled brats -- followed by Surviving the Filthy Rich, which is an even worse-looking show about spoiled, mostly white brats. On Wednesday, they're basically doing a clone of America's Next Top Model with their other reality show [Stylista]. So they're in a way treading water, and then they rent out Sunday night altogether. They've given up on that night and let [Media Rights Capital] program it for them. That's a weird thing.
BIANCULLI: I would look at that Sunday-night lineup and see what gets developed from that, and see if another company can't run The CW better than The CW can. The part of the transition plan that's looking good right now is the part where they shut down The WB and the UPN networks. The part where they start up a new network with the old shows is really not looking like the good part of that strategy.
BIANCO: The one thing you could say for UPN is that it did have the best diversity record in the business, not just with shows aimed at a black audience, but having diverse casts all across the board, which for a while CW did until it discovered Gossip Girl.
And now you have Surviving the Filthy Rich, which has no minority actors, at least [judging from] the upfront [presentation]. And 90210, where the only minority faces ... you know, the black kid who has been adopted by the rich, white family. Their sitcoms, like The Game and Everybody Hates Chris, they have exiled to Friday night so they can die with America's Next Top Model repeats.
So it's hard for me to muster up any enthusiasm for that network's survival one way or the other. Send Gossip Girl over to CBS or ABC or Fox and close the rest of the stuff down.
GUTHRIE: Okay, so we haven't got to see a lot of the fall shows.
RYAN: Are there any fall shows?
ROUSH: Yeah it's like this whole new season is like the best-kept secret TV has ever been able to conjure up at this point. I mean we have seen very little of it and what we've seen hasn't exactly floated our boat.
RYAN: But you know, I think I'm gonna say that. And I don’t know if you guys might agree with this or not, but I'm actually glad that I don’t have to review 40 new shows within the space of three weeks. It's an absolutely brutal schedule in the fall. Like in September my family is used to me being pretty much a nervous wreck and by the end of it I'm just writing sentences like 'It was OK, I guess. Can I stop writing now?'
GUTHRIE: And that's how the viewer probably feels?
RYAN: Yeah, exactly.
BIANCO: You know I just really strongly disagree with that.
BIANCO: I really do. I really think that ... I think the season is abnormal, it's because of the strike. I think that concentration of shows is inefficient but it is what sets the networks apart, that fall launch that Americans for years have planned their September around and you look forward to it. It is what makes broadcast TV stand out from the pop-culture mix.
I really think that if they ever let that go, if they just drop themselves into the entire pop-culture pool, that it's a huge mistake. Why, when you have created this tradition, that people now come to expect in September, inefficient as it may be, it also drives people to you. The ratings invariably go up and people do check these shows out. I don't know why you would want to lose it.
RYAN: I think there's a benefit to the concept of having that ingrained thing that people get excited about. I absolutely agree with that. I think that the sheer number of stuff that was thrown against the wall that everybody knew that they were throwing eight shows at the wall because they expected one of them to succeed.
I think the idea of having a fall season is absolutely gonna stay it's gonna stick around, I hope it sticks around. But I think the idea of developing 20 shows so that you pick eight and then maybe one will succeed, whether we like that model or not, I can't imagine that these companies are going to let that continue forever. I could be wrong though.
ROUSH: What really encourages me about this season though is the number of renewals of interesting shows that still haven't really maybe found their way. And the idea that we're gonna relaunch, especially on ABC, relaunching shows like Pushing Daisies and Dirty, Sexy Money and, to a certain extent, Eli Stone from the midseason. And even over on NBC you've got Chuck coming back. These were shows that were really, I think, beginning to find their way or at least critically perhaps, and are going to get that new season.
And it's the network's challenge, and ours as well to -- if the new shows are any good -- to generate interest again around these shows that we were excited about right before the strike happened and get that going. And it might be a little bit less confusing.
I mean the confusing nature of the fall season, when there's too many new shows coming on, I get that. But there still should be excitement about a fall season that has as many good returning shows as this one has. That's where my hope is for this new season.
BIANCO: I remember the other model, which is to just develop a few shows, put a lot of money in them, don't throw money up against the wall, and introduce them slowly. Look how well that's worked for HBO since The Sopranos. (laughter)
BARNHART: Yeah. Well and a couple years ago there was this rash of serial dramas and they were all thrown in the pit sort of against each other and there was this battle royal and they all lost, except for Heroes. But I think if you had released those shows one at a time over the course of 12 months, Heroes would still have been the only one standing.
So I think that the viewers do actually look forward to the process. And I have to say, I kind of look forward to the process, too. And what is disappointing this season is that I just have one full set of screeners from CBS. I had to go out to some rogue site to get Fringe. And I haven't seen jack from either NBC or ABC, although ABC is supposedly going to have those shows to us shortly.
BARNHART: To me, some of the enjoyment of the summer, is to watch those pilots not once, sometimes two or three times, just so that they stop running together in my head and I can start to really think about which ones do stand out.
It was really only on the second or third airing I thought that Heroes jumped out at me personally. I think we can all point to a show that surprised us kind out of the gate and we would not pay that kind of respect to a show that was coming out on [basic cable].
BIANCULLI: Yeah, the first time I saw Viva Laughlin I was very disappointed. Then I saw it the second time. And then the third time ... (laughter) And disappointment was so far above what my reaction was by the end of it.
GUTHRIE: What returning shows do you think will not make it or do you hope will not make it and which do you want to see succeed?
ROUSH: Lipstick Jungle. I don’t know how that one got renewed. And Life, which I thought was getting better, but they're putting it on Friday night and I don't think they're really getting behind that so much. But I hope many of the other returning shows make it.
I think Chuck and ABC's shows for the most part, Pushing Daisies, Dirty, Sexy Money, Eli Stone. Eli Stone got so much better as it went on during the midseason. So I'm hoping that one is finding some traction. But I think a lot of them are risks. I think there will be quite a bit of these sophomore shows coming back that won't make it, but not because some of them aren't good. But I think Lipstick Jungle in particular that I still can't quite believe it's back.
RYAN: I hope that honestly Private Practice is just one of the worst shows that ABC has ever done. I think the cast is outstanding, don't get me wrong, I think the writing is just absolutely terrible and unless they do something really major to make that better, they should put everyone out of their misery.
I'm actually pulling for Reaper because I think it had just a wonderful pilot. It absolutely went into the ditch about one episode later. But toward the end they really started to find their feet and I would love it if that show got a chance. It's going to have this season to kind of find its place as the next generation of Joss Whedon wanna-bes I guess.
BARNHART: Yeah, unfortunately Dirty, Sexy Money might be toast because they're having show runner issues and that's never a good sign.
ROUSH: Yeah, for sure.
RYAN: Never good, no. And Life On Mars, come on. That's not returning though, so sorry.
BIANCULLI: And if The Moment of Truth, and if we can count Knight Rider as returning, if those two are dead before I am, I'll be happy.
RYAN: On that note ...