Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Network Cop Show

John McFetridge

Last week I had a meeting with a TV producer about the possibility of me writing the pilot script for his new cop show. The meeting went well and I hope I get the job.

There’s already a deal in place for the show so the producer knows it will be a, “9:00 network show,” and that set some parameters that I hadn’t thought about, beyond simply language and violence (apparently there’s a difference between the 9:00 show and the 10:00 show but the network said they could move a 9:00 show to 10:00 without changing anything. It would be tougher to move a 10:00 show to 9:00).

Someone pointed out that to better understand the needs of network TV it’s a good idea to look at the commercials more than the shows – the commercials tell you the audience that the sponsors want to attract. And for network TV shows the “customers” aren’t the viewers, they’re the sponsors, that’s who actually gives the money to the networks who then gives it to the producers.

Then there are the various levels of cable TV in which money from sponors is part of the revenue along with money from subscribers that gets paid to the producers so in those cases the sponsors probably have less say all the way down to commercial-free cable TV with no sponsors at all.

I guess in publishing the similarity would be the big chain stores which order the bulk of the books are sort of like the sponsors, but they still have to sell on each copy to an individual paying customer. So, it isn’t a perfect comparison but on this blog you get what you pay for.

And it’s certainly no revelation that the sponsors have a big say over what gets on network TV or that they prefer some viewers over others. In Canada the magic number for a network show to be considered successful is a million – top a million viewers and that’s a hit. The show I wrote for last, The Bridge, ran for 13 weeks and drew more than a million viewers each week but we were told that those viewers were predominantly male and over fifty and Viagra can’t buy every advertising spot on its own (though sometimes watching the shows it seems like it does). The sponsors need viewers who are predominantly female and under fifty. Under forty would be even better.

In publishing no one really cares who’s buying the books – old men, young women, libraries, whatever – a sale is a sale. It may be true that 80% of the fiction book buyers are female but if a writer was selling a lot of books to men the publisher would keep publishing them.

So we’re back to looking at the commercials. And the commercials are all about how great our lives can be; how clean our houses can be, what great vacations we can take, what great cars we can drive, what delicious fast food restaurants we can go to, what great meals we can make for our families.

And the cop shows (as a TV writer I know once said, “the crap that goes between the commercials”) tell us that, yes, there are bad people in the world but there are very, very good cops working very, very hard to keep us safe.

And the bad guys always get caught.

The commercials also tell us what the sponsors want the characters to look like; young, healthy, attractive – they look at home in the world the sponsors are selling.

The victims of the crimes and the grieving family members also look like the viewers the sponsors are after. According to the NYPD over two thirds of the murder victims in New York are African American yet it’s very rare to see a non-white murder victim on any of the network TV shows set in New York. The NYPD also say that almost 50% of murder victims are involved in the use or sale of drugs and that at least 53% of murder suspects are involved with drugs.

Of course there’s no reason for a network TV show to try and reflect the reality of the world in which it exists, it’s main goal is to deliver the viewers the sposnors want.

Though that makes the standard advice, “Just write for yourself,” a little tough.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't know if Canada has as many cop shows as we do, but I would think it would be near impossible to do anything fresh on network TV in the states. The saturation level was past years ago, which is why a fairly good entry like SOUTHLAND struggled to find an audience. I want to like Detroit 187 because it looks so good, but the set up is so familiar. Two storylines, a female commander, young cop, old cop, female cop.
Something new might be to set it in a rural area. I am getting darn tired of that brick and concrete.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I agree with Patti's observations. Don't watch much network tv, and the last cop show I watched was "The Shield". Best of luck with geting the new gig John!

Al Tucher said...

I've been meaning to ask Patti about Detroit 187, because it does look great. So far, the setting has kept me involved enough that I'm not bothered by the conventional setup. I do fear, though, that they will do something really cliched, like getting the James McDaniel character killed on his last day on the job.

What Sean said, John. Best of luck on the job.

Steve Weddle said...

I miss Cagney and Lacey, Starsky and Hutch and Adam-12.
Write a show like that, John.
And I hadn't thought about a 10 pm show being unable to move to 9 pm.
Seems odd since we time shift all our shows anyway. I can't remember the last time we watched a show 'live.'

I was thinking about this because they've cancelled one of the Weddle family's favorites: Stargate Universe. Some said the show stunk, while
some said it failed because it moved around the schedule too much.
Same excuses. But I wonder how different this time slot thing will be in a few years.
We watch the HBO/Showtime shows via Netflix a year later.
We watch Castle at 7 pm Tuesdays, just after we get back from the early bird buffet at the Sizzler.
So I sometimes forget about how time slots can control content.