By macleans.ca - Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 0 Comments
Fox News is betting a kinder, gentler approach will rescue it from its ratings slump
Is Fox News going liberal? Probably not, but there have been signs that it’s going soft. Ever since America’s most Republican-friendly cable network suffered major embarrassments during the 2012 presidential election, culminating in the now-famous image of Karl Rove refusing to admit that President Barack Obama had carried Ohio, the network has been subtly changing its image. Founder Roger Ailes had already moved Fox away from the fire-and-brimstone tone it took in the early years of the Obama presidency, when Glenn Beck was one of its stars. But in 2013, the signs of squishiness have been even more unmistakable.
The most high-profile change at the network came when it parted ways with Sarah Palin, who had been pontificating there ever since she stepped down as Alaska governor. In her place, Ailes has been signing up people who are, by his standards, moderates: people like former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, an affable pro-choice Republican who managed to get elected in one of America’s bluest states. Another recent signing was 2012 vanity candidate Herman Cain, a black Republican who is well liked by the likes of Jon Stewart. Even some of Fox’s regulars are recasting themselves in a less right-wing mould, like Bill O’Reilly, whose recent books like Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy are almost apolitical. “If they dropped Hannity,” says John Hawkins, editor of Right Wing News, “the network would be more fairly described as middle-of-the-road than conservative.”
“I think the moderation is cosmetic only,” scoffs Ellen Brodsky, who writes for News Hounds, a liberal site devoted to monitoring Fox News. “They got rid of the crazies who were embarrassing them but underneath, they’re as seriously anti-Obama, anti-Democratic, anti-liberal as ever.” But at Fox, even cosmetic moderation is a shift, especially on issues like immigration. Days after the election, Hannity announced on Fox News’s radio division that he had “evolved” on the issue and now supports a path to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented immigrants. Ailes set down the new party line by telling the New Republic, “I think the word ‘illegal immigration’ is a false name,” even though he’d previously hired an enthusiastic user of the term, Lou Dobbs.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 11:45 AM - 0 Comments
Not every failed TV show deserves an oral history – strange as that may sound – but I’d read one for Up All Night, which seems to be one of the two shows that most epitomizes the weirdness of Bob Greenblatt’s tenure running NBC. The other one is Smash, Greenblatt’s highest-priority project and the one he seems to have been most invested in; its failure in the second season, coming on the heels of his statement that the first season was an “unqualified success,” may do the most to raise doubts about his track record picking scripted shows. Up All Night wasn’t as big a failure, and if the network had simply canceled it, it would just be another one of those shows that managed to survive for a second season but didn’t quite work out (along with Whitney and Harry’s Law and a few other shows the new NBC regime picked up). The constant retooling of the show, beginning as soon as the pilot was delivered, turned it into a joke, and has culminated in the insane recent series of stories where one by one, people abandon the show while the network tries to figure out how to keep it going in some form. The most recent story is that Will Arnett has accepted an offer to star in a CBS pilot from Raising Hope creator Greg Garcia. I don’t actually know if Arnett has what it takes to headline a show; certainly Running Wilde didn’t make him seem like a plausible lead. But how can CBS resist the temptation to stick a finger in NBC’s eye like that?
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
“Right now, people are hitting it big or not at all”
Comedy is more valuable to TV networks than it has been in years. Too bad it’s also more unpopular than it has been in years. With comedies like The Big Bang Theory among the few hits in TV, several networks expanded their comedy lineups this year, but the results were as disastrous as a sitcom plot: not a single new show became a hit. “Right now,” says Jonathan Davis, executive vice-president of comedy development for 20th Century Fox Television, “people are hitting it big or not at all.”
Ironically, these unpopular comedies may be the result of trying to be more popular. NBC’s new comedies, including Go On, a comeback for Matthew Perry (Friends), and Animal Practice, with a monkey as one of the regulars, were announced as part of what network president Robert Greenblatt called a strategy to “broaden our audience and broaden what the network does,” But these shows wound up with ratings identical to NBC’s cult comedies like Community and 30 Rock. Networks and writers can’t seem to help making comedies that appeal only to a niche audience.
Some attribute this to what Canadian TV scholar Myles McNutt calls “fragmented comedy audiences,” with people of every age group preferring different types of comedy: a show that seems mainstream to viewers aged 18-34 may seem forbidding to older viewers. “You want to build something that doesn’t just appeal just to 18-34,” says Fox’s Davis. “We sometimes get in trouble when people feel something is too niche.” But only a few shows, such as Big Bang Theory and Fox’s Modern Family have shown an ability to appeal to multiple age groups. Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 7:36 AM - 0 Comments
If I made a list of the best TV shows of 2012 it probably wouldn’t be too different from most. A TV world where the best of the best are Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Parenthood, Louie, Girls and Parks & Recreation isn’t always my ideal television world (good as all those shows are), but they represent what current television does best. When it comes to “termite art” – shows that don’t have to be good, but are – television is not in a great place at the moment, but that may change. But this piece isn’t about the best of 2012, it’s about what to expect as we move into 2013.
Television is at a strange transitional stage in its history, the best of times and the worst of times: its business model is becoming obsolete, but its product – the shows themselves – is more prestigious than it’s ever been. What’s going to happen this year, as the shows continue be good and it gets harder to sell them? And which will give out first: will the business pressures on the industry make it harder for these prestigious shows to get made, or is the business on the verge of finding new ways to monetize its quality shows?
So here are some general predictions about what to look for in the television world of 2013. If any of them are right, I win. If any or all of them are wrong, hey, these predictions were free of charge and as with free broadcast TV, you get what you pay for.
1. More high-concept shows. There may not be any definite evidence that TV audiences gravitate to high concepts. But network executives have been stung by the failure of most of their recent shows and stunned by the success of The Walking Dead, by some metrics the most popular drama on TV. So they’re going to be under pressure to come up with show concepts that at least sound like the big, spectacular, boundary-pushing shows that everyone’s talking about on cable. That means not only more shows about monsters, which was starting even before Walking Dead; it means more shows about serial killers (at least a couple are in development, including a TV version of Hannibal Lecter) and more shows with epic historical hooks, like a planned TV series about Cleopatra. There are so many scripted shows on so many channels that it will be difficult for any show to stand out unless it has a really eye-catching premise.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 5:11 PM - 0 Comments
The interesting thing about this U.S. election’s impact on U.S. television is the fact that its had any impact at all. Remember all the references TV made to the election of 2004? No? That’s because there were hardly any. Even though it was a close, hard-fought election in a deeply divided country–just like this one–TV mostly stayed away from it. It was a very timid time for TV: networks were panicked by 9/11, by the FCC, by the shrinking audience (it’s still shrinking now, but they’re used to it).
And so open political references were almost taboo unless they were done obliquely, like Arrested Development‘s parallels between the Bluth and Bush families. The Simpsons famously never had a caricature of George W. Bush on the show, let alone John Kerry. South Park‘s election episode in 2004 portrayed the election allegorically as “a choice between a giant douche and a turd sandwich,” making the episode a perfect capsule of how mindless Trey Parker’s centrism was at the time.
Since then, there’s been something of a thaw in television, and while it’s hardly become daring or anything, there are a lot more direct references to this election than eight or even four years ago. At least three half-hour comedies have done episodes where characters argue over the election, and mention the candidates by name. The New Normal was the first, then came 30 Rock. Then came Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, a show that I thought was developing into a pretty good innocuous family sitcom; Allen apparently didn’t think so, though, because the show is back this year retooled (at his behest) into an All in the Family imitator, and the season premiere was about Allen arguing with his daughters over the election, and he thinks Obama is from Kenya, and makes “community organizer” jokes, and the whole episode sounded like a couple of politically-opposed Twitter feeds mashed together into a script.
Well, most political arguments on scripted TV (or unscripted, for that matter) sound like Twitter feeds, since there’s no room for nuance or developed arguments, even assuming the writers have any on hand. Usually what happens is one character says something that’s a grotesque caricature of the Republican or Democratic position, and the other character either a) responds with an equally grotesque caricature of a reply, or b) is completely stopped in his tracks by the incredible all-consuming logic of an argument any real person could rebut in five seconds. This is why 30 Rock was the best of these three episodes: apart from having the funniest writers, it was intentionally silly and caricatured, and made the political arguments more about the characters’ personal issues.
But even if those other two shows were trying to be All in the Family and failing, the fact that they even tried is a sign that television has emerged a little bit from the defensive crouch of the ’00s. Of course there are other reasons why shows might choose not to deal with topical issues like elections, most obviously the fact that an election episode dates the show for all time. (However, I think producers are naive to believe that avoiding topical references will help them be “timeless” in syndication. I watched shows in the ’80s that mentioned the election without ever mentioning the candidates’ names, but they still had the hair, the clothes, and the brick cellphones, and nothing was going to keep them from becoming dated.) And, as noted, these issues are usually beyond what the show is capable of dealing with anyway. But all in all, it’s probably better to see shows deal with issues rather than avoid them, so I think I’m glad we live in an era when the words “Obama” and “Romney” are not among the seven words you can’t say on TV.