x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Webster rule: it's not good or bad, it's just TV

Whenever someone asks me why terrible TV shows make it to air, I tell them a story about an old US sitcom

Sometimes, on airplanes, if I notice my seatmate trying to see what I'm writing on my computer, I'll start composing a graphic confession to a gruesome double murder, addressed to "Detective Wilson, LA Police Department." I open with the timeworn grabber: "By the time you read this, I'll be on Lufthansa flight whatever-flight-I'm-on …"

In other words, sometimes I don't mind providing free entertainment for a nosy seatmate.

I don't mean to be judgemental - tucked thigh to thigh on economy flights, peeking at your seatmate's screen may be the least invasive thing you'll do the whole flight.

Other times, it works out very differently. The format for a screenplay is a pretty distinctive thing. If I'm unlucky enough to be seated next to a curious passenger, and even more unluckily trying to get some work done, I'll eventually have to answer the question, "So, are you a screenwriter?" in the last way I want to, which is truthfully.

"Yes," I'll say, and hope that the conversation ends there. But it never does. Before I know it, I'm running through a list of my past credits, learning why my seatmate's workplace would be a terrific situation-comedy setting, and trying to answer the inevitable questions: "Why is this or that television show so terrible? How do such awful shows get on the air?" (In my experience no one is ever interested in discovering how something great got on television.)

I used to sputter and stammer an answer, until I heard this story:

Years ago, there was a show on US television called Webster. It was a sitcom - though the "com" part was debatable; there wasn't much "comedy" in it. It was what we used to call, back in the old days before multiple channels and cut-throat competition, "serviceable". Meaning people watched it, for some unfathomable reason.

The show was about a tiny and adorable African-American boy - the eponymous Webster - who had been adopted by an older rich white couple. It was a pretty simple formula: Webster got himself into mischief each week; he and his adopted parents all learnt important lessons; the audience attempted not to throw up.

I'm being too unkind. It wasn't that bad. But it was built on a bedrock of television studio cynicism: if you make something bland enough, people will just forget that it's even on. They'll never seek it out, but nor will they be exercised enough to switch it off. It will just continue blandly to make effortless millions, which is the true mission of every television studio, especially the "effortless" part.

Once, though, a newly minted network executive was assigned to supervise the series. Most shows have someone like that, and it's a pretty thankless job, often given to a still-enthusiastic junior manager. The job is futile and grim: to corral and cajole the creative team - writers who cannot be fired and who can think of nothing more fun than making cruel fun of a young executive - into maintaining the quality and creative vision of the series.

After a typically laugh-free script reading, the new executive told the writers she had some script notes, on weak spots she'd like improved.

The writers were aghast. Most of them no longer thought of Webster as a "show," in the traditional sense. They thought of it as a lavish paycheque delivery system, a money machine. They spent most of their days picking out new cars and ordering in expensive lunches. No executive had bothered with script feedback in years.

Still, the intrepid newcomer soldiered on. "I think the show would be a lot better," she began, "if …"

"Let me stop you right there," the head writer and executive producer interrupted. "We think it works."

The young exec wouldn't be deterred. "I'm just trying to make a good show," she said bravely.

"Let me stop you right there," the head writer interrupted again. "There are no 'good' Webster episodes. There are no 'bad' Webster episodes. There is only Webster."

Which was, unfortunately, true. And that explains why so much of what's on television is so terrible. For a lot of folks in my business, there is no "good" or "bad" television. There's just television.

Usually at this point my seatmate nods sadly. But the truly thoughtful ones will point to my computer and ask, "Which kind are you writing?"

And for once I'll tell them the truth: "I don't know," I'll say. "I'll let you know when I'm done."


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl