Thursday, May 15, 2014

On TV Shows and Process

by Ben Howard

I know I’ve been good at hiding it, but I must confess that I’ve been in mourning this week. I lost something that was very close to me, something that brought me joy and laughter, something that I regarded it as a friend for the last five years. 

NBC cancelled Community.

You’ve probably heard about this already because you probably have that one friend who loved Community to an annoying degree and would never shut up about it and it kind of ticked you off. Or maybe you heard about it because you’re reading this on the internet, which is apparently the only place in the universe that Community was popular at all. #sixseasonsandamovie

But this is also the week for a lot of other news about the future of your TV consumption. This week came with announcements about future seasons of Nashville and Hannibal, the pick-up of new shows like The Flash, Gotham, and Agent Carter, and the end of several shows you never knew the names of (which is why they’re now cancelled). All of these announcements, including the cancellation of Community, are part of network Upfronts.

If you’ve never heard of Upfronts before, here’s a quick primer. Every year around this time, the major broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and, curiously, The CW) unveil their new fall TV schedule in a series of elaborate press conferences designed to convince advertisers to purchase commercial time during all their new and returning shows. (And if you were born after 1990, a “commercial” is a short-film that used to show up all the time during moments of dramatic tension where someone would try to convince you to buy something.)
This year, something particularly interesting happened at Upfronts. Fox broke the mold for the way broadcast networks usually make TV shows. Fox stopped making pilots. Or at least, they stopped making a lot of them.

The process of getting a TV show to air is a rather long and arduous one. Networks pick from maybe 100 or 200 concept pitches and order pilot scripts for the shows they think sound promising. Any given network might order 50 or more scripts from which they’ll choose a few dozen to cast and shoot an actual episode. From this group of 20 to 25 pilots, they’ll select 5 or 6 new shows to air every year.

As you can probably imagine, producing all of these scripts and all of these pilots, is a rather expensive, not to mention inefficient, proposition. TV history is littered with highly-anticipated, expensive, star-studded pilots that never made it to air. Just in the last three years, there were pilots shot for Wonder Woman starring Adrianne Palicki (Tyra from Friday Night Lights), Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy, and just this year, a How I Met Your Mother spin-off called How I Met Your Dad headlined by indie darling Greta Gerwig. None of these shows made it to air.

But this year, Fox has adopted the cable model of making TV shows. You find a concept you really, really love. You give the creators a ton of time and money and a room full of writers and you let them hone their script and characters and vision for a show, a process of refining the material again and again until it’s finally ready to shoot. This is the process that produced Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones among others.

And it’s a better process. It allows for focus and precision and dedication. It allows for depth, vision, and the opportunity for something like transcendence. That’s a lot harder to come by when you’re working in bulk, churning out dozens of rough drafts, and just hoping that something sticks.

This is the place where I would usually spin this into a metaphor for the church, for how we interact with each other in daily life, how dedication and focus on relationships matter. And while I do indeed find it to be an apt metaphor, I think you’ve probably already made those connections on your own without needing me to spell it out.

Instead, I want to point out something else entirely. Even though this is a definitively better process, it does not guarantee success. Even a good show with a lot of resources behind it can fall flat in the ratings like Terriers did a few years back on FX. Nor, for that matter, does this process guarantee quality. Smart, talented people can still put out a bad show like AMC did with Low Winter Sun. A better process, even the best process, is not a guarantee; there is no silver bullet.

But we want there to be. We prefer the logic that the perfect process will yield the perfect result (we have entire industries built on that premise), and we’re conditioned to assume that if we can just get the process right, the rest will fall into place. But that conditioning tricks us; if we expect success to flow systematically from process, we see failures as indictments of the whole system. We link them so closely that they sink or swim together. We base our assessment of the whole enterprise on the narrative of results.

Except results are prone to all sorts of uncontrollable circumstances, they are dependent on the relative nature of time and space and chance, things we couldn’t control even if we wanted to. And that’s why it’s so crucial to focus on a good process, the kind that allows for commitment and thoughtfulness. The kind we can believe in that makes room for new ideas, better ideas, and allows us to follow their call and see where they lead.

It doesn’t guarantee us success (whatever success might mean) and it doesn’t guarantee us quality, but it does give us a better shot. It allows us to be focused and dedicated. It allows us to have depth and vision. And maybe, just maybe, the opportunity for something like transcendence. 

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.  

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