Pilot season is in full swing, as network and studio executives busily rush through a process that should have been abolished years ago, trying in the space of just a few short weeks to pull together most of the new scripted series programming that will land on the broadcasters' 2015-16 schedules when they are announced in May.
What are they looking at and what should they be considering? The answers ought to be obvious -- but before we go further let’s put aside that unfortunate Deadline story about the current pilot process that seems to have stirred up or offended just about everyone including super-producer Shonda Rhimes (an extremely talented person who, unlike many program developers and show-runners, actually understands what people want to watch on television).
The outsize success of shows with diverse casts this season – especially ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” (pictured above) and Fox’s “Empire” (pictured below) -- suggests that the networks will do what they always have done: look for clones of the big new shows of the moment. So don’t be surprised if a few ultimately terrible shows with diverse casts are announced during Upfront week. Copycat programming – once famously referred to as cookie-cutter television – almost always produces lousy imitations of the hits that forcibly inspired them. Remember the long-term plague of “Friends” clones? Now that was a walking-dead apocalypse.
“HTGAWM” and especially “Empire” certainly appeal to audiences of color, and that has certainly contributed to their strong ratings and overall success. But neither show was instantly propelled into the popular-culture pantheon simply because it featured a cast that was not predominantly white. There are other reasons why they succeeded as brilliantly as they did.
First, they were damn good shows, well-written and excitingly acted.
Second, they pushed the envelope and acknowledged the maturity of the modern viewing public with provocative stories the likes of which most television viewers want to see.
Third and last, but definitely not least, they had relatively limited runs. (“HTGAWM” delivered 15 episodes. “Empire” offered only 12.) They came and went before anyone could get tired of them and before their creative teams could run out of gas.
As pay cable, basic cable and streaming services continue to prove, most people simply aren’t interested in annual eight- or nine-month commitments to shows. Shorter runs are preferred, leaving everyone wanting more.
Another point worth making about “HTGAWM” (above) and “Empire” is that both shows seemed to be powered by the idea that viewers crave escapist entertainment. People just want to have fun, especially when they relax with television programs, regardless of the preferred outlet or screen. Those two shows weren’t as overly serious as so many new series this season – weighty shows about evildoers and conspiracies and terminal illnesses and other grim subject matter that simply underperformed or failed on arrival, including NBC’s “State of Affairs” and “Allegiance” and Fox’s “Gracepoint” and “Red Band Society.”
One might be tempted to say “lighten up, everybody!” But remember, there were a number of duds among the “lighter” section of the 2014-15 freshman class. Most of the comedies were just awful, especially those rancid rom-coms “Selfie” and “Manhattan Love Story” on ABC and “A to Z” and “Marry Me” on NBC. “Bad Judge” on NBC was also inexplicably terrible. CBS’ “The McCarthys” was laugh challenged, to say the least. ABC’s “Cristela” hasn't really amounted to much.
The best new comedy on any network this season is actually a comedy-drama-serial hybrid, The CW’s “Jane the Virgin” (pictured above), another show that marks an advancement in diversity but which is succeeding (and winning awards) primarily because it is so well-made and entertaining. Two other new comedies credited for their diversity, ABC's "black-ish" and "Fresh off the Boat," also have succeeded because they are smart, funny shows.
So what can we take away from these observations about the recent hits and misses on broadcast television? The answer comes across as somewhat silly when directly stated, but it’s true: Television producers, with the support of network and studio executives, need to stretch creatively and make smart shows that are designed to entertain people. And their work needs to reflect the world around them.
Perhaps because of the popularity of binge-watching on streaming services, it would also be wise to keep in mind that there is growing interest in serialized stories. (Again, “HTGAWM,” “Empire” and “Jane the Virgin” provide the proof.)
And here's a more specific suggestion having to do with a hot TV trend of the moment: Be careful to not develop too many superhero shows all at once. The CW had a new hit in “The Flash” (pictured above) and still has a strong performer in “Arrow,” but the slow growth of Fox’s “Gotham” (which isn’t technically a superhero show) and the struggles of the Marvel shows on ABC have shown us that interest in the comic book genre is not without limits. Netflix is about to unveil “Daredevil,” the first of four more superhero shows, which should pretty much leave sated the audience for such fare. Not everybody goes to Comic-Con, and not everybody cares to.
Ed Martin is the Editor of Planet Ed and MediaBizBloggers and the television and video critic forMyersBizNet. Follow him on Twitter at @PlanetEd.
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