When I glanced at the cover story of the April 13 Sunday Calendar ("The Medium Is the Messengers," by Brian Lowry), my first impulse was, "Here we go again." More of the same old babble about how the infamous television development process cranks out cookie-cutter pilots and series that mostly end up as disappointments.
But I was delighted to see that Lowry had assembled a distinguished and insightful panel of writer-producers for the piece and then asked them all the right questions. I'd just like to add the perspective of "the other side," namely that of the decision-making programmer (which I was for NBC from 1980 to 1991).
I'd also like to offer a bit of well-intentioned advice and encouragement to today's programmers, as they begin their screening pilots to select new shows for the fall season. (Please note that I claim a full measure of objectivity here, since a recent illness from which I'm happily recovered has pushed back the production of my own three pilots until midseason.)
Here are my guidelines for choosing successful television shows:
1. Put on what's not on. Too often, everyone is busy chasing trends instead of starting them. Witness the "Friends" clones two years ago. Look for shows with original stories to tell, not those that have been told over and over. Look for original performers who can put a fresh imprint on familiar formats--Drew Carey, Brandy and Chuck Norris, for example.
2. Don't get hung up on the concept. Viewers make friends with the characters, not the concept. Not many folks come home from work muttering to themselves, "I wish somebody would put on a good fire station comedy." Also, good writing, execution and casting will trump concept any day of the week.
This is not to say that "concept" is a dirty word. There are "low" concepts and "high" concepts, and "low" is certainly not an insult. It simply means the idea is familiar and comfortable for the viewer. Current examples of low-concept shows are "Everybody Loves Raymond" on CBS (my own favorite new comedy), "ER" on NBC (TV's highest-rated series) and "Spin City" on ABC. (Politics is usually a turnoff for the audience, but the brilliant re-teaming of Michael J. Fox and producer Gary David Goldberg foiled that.)
Around NBC, I used to say "high concept" is anything I had to describe more than once to our sales department. It almost always involves offbeat ideas that dare to be different. Current examples include "3rd Rock From the Sun," "The X-Files," "Early Edition" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."
3. Restore the element of trust and respect to those who have earned it and whose passion should inspire you. The most successful network will always be the one with the best collective creative vision--not just that of the chief programmer.
Two cases in point from my own career:
* "Seinfeld" was the best-liked comedy pilot among NBC executives at our May 1989 pilot screenings. Yet my gut instinct was that Jerry's show was too much like me--"too New York, too Jewish." In fact, our research showed that test audiences hated the show. So we didn't order it.
Rob Reiner, whose brand-new production company, Castle Rock, had produced it, asked for a follow-up meeting several days later. He began by berating me for not ordering "Seinfeld." When I told him how badly the show had tested and that he should be grateful for the pickup we gave him for "The Ann Jillian Show," Rob countered: "Testing, schmesting. 'All in the Family' tested in the toilet. Don't get me wrong. 'Ann Jillian' is a nice show, but 'Seinfeld'--now that's a show!"
Eventually, I rewarded Rob's passion with an order for a whopping three episodes. The rest is history--particularly the negotiations now going on to bring back "Seinfeld" for a ninth season.
* "Law & Order" was originally produced as a pilot for another network, which didn't buy it. Like "Seinfeld," it rated very low with test audiences. The only reason I bought it for NBC was because the very savvy head of Universal Television (Kerry McCluggage, now chairman of the Paramount Television Group) had another high-concept show, which producer Dick Wolf had created, called "Nasty Boys" (about some ninja cops in Las Vegas), that I desperately wanted. Kerry was emphatic that in order to get "Nasty Boys," I had to give "Law & Order" a six-episode order, and I took the bait. "Nasty Boys" had a great premiere then sank quickly in the ratings. Because of Dick Wolf's vision and storytelling ability, "Law & Order" is about to enter its eighth season, despite major cast changes through the years.
In his book "Adventures in the Screen Trade" (Warner Books, 1983), screenwriter William Goldman said about the movie business: "Nobody knows anything." In television, I'd make it: "Nobody knows everything." Sometimes if you're willing to give people of vision and passion the room to maneuver, you get incredibly lucky.
I know I did. Not because I believed in the shows, but because I believed in the producers.