When speaking at the press tour to promote the networks’ new fall lineups, Kyle Killen, creator of Fox’s new show Lone Star, said the following: “When you go out and you pitch shows, the truth is the things that you watch, the things that you love — Breaking Bad and Mad Men — they’re dirty words in pitch meetings because they’re shows that have a number of viewers that would get a show canceled on the network. So even if you respect them creatively and you want to say, ‘This is what we hope to be. This is what we want to put on air,’ your people will tell you, ‘Talk about Dallas.’”
While the quote isn’t exactly earth-shattering, it’s impressive that in this one statement, Killen has managed to encapsulate everything that is wrong with the networks.
To me, the formula for success is simple. Find talented people with good ideas and let them write the shows they want to write. If the writers are passionate and talented, they are going to give you something worth watching. But this simple concept is beyond network executives, so instead they tinker with everything. A bunch of guys in a board room looking to justify their jobs give asinine notes based on feedback from focus groups (which are made up of schlubs who actually stop and talk to those annoying, clipboard-wielding people in the mall who approach you and say, “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” Everyone I know whose opinion I respect would quickly sidestep those people and continue to powerwalk their way down to Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and yet the people dumb enough and with enough free time on their hands to actually stop and chat are the ones making important decisions about the future of television. It blows my mind. But, I digress) in an attempt to stifle creativity and homogenize every new show so that nothing ever gets too far out of the box.
Mad Men and Breaking Bad may not actually get ratings that would make a network executive happy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a large interest in these shows. The reason they don’t get huge ratings is because they are on AMC. Until it started running these two shows, the only time people watched AMC was if they had insomnia and stumbled upon a Patrick Swayze marathon at three in the morning. I’m guessing most people don’t even know what channel AMC is on their cable box. Hell, I don’t know what channel it is on mine and I’ve actually watched Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
I’m guessing my experience was a lot like many others who have watched these shows. I had a small, but passionate group of people in my life who constantly recommended them to me (much like I do with The Wire to anyone who will listen). While I believed my friends that the shows were good, I kept putting off checking them out. Then, finally once a few seasons were out on DVD, I got the discs and plowed through them all in record time, getting instantly hooked on these shows.
My point is, AMC is an obscure cable channel still looking to establish itself as something other than “the station that shows old movies with commercials and all of the swear words and nudity edited out.” But in spite of the fact that AMC has no clout, it still has produced two great shows that more and more people are slowly starting to discover. The fact that these shows are able to build up an audience through word of mouth and DVD sales is a testament to their quality.
Now, imagine if they were on a network. Instead of having to seek these shows out or have a friend recommend them to you, Breaking Bad and Mad Men would suddenly get advertised on primetime with lead-ins from established shows. Can you honestly say that people wouldn’t watch them?
Killen echoed these sentiments when talking to the press corp. He followed up the quote I began this column with with this one: “And I think at Fox, it wasn’t a dirty word. At Fox they felt like the only reason those shows aren’t more popular is because they’re not on Fox and because they don’t have this machine. They don’t have this opportunity behind them. And I think we’re going to get that.”
While I will give Fox a lot of credit for generally being more progressive than the other networks, they still don’t get a pass in all of this. While they have done a great job greenlighting new and exciting shows over the years, most times they end up canceling them before they ever get a chance to succeed (see Firefly, Undeclared, hell, even The Family Guy, which has become a cash cow for the network, was cancelled and only got brought back thanks to huge DVD sales).
So don’t be surprised when the new fall lineups debut and it’s nothing but spinoffs of Law and Order, NCIS and CSI. Sure, these shows have been done to death, but some idiot in jorts who likes talking to the pretty lady with the clipboard keeps saying he wants more of them, so networks keep greenlighting them. Now, if only we could get that moron to watch AMC.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.