Friday, October 2, 2015

Ken Levine shows us how NBC shows get on the air

 A rocket scientist I know once observed the fundamental similarity between LA's two defining industries: entertainment and aerospace. Both exist from deal to deal, lining up risky, hugely expensive projects. Each of these projects require much of the work to be done from scratch, so much so that it's often like setting up a new business every time a deal goes through.

There are, of course, limits to the analogy. In business terms, perhaps the biggest is the nature of the customer. For all the talk of a private age of space exploration, aerospace is still a business driven by government contracts. This entails a certain level of craziness, as Ben Rich spells out in his memoir (just look up 'navy' in the index)...

... but those issues pale next to coping with the unpredictability of the viewing public. As screenwriter William Goldman famously put it "Nobody knows anything." Studio executives have to decide whether or not to spend a hundred million dollars based on only a rough idea of what the customer might want. The good executives like Moonves, Silverman, Tartikoff or, in the cable world John Landgraf (all of whom may have been worth their enormous compensation packages) can be both derivative and original, quick to jump on trends while they're still hot but also willing to try something or someone untested but promising.

At the other extreme, you have executives who are so overwhelmed by the uncertainty that every decision has to be based on precedent, not so much because to maximize profit as to minimize blame. Once again, Goldman has lots of smart observations on this topic.

Another smart observer who's made perhaps as many pitches as Goldman is Ken Levine. Levine regularly satirizes the networks and his favorite target is probably NBC which, for at least fifteen years, has been the home of the worst executives in the industry. Here's the beginning of Levine's take on what the pitch for the new NBC show Blindspot might have gone.
WRITER/CREATOR: We got this totally cool idea. It’s like a mix between the Bourne movies, PRISON BREAK, MEMENTO, the old game show CAMOUFLAGE, and what shows do you like?


W/C: It’s also like BLACKLIST.

NBC: We’ve been looking for another BLACKLIST. And another HEROES.

W/C: Ours is that too.

NBC: That’s okay. We’re remaking HEROES.

W/C: Well, if you ever want to remake THE BIONIC WOMAN ours is also like that show.


W/C: Wait. I forgot. We took out THE BIONIC WOMAN elements.

NBC: So what’s the series?

W/C: Well, we don’t actually have a concept yet – what’s it about, what happens every week, who all the characters are – we still need to tackle those details.

NBC: So what are you bringing us?

W/C: An opening scene.

NBC: An opening scene? That’s it?

W/C: Yep. Something with sizzle that you can promote all summer. Who cares if it has legs?

NBC: Well, like I said, we’re looking for another BLACKLIST. And that’s BLACKLIST. We’re sort of hoping they’ll figure something out this season.  What’s your first scene?

W/C: We’re in Times Square. It’s night. Crowded. And someone discovers a duffel bag. Just sitting in the street. And it has a tag that says CALL THE FBI.

NBC: Wouldn’t they call the FBI anyway?

W/C: You know that. And I know that. But NBC’s audience doesn’t know that.

NBC: You think they’re that dense?


NBC: Good point. Go on..

It goes on in this vein for quite a while, leading to a very funny if predictable pay-off. You should check it out. There is, however, one point Levine doesn't mention that I like to stress. Good studio executives can make their companies lots of money; bad ones can cost them even more, but both the good and the bad take home huge paychecks, and the truly awful usually manage an obscene golden parachute on the way out.

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