Shows that don't fit can be the next big hit
Branding has become a favorite buzzword in creative circles. Even TV programs and performers are “brands” now — see the New York Times’ ode to “Kim Kardashian Inc.” — to be carefully managed to avoid striking discordant notes.Despite the best intentions of network honchos and marketers, though, TV keeps reminding us that this twisted Dr. Strangelove approach — as in “How to stop worrying and love the brand” — isn’t necessarily the answer to everyone’s troubles. For all the meticulous planning programmers do, history indicates more often than not that networks stumble into success. When a program becomes a hit — almost invariably unexpectedly — it points the way toward strategy, as opposed to charting a designated path and rigidly following it to paydirt. We’ve seen this scenario play out time and again, but that hasn’t stopped MBAs from rhapsodizing about “branding,” trying to bring stability to an entertainment world that’s inherently chaotic. And even some of the most conservative networks have discovered they occasionally benefit from the occasional stretch beyond their comfort zones. A few recent examples illustrate this point, among them TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age,” a bittersweet, low-octane comedy-drama that returns for its second season in December. Nothing about the show dovetails with the Turner network’s lineup, which has found a niche with crime and caper shows, becoming basic cable’s answer to CBS. Then there’s “The Walking Dead,” AMC’s post-apocalyptic zombie drama, hardly a genre that screams compatibility with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” Yet it was that show — not that more sober thriller “Rubicon” — that will amble into a second season. There’s a comfort level in brand fidelity, but also a kind of laziness. Hey, executives can say, the show was in our wheelhouse — we can’t explain why it didn’t work. In creative endeavors, though, relying too doggedly on brand identity is a prescription for stagnation, a way to ensure you end up with four “CSI’s” or “Law and Orders” on your schedule. Indeed, one can argue that of last season’s sparse broadcast hits, CBS’ “The Good Wife” and Fox’s “Glee” each represented an obvious stretch for their networks. And even “Modern Family,” with its disarmingly sweet undertones, represented something of a departure from ABC’s signature ensemble departure from ABC’s signature ensemble dramas. Similarly, “True Blood” — the conspicuous gore and sex notwithstanding — wasn’t customary fare for HBO, and has rewarded the pay channel by becoming one of TV’s most valuable commodities. Then there’s NBC, whose struggles this fall were attributed in some circles to the lack of a clear theme to its programming. Yet with the network having bottomed out — and seeking to rebuild the gaping hole left by five primetime nights of Jay Leno — NBC actually tried something that makes sense: Throw a lot of different series at the wall and hope (fruitlessly, it turns out) a few will stick. Clearly, networks err by milking a brand beyond the point of exhaustion, which has doubtless contributed to diminishing returns, over time, to CBS’ and NBC’s aforementioned crime franchises. At the same time, the reverse can be true as well. Once a network has established a solid profile, it’s more difficult attracting viewers to a program that amounts to trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. Take “Swingtown” — a CBS drama about suburban sexual experimentation during the 1970s — which doubtless confused regular viewers of the Eye network. Yes, there were nice bodies, but where were the chalk outlines and investigators surrounding them to which its viewers have grown accustomed? It’s possible, in other words, to produce a perfectly fine show that fails simply because it’s on the wrong network. But the bigger risk might be adhering to a brand so stubbornly as to take a pass on promising series that open doors toward new directions. (To its credit, CBS has made some out-of-the-box bets — see the misfires “Viva, Laughlin” and “Harper’s Island” — before quickly retreating to safer ground.) Speaking to the New York Times about Disney’s modern struggles with feature animation, cultural observer Neal Gabler noted, “To make art, you need a sensibility.” For programmers, though, everything from Disney to Kardashian represents a cautionary tale about branding’s limits. Because while a safe formula can work terrifically for awhile, when the wrinkles start showing and the fans begin drying up, the bill can come due quickly — and in a big, big way.