Hey! TV writers, are you listening?
CHATSWORTH, CALIF. — For the folks who write TV shows, their favorite projects become as cherished as babies. And while it certainly takes a village to raise a child these days, in the TV world that means letting your baby be adored, poked, celebrated, and rejected over and over again in hopes it will become a prime-time network hit.
Whether the rounds of applause or boos are coming from studio executives, critics, fans, or even Aunt Martha, TV writers quickly learn to listen to feedback. Never mind that one of the industry's favorite sayings is: "Nobody knows anything." For every staggering hit – such as "Seinfeld," a show about nothing – there are just as many star-driven bombs. (Think: Matt LeBlanc in "Joey," or Heather Locklear in "LAX.") TV writers have been dealing with critics since the dawn of the medium. But these days everybody's a critic – the explosion of Internet blogs and fan websites has amplified viewers' reactions to everything from a boring plotline to the death of a favorite character. In this glut of feedback, the creative minds behind a season's lineup are finding they must learn which voices to heed and which to shut out.
"I desperately care what everyone thinks," says Marc Cherry, creator of ABC's "Desperate Housewives, which took a ratings dive in its second season (2005-06). Critics and fans were united in their displeasure as the show became what they called stupid and silly. Cherry read and learned from them all, he says. "It's not fun when you read articles where people say, 'You've failed and you've made Sunday nights a miserable place to be.' "
That harsh assessment led Cherry to some creative soul-searching – and a return to the darker, more character-based plotlines that were key to the show's original success. Laurie Metcalf's performance as a hostage-taking betrayed wife was a high point of the current season for many. "The writing is the classiest," says Cherry, "when it's just observing the smallest incidents of suburban behavior."
Once a big success hits its stride, as is the case with FOX's "24," the creative team can write nearly an entire season with little, if any, feedback from fans. "We've already written this season through Episode 18," says executive producer Howard Gordon at the show's Chatsworth Counter Terrorist Unit base. Behind him, glowing monitors blink with important looking "data" as Gordon shrugs and smiles, saying, "We really don't have much give-and-take with fans on our story lines."
But in these high-stakes days, there's little patience for shows that don't figure out quickly what the fans want. Despite their star power, cancellations from this season alone include: "Smith" (Ray Liotta), "Justice" (Victor Garber), "Kidnapped" (Timothy Hutton and Dana Delaney).
Occasionally a promising show such as Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," is given time to find its niche even as ratings falter. The behind-the-scenes series began as an earnest look at the politics of popular culture. Some critics called it smug and unfunny. Recent promos for the show have signaled a new, lighter direction, one that focuses on romance rather than rhetoric. Mr. Sorkin is a tad testy about the new direction, while acknowledging the criticism. "We'd always seen the show as a romantic comedy," he says from the writer's room of the show's Los Angeles set as he toys with a pile of script pages casually strewn across the large table that dominates the room. "But, yeah, we know that a lot of people thought we were arrogant and not funny enough."
Many major adjustments to the creators' visions take place during the pilot process. In the original debut of the ABC hit, "Lost," the character who has become the driving force of the castaways' world, the doctor, Jack, was supposed to be killed. Show creators, Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams took the script to ABC Entertainment president, Steve McPherson. "Steve did give us the best note the show has ever received," says Lindelof. "He said, 'You can't kill Jack.' " The two creators were initially offended, says Lindelof, "because killing Jack was integral to everything that the show was." But the studio chief explained that if they killed Jack, "the audience will never trust us again." Jack lives on, as do the show's ratings.
While writers have always had to face professional critics, the Internet now offers every fan a soapbox. This has been a boon for some shows. The post-nuclear holocaust drama, CBS's "Jericho," has mined its passionate online fan base for feedback and a bit of strategy. "We do monitor those [online fans]," says executive producer Carol Barbee. While she asserts that the writers know the story they want to tell, she adds, "if 90 percent of the fans are shifting in a certain way, we have to look at that." Even though "Jericho" is on hiatus at the moment, its online community has continued its deep interest and connection to the show's plot.
But this online connectedness has its dark side, says Cherry, who adds that he used to read Web postings about his show, but no longer does. "Some fans were taking apart [an episode of "Desperate Housewives"] that I thought was brilliant," he says. "My feelings got hurt, so I never read it again." Then he adds, "a little connection with the fans can be good. Too much can be frightening and sad."