x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Television, like life, feels the pull of the ninth planet

It's what you can't see that will blindside you

These days, with the television marketplace as competitive as it is, the definition of a "hit show" is harder to pin down.

A friend of mine, though, can be said to have a "hit" show on the air. The ratings for the first year weren't stellar, but they were solid enough to make it over the first hurdle: the network ordered a second year. In an era of diminished expectations, that's about the clearest indication that you've got a hit on your hands.

But even if a network orders a second season, there's still a lot of uncertainty. It was almost mid-way through its second season before my friend's show really hit its stride.

It was, frankly, a little late for a "hit" show to enter this kind of phase, but this was welcome nonetheless.

The first season and a half had been turbulent. That often happens with a new show. Television series are so regularly tossed together at the last minute that the mantra during the production of the first episode is always, "Let's fix it later."

When we say that, it's because later rarely comes.

But sometimes it actually does come, sometimes despite all the voodoo and the marketing witchdoctors, a television script turns into a television series, and then suddenly you've got to fix it.

All of that happened to my friend. He managed to navigate himself into a second season of his show, and mid-way through that, the clouds lifted. The staff worked more harmoniously together. But most of all, his relationship with the network eased into a friendly groove.

What he concluded from this was the network must like the show. But what he forgot about was that there's always a ninth planet.

Astronomers in earlier times, with more primitive telescopes, would look at the sky and notice the movements of the planets and all of the other stuff up there -- I paid only intermittent attention in astronomy classes in school, so when I think of the planets and suns and stars in the heavens, I prefer to use the term, "stuff up there" - and they'd make a map of what they could see.

But they'd also notice the behaviour of all of that stuff and deduce that there must be some hidden ninth planet somewhere, some big gravitational force they couldn't see, making this or that thing bend in its trajectory or dip in its rotation.

You didn't see the planet. But you knew it was there. Because otherwise, why was all of that stuff happening?

So when my friend's show was cancelled after the second season, he suddenly saw that big ninth planet there, looming into the eyepiece of the telescope. The reason the relationship with the network executives eased was that they had decided, months before, to cancel the show.

The executives he dealt with didn't know that, of course. The reason they loosened the leash was that they, too, were under the mysterious gravitational force of their boss, the network president. In the first year and a half of the show's production, he had been all over them with concern - he wanted approval over guest cast, story points, even wardrobe. They responded by hovering over my friend and second-guessing his every move.

When the network president suddenly stopped asking his terrified underlings about the show, suddenly stopped peppering them with questions about the casting and the storylines, suddenly stopped yelling about the editing and the music and the stagnant numbers in the target audience demographic, the pull of the Ninth Planet softened, so the executives gave my friend more slack.

Which he interpreted as approval and success, when it was really the Ninth Planet of the network CEO deciding to cut his show loose.

And the network CEO was, in his turn, merely responding to the gravitational force of the Ninth Planet of the chairman of the company that owns the gigantic media conglomerate that owns the network, who looked at the quarterly financials and wondered aloud, probably in a sky-high boardroom with his financial team, why they weren't making more lightly comic one-hour shows - which sell better internationally - than all of these marginal comedies.

Instead, of all these mysterious forces were pulling on the tiny orbit of my friend's show, which is now cancelled and all but forgotten. The stage is empty, the set has been struck, and his cast is busily trying to line up their next gigs. He's still in shock, a lot like some of those old-time astronomers, that the most powerful and disruptive forces of all - in space and in Hollywood - are the big things you can't see.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl