The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

The Revolution Was TelevisedConsidering the amount I write about television shows, I read relatively little on the subject. I follow plenty of blogs scanning through dozens, if not hundreds of news stories and interviews via the marvellous productivity aid of RSS, but the number of books I’ve actually read can be counted on the fingers of one hand and is entirely limited to books dedicated to specific shows.

The Revolution was Televised had come up in passing from several television pundits I respect, most notably Maureen Ryan, currently of Huffington Post, who always adds depth not just to reviews of individual shows and episodes, but of the television landscape as a whole. I popped it on a Christmas list and had finished it by 3rd Jan.

The concept of the book is that there was a revolution in the way television was produced starting in the late 90s and those changes can be tracked back to a dozen key shows, that were not necessarily ratings hits (or even critical hits, although most of them are), but marked a step change in the way that television shows are created, run, marketed and watched . Alan Sepinwall takes us through each of these shows telling their stories and explaining their importance.

DeadwoodYour enjoyment and empathy with the book is going to be somewhat dependent on how many of those shows you’ve seen and what you thought of them. But, I was actually surprised at how engaged I was even in chapters on shows I’d never seen a single episode of. Out of the dozen shows, I would consider myself a fan of about half of them (Deadwood, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and Mad Men), five others I’ve seen a few episodes or couple of seasons of and have some respect for even if they weren’t to my taste (The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Lost, 24) and two I’ve never seen at all (Oz, Breaking Bad). But Sepinwall does a great job introducing each show and making you see what was groundbreaking and even magical about each show whether you were already on his side or not.

The dozen chapters telling the story of the shows are built up from interviews with a range of people involved with each show – the creators, producers, network executives that bought them, even the people who didn’t support them at the time. The comments are very open and honest, pride in successes, acceptance of mistakes and Sepinwall weaves them all together to form a detailed picture of the world of television production. Throughout the book there are also plenty of references to both older shows that lay the foundations and the newer ones which built upon them, charting the whole thing in a giant network of giants’ shoulders. Thanks to it going all the way up to the Summer of 2012 and talking about shows that are still on the air, it feels extremely current, although I guess the flip side of that is that it may not age so well.

LostMy only frustration with the book was that as it went on, it felt like it lost sight of its premise a little. Each chapter focussed more and more on the show itself and less on what was revolutionary. The reader is left to draw a lot of conclusions themselves, which is slightly frustrating. Also, for a book which is so current, there was surprisingly little said about how television distribution is changing both with the internet (pirated or otherwise) and even the rise of dvd sales over the period. Although it’s touched on a little in the section on Lost, there’s also very little coverage of the other effects the internet drives including marketing and fandom. Mind you, those subjects could easily fill whole books just by themselves.

This is an absolutely brilliant book for anyone interested in how television really works, not just gushing about shows that people love, but about how the industry develops and innovators can succeed in a massively competitive and generally risk averse environment. Alan Sepinwall is clearly a television fan, but he is not blind to the fact that it’s a commercial endeavour – he doesn’t vilify the networks who cancel low rated series and he doesn’t sanctify show runners whose poor working practices overwhelm their brilliant creative ideas.

Buffy the Vampire SlayerI found this book fascinating, entertaining and completely un-put-downable. Sepinwall has reminded me of just what a complex and fascinating medium television can be. He’s given me a fresh look at shows that I adore, brought to my attention shows I knew nothing about, and encouraged me to give second chances to ones that I’ve struggled with in the past. If you’ve read any of the dribble I’ve written, go read this and see what a professional can do.

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall (2010) is available in paperback from Amazon. It amuses me that if you search amazon for the book title you get a number of suggestions including The Revolution Wasn’t Televised (1997), The Revolution Will Not be Televised (2008), The Revolution Will be Televised (2010), Will the Revolution Be Televised (2012) – so it would seem the jury is still out on the question.


Bubble Shows

Posts at Narrative Devices have been pretty few and far between recently. As I mentioned a couple of posts back I’m basically just trudging through the mid season of most of the shows, and there’s nothing particularly remarkable or blog worthy occurring in the TV world. It won’t be long though until I’m drowning in ends of seasons and the drama, cliffhangers and end-of-year report cards they bring. May will also bring the excitement of the upfronts, where networks announce what terrible sounding pilots they’ve replaced all your favourite shows with.

The biggest news as far as I’m concerned that has arrived in the last few weeks is the surprising, yet utterly wonderful news that Fringe has been picked up for a 4th season. It took me a little while to get into the show, but at some point it evolved from being an X-Files wannabe into a fascinating, complex and yet still entertaining look at alternate realities. Its renewal is all the more surprising given that it was moved into the ‘Friday Night Death Slot’ on Fox that has been held accountable for the death of shows such as Firefly, Wonderfalls, and even the Original Star Trek if wikipedia is to be believed.

So I was happy to see Fringe saved from the uncertainty of ‘the bubble list’ – the list of shows that are in danger of not being picked up for next year. Being on this list almost always comes down to a simple matter of money – how much the show costs to make/buy and how much revenue it generates from advertisers. That’s where the ratings come in – more viewers means more advertising revenue, but it’s not quite that simple. Advertisers love ‘the demo’, the 18-49 age bracket who apparently spend all the money. So you might have millions of viewers, but if you’re Murder She Wrote and they’re all over 60, no one cares.

The only other factor, besides income and expense is the age of the show. There’s a magic point at 100 episodes where the show becomes viable for syndication – the holy grail which means that it can be run over and over again by the myriad of local channels available in the US (according to wikipedia it’s 100 because this allows the show to be run daily for 20 weeks). There’s big money in there, so if you’re a bubble show in your 4th season with about 80 episodes in the bank, you’ve got a better chance of renewal than a show with comparable ratings and costs, but only 40 episodes.

Of course while all that is happening behind the scenes, the very fact that your show is on the list effects its chances of renewal. Marketing spends less money on a show and people can stop watching it – why spend time getting invested in a show that not be around next season, after all if it DOES get picked up, you can always just catch up with summer re-runs or dvds.

While Fringe has been saved, there are still plenty of shows bubbling away, but I find myself in the unusual position of really not caring whether most of them live or die. There’s a few on the list that I intend to watch when they make it over here (Off the Map and Chicago Code for example), but even those, if they’re cancelled I don’t think I’d really be that disappointed. CSI: New York is also bubbling apparently, and although I’ll continue to watch it if it airs, I wouldn’t miss it if it disappeared. Of all the remaining bubblers (sadly of course Stargate Universe has already been declared dead) there are only three I actually care about.

Lie to Me – The show itself can be a little predictable, the side characters are so far off to the side that it’s almost surprising when one of them actually speaks and the constantly changing show-runners have led to erratic direction… but Tim Roth’s performance is one of the most entertaining and interesting ones on television at the moment. I can’t work out why it doesn’t get more attention (both critical and from the ratings), I don’t think it’s ever really been marketed heavily, leaving people to think it’s “just” another procedural, if only they could do some promotion and get Roth some well deserved award nominations. I would have thought this show would work very well to support the increasingly elderly, but still Fox network stalwart – House. Unfortunately the Fox schedules are extremely tight (too many reality shows like American Idol) and with Fringe’s renewal, it’s not looking good for Lie to Me.

Supernatural – I don’t think this has been the strongest season ever, but the show and characters continue to develop in interesting directions and the writers and directors continue to find increasingly bizarre ways to push the boundaries of what a silly sounding show on the CW can actually do. It doesn’t do amazing ratings, but considering that it’s in the Friday Night Death slot on the smallest of the networks, they’re not too bad. Also it’s companion, Smallville, is ending this year, leaving CW without any well established shows. The fan base is absolutely rabid and I don’t think the CW will piss them off.

Brothers & Sisters – It’s cheesy and occasionally ridiculous, but I do love it like a comfortable blanket to be snuggled under. Fighting against it is the fact that it’s quite old and therefore relatively expensive to produce (pay rises and the like), but it does relatively good ratings and ABC where it airs have a reasonably open schedule.

I got my bubble list and information from (updated as things change) are available at TVLine and mostly.

Setting the scene… or not

I’ve got a request to make of executive producers, or creative directors, or whoever it is that makes these decisions for television – stop putting title sequences on your shows.

That’s not to say I don’t love a good theme song and credits, I really do. But there are a lot of shows out there at the moment that seem to at the last minute before the first episode is delivered for airing realise they never filled the 30second place holder where the titles are supposed to go. An executive producer throws out last minute instructions to pick a random piece of music with no tune, throw together a montage of explosions and characters looking moody “and make sure my name is big”.

In the great days of old title sequences were about setting the scene for your show, give the audience a helping hand picking up what you were trying to say. Remember all those great opening themes and voice-overs you got on things like Star Trek and The Outer Limits? It wasn’t until I thought about it that I realised how amazing the title sequence for M*A*S*H was, it wasn’t a bright chirpy tune to put you in the mood for a comedy, it was sombre and quiet, reinforcing the sadness of the drama behind the comedy. More recently, Firefly did a similar thing, reinforcing the western feel that might have been over-shadowed by the science fiction.

The primary inspiration for this article came from the fact I watched an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, followed by an episode of Blue Bloods and couldn’t help but see that the thing the shows had in common were two absolutely awful title sequences.

Standing alone the title sequences are both awful, loud cliché music, cheesy explosions, melodramatic posing from the actors and unimaginative text. The biggest crime though is how badly they fit with their shows. NCIS will usually jump from a dramatic reveal of a murder or crime straight into loud obnoxious music, Blue Bloods will jump from gritty and modern New York straight into a title sequence from the 80s. Knowing that each title sequence is coming leaves me anxiously hovering over the remote control so that I can fast-forward (god bless Sky+) before the opening chord intrudes on my viewing.

Most shows at the moment thankfully don’t bother with titles at all, taking five seconds for a splash screen and getting on with the show. Grey’s Anatomy used to have credits but rapidly got rid of them. Maybe it’s a bit surprising that Glee, a show all about music and presentation doesn’t have a theme song, but then how could they possibly pick just one song?

Some shows manage to make a surprising impact with even the most minimal splash screens, maybe Lost is the first that really got it right, showing exactly how much can be communicated with just a chord, a font and a fade. Supernatural adopts the same system, just the shows name, a sound and a special effect, but adds a variation by changing the effect and sound each season (and the occasional extra special version – see the collection). Even Brothers & Sisters with its simple sliding text and soothing couple of bars of music sets the correct tone for the show.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t however comment on a few shows that do manage to make title sequences work. For some reason channels like HBO and Showtime really make an effort and put a lot of thought into what they want their titles to say about their shows. The majority of things that would appear on my list of favourite credit sequences past (Six Feet Under, Carnivale, Deadwood, Dead Like Me) and present (Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire) aired on HBO or Showtime in the US. All absolutely beautiful title sequences that really suit their shows. There would be a clip of the Sons of Anarchy intro here… but there doesn’t seem to be a version on YouTube.

Lie to Me – I can’t help but smile every time that woman’s eyes light up

Big Bang Theory – I don’t watch the show (I know I probably should, it’s on my list, I just haven’t got to it yet) but I love the titles!

Fringe – the standard intro is nothing special after a couple of seasons, but this year they’ve done a few alternate versions to fit with their alternate themes, including this genius one for their flashback to the 80s episode.

(Thanks to Smashing Magazine and for their collection of links.)

Save our show… or not

The guest writer on Boing Boing this week has been Craig Engler, who does something important at the SyFy channel (hopefully not choosing the name), not least, being the person who tweets for @syfy. He had a couple of really interesting columns giving an insight into how things work behind the scenes at a big US television channel. The one that really caught my eye was “How to REALLY save your favourite sci-fi show from cancellation”. It’s probably going to be a pretty relevant piece in the coming months as various shows (sci-fi and otherwise) don’t get picked up for next season. The campaigning is already well underway for several at risk shows, and a few that have already been canned like Legend of the Seeker have got massive money raising drives under way.

I’ve always been faintly cynical about the point of these campaigns, while I feel bad saying it out loud, my attitude has always been that it’s a bit of a waste of effort devoting so much time and effort to something that’s not going to have any effect. Do people think barraging network executives with thousands of packets of peanuts is actually going to somehow magically make their show seem more appealing to network executives?

Well it turns out my cynicism is fairly well placed. Craig Engler confirms that letter writing campaigns and the like don’t really work.

1) They don’t *want* to cancel shows, time and money has been invested in making and promoting the show and the chances are that it will cost them more money to cancel it and launch something else in its place than it would be to just keep it running.

2) Telling the network that you watch and love the show doesn’t really tell them anything they don’t already know. They have the ratings, they know how many people are watching. They have google and know that there are a number of people that not only watch, but are passionately devoted (obsessed?) with the show. But the fact that you really really really love the show, doesn’t actually make your single viewing figure count for anything more than ‘one’. Yes, you will probably contribute additional revenue via dvd sales and the like, but actually that probably doesn’t go to the network, so doesn’t help their financial bottom lines any. Networks make money by selling advertising to run inside a show, the amount of money they can make is therefore directly proportional to the number of people watching.

3) By the time they’ve announced the show is cancelled, you’re already too late. If the cast and crew have been released from their contracts, they’ve already moved on and are looking for the next project. In fact networks will often go out of their way to cancel shows early specifically so that people can find new jobs for the following season; if an actor isn’t available when pilots are being cast, they’re likely to be spending a year doing guest slots to pay the mortgage. Cancelling early also gives writers a chance to write a satisfying ending, rather than leave the fans on an unresolved cliffhanger.

Engler does offer a few suggestions for how to save your shows, but I didn’t really find his tone overly optimistic. The maths is quite straight-forward, more viewers equels higher ratings equals higher advertising revenue equals more likely to return. But each enthusiastic fan probably needs to recruit thousands of additional viewers, numbers usually outside of their reach. So rather than campaigning to the network, they should campaign people with that level of readership involved. People like Kristin at E!, or Michael Ausiello at Entertainment Weekly I know that I’ve started watching shows because they say I should, and I’m sure their voices have got shows like Friday Night Lights renewed that wouldn’t have made it otherwise.

This season there seems to have been a good commitment to shows, very few announcements have been made of cancellations beyond shows like Lost and 24 which are being ‘concluded’ rather than ‘cancelled’. Of the shows in danger (‘on the bubble’) at the moment, the only ones I would really miss are Trauma and Lie to Me. There are more that I watch (FlashForward and V most notably) but I really wouldn’t mourn their losses particularly. I know there are plenty of vocal fans out there for other shows though, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some very disappointed and desperate fans on the internet in the coming months.

To spin-off or not to spin-off

You’ve got a massively popular television show that everyone’s talking about and everyone’s watching, but how can you do more? You can’t just increase the number of episodes, seasons in the US are already over 20 episodes long and there just aren’t enough days in the year for casts and crews to double that. So the obvious solution is to create a spin-off, possibly even a whole franchise. You’re almost guaranteed to carry across a sizeable chunk of your audience*, half your marketing has already been done for you and the money should just role in.

But how do you do it? You’ve got to create something similar enough it’s familiar, but distinct enough that it’s not cannibalising your original show. You have to look at your show and work out what makes it popular then see if you can translate that to another show. What’s the Thing that carries from one to the next, what is it about your ‘universe’ that makes it worthy of another entry?

If you’re making a science fiction show, that’s a fairly straightforward literal question. Can you just move to somewhere else in the universe you’ve created and tell another story? Maybe look at a different period of that universe’s history (Battlestar/Caprica) or a different location (Stargate, Star Trek). You can keep the complexities of how your universe works and still make it entirely new.

If your ‘universe’ isn’t quite as obvious, the best idea is to break your show down into its primary and secondary defining characteristics – then change the secondary ones. So the primary concept of CSI was that it was about solving crime using forensics. The secondaries might be that it’s set in Las Vegas, with a graveyard shift, with a team led by a scientist. Right, so that means your spin-off is still about solving forensics, but set in a different city, with a day shift and a different style team lead. Welcome to Miami and Horatio Cane. It’s about changing the context without changing the concept. I think Law and Order follows a similar pattern (I don’t actually watch any of them) at its core is the idea of following a crime through the whole legal process, from investigation to the courts, from there you can change the type of crime investigated, or the location, or the type of investigators, while not losing sight of the core idea.

If your show is a little less about what it does and more about how it does it – the writing or storytelling style for example, maybe you literally pick up a character and spin them out somewhere else. This is a popular choice for sitcoms (Cheers/Frasier, Friends/Joey), often with the spinoff launching after the initial series finishes and the character is no longer needed in the parent show. But it has also worked for other types of show, Shonda Rhimes spun off Grey’s Anatomy by having a character head for California. By taking one of the (sorry) older characters from Grey’s, Rhimes has created a more mature show in Private Practice that doesn’t directly compete with the original, but is still familiar in the way it tells stories. The tricky thing is finding a character that’s interesting enough to carry the audience with them, and an actor that’s ready to move from being a supporting player, to being a lead.

But maybe this is all putting too much thought into it. Do you really need to have that strong a relationship between the series? Technically NCIS is a spin-off from JAG, but beyond the fact that they’re both set in side departments of the Navy, do they really have anything in common? Maybe the very fact that NCIS is massively more successful than JAG (it’s currently the number 1 rated show of the year, the best JAG ever did was 15th) shows they’re not that closely related. This year NCIS spawned a further spin-off set in LA, while still nominally in the same department, the new show has a very different approach to investigation, it’s fixed in one city instead of being national and focuses more on a buddy partnership (with some big name actors) than a full team. I think in many ways the show would have been stronger if it had been independent and not continually had to force the navy stuff into the stories.

One thing that NCIS:LA did gain from being a spin-off was that they launched the show with a ‘backdoor pilot’ i.e. they snuck the new show into an episode of the current one. It’s all very friendly, your favourite characters introduce the new team – “hey, it’s alright, you’ll like these guys, you can trust them”. It’s also a way to run a massive focus group on your new show, did the audience like it, do they like the characters? There’s still plenty of time to pull the whole thing, or tweak the cast before you launch the series proper in a few months. NCIS:LA learnt that a couple of characters didn’t work and swapped them out.

If you can get this right, there is so much to gain. If your spin-off runs in parallel you can block out a whole chunk of the schedule and each show helps the other. You can bump your ratings at any time by doing crossover episodes with characters from one show appearing in the other, CSI recently sent a character on a grand tour of the series and that managed to get even ME to watch Miami! But when there’s a lot to gain from getting it right, there’s also a lot to lose if you get it wrong. A bad entry into a franchise can taint the whole thing (Enterprise, I’m looking at you!). Trying to overlap shows can mean that you just dilute the quality of your original offering – if you have to come up with twice as many different navy related crimes to investigate each week, sooner or later you’re going to run out of ideas.
And that leads me on to my thoughts on the Criminal Minds spin-off… but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for that.

* I spent half hour looking at ratings, comparing the first season of the spin-off against the season of its parent that aired at the same time. The selection I looked at was pretty narrow, and self-lmited to successful spinoffs, but ranged from 60ish percent up to 110% (CSI/CSI:Miami = 63%, Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice = 73%, Law & Order/L&O: SVU = 75%, NCIS/NCIS:LA = 81%, Buffy/Angel = 104%, JAG /NCIS =110%). Sadly I failed to easily find ratings data on Doctor Who/Torchwood, Star Trek, Stargate or Hercules/Xena.