Something a little different this week. It’s Christmas, and while I really don’t want to single out a particular show for the holiday, I do want to write a bit about what I want as presents, both for shows that I feature on this site, and for television in general. I want to express what I love about television, and what I want in shows that is sometimes lacking (and where I think television in general, and studios and networks in particular, should change). So, onward with “a very special episode” of Friday @ 8/7 Central….
(See, network promotion departments? That “very special episode” phrase got so overused that it became a code for “our comedy writers tried to be seriously dramatic and failed”. This is one wish that came true back in the day, that the phrase would never be used for a television episode again. I can only hope that the wishes I make today will fare as well.)
Obviously, the first thing I’d like is for many, many more short-lived shows to be available on DVD. Storage and upkeep issues have kept many old gems from ever seeing the light of day, and some shows apparently no longer exist at all anymore. (The BBC wiped the master tapes of much of the original Doctor Who from the sixties, because they needed the magnetic tape and didn’t have proper storage space. It is believed that 108 original half-hours are lost for eternity.) Others are just such low quality (compared to the HD and Blu-Ray releases of today) that a current release simply isn’t viable according to most studios, and it doesn’t matter that some of us originally saw “bright, new, colorful” shows on lousy 9-inch black-and-white portable TVs in the first place. With 50-inch Hi-Def Surround Sound home theaters, the flaws of many original broadcasts are glaring. (For instance, now that they’ve been remastered, did you realize that you could see coffee stains on Mr. Spock’s uniform in some episodes of the original Star Trek? The aired remastered episodes showed them, but Paramount then digitally erased the stains for the DVDs!)
Perhaps the loving memories some of us have of these old shows would be tarnished by being brought into the modern (and technologically advanced) light of day, but I wish that I’d be able to make that determination for myself. The bootleg method at least gives me some access, but it doesn’t compensate in the slightest the many actors, writers, producers, and other creative people involved for all their hard work on these shows. I’d much rather give my hard-earned money to those that worked their tails off to provide all of us with their creativity, instead of those who can simply make copies on their computers. But if it’s the only way to get copies of, say, Covington Cross, then that’s what I’ll continue to do (unfortunately).
Meanwhile, I’d gladly give a lump of coal (or three) to those music companies who can’t figure out that their music rights aren’t worth the entire projected profits (and more) from a possible DVD release… especially when they sold “broadcast rights” for songs originally, and now just want to be greedy. Music rights issues are (after availability of the actual source episodes, of course) one of the top reasons for DVDs NOT being produced, to the detriment of viewers, studios, and music companies as well. And the only thing worse than not having the shows available is having episodes that have been significantly altered from their original broadcasts.
Yes, people should get paid for what they’ve created, music and video. But television studios are caught between “rock and roll” and a hard place when they try to “replace” music instead of paying some of the outrageous costs music publishers wish to charge. When Quantum Leap came out in season DVD sets, the “period” music in many episodes was replaced with generic, homogenized music in each era’s style. The worst offense of this type is in the season 2 finale M.I.A., which used the great Ray Charles vocal Georgia on my Mind to wonderful effect in the original episode… and on the DVD it was replaced by a piece of music so mediocre that the emotional core of the entire episode is lost. Part of this is timing (the set came out the same year that the Oscar-winning biography movie Ray was released, and the music of Charles was enjoying a popular revival), but the show was so damaged by this and other replacement tracks that there’s still a healthy market in the bootleg business for Quantum Leap episodes with the original music. (And even more oddly, the UK version of the DVDs has the original soundtrack!!! It’s one of my favorite shows of all time, and I won’t buy the U.S. DVDs just because of the music issues… as presented, it’s not the show I loved anymore.)
Even with replacement tracks, some shows will never be available due to the fact that there may not be a separate “music track” available to alter in the first place. Because the dialogue and music are inseparable on some older master copies (and the music rights are unable to be purchased reasonably), certain titles will never see the store shelves without their original soundtracks. (A release of the early FOX series Werewolf was announced and only a week from being actually sold in stores when it was pulled for this very reason.) Many contracts for use of music soundtracks in the ’80s and ’90s didn’t dream of “home video”, so no rights were negotiated. Music publishers are trying to make new money out of essentially “nothing” instead of being reasonable. Money should be exchanged, but not be extorted.
The good news is, more and more shows are being produced with the idea of DVD releases already figured into their budgeting, and short-lived series are seeing packages made and released. Creature Comforts has double the number episodes on the DVD than actually aired on CBS. Oh, and thank you Daybreak, not only for including all 13 episodes produced in the set when only six aired on TV… but adding FIFTEEN commentaries, no less. (An embarrassment of riches compared to the Castle DVD. Its second season was recently released with NO commentary at all on any episodes, and it’s considered successful as a series. Maybe someone figured people would only buy “failed” shows if tons of new material were added? Perhaps, but I’ll take all the extras gladly!)
New distribution methods also help with short-lived titles, such as the “Amazon-only” release of The Unusuals, or made-on-demand video of many Warner Brothers titles from their catalog. Such a system lets companies put out material to collectors and others without the risk of over-printing or significant distribution problems, and lets those titles with lesser mainstream potential still be rediscovered by those with interest. Kudos for all these, and I only wish further success (and more titles!) can be released this way (I’m begging for Search, Warners… just letting you know!)
If you’re looking for a particular show (and wondering why it’s never been released on DVD yet), then I highly recommend the What’s the hold-up? page on the terrific TVshowsonDVD.com site. If you’re looking for a specific show release, they’re the experts. And if your choices haven’t been released yet, you can register there and vote… and this is one of the few sites that the industry actually pays attention to, so let your voice be heard.
Looking to the future, what do I wish for Christmas in terms of shows currently in production and what Hollywood and Co. hope to make next? Easy… I want to see Episode Six.
Let me explain. There are two problems in the industry that have to do with “Episode Six”. The first is the network, the second is in production, and they work against each other all the time. The network problem most people are probably aware of. Lone Star got canceled by FOX after only two episodes aired this past fall, despite it being one of the most critically acclaimed series of the season. But it was a “challenge” series, with a not-totally likeable hero, a premise that wasn’t easy to sum up in one “high-concept” title, and the show was difficult to promote properly in a 15 or 30 second commercial. It was also scheduled against some of the highest rated competition on television (Dancing with the Stars, and the Monday night comedy block on CBS). While it was designed to be different from the competing shows, many people didn’t even know it was on… until it was off. (Drive being my favorite example of this type of thing, and guess what? Same time slot as Lone Star… thanks, FOX.)
Television shows should get a minimum of six episodes to prove themselves. MIN-I-MUM. (got that networks?) Anything less, and audiences, especially in this day and age of media bombardment, may not even find a show. And audiences are savvy these days. Many won’t even sample a show unless they know it’s something that won’t get taken away from them immediately. (You don’t know how many people I’ve talked to who are frustrated with networks yanking shows off the air prematurely, and have decided to “not invest” in them by watching initially. It’s a Catch-22 situation: audiences don’t want to spend time on something that won’t last, and networks don’t want to spend time (and money) on shows with no audience yet. Letting people know, in advance, that they’ll get a minimum number of episodes consistently and without being jumped around the schedule with no warning is part of a “contract” with the viewers, which viewers will reward with their loyalty. Otherwise, no one will show up, and everyone pays for it.
“We very often will have moments that evolve. We start with a good premise, and we start with a really good set-up, and then we’ll just keep rolling… and suddenly something will grow out of it, and not only does it make that scene better, but it actually teaches us what we can do, how far we can push it. Little things [the actors] do on the set, later we’ll say ‘let’s make that a character trait, and let’s let that keep reoccurring.'”
–Dean Devlin, creator of Leverage on the influence of the actors on writing the characters
Here’s the production problem: If you take a brand new series, the writing team starts out ahead of everyone else (naturally, because all parts of production need scripts). By the time that first episode is finally finished, with cast, costumes, sets, and everything, the writing staff has usually progressed writing up through episode six or so. That’s when the staff can actually see and hear who they’re writing for, and characters and relationships start becoming much more than just words on paper. They become people who interact, and if the actors are any good, they give added pieces to the character, which the writing staff can then see and work into the series, developing the characters even more. Those first five episodes are written “blind”, so to speak.
Episode six is really when shows start to take shape and become something worthwhile. Sadly, many shows never reach this point these days, due to the knee-jerk reactions of networks and ratings battles. (Yes, I know it’s not always just ratings. I’ve heard of shows getting the ax simply because someone else championed them, and that person was no longer with the network when the show finally aired. The series got shuttled into a lousy time slot with no promotion, and then the new regime could point and say “See, that previous person’s opinion was completely wrong, you made a good choice in putting me in charge instead!”) Read about New Amsterdam to see just how this works.
On my last show, the writers slowly killed off all the actors and characters we didn’t like until we had a cast of characters we felt we could work with.
–Denis McGrath, writer on Stargate: Universe, Blood Ties, and The Border
But in the course of making a good show, the sixth episode is vital, not just to the development of the characters, but in the evolution of the style of a series. Shows (particularly their writers and actors) figure out what works, what doesn’t, and can build to the newly found strengths and eliminate the weaknesses.
Best example: I wrote about The Paper Chase recently, and if you look at the opening credits you’ll see the character of Asheley (played by Deka Beaudine) featured there. Kudos to her agent for negotiating her a special opening credit for the first thirteen episodes… but she actually appears in only three, and even in those her appearance is slight. (Her part was so small that I decided not to even mention her in the article, other than an oblique reference to being the wife of one of the students… and the husband was also gone by episode thirteen!) The producers figured out quickly that, no matter how good of an actress she may have been, the character was superfluous to the real drama of the series. She was the one character who wasn’t actually part of the school, and therefore not really integral to the developing stories and interpersonal relationships. Give a show six weeks, and the makers will figure out what works (and what doesn’t), and any show will be better off… and so will the viewers.
If the premise is any good, you don’t have to kill off or write out any characters (and if it’s well cast, you don’t have to get rid of particular actors either). But what the production staff has to do is learn, through experience, what works on the show and what doesn’t, and then tailor the rest of the series accordingly. Voyagers! did an abrupt change halfway through their season, brought on by the desire to appeal to a larger (and more adult) audience. The character of the Devil became a more integral part of Brimstone once the staff saw what John Glover did with the role. The changes may be small, but hits like Seinfeld and Hill Street Blues prospered because of them (after rather slow starts), while Cop Rock refused to and failed. It’s one more part of the process that most viewers aren’t aware of, and one more way that shows can become great… or become pale imitations of what they could have been.
We can blame the lack of one-season wonders available on DVD on networks, studios, or record companies. Thankfully, that problem is at least starting to be fixed, with alternative distribution models like Hulu and Made-on-Demand titles. But the problem of quickly canceled shows not even getting a chance is still prevalent, and that’s the situation that really needs the most fixing. Failed shows might mean more fodder for articles, but I really would prefer shows to succeed… or at the very least, be given a good opportunity to do so. If they can produce (and air) beyond an episode six, they’ve got a better possibility for that success. And even if they don’t (and end up being canceled far too soon), at least I know that many, if not most, of today’s supposed “failures” will be available on DVD so that I can mine the nuggets of gold that might be hidden there. And I can spend another Christmas with great shows to watch (or re-watch), and have more terrific television to share.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!