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"They'll Never Put That on the Air" reveals how to grow a hit television series

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"They'll Never Put That on the Air" reveals how to grow a hit television series

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Welcome to Day 3 of ABC's Premiere Week.


Copyright 2007 ABC, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Over one seven-day-long period, the Alphabet Network is rolling out 11 brand-new series. Though two of this season's more high profile projects, "Pushing Daisies" ...


(L to R) Orbit the Dog, Swoosie Kurtz, Ellen Greene, Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Kristen
Chenoweuth and Chi McBride. Photo by Justin Stephens.
Copyright 2007 ABC, Inc. All Rights Reserved

... and "Cavemen" ...


 (L to R) Nick Kroll, Julie White, Kaitlin Doubleday, Bill English, Sam
Huntington and Stephanie Lemelin. Photo by Bob D'Amico.
Copyright 2007 ABC, Inc. All Rights Reserved

... won't actually debut on ABC 'til next week.

And after that ... To be honest, it's a crapshoot when it comes to which shows will ultimately succeed or fail this season. As Allan Neuwirth points out in his excellent "They'll Never Put That on the Air: An Oral History of Taboo-Breaking TV Comedy" (Allworth Press, February 2006), there are so many factors that come into play in a situation like this.


 Copyright 2006 Allworth Press.
All Rights Reserved

I mean, sometimes it's a question of cost. Dick Martin (of Rowan & Martin fame) remembered that one of the main reasons that NBC got behind "Laugh-In" was because the show " ... only cost $165,000" to produce. Which wasn't a whole lot of money for an hour of television back in 1968.

So even though the TV special that served as the pilot for this new series got poor ratings, NBC execs still decided to order up 13 episodes. If only because that network had to put something on the air opposite the seemingly unstoppable "Here's Lucy" and "Gunsmoke."

As "Laugh-In" producer George Schlatter remembers:

"(NBC) had a show that was supposed to go on Monday night at 8:00 -- and Lucille Ball was killing 'em. The CBS lineup Monday night with Lucille Ball and 'Gunsmoke' just killed NBC. They couldn't do anything with anybody. So [network executives] said, ' Look, we've got this thing. Why don't we throw it in there until we get a show ready, and it would cost no money ... what're we gonna lose? This isn't gonna work anyhow."

So, they put us in there, and nobody paid attention until like the fourth week."


Copyright 2006 Allworth Press. All Rights Reserved

That's another key part to being successful on television. Sometimes the folks at the network have to be really patient. They may have to wait quite a while before viewers finally become aware of a new show and then begin sampling it.

As "M*A*S*H" producer Gene Reynolds recalled:

"We didn't have a good lead-in: It was a show that I'd produced for the first thirteen weeks called 'Anna and the King' with Yul Brenner. And we failed with that.

But you see, M*A*S*H began to grow ... even from the very beginning, it grew. But gradually. You could see, 'Well, it's doing better this week, now it's doing even better this week ...' And it got strong enough so that in the second year, they gave us a very good position. That really did it for us ... but also, it was a matter of people seeing the show, sampling the show ... and showing what happens if you give it a chance."

Mind you, it didn't hurt that -- during that first crucial year -- that the wife of the head of the network was a M*A*S*H fan. As the show's creator Larry Gelbart remembered:

"The first year, our ratings were so poor that it looked like we weren't coming back at all. We were on at 8:00 at night on Sunday, the one day of the week we probably shouldn't have been on. And legend has it that Babe Paley -- Mrs. William S. Paley -- loved the show, and we were saved by some pillow talk! It's a great story ... and if we say it often enough, it will be the truth."


Copyright 2006 Allworth Press. All Rights Reserved

There are lots of great stories like this to be found in "They'll Never Put That on the Air." Like how "All in the Family" -- that hit sitcom that ran on CBS in various forms for over 12 years -- actually started out life as an ABC project.

As Martin Starger, the former V.P. in charge of Programming at ABC recalled:

"ABC was the third network. CBS and NBC were the twin Rocks of Gibraltor -- and for Len (Goldberg, ABC's Head of Programming) and I, the challenge was fun. We were able to take chances 'cause we had nothing to lose, much like Fox Broadcasting later.

In this era, just to give you the context of time, I had two assistants, one after another: Barry Diller was my executive assistant. He was Len's -- and when Len left, he became my assistant. Some time later, when I put him in charge of movies for television, Michael Eisner became my assistant. We had some pretty good people in a very small department. It was electric! We were all young; we could try anything.

We needed comedies. 'Bewitched' was one. We had a couple, but a weakness at ABC was half-hour comedies.

Norman Lear -- who was not the Norman Lear that we think of today -- had this show that he wanted to do. And it was exciting. It was different. I said to myself, 'Great idea. Terrific talent. And an urban half-hour comedy.' We would've given anything to have Jackie Gleason in 'The Honeymooners,' but CBS had that.

So, we did the first pilot."

Which -- as Leonard Goldberg remembered -- didn't turn out all that well. After he and Martin screened it for the network brass:

"The pilot ended ... the lights slowly came up ... I got up. We were sitting, Marty Starger and I, in the front row. We turned around ... and there was no one in the screening room.

They were all gone. Literally. I looked over at Marty and said,'I don't think that went that well.' I had never had that happen in the three years and probably seventy-five, eighty pilots I had made, some of which were pretty bad.

I quickly moved out of the room and down the hall to the elevator, where I met Tom Moore, the president (of ABC). I said to Tom, 'What's going on? Where is everybody?' The elevator doors by now are opening. He stepped in, turned to me, and said 'We in senior management are going to pretend this pilot never happened. And for your own future, I suggest you do the same.' At which point the elevator doors closed."

And -- with that -- ABC lost out on its chance to air that multiple Emmy Award-winning show, "All in the Family."


Copyright 2006 Allworth Press. All Rights Reserved

That's why I think that every executive at the Alphabet Network should be given a copy of this oral history. So that they can then heed the warnings of industry legends like Carl Reiner and Fred Silverman. Veterans who can perhaps persuade those working in television today that they sometimes need to look past ratings & research.

I mean, just because you have a report on your desk that reads "Pilot Performance: Weak," which is loaded with comments like "Who cares about people going to the laundromat?" and "None of the supports were particularly liked, and viewers felt that Jerry needed a better backup ensemble. George was negatively viewed as a wimp who was only mildly amusing -- viewers said he whined and did not like his relationship with Jerry ... Despite the slice-of-life approach, the program was considered only mildly realistic and believable, and many did not identify with the things with which Jerry was involved" ... doesn't mean that you should then pass on the project.

After all, if Brandon Tartikoff had done that in 1989 ... The world would have been denied "Seinfeld." A show that parlayed nothing into a ratings smash.


 Copyright 2006 Allworth Press. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, I don't know if the lessons presented in Allan Neuwirth's "They'll Never Put That on the Air: An Oral History of Taboo-Breaking TV Comedy" will actually be able to help the guys who are currently struggling with "Cavemen." But what the hey. They'll probably still enjoy looking at the great caricatures that Glen Hanson created especially for this very entertaining & informative paperback.

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  • Hmmm ... I wonder if a certain curmudgeonly writer will take the advice to look past the ratings and research (read box office grosses and Wall Street analysis) in dealing with future efforts by John Lasseter, Pixar and Walt Disney Feature Animation?

    Success can be measured several different ways ...

  • Cavemen.... would be way better if they used the original GEICO actors, and if they kept the characters' behaviors the same as the GEICO shows more closely. It's going to take a lot of effort to keep ratings for the show with a new cast and slightly different interpretations of the caveman characters.

    Hold on, my mother's calling. I'll put her on speaker.

  • I think way too many TV execs don't have the patience for ratings for shows and too many shows get canned too soon.  I have been disapointed more than once with watching a great show to only have it cancelled.

  • Patience can be a virtue, but sometimes you have to cut the cord.  The problem with thinking about who "lost out" on this show or that is the fact that it happens to everyone.  There's no reason to assume that "Seinfeld" would have worked as well on another network as it did on NBC or that "All in the Family" would have thrived on ABC.  Success is tied to the quality of the material, certainly, but also to syngergy with the network in question and the shows that it complements and that compliment it.  While these stories are interesting, there's really no lesson that can be learned.  What could such a lesson be?  Stick with a show until it finds an audience?  That didn't save "The Famous Teddy Z" or "Arrested Development".  As Jim said, it's a crap shoot, so go with your gut, trust the numbers if you, well, trust the numbers, but there is no perfect formula for success, so people shouldn't try to look for one.

  • One word comes to mind when reading this article ... "Jericho"

    Or maybe I should say, "NUTS!"

  • Does the real book have as many errors and misspellings as the excerpt (Yul Brenner, Rock of Gibraltor)?

  • Those caricatures by Glen Hanson really are fun. I've been familiar with his work for awhile now, but all of these TV show images are new to me. Thanks for posting them here, Jim!

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