About 20 years ago, when I was head of scheduling at NBC, I got a call one day from Don Ohlmeyer, who was president of the NBC West Coast operation. He asked me and Eric Cardinal, our head of research (he’s at The CW now), to come up to his office.
Don was an inquisitive dude and loved research. He and I would have long conversations about the business, the audience and the kinds of shows we should be making. He was a big-tent guy. I had a relationship with the GE (our parent company) R&D group, and once in a while, I would come up to Don’s office with a new toy the R&D gang and I had developed.
If I remember correctly, Eric and I met with Don at the start of a new year, and he wanted us to give him a set of rules that we could use to evaluate the coming crop of pilots. He asked us to go through the pilot testing data and see if we could find the connections between successful shows and what we could cull from the testing. His concern was that we may see a solid pilot, but would it translate into a successful television show?
Eric and I worked on this project for a few months and finally presented Don with 12 rules, which we called “Research Homilies.” Don embraced them, and when pilot season arrived, he had us hand them out to all the executives. Don encouraged them to evaluate the pilots with these rules in mind.
I knew this wasn’t going to end well. Creative executives are generally opposed to research, so I knew that I was in for a hard time with several of my colleagues. I kept trying to explain to them that we weren’t saying that you had to follow this set of rules. The point that we were trying to make was that if a pilot did not exhibit at least some of these rules, there was a good chance it would fail as a television series. They weren’t buying it.
To make matters worse, someone leaked the Research Homilies to TV Guide, and they appeared in the magazine during pilot screenings. Let’s just say that didn’t sit well with our boss.
I have had several opportunities to present these Research Homilies to various groups, and they generate some very lively discussions. When I went over to FOX, several development executives asked me for a copy, which they hung up in their office.
It’s been 20 years since Eric and I developed these rules, and I thought it would be a fun exercise to share them with you and see if they still apply to successful shows. It’s important to keep in mind that the definition of success has changed over these two decades. There are now several factors that go into the renewal of a show that go beyond the ratings. Be that as it may, broadcast networks can still develop shows like “This Is Us,” “Empire” and “The Good Doctor,” which most would agree are “hits” by today’s definitions.
I accept that there is more niche programming as platforms need to be fed. I think these rules also explain why a lot of shows that are critically well received will never expand beyond their narrow audience. Jeff Bezos recently demanded that Amazon move beyond their narrow creative model and start looking for their “Game of Thrones.” Easier said than done, but I think it would help him to study these rules.
What I love about these homilies is how obvious they are. We did not reinvent the wheel but simply reminded creative executives that there is something universal about what the viewer is looking for in a television show. It’s fascinating how often these pretty obvious rules are ignored.
So, this is the prelude to a series of articles I will call The Twelve Commandments of Television. Let’s see if they still help us understand today’s hits.
As a tease, here is the First Commandment:
“TRIED AND TRUE = DEAD AND BURIED — NOT!!!”