Here are some more Commandments of Television (you can see previous commandments here and here). Remember, these don’t guarantee a show will be a hit, and we live in a world where ratings appear to be less relevant in programming decisions. However, if the goal is to create a big-tent show, these rules will help you to get there.
So here we go with the Fifth Commandment:
PEOPLE DON’T WATCH WHAT’S GOOD FOR THEM UNLESS IT’S ALSO FUNNY, EXCITING OR EMOTIONALLY INVOLVING
Over my career there have been several occasions where I read a pilot script or saw a pilot and would say, “This feels like spinach.” I never believed broadcasters had a responsibility to offer the viewer programming that we felt was important for them to see. Sometimes that’s the case, but generally it happens if the program works on other levels and is not announcing its intentions.
When you’re deciding on a pilot, you often have to watch out for the social bias in the respondent’s evaluation of a show. They may often be hesitant to tell you they won’t watch something that feels important. You find that out the hard way when the ratings come in.
This doesn’t stop broadcasters from occasionally coming across a show that they know in their gut won’t work but they think is too important not to put on the air. For me it was “I’ll Fly Away” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” After all, we’re only human.
The lesson is to be entertaining first and have your message communicated subtly. I know this sounds cynical, but hey, it’s on the tablets.
The next Commandment is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago and is probably the one that is ignored the most often. It is at the core of “Puzzle TV.”
IT’S EASIER TO LIKE SOMETHING YOU UNDERSTAND
“Mr. Robot,” “The Leftovers,” “Legion,” “Twin Peaks” — there is a whole genre of television that is based on not having a clue what is going on. What these shows generally share in common is that they get pretty low ratings, but they are disproportionately discussed on social media.
Sci-fi is especially vulnerable to this Commandment. You often get an intriguing, high-testing pilot, but by episode 3 the concept starts to fall apart. When we would test pilots, we often included a series of questions about confusion. Respondents would often give a show high marks but still be confused by what was going on or what the show was really about. To me that was always a warning sign.
A good indicator that a show is going to be difficult to follow is the way it is promoted. I find there is a strong correlation between the ability to explain the show in a promo and its chances of success. The more promos try to cover up the concept with bells and whistles, the more likely the show will fail.
Two more Commandments coming soon. Feel free to tell me these make no sense at email@example.com or on Twitter @maskedscheduler.