MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Sitcoms losses no laughing matter

A report that found its way into the Los Angeles Times’ Quick Takes column last Saturday has revealed that Americans are investing more time watching sitcoms than a dozen years ago, but fewer are getting their yucks from shows selected for them by network programmers. Magna Group’s research has discovered that 4.84 hours/week currently are being wasted – er, devoted – to the viewing of sitcoms, which is up from 3.78 hours in the 1993-94 season. In another startling revelation, the ad-buying concern announced that a mere 13 percent of viewers are watching those sitcoms on the major prime-time broadcast network, down from 56 percent.
It seems that audiences have abandoned the broadcasters for such sitcom-dominated cable services as Nick at Nite and TBS. In other day-parts, syndicated reruns also cut into original programming. Is this news?
Also on Saturday, the mailman delivered a magazine with yet another of those ludicrous cover stories on the top-10-this or best-100-that. The editors of Entertainment Weekly, which balances the wisdom of its critics with vomit-inducing puff pieces on expensive Hollywood garbage, devoted most of the current issue to the premise, “TV Is King.” In an argument DD has heard every decade since the ’50s, EW stipulates that we’re now enjoying the Golden Age of television. It goes on to find 84 “best” shows – no more, no fewer – and offers a TiVo-friendly critics’ guide to weekly viewing.
If it weren’t so quaint – employing Old Media principles to New Media technology — EW’s prime-time grid might have been worthwhile. By assuming that TiVo users don’t use the appliance to speed through commercials, while also time-shifting, it ignores the fact that most are able to cram four hours worth of network fare into a three-hour prime-time slot, and few choices are prompted by “water-cooler” debates. Neither does it take into account those 30 weeks a year when most series are in re-run, or AWOL altogether. And, a mere 84 shows? Well, that may be true if viewers were ignorant of the bonanza of niche programming on channels as diverse as BET Jazz and the Horse Racing Network. BBC America and Oxygen offer a dozen sitcoms – and a handful of dramas — that are better than most of the new titles on the broadcast networks (and most of the sitcoms succeed without benefit of a laugh track).
Don’t believe me? Sample O’s new “Suburban Shootout,” “Nighty Night” and “Campus Ladies,” and BBC-A’s “Footballers Wive$,” “”Mile High” and “The Vice.”
The publishers of glossy magazines labor mightily over such moronic lists and graphic devices – they’re easy to produce, perform well on newsstands and appeal to advertisers and publicists (who compete for placings) – but their writers tend not to expend much energy on them. Why waste well-considered criticism, when all that’s required is something glib and catty? The only thing that matters is the celebrity head count.
On Monday, too, the LA Times reminded us that we’re in the middle of TV’s “pilot season,” during which hopeful production studios cobble together potential hits, and broadcast executives fill holes in next season’s schedule. Hope springs eternal. Fact is, though, no one knows what’s going to click or have legs, but, by adding a celebrity to the recipe, studios know they’ll at least get their products mentioned in the newspapers and trades. (James Woods, Virginia Madsen, Jeff Goldblum and Ray Liotta, hope to make us forget Heather Graham, Matt LeBlanc and the bizarre collapse of Geena Davis’ “Commander in Chief.”)
Still, it’s difficult to find much sympathy for an industry that continues to cannibalize itself. The controversy over release “windows” is intense, but little fuss is made over the TV-to-DVD phenomenon, which requires the nearly instantaneous exploitation of inventory.
Ten years ago, a show required a run of 100 episodes to ensure a second life in syndication. Today, even short-run failures are re-packaged and sent out as if they were hits. Continuing series arrive in DVD arrive within months of the most recent sweeps period.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand the impact of TV-to-DVD on normal business channels in TV Land. What began as a cool way to give consumers another shot at enjoying vintage programming — with commentary and bonus features – has evolved into a virtual-syndication enterprise.
Folks don’t have to subscribe to HBO and Showtime to enjoy every single moment of “The Sopranos” and “Huff.” They merely have to be patient.
Contrary to what Magna and EW’s “TV Is King” issue would lead us to believe, viewers rule the kingdom, and it’s the programmers who are scrambling to keep their heads. Consumers can own entire seasons of their favorite shows, and program them into whatever slot they damn well please, sans commercials, or they can fall back on such diverse fare as “Have Gun — Will Travel,” “Sgt. Bilko,” “The Dick Cavett Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show,” “Doctor Who” and “The Judy Garland Show,” as well as the staples of Nick at Nite … all of which would be wasted on iPod.
And, yet, millions of people around the world continue to leave home on weekends to catch a ballgame, eat dinner or watch a movie. Go figure.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Digital Nation

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon