Sunday, January 12, 2014

TV: Running off the audiences

Once upon a time, NBC sat on top of the ratings pile.  That was a very, very long time ago.  And TV then was a tale of arrogance.  Today's sad fact?  It still is.


Thursday nights on NBC were unbeatable in the ratings.  Friends and Seinfeld and ER, then Friends and Will & Grace and ER.  Three hours of "must see TV."  Well, not three hours.

Two hours in the three hour block.  Usually, NBC offered two awful sitcoms in that block.  Ever changing ones.  Some were at least honest mistakes, others were outright frauds (Union Park, Cursed, Madman of the People, Fired Up, etc.).

Keeping, for example, Mad About You in the mix could have helped build solid comedy but the network was more concerned with doling out as little quality on one night as possible.

And NBC's arrogance was such that they didn't see a day when people would ever just stop watching.  They're there today.

They may not be the only ones.

Just as NBC lived in denial about how they punished and ran off audiences on Thursdays, so too do all the networks today refuse to face what they're doing every night of the week.

The lie is that people aren't interested in watching network television.  The reality is that they're just not interested in watching what network television keeps airing.

Fall 2013 saw a pattern emerge as the pilot episode of one program after another became the highest rated episode of the series.  One dramatic example, 12.12 million people tuned in to watch the debut of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but now only about six million tune in to ABC's underwhelming show each week.

If anyone's winning right now it's the marketing people.

They take these bad shows and find something minor in them to hype enough to create interest so people check it out.

But the show runners have failed because, given an audience to captivate, they only send them running.

Has The Assets been cancelled?

That's the question The Water Cooler Set struggles with.

ABC has yanked the program after two low rated episodes were broadcast.  That leaves the fate of the other six episodes in question.

But since The Assets was a mini-series, was it cancelled?

Cancelled means a show ceases production, after all, and The Assets had ceased production prior to airing.

So as they quibble over split hairs, they ignore the larger picture: The Assets was lousy television.

The mini-series was based on the true crime novel Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Alrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed.  Right away, it's a dirty dog with fleas.  The men he betrayed?  What century is this?  Even worse, the 'authors' were women: Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeulle. 'Authors'?

Let's get honest, a CIA-vetted book is a not a true story.

Former CIA agents Grimes and Vertefeulle wrote a 'based on a true story' book that the CIA vetted.

Along with lacking truth, the source material also lacked complexity and interest.

If there's a story to be told of a Cold War espionage, it's already being told in FX's The Americans -- starring Kerri Russell and Matthew Rhys and whose show runner is an ex-CIA agent (Joe Weisberg).

The Assets had a Rhys as well, Paul Rhys.  The 50-year-old Brit is, at best, unappetizing to the eye.

And he's the lead.

ABC decided to structure an eight-part mini-series around a dead weight.

Did they think they were doing Sundance Film Festival?

No, of course not, because years ago Sundance fell prey to the same casting considerations as every other medium.

But ABC thought they could bill a mini-series around an actor unknown to most Americans and not likely to garner a second look from those attracted to men.

It only got worse from there.

How do you cast an American mini-series, an eight hour mini-series, for commercial network TV without one damn name?

Over 69 speaking roles and not one damn actor or actress America recognizes -- let alone likes?

In 1986, CBS had a huge -- top ten -- success with the mini-series Sins.  A potboiler, no one mistook it for Great Performances, but it did deliver the ratings and that's in part due to a cast led by Joan Collins (who also produced the mini-series).  There were other names in the cast as well: Capucine, Timothy Dalton, Marisa Berenson, Giancarlo Giannini, Lauren Hutton, Gene Kelly, Paul Freeman, Joseph Bologna and James Farentino.  Joan Collins was among the biggest TV names of 1986 but CBS still wasn't going to farm out three nights of television to a mini-series if she was the only name.

Or take ABC's 7-part mini-series from 1983, The Winds of War.  The cast for that included Robert Mitchum, Ali MacGraw, Polly Bergen, Jan-Michael Vincent, John Houseman, Topol, Peter Graves and Ralph Bellamy.

Yet in 2014, ABC wanted to air an 8-part mini-series where the biggest name was . . .

Well, no one.

Over 69 speaking roles

Some might wrongly applaud that.  Some might wrongly assume this was a quality production.

It was a piece of crap, an American story cast with British actors posing as Americans which only added to the stiffness and fakery.

A woman in a power suit is in the kitchen holding a skillet, scolding a child (apparently dressed as Madonna) and then heading off to work.


In no world would a woman have dressed like that, shoulder pads and all, and cooked breakfast without an apron on to ensure no cooking mishap meant a second-change.

It wasn't based in reality, it was based in boredom.

Bad actors, ugly ones, in badly written scenes about a topic that wasn't even trendy.

What did ABC think would happen?

This was their Union Square, they're pissing on American viewers and assuming they'd watch any trash the network threw on.

Broadcast TV has not reached the funeral stage.


But it may not be that far off.

Niche programming will not save the networks.  If they want big audiences, they'll need to learn (once again) how to grab them.

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