I had a meeting with a bunch of television network executives a few months ago. It was exactly the kind of meeting I usually try to avoid. Actually I try to stay away from all meetings, on the grounds that when people get together to talk about something, they end up talking about why they're going to need several more meetings.
But I couldn't wiggle out of this one. A network had agreed to put my new television series on the air, and one of the things that means - along with a steady paycheque - is a steady increase in the number of meetings I will have to sit through.
My new show is a change for me. It's a slightly bawdy series, on a cable network. The television business these days is pretty competitive. With 16 million channels, it's a struggle to attract and keep enough viewers to make a show successful, especially on cable.
We call that "getting eyeballs," and the key is to make a little noise. To keep eyeballs, you first must get the eyeballs' attention. That requires a certain amount of boundary-pushing dialogue and a willingness to explore storylines and to highlight characters that aren't on the other channels.
"We want you to really push it!" the network executives cried, as they sat around the conference table and tucked into the snacks. "We want you to go there," said the head of comedy programming, as she sipped her fruit smoothie and tore into a high-end chocolate-chip cookie. (That's probably why executives call so many meetings: so they can order in expensive snacks and charge them to the company.)
I was surprised by their enthusiasm. There are two rather "out-there" characters in my show - an older gal with a non-stop libido and an older gentleman with politically incorrect racial views. Frankly I'd been worried about them. I assumed from the outset that the network's first request would be to tone them down, to reel in their more outrageous monologues, and move their bright colourful language in a more pastel direction. Networks - like all businesses - are governed by fear: fear of upsetting a pressure group, fear of a nasty Twitter campaign and, for executives, the fear of getting the sack.
I can respect that. I'm as loath as anyone to jeopardise my cushy life and irrational salary. So I was nonplussed when the execs unanimously urged me to "take it to the limit" with those two characters. "Seriously," said the network president, "don't worry about us. We want you to take some risks."
That was several months ago. Since then I have supervised the writing of several scripts - I'm lucky to have a very industrious and talented writing staff - and in each one I made sure to "go there". In each one, I "took it to the limit".
"I think we need another meeting," the network president said to me last week, after I sent in a batch of scripts. "Some of these are a little too much for us."
So we had another meeting, with smoothies and strawberries and upscale cookies, to discuss ways to rein in some of the material I had submitted. Some of the language was too "earthy". Some of the situations were too "controversial".
This meeting was about the importance of limits, being less risky, not pushing it so far. "I know we told you to 'go there'," the head of comedy programming said as she nibbled a cookie, "but now we're asking you to come back."
In other words, we needed a second meeting to reverse what was said in the first meeting.
I said as much in the third meeting, which we had this week, called by the network to talk about the revisions. The network presented new audience research collected by the enormous entertainment conglomerate that owns the network and its sister networks.
The research was delivered two ways: in a colourful PowerPoint deck and in a glossy bound document. There were fancy snacks.
America, I learnt in this meeting, is looking for "reassurance and comfort in a changing and challenging world". Audiences, said the vivid graphs, are looking to be soothed. No one, according to the research - which reportedly cost over $1 million - wants shows that "push it". To get eyeballs in 2013, TV needs to be softer, more friendly, less controversial.
All of which I knew, of course. In political and economic hard times, people naturally gravitate to more uplifting and middle-of-the-road entertainment. They get enough jolts and surprises in their real lives. When they come home after work they want to lose themselves in quiet, comforting entertainment. What they don't want are characters who loudly disrupt the harmony.
So the two characters in my show who do precisely that will probably have to be written out of the series.
I say "probably" because I really don't know what's going to happen. That's going to be the subject of the fourth meeting, which is scheduled for tomorrow. I wonder what they're going to serve.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rcbl