Below are the third and fourth Commandments for making successful shows (here are the first two). Remember, this is not meant as a cookbook. In today’s fractionalized world of television, there are examples of shows where these rules may not apply.
However, if one’s goal is to create a ratings hit, you will find that the Commandments still hold. Also, these homilies offer a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but as someone who spent 35 years in the business, you would be amazed at how often the obvious is overlooked in developing a show.
The Third Commandment of Television is:
VERY FEW SHOWS SUCCEED WITHOUT RELATABLE, SYMPATHETIC, COMPETENT (AND IN COMEDY, FUNNY) LEAD CHARACTERS
Simply put, you need to find someone in a show to root for or feel a connection to. “Friends” is an excellent prototype for this notion of relatability. I always felt the success of the show was in part that it spanned several generations of cohorts. You either aspired to be these twentysomethings when you grew up, you were them and could identify with their lives, or you fondly remember being them.
Competence is an essential component in both comedy and dramas. You want to believe that your leads are smart. The “CSI” franchise and shows like “Bones” worked in part because they featured teams of competent investigators and scientists who you knew would always solve the puzzle.
“The Cosby Show” pilot was one of the highest-testing comedies we ever had at NBC, and I always felt that the scene where Cliff taught Theo about the value of money was what put it over the top. I called it the Cosby moment and would evaluate and advocate having a moment like that in our family comedy pilots.
When your lead isn’t all that sympathetic or relatable, you better have someone who loves, supports or understands them so you can see the person through their eyes. That was Edith Bunker’s role on “All in the Family,” and the residents on “House” also served that purpose.
The Fourth Commandment of Television is pretty simple:
PEOPLE DON’T WATCH TV TO GET DEPRESSED
It is really difficult for a show to go beyond niche if it is relentlessly bleak. I think we saw it this fall with “Ten Days in the Valley.” A golden rule is not to do series where children’s lives are put in danger.
“Rectify” is one of my all-time favorite series, but it was relentless and would never go beyond its small, devoted audience. “Homicide: Life on the Street” survived because there were several of us at NBC who loved the show, but to our marketing department it was an impossible series to promote. I wish you could have seen the look of our top marketing executives when “Homicide” came up at our weekly current meeting.
This notion of dark, bleak shows signaling quality started on cable, where the ratings were not as important as they were on the broadcast platforms. As they permeated the networks, I coined the phrase “cable envy” to describe the desire by some development executives to replicate cable shows without regard for the ratings consequences. “Lone Star” at FOX was a quintessential example of this phenomenon.
For me, it was always important to inject some humor into these dark shows. I always believed that the best dramas have lots of humor and the best comedies have dramatic moments.
More commandments next week.
I hope these are generating some reaction. You can send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me at @maskedscheduler.