I thought it would be fun to share with you the Twelve Commandments of Television. They are based on correlating pilot testing data (at NBC) with the ratings success of the pilots that went to series. We wanted to know what traits successful series exhibited and whether it could help us in selecting the shows that went on the air.
No system is perfect, and this is simply probability, i.e., how do you increase the odds of success? We never asked the creative executives to change anything other than to be aware of these “rules.”
As I teased in the first installment the first Commandment is:
TRIED AND TRUE = DEAD AND BURIED — NOT!
There are fewer and fewer hits in the business, but if you look at recent successes they seem to be based on the time-tested genres of family comedies (“Black-ish,” “The Goldbergs,” “Young Sheldon”) and dramas (“This Is Us”), over-the-top soaps (“Empire”) and medical dramas (“The Good Doctor”).
For me, two of the most powerful engines to success in TV are human connectivity and healing. It doesn’t mean every show has to be about a family (see “Friends” or “Will & Grace”) or take place in a hospital (“Quantum Leap”). It’s about people who care about each other or help people get through adversity.
One season in the early ’90s, virtually every drama on CBS featured a doctor (“Dr. Quinn,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “Picket Fences” et al), but you would never define them simply as medical series.
You can rely on a proven genre and have a promising script, but the Second Commandment of Television is:
A CONCEPT IS ONLY AS GOOD AS ITS EXECUTION
There have been several occasions during my career where we were all excited about a script and could not wait to see the pilot, only to have our excitement crushed by what we saw. You need to be in good hands, and I think this is why casting is so important. Imagine “Seinfeld” with Larry Miller as George or “House” with Gary Sinise in the lead role. Those things almost happened.
You have to know when to keep characters alive, even when they are supposed to be killed off in the pilot. That was the case with Hill and Renko on “Hill Street Blues” and Nurse Hathaway on “ER” (Julianna Margulies was on “Homicide” when she shot the “ER” pilot).
If you are going to do something different like “This Is Us,” you better have the rules down pat. I think that why sci-fi has such a hard time breaking out beyond its core audience. Fans of the genre are sticklers for following the rules that are set up at the beginning of the show and will quickly abandon a series when it doesn’t.
I still remember sitting at a TCA session in July 1994 listening to John Wells describe his vision for “ER.” I was sitting with my boss, Warren Littlefield. We knew we had a kick-ass, high-testing pilot, but I had never heard a showrunner articulate his or her vision for a show the way John did at that session. I told Warren we were in good hands.
One of my favorite pilots of all-time is “Jane the Virgin.” Not only is “JTV” a hybrid of a family dramedy and an over-the-top telenovela, but the pilot also had a unique vision using a narrator and creative visuals. It has maintained that sensibility throughout its run.
“Mr. Robot” is sort of an example of how a well-executed series, at least in its first season, is not enough to grow into a successful long-term show. As we go through the commandments you may see why that is.
Next time we’ll talk about the important traits of lead characters and “eat your spinach” TV.
Feel free to rip these Commandments apart at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @maskedscheduler.