You know what's funny? I watch more NBC now than I ever have in my life. It has Chuck, Heroes, My Name is Earl, The Office and my favorite currently-running series, 30 Rock. That's five shows. At any given time I'm lucky if I can find four shows on one network that I like.
But the National Broadcasting Company is getting beaten by Spanish channels. The latest strategy is to completely give up filling three hours a night and surrender 10 PM to Leno. I'm not sure why they're in such trouble. To me, CBS (the current ratings leader) should be doing the worst out of all the networks, because they've been choking their schedule with predictable crime procedurals for at least ten years now. But I guess there are a lot of dumb people out there who need to feel smart.
People gripe about how many bad ideas get on the air, and how if they were in charge, they'd approve of nothing but great TV. But in a competitive market there is no perfect strategy. Conventional executhink is that it doesn't matter whether the shows are good or bad because so much of success depends on randomized chance that pretty much any show can become a ratings hit. No one, no matter how much they want to, can force a series to be popular (well, except for the Disney Channel).
You can increase the chances of success, though, by promoting yourself properly. And they don't always do that. In many cases a perfectly good show has been sunk by a poor marketing campaign. Let's take a look at some recent promos for failed NBC shows and, within them, discover possible reasons why they didn't work, and why NBC has had such trouble lately connecting with America.
It took NBC an unusually long time to figure out no one wanted to watch Joey. They desired to hold onto as many former Friends viewers as possible, and they managed to make a hit out of Frasier after Cheers ended, so maybe the overkill of optimism blinded them. After this premiered and didn't do so well, there was a false rumor that NBC was desperately looking into resurrecting Friends for one more season.
I know what you're thinking.....you want me to say "Why does NBC stick with these bad shows? Why don't they just dump them when the ratings stink?" Well, chances are, you're the same person that complains whenever Fox cancels shows as soon as they appear. Between giving bad shows a lot of time, and giving good shows NO time, I think I prefer NBC's method.
As for the promo itself, it doesn't appeal to me, but Friends didn't either.
Families were in for a surprise when they tuned into Father of the Pride. Promos throughout the 2004 Olympics portrayed it as a wacky new computer-generated comedy by the makers of Shrek, revolving around the animals of Siegfried and Roy's Vegas show. PSYCHE! It was actually a sex-obsessed crass-com instead! Riddle me this: Why would you create a show for one demographic, but advertise it for another one? And then scratch your head quizzically when the show mysteriously fails?
The only good move the promos made was the announcement that the first episode would be shown commercial-free courtesy of Toyota. This made it sound like a big event, because very few shows ran without ads. But the odds were against it even with that. This premiered after Siegfried and Roy's show had been retired from Las Vegas....because Roy had been mauled by a tiger. Why maul him twice, NBC?
The characters or plots aren't important in this ad; it's just called "Hawaii," and hoy, it sure screams Hawaii in your face. But what Hawaii is it? I'm not familiar with the one where people get murdered regularly from being thrown into volcanoes. Within 30 seconds it shamelessly indulges in every cliche it can think of, short of giving the characters magic Tiki masks to battle Goddess Pele with. (Note that I did not watch the show itself, so that might have been in there.) It's this kind of Hollywood treatment that keeps Beefer racist.
NBC's most successful promo campaign of the decade was its initial Heroes promotion. "Save the cheerleader, save the world," remember? It was so popular the line had to be incorporated into the show itself. Things went downhill from there. When I saw this Heroes ad come on last summer, I quickly hit "Record" just in case it turned out to be ironic. It did.
It's rare to see an apologetic promo, as opposed to one that pretends the advertised show is perfect, but that's what things had come to. The partially cut-off message was that they showed the premiere Season 3 episode to a Comic-Con crowd, and that crowd erupted in....mildly respectful applause, as you can see. Tim Kring's original plan for the series was to follow a different set of heroes every season. That fell apart once he realized how iconic the Season One stars had become to the series. He had to keep them, but he'd just resolved all their internal conflicts and dilemmas; what could he do? Naturally revert some status quos, repeat some plot elements, add a girl who does nothing but cry black goo, and throw in a very painful-to-watch "romance" for Claire. Everyone hated it. Tim nervously sputtered out, "I'm sorry! It was this darn writer's strike; it goofed me up! Give me one more chance! I promise Season 3 will knock your socks off!" Season 3 was more bearable than Season 2, but I've never seen a more directionless storyline. It was like none of the scriptwriters were speaking to each other.
It's depressing, the way this show has fallen apart. It was my theory that the next wave in the superhero genre would be normal people without tights or out-there cosmic situations, and that Heroes would lead that wave. They had their audience--they had it!!--and they botched their chances completely.
Typical of executive judge-by-cover thinking, NBC has blamed the downward spiral of their would-be breadwinner not on bad characterization or poor plotting, but on serialized storytelling itself. Tim bowed to them and swore he'd make more self-contained episodes in the future. I don't know what you like, but in my dramas I prefer the hook of seralization to the sterile 60-minute reboot CBS makes a habit of. In addition, this phobia of heavy continuity no longer makes any sense because if someone misses an episode they can get it on-demand, or watch it online.
Of all the NBC shows in 2008, Christian Slater's My Own Worst Enemy got the most wall-to-wall promotion. Then it premiered with ratings like it hadn't gotten any promotion at all. In this case the promos weren't terrible, they were just too frequent.
The show was about an average family man who has a government-implanted second personality in his brain, that of a jetsetting supercool superspy. Or is the family man the implant to cover for the spy? After seeing the ad a few times I decided I didn't care about the answer to that question. It could have been a decent idea for a movie, but I was skeptical it could stretch itself into a TV series. The problem was, after I had already made up my mind, Christian Slater was still there in every ad break, acting like I hadn't decided yet. I wanted to just watch Michael Phelps be awesome, but NO, Christian Slater kept appearing every ten minutes to tell me to watch My Own Worst Enemy again! He wouldn't go away! I wanted some kind of bug spray for him.
Even worse: sometimes I will see a promo I like, but then the ad will be repeated so many times that it kills my buzz for the show. It doesn't help that they have to use the same exact scenes and dialogue over and over. This is a problem with every network, not just NBC.
With this promo, I may have hit on a major
cause for NBC's woes. In many cases, when a network is at the
bottom of the pool in ratings, they start taking more risks to
get attention, and those risks usually pay off. NBC has done the
opposite, choosing to rely on pre-existing ideas.
Inspired by the success of
Sci-Fi's SyFy's Battlestar
Galactica, they ordered new versions of old shows like Bionic
Woman and Knight Rider. Critics dismissed Bionic
Woman as merely adequate, and the ratings arced downward
through its only season.
I had to look pretty hard to find a promo for Bionic Woman. On my disc of the Chuck series premiere and the second-season premiere of Heroes, Bionic Woman is only mentioned for five seconds an hour (and it was to debut in two days!).
It may not be fair to wish misfortune on a series many people did their best to produce, but I really wanted Bionic Woman to fail, because if it succeeded, the TV industry would have caught the same anti-creativity disease the movie industry is afflicted with, and TV show remakes would have blanketed the schedules.
When NBC isn't remaking old shows, it's adapting shows from other countries that are proven hits there. You all know that the original The Office was a British program, but that was more of an exception than the rule. There are foreign show genres that adapt well -- it mostly works with reality shows, where little has to be changed. But turning a foreign scripted hit into an American scripted hit is much more difficult. What's funny over the shore may not be so funny here.
Nowhere is that more evident than in NBC's latest sit-bomb, Kath and Kim. Promos for this show about a trashy woman and her trashy daughter ran throughout the Beijing Olympics and they were met with displeasure by critics and viewers alike. See if you crack a smirk at this stereotypical female banter. "It worked somewhere else" was the main reason it got on, not because it was funny in any way. Not even the name translates well: "Kath and Kim" is an Australian pun that makes no sense in America. Also, no one here is named "Kath."*
*Except for Kath Soucie.
Another "risk-free" idea is to blatantly rip off another show. This is Hell's Kitchen, the reality program where an angry chef yells at people for an hour. The only change is the name and that it's a different angry chef. This is a behavior of network execs that I will never understand, because total ripoffs of more popular shows almost never work. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people would prefer to watch the original show. If you want a guarantee, you're NOT going to find it here! Ripoffs don't avoid risk, they jump right into the pit!
As I write this, NBC's latest failure to date is Kings. You know what it did wrong? Nothing.
Kings is exactly the kind of show NBC should be trying right now. It's got a very original premise: a retelling of the biblical story of King David, from rags to riches, in a modern setting. In short, it's different; it is a risk. But no one cared or even noticed it was there. It's here that the point I came to make is strongest, because the failure of Kings rests solely on the promo. (That, and the time slot against a slew of veterans, but I'm more miffed about the promo here.)
If they had made it clear this was a David and Goliath story, more people might have wanted to watch. But in the promos, the focus was on making it look like the next Dallas -- a greed show, or a genre that got tired by the early 90's. "WEALTH! POWER! LUST! NAUGHTY! SALIVA! KNIVES! HAIR!" screamed NBC. I don't care about wealth or power or hair. I want to see a scrappy little man take down a powerful king. That interests me.
To make matters more absurd, they took this approach at a time of great economic turmoil for which the blame rested solely on corrupt CEOs. People can barely contain their rage at the fat cats with their millions that they won from ruining everybody else's lives. They don't want to root for those kinds of people right now! And the most painful part is, it would have been so easy to turn it around and use the economy to make the show appealing by focusing on the David character! He wants to take down a king, and who doesn't these days? This was a horrible miscalculation. What were they think-inggg?
Throughout the history of television, there's plenty of evidence to support the frequent gripe that network executives can't tell the difference between a good series and a bad one. There may be a psychological explanation for this. Their interests aren't in entertainment, but in business. That's how they got their positions in the first place -- because they graduated with business degrees, they read business magazines, and they got jobs in the area they're interested in. And businesspeople think analytically -- in terms of demographics and focus testing above all else. They probably don't even watch what they air, because none of it is tailored to their interests -- they would rather watch CNBC.
Why don't those who know a good idea when they see it ever attain executive power? Because they can't. People who love entertainment and good TV aren't high-ups in the industry because their skills are entertainment-related, not good for business. Creativity and economics come from two different sides of the brain. No financial whiz has ever produced a pilot script. And likewise, no creative genius can cobble together a decent business plan. Their skills are separate.
To avoid complete destruction, the two sides have to work in harmony. Currently the balance of power at NBC is 80-20 in the executives' favor, and they're too afraid of disgracing themselves to take any chances. But when they approve something like Kath and Kim, they end up looking dumb anyway. Maybe they should think of it this way: if they look the other direction while creatives have more free reign to do whatever they want, and the shows fail, the execs will share less of the blame. Less blame is good, right, guys?
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