WARNING: This blog entry will almost 100% probably interest you – but only if you’re a massive TV fan. Casual-TV-enjoyers might feel as though they’ve taken Lunesta, so if you’re going to read the post anyway, please do not operate heavy machinery until you know how this post will affect you.
That being said.
In case you missed it, there was a discussion this week on the intertubes regarding long-arc shows (i.e., “Lost” or “The Wire”) versus episodic shows (i.e., “Law & Order” or “CSI”) – which is just a fancy-pants way of differentiating shows that tell a story over the course of a season (or more), and shows that tell a story over the course of one episode.
Didn’t catch the debate? Well…
Ryan McGee started it, positing that long-arc shows may’ve ruined the concept of episodic TV:
James Poniewozik went next, basically saying “Long-arcs didn’t ruin nothin’! It’s people thinkin’ long-arcs automatically make good TV!”:
And Alyssa Rosenberg summed up the conversation with an erudite: “Look, dudes, sometimes this shit works, sometimes it doesn’t, so why the fuck don’t we just come up with a new way of doing it?”
(I may, perhaps, have paraphrased Alyssa there.)
Like I said in the beginning, while this debate is somewhat rarefied – I am sure my sister (who freely admits her addiction to trash TV and watches every “Housewives” episode no matter where them bitches live) could not give two baby poops about this topic – I thought there was one facet of the conversation that, though briefly touched on by Poniewozik, was never truly explored in the depths to which it affects the argument.
This aspect has nothing whatsoever to do with content or format (in and of itself), but instead revolves around the gatekeepers that greenlight, and therefore control, what types of shows air in the first place. This heretofore undelved aspect:
I know. You might not associate money with this particular discussion, but it has a hell of a lot more to do with a show’s design than you might think.
Everyone who’s been in the business long enough knows that most shows (not all, but most) need – give or take – about a season to find their footing in voice, tone, and format. However, skittish networks will often chuck a show before it gets the opportunity to stand up on those feet, and why?
Either the network’s not making enough money off it now, or they don’t think they’ll make enough money off it later, or they think they’ll make more money off something else.
Regardless of where a show is in the finding-its-feet process, the money mentality absolutely affects the way a show develops and is presented (i.e. episodic vs. long-arc). I can’t tell you the number of network and studio phone calls I’ve been on where this argument has raged between EPs and execs. It’s been my experience that most writers will lean towards a long-arc format (as it allows for more world-building, more detailed stories, extended dialogue, unforced pacing, deeper character development – all that stuff we writers love since, well, we’re writers), until those writers are reeled back in by the can’t-you-be-more-episodic-like-your-brother “notes” (read politely: demands) of executives, otherwise known as the people with the what?
Because given their druthers, almost every time, a network will opt for stand-alone episodic shows – simply because it makes their jobs easier: shows can be aired in any order, with no requirement of weekly investment or foreknowledge from the audience (making it much more likely that a casual viewer might tune in and stay, since they don’t need any backstory to follow the plot), all of which results in a much easier sale into syndication.
Which, of course, equals more money.
Long-arc shows are perceived as riskier – for the very reason that they do require audience investment and foreknowledge – which means the network must make a sizeable bet on the show running long enough to succeed…
…where “succeeding” is defined as “developing a large and steady enough audience to justify what advertisers have paid for ads during the show” – or, better yet — “increasing what advertisers are willing to pay for those ads.”
And though any network executive worth her salt will assure you that she believes in their whole roster, that she goes into each season thinking all their shows will be hits – this is a ginormous bald-faced PR lie.
Even a six year-old with a distaste for peas can tell you that not everyone likes everything.
Executives, just like mortal men, enjoy certain shows and don’t enjoy others. They work to help the shows they like, and some (the assholes) work furiously to undermine the shows they don’t like, in order to keep “their” shows on the air. (Why they like or don’t like certain shows is another conversation on its own – it could involve ambition, personal amity or animosity – and sometimes even something to do with the actual show itself.) Just remember: the more successful shows an executive has nurtured, the stronger their job security. And job security equals?
So when a long-arc show comes along that demands that sizeable pre-success commitment from its executives, not many are willing to wander so far from the implicit Network Policy that favors stand-alone episodic TV. Thus long-arc shows have an uphill battle before they even reach the screen – not because the stories are better or worse than episodics, but because salaries and livelihoods become dependent on greater risk.
To my mind, studio and network heroes are those executives willing to champion a show the way its creator means it to be presented — episodic OR long-arc – all the way through its development, pilot, and first season. (And I truly believe that if a show doesn’t have a solid idea of what it’s about by the end of its first season, bounce it. There are other writers out there with clearer visions.) These executives work to help these shows succeed no matter how the shows are designed. They can’t change a frog into a prince – but they sure as hell don’t try to turn a prince into a frog, either.
All this is only to point out that when we discuss content – and the format of that content – we can’t leave out the sausage-making that produces it. Because sometimes a sausage is not just a sausage.
It’s an intestine-wrapped tube of money.