Sunday, March 20, 2005

Mass Market, Smart Writers

I attended the American Cinema Foundation and L.A. Press Club Mass Market, Smart Content Panel held at AFI (that's a lot of sponsors). The worst part of the story was I felt pretty nauseous about halfway through the panel. I actually had to duck out and get some fresh air, just so I could keep going. No idea why I felt so sick. It was pretty warm and stuffy in the theater...could have been a catalyst. Anyway, enough of my personal issues...on to the panel itself.

Cathy Seipp moderated a panel of grade A TV writers: Tim Minear (exec. producer for "Angel", "Firefly", "Wonderfalls" and the new series "The Inside", to air on Fox), Paul Feig (producer of "Freaks and Geeks", director for "Arrested Development"), Rob Long (exec. producer of "Cheers", "George & Leo", and other short-lived sitcoms), and Scott Kaufer (exec. producer of "Boston Legal", "Gilmore Girls" and writer for "Arli$$" and "The Chris Isaak Show").

These are smart guys.

They all talked about cancellation. Rob has had five sitcoms cancelled and told a sad tale of how he got cancelled on the way to a meeting to discuss what the next 12 episodes were supposed to be. Paul mentioned the sadness of knowing there are 7 million viewers for your show, but you still get cancelled (Freaks and Geeks had a very loyal following and the DVD sales have been phenomenal). Tim has had his share of cancellations too, but all of them agreed that the sadness and anger doesn't come from being cancelled, it comes from HOW they are cancelled or when. Network execs are always looking for the insta-hit and if a show doesn't perform or take off within a matter of two or three weeks, it could be well on its way to oblivion.

How do they deal with censors? Smoking appears to be the big TV no-no these days. Tim had a character on "Wonderfalls" last year who smoked, but this year they nixed a character smoking in his new show. They all agreed that the Janet Jackson debacle has made the networks very nervous. Everyone wishes they could work for HBO (of course), but when it comes to the networks the censors are ever vigilant. Tim's new show deals with serial killers. Ironically, the censors are ultra concerned about sex, but Tim can get away with all sorts of violent scenes including blood and gore. Paul mentioned that he did feel a responsibility to portray his characters positively. When "Freaks and Geeks" was developed and written, most of the characters smoked. When it came time to actually shoot the actors, Paul and others realized that these are real kids who are "cool" without smoking. If they smoked, it would send a signal to teens that it was cool. He noted that TV is a powerful medium and sometimes what looks good on the page just doesn't translate, especially when it comes time to instruct actors -- kid actors who are really just kids.

Demographics: How do they address the issue of desired demographics for shows and the seeming gap of characters who are outside the 18-49 demo? All of the panelists acknowledged that there is pressure to attract the 18-49 demo and also to fulfill diversity recommendations. Scott shrugged about this, since "Boston Legal" has few lead characters in this age range (Shatner is in his 70's, Candice Bergen is almost 60, and James Spader is 45). Somehow his show is still successful. For him, it comes down to the smart writing, the appeal of the show and the strong lead-in ("Desperate Housewives", a double edged sword he noted). As for the others, Rob Long said if you are building a family for a sitcom, all of the ages are going to be covered. He did have one network request that he ethnically mix a family once. He declined, as that was not the point of the show. Tim had an African-American female on his show in a lead role and the network fired her and she was replaced with a white actress. The network requested he put a new African-American character on the show, which he did. Overall, they do not write to diversity and they try not to write to stereotypes (like making the only black character on the show the villain).

Product placement: The last two years have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of product placement in TV shows. Are the writers impacted by this change? Scott pointed out that "Boston Legal" has run into this, with ABC scrubbing the mention of Fox News in an episode and that they cannot reference "Viagra" directly but rather "little blue pills" as apparently this kind of product placement can upset other sponsors like Cialis. Apparently some shows are more impacted than others, but it is an issue they face as they either try to include references to brands (even candy bars can raise ire) or brands are pushed on them from the network (Alias and 24 always feature Ford vehicles as Ford is major sponsor for both shows).

Residuals: With the boom in DVD sales and the use of Tivo the marketplace is changing. Certainly they all wish the WGA would get a new agreement in place to increase the amount of money writers make from DVD sales (currently it is about 2 to 4 cents per DVD sold). No one could predict three years ago that shows which had a short life span like "Firefly", "Freaks and Geeks" and "Wonderfalls" would sell well on DVD, but each of theses shows has done very well in this format. The future is unknown on where the new technology will lead for how content is treated, but the old standard of syndication may not be new standard in this day. "Arrested Development" has critical praise but a very small audience. Under the old model it probably wouldn't make it to syndication. It does however make it to DVD where it sells. All the writers agree that how a network chooses to launch a show can make the difference between life and death, but if they launch is good and there still is no audience, they have no one to blame but themselves (I take it this doesn't really happen THAT much as it appears that in the case of most of the shows these writers have developed or written the networks mangled the launching, scheduling or promotion).

Overall the panel was funny and entertaining. Cathy did a great job moderating and most of the audience questions were intelligent and relevant. I wish I hadn't felt so horrible that I missed a few minutes here and there throughout.

Television is tough to break into, but features are even more of a crapshoot. At least with TV there are lots of shows that are developed every year, a few that make it to the air, and most of those get cancelled and the cycle starts again. Cathy started the panel by noting that a lot of films these days are garbage, but there is a lot of great smart entertainment on TV.

I think she is absolutely right.

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