(or Why Did I Leave My Computer In The First Place?)
My life before 2006 was much simpler and happier. I spent a lot of time on my computer (web surfing, writing, other “real work”-type of activities) and seldom watched TV. When I did watch it was usually never “network TV,” except for Smallville. (I love me some Kristin Kreuk.) In the morning I’d tune in CNN’s Headline News during breakfast. Most evenings I’d watch NBC’s Nightly News during dinner (since Chicken Noodle News stopped doing news in the evenings years ago), then switch to see what was on Sci-Fi channel or let music videos from VH-1 Classic play in the background while I worked on my PC. There was little anxiety or strife in my TV habits and I was happy.
Then in the summer of 2006 I saw ads for two new NBC shows. The first one that grabbed my attention was Heroes. Those previews of Claire jumping off a tower for a camcorder’s benefit and picking herself up afterward made me think “I have to watch that!” The second show was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Its premise piqued my interest: a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of people putting on a weekly comedy show strikingly similar to Saturday Night Live. Matt Perry looked like he’d be great, and the show had Amanda Peet as well (I love me some Amanda Peet). Besides, I’ve worked in the technical side of TV and loved it, so I thought I’d enjoy a behind-the-scenes drama about the subject. I watched the first episodes of each and was hooked. I was then engaged in three network TV series plus Smallville and Battlestar Galactica. I started gauging my evening’s activities by what was on TV. All was bliss.
Then the ax fell and NBC cancelled Studio 60. The writing had been great, the dialog witty, and the characters engaging. At the time NBC said the show was “having trouble finding its audience,” which meant it wasn’t getting enough eyeballs to give it a second season despite critical acclaim. They said the same thing about Friday Night Lights, but apparently felt it deserved a second chance since it was about one of America’s pastimes (and had hot young actresses playing cheerleaders). A behind-the-scenes sitcom about a “fictional” NBC that debuted the same year called 30 Rock was spared as well, though its ratings were higher. I was greatly saddened by this turn of events. As an aside, I just spent some time trying to find a quote from Studio 60 and stumbled across this page. Reading the quotes there actually hurt, as it reminded me acutely how damn good the writing was on this show. Stupid NBC.
The following fall NBC announced a new show called Journeyman about a time-travelling reporter. The promos looked great although the advance reviews were mixed. Many people said it was a Quantum Leap rip-off without having seen one episode. I watched the first episode and was hooked—it had a novel storyline, the writing was great, and it had Moon Bloodgood (I love me some Moon Bloodgood…are you sensing a pattern here?). It was another show that was “having problems finding its audience,” but the general opinion was that NBC would at least give the show the rest of its first year to settle in.
Then along came the Writers Guild of America’s strike of 2007-2008. Shows were shelved for several months while Hollywood fought with the greedy, godless writers who dared to deprive audiences of their entertainment fix. The networks force-fed their audiences a diet of reality shows and other non-scripted programming during the strike in an attempt to hold them over. An agreement was finally reached and most shows came back to finish out their seasons. Journeyman was cancelled at that point, though fortunately the show’s creator foresaw that it might not return and gave the fans somewhat of a wrap-up in the last episode. (If you were a Journeyman fan and were left with questions about what was happening and what could have been, check out the interview with show creator Kevin Falls at Ain’t It Cool News.) The Powers That Be at Heroes decided to take the rest of the season off and start up again the following September. This would prove to be, in my mind at least, a mistake that broke the show’s momentum and gave their viewers a chance to forget about it for months.
By this time the only thing holding me to NBC was Heroes. After the show returned its plotlines became a bit boring but I still tuned in. Then last fall ABC started promoting a new ‘high concept’ show called FlashForward. The promos looked great and, after watching an incredible first episode, I was hooked again. (I.L.M.S. Sonya Walger and Peyton List.) After investing months watching both remaining must-sees on my schedule, the month of May brought what has now become familiar news from both NBC and ABC: Heroes and FlashForward were being cancelled.
Now both networks are joyfully hopping around like children, waving their arms and singing, “We’ve got some fantastic new shows coming this fall! You’re going to l-o-o-o-v-e them! Just watch!” However, I’ve already turned off my TV. NBC has proven they can’t program their way out of a ramen noodle container (if you doubt that, look at the Jay Leno / Conan O’Brien debacle earlier this year). As for ABC? I’m sure they have many other good shows on their schedule but NBC has already poisoned the network TV well for me. I’m through with investing time and emotional capital into shows with plotlines and characters that die premature deaths. I used to chuckle when my mom would complain, “They cancelled my show! Again!” I wasn’t that involved with TV back then because I had other pursuits. Now I know firsthand what she was talking about and can empathize.
I can’t hold NBC completely to blame here. I’m going to place a big steamy pile on the Writers Guild of America’s doorstep. Several years back their leadership decided to force an issue with Hollywood. While studio bigwigs were trying to define what the new media landscape would look like, the Guild decided their writers needed their cut of any possible action. I felt for them since I’m a writer and hoped that they’d represent me some day. I even sent several boxes of pencils to the studios as part of a protest movement during the strike to help the WGA get their point across. After the strike ended many in Tinseltown questioned what was actually gained. The studios still couldn’t identify what new media would be (and they still don’t know two years later!). Additionally they decided to play hardball with the writers by restructuring the way they did business. There used to be development positions at the studios in which writers were kept on-staff and paid to create pilot episodes of new series. Those positions pretty much disappeared post-strike, and the studios further decided to cut costs by adding more “unscripted dramas” (read: reality shows) to their lineups. The result–writers were left holding an empty bag of make-believe gold while they stood in unemployment lines. The real losers at the end of the supply chain, you and I, are left looking at the Boob Tube and wondering what the hell happened to good TV. There’s a good article on the strike here.
I can hear some of you saying, “Ah, but I don’t watch network TV. I watch (cable/satellite) and their shows have always been better.” The pool of striking writers also served those markets as well, and I’d have to ask how many of your favorites have been dropped lately in those venues. FX sliced Damages and Nip/Tuck, TNT axed both Raising the Bar and Saving Grace, HBO de-tuned Flight of the Conchords, ABC Family killed 10 Things I Hate About You, Ruby & the Rockets, and Lincoln Heights…should I go on? Then there’s the execs who think that viewers are so dumb and easily distracted that they offer “short seasons” of shows on a regular basis—one of SciFi (sorry, ‘SyFy’) Channel’s top-performing shows, Eureka, has been produced in bite-sized chunks for several years now. I can see their quandary, though–they have so much quality programming they have to air (wrestling and sucky made-for-TV movies come to mind) and there’s only so many hours in a day…
Can anyone reading this remember when a regular TV season was 26 episodes, and networks re-ran the show’s episodes during the off-season so you could catch up if you missed one?
Hollywood takes a lot of justified criticism for its lack of original thinking (“Let’s remake Charlie’s Angels again!”), so why can’t they make a sitcom about that? Would anyone watch Network Programmers Behaving Badly? Oh, my mistake…we already are.
Lately I’ve been seeing promos during NBC’s news about a new fall show called “The Event,” which is apparently a ‘conspiracy’ thriller. There are handheld camera shots of some things going on with groups of people, with rapid cuts, then something happens and they panic. One of the shots include a large airplane headed straight for the camera. Then you see the words: “What is the Event.” These promos do not give any information about the show itself, just a general feeling that something very bad is about to happen. All I have to say is: Don’t worry. Whatever “The Event” is, there’s a good chance NBC will cancel the show before it can cause any problems.