Invasion of ‘pod’ people stifles creativity

TELEVISION IS BEING INVADED by “pod” people, giving rise to a horror show that might be known as “Invasion of the Profit Snatchers.”

Determined to own as much programming as possible while fostering the illusion of independent spirit and entrepreneurial thinking, the network/studio combos have seized upon the idea of establishing boutique production fiefdoms within their sprawling kingdoms. The concept, theoretically, is that having more hands in the pot will stir creativity.

The jury’s out on whether that’s the case, but last I checked, no writers were pleading to add executive layers to the process. Meanwhile, a business legitimately concerned about the horrid math of diminishing audiences and rising costs has to split revenues among a growing list of profit participants. At a time when the pie is shrinking, the studios are handing out spoons.

One alternative would be to make deals with stand-alone suppliers and actually let them supply, but with most mid-sized players either extinct or absorbed, few can afford to do so. Besides, nurturing independents would be, well, so ’80s the suggestion comes with its own long sideburns.

Instead, “pods” are sprouting up all over — little producing shingles that contribute to the appearance of arm’s-distance relationships between network and supplier, even if the two are shackled at the ankle.

While the peril such vertical integration poses to creativity is always hard to pinpoint, NBC’s efforts to “fix” “Boomtown” offer a cautionary tale. Featuring a “Rashomon”-like web of connected stories, the modestly rated series challenged viewers but deserved the Peabody award and critical acclaim that greeted its first season.

NBC renewed the show for a second year, but what came back was “Boomtown Lite,” a Stepford wife version that pumped-up the action and zombified the complex characters. Someone should have interceded on the producers’ behalf, but that would have amounted to a family feud, inasmuch as the show fell under the aegis of NBC pod DreamWorks and NBC Studios.

To be fair, “Boomtown” was a longshot to work on Fridays under the best of circumstances. Yet NBC’s error is a classic case of genetic engineering run amok — transforming a good show into a mediocrity in the hope of becoming “more accessible.” Not only is gambling on quality preferable, in this case it’s smarter, given how rarely such tinkering translates into viewers, as opposed to alienating the core audience and pounding a meaty drama into pabulum.

WHAT’S UNDENIABLE is that the new season — still a work in progress as Fox’s lineup dribbles out around baseball — hasn’t done much thus far to excite critics or viewers.

Industry sources also note that the “pod” system, with its incestuous network-studio connections, doesn’t approximate the rough-and-tumble of competitive bidding among companies vying for talent.

“We don’t have a free-market economy right now,” lamented one TV agent, who requested anonymity.

Granted, pods such as Gavin Polone’s NBC-based Pariah are producing for competing networks, but even that road has been bumpy. Pariah’s postponed “The Ortegas” is currently in limbo at Fox, and the unit’s inroads beyond NBC are mostly attributable to the intensity of Polone, who, as demonstrated by his New York Times magazine profile, cultivates the kind of out-there image that demands Steve Buscemi play him in his life story, if not Steve Railsback.

Whatever the media congloms are trying to achieve, from inception the pod approach has felt disingenuous — a means of promoting independence without independents.

Even as a PR ploy it’s a dubious strategy. After all, the peas in a pod look the same, and the pod creatures in “Body Snatchers” were soulless clones of what already existed — not bad metaphors, really, for much of what’s transpired this fall.

So if the networks are determined to persevere with their pod planting, they need to demonstrate it’s a viable method for cultivating hits and not just a shell game — or, barring that, consider finding a new name.

ENTERTAINMENT, WEAKLY: Assembling Hollywood “power lists” is always dicey, but Entertainment Weekly’s latest foray is peculiar enough to warrant special attention.

For starters, the “101 Most Powerful People” features so many shared slots that it contains 123 names — meaning Columbia’s Amy Pascal (No. 12) can beat up MTV’s Tom Freston, Judy McGrath and Herb Scannell (No. 13). Moreover, that total doesn’t include the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Michael Eisner or anybody from the major talent agencies, which, like the dozen or so moguls, get separate mention.

It’s understood that execs’ minions lobby for placement like James Carville on steroids, but once 101 entries become a cast of thousands you’ve plunged into irrelevancy — especially with omissions such as Fox TV Stations chief Mitch Stern, whose influence over syndication is the talk of the TV biz.

Lists are always fun, but in attempting to define power, EW has managed only to make itself look like a wimp.

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