AND NOW, BEFORE MOST of L.A.’s TV population flits off to Manhattan, a few words from Brandon Tartikoff:
Tartikoff, for newbie executives who were in high school or college when he died in 1997, was a larger-than-life personality — an outspoken showman who wasn’t always right during his 10-year stint overseeing NBC Entertainment but who had a helluva good time doing it. He reveled as much in his failures (“Manimal,” anyone?) as successes, not for nothing titling his autobiography “The Last Great Ride.”
Brandon loved theorizing about TV, so it’s no surprise that several of his observations survive him. One is particularly germane as networks prepare to unveil their fall primetime schedules next week.
“Every show,” he suggested near the end of his NBC run, “should be somebody’s favorite show.”
If that made sense then, it’s been magnified twentyfold by shifts in the TV business, where the onetime formula of “least objectionable programming” no longer seems like a viable strategy. Indeed, today’s series (or “content,” for those who insist on sounding like MBAs) increasingly break down into big, valuable franchises for which people avidly hunger — must-see, must-record, must-buy, must-whatever — and the near-worthless filler around them.
The same distinction holds for features, which for the next few months, anyway, can be divided into summer blockbusters an audience feels compelled to rush out and see and those they’ll skip and maybe rent. Granted, consumers ante up in both instances, but their ardor defines the difference between “Gotta go now” and “Whenever I’ve got nothing better to do.”
IN TELEVISION, NOTHING EXEMPLIFIES the “must-see” mindset better than ABC’s “Lost,” which despite a ratings decline vs. “American Idol” continues to engender inordinate passion among its devotees.
Last week, for example, colleagues spontaneously convened around my desk discussing the May 3 episode. “Didn’t see it coming,” “Terrible idea,” “Should have killed someone else,” “Jarring” — you name it. There it was: an honest-to-God exercise in old-fashioned water-cooler television lacking only, as it turned out, a water cooler.
Somehow, it’s hard to envision a similar exchange occurring over that night’s installment of “Freddie.”
The “Lost” express is such that ABC sister Disney division Hyperion Books has released a tie-in novel, “Bad Twin,” which has been coyly featured within the series. Credited to fictional author Gary Troup (an anagram for “purgatory,” setting the Internet faithful buzzing), the book is littered with allusions to the program and alleged clues regarding its mysteries. Inasmuch as it reads like a conventional detective yarn, anybody fretting about these “revelations” — or poring over the mythical Hanso Foundation’s elaborate Web site — requires an emergency visit from the “Get a life” police.
Nevertheless, that represents the kind of loyalty that programs must engender to truly thrive in a zap-and-TiVo-happy world. As FX president John Landgraf recently noted, a show needn’t be a mass-appeal hit when core viewers are so eagerly engaged. “The highest end of quality in programming, with the possible exception of ‘The Sopranos,’ has really become niche programming,” he said.
OF COURSE, IN THE INTEREST of fairness and balance (although here I report, and I decide), Tartikoff didn’t anticipate the peculiarities of so-called reality TV. “Don’t get hung up on the concept,” he counseled development execs not long before his death, musing wryly, “Not many folks come home from work muttering to themselves, ‘I wish somebody would put on a good fire-station comedy.'”
True enough for sitcoms, but reality TV is all about concept, so much so that hitting upon the right iteration on a theme is more than half the battle, whereas the wrong premise — say, a boxing show such as “The Contender” — is doomed no matter how slickly it’s produced.
Perhaps that’s why many sentient beings, myself included, harbor disdain toward so much unscripted TV, because once the spitballing of ideas ends, often so does the creativity.
If nothing else, Tartikoff’s posthumous advice should add a layer of deliberation to the development process. In essence, it calls upon execs to ask a question before pulling the trigger on a series akin to one I proposed last fall — namely, “If I wasn’t getting paid to watch this, what would I pay to watch this?”
Or, to put it in simpler terms, “What would Brandon do?”