It took only one week for the new TV season to declare its first casualty: On Sept. 25, The CW announced that it canceled The Beautiful Life, a cheesy drama about fake models that wasn’t half as engaging as Tyra Banks’ show about real ones. Some TV execs are probably still arguing whether star Mischa Barton and exec producer Ashton Kutcher got the shaft, but the show’s swift demise does highlight an ongoing debate within the industry: Can the actions of a broadcast network actually doom a show from the start? EW took an unscientific poll of writers and agents and came up with the five mistakes networks make when launching shows — and trying to help them thrive.
1. Developing ideas because they look good on a promotional poster.
Sure, body-snatching water creatures and extraterrestrial species (think Invasion and Threshold) sound great on paper, but such lofty concepts can’t sustain themselves and are usually canceled after just one season (RIP, Invasion and Threshold). ”They don’t have a show, they have a movie,” says one agent.
2. Providing too much exposition.
Ever feel like a TV show is talking to you as if you’re in second grade? Writers can empathize: They say networks push them to explain pretty much everything to avoid any confusion. ”The networks say, ‘Pull everything out! Don’t hold anything back!”’ argues one Emmy-winning drama writer. (Exhibit A: FlashForward’s tidy pilot, in which a mass blackout occurs, the flash-forwards of five major characters are revealed and dissected, and the Los Angeles office of the FBI becomes ground zero for the mystery — all in 43 minutes!) ”I call it the ‘dummy pass,”’ adds a veteran CBS writer, ”where you have to overexplain things so much that characters wind up not sounding like human beings.”
3. Insisting that all characters be likable and good at their jobs.
Nothing irks a TV writer more than an executive who complains that a disagreeable character will turn off viewers. ”I’ll get a note saying this scene makes me feel bad or sad, when the scene is actually designed to make the audience feel bad or sad,” laments a Fox writer. And network suits are particularly averse to characters who make poor employees — especially female ones. ”If women could be comically bad at their jobs, it would open up a whole new world of comedies,” says another CBS scribe. ”Wasn’t Lucy bad at her job? That was a hit, right?”
4. Casting big names.
No offense to Joseph Fiennes and LL Cool J, but most showrunners would rather go with an unknown actor than have another movie (or pop) star attempt to make — but in many cases break — their new shows. ”The networks always force you to cast either movie stars or TV stars that you’ve seen time and time again, forgetting the old rule that good TV makes stars,” says the veteran CBS writer. He’s got a point. Think of some the biggest stars to emerge from TV in recent years: Actors like Ellen Pompeo and Hugh Laurie weren’t exactly household names before they were cast.
5. Moving shows into new time slots.
Why the rush to move Fringe from Tuesdays to Thursdays, Fox? The sophomore show is down 35 percent in viewers and getting clobbered by Grey’s Anatomy and CSI. Though Fox may have thought it was helping Fringe by sticking the J.J. Abrams drama behind Bones, the network could have overestimated the appeal of its now-struggling sci-fi series. And the forecast is definitely gloomy for Ugly Betty, which has been bumped from Thursdays to Siberian Fridays starting Oct. 9. Ugly, indeed.
— With additional reporting by Whitney Pastorek