My So-Called Independents

My So-Called Independents

Will TV’s new world of branding and product integration destroy small independent productions?


ABC Photo ArchiveClaire Danes and A.J. Langer in My So-Called Life, 1994-1995

Fifty years ago the idea of a small, autonomous American TV producer would have been as farfetched as the notion that Joe McCarthy was soft on communism. Notwithstanding the airing of syndicated fare like Hopalong Cassidy and other low-budget programs produced by a handful of scrappy little independents, the big Hollywood studios (and initially the advertisers) created the vast majority of content aired on American television. NBC, CBS and ABC enjoyed unprecedented market power and could demand whatever terms they wanted from producers. Because serial television is created at great expense, via a deficit-financing model, the Big Three were keen to craft contracts guaranteeing them the bulk of profits from reruns. Once initial production costs are paid off, syndication becomes a license to print money. The networks–in cahoots with big players like Warner Bros. Television and Universal–profited mightily from this system for years.

Things changed in 1970, when the FCC instituted the Financing and Syndication Rules, commonly referred to as fin-syn, to break up the networks’ programming monopoly. The new regulations prevented the networks from owning all of their programs and limited profits from a program to its initial run and one repeat. Largely prohibited from financing their own programming, the networks were forced to cut deals with small independent producers. Under fin-syn, complicated character-driven programs prospered because the networks signed contracts with creative people and then stayed the hell out of their way. (This is more or less how HBO functions today.) Independent creators like Norman Lear (All in the Family) and Grant Tinker (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) brought a new, rich vision to TV. In 1981, Tinker became president of NBC and maintained the hands-off approach he had benefited from as an independent producer. Sure, The A-Team thrived on his watch, but so did Stephen Bochco’s Hill Street Blues. In the mid-1980s, ABC, inspired by Tinker’s example, switched to a similar production model. Among its successes were John Wells’s China Beach and David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. In effect, fin-syn created what has often been called the second golden age of television–the first having occurred in the earliest days of TV, when live programs were produced in New York City, before the studios moved West and invented formulaic serials like Gunsmoke.

Under pressure from the networks and invigorated by the deregulatory policies of the Reagan era, the FCC began to dismantle fin-syn in the early 1990s. The rules finally died a quiet death in 1995. Today, without regulations, networks are most likely to produce in-house by hiring companies under the same corporate umbrella, as Disney does with ABC and Touchstone Television. In the rare instance when networks do work with a truly independent company, they are likely to strong-arm writer-producers with strategies to pump up ratings. NBC had suggested that producer Judd Apatow and writer Paul Feig insert small moments of triumph into their caustic and poignant high school dramedy Freaks and Geeks (1999- 2000). Apatow and Feig ignored the advice, made exactly the show they wanted and were shown the door–receiving an Emmy nomination shortly thereafter. When his short-lived Undeclared tanked, Apatow retired from TV, turned to feature filmmaking and brought much of the Freaks and Geeks talent along for the ride. The last major independent, Carsey-Warner-Mandabach, creator of The Cosby Show and Roseanne, shuttered in 2005.

There is one independent creative team that has managed to soldier on: Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who made their name with the navel-gazing and polarizing drama thirtysomething (1987-91). You either loved the program for its flawed, neurotic characters or you hated it, for exactly the same reason. Either way, it would be hard to deny that thirtysomething was groundbreaking. It was talky, it was introspective and it titrated small moments of triumph. As Herskovitz explained, the show examined how “the so-called petty issues become the major issues in people’s lives.”

Maybe thirtysomething was whiny, but it also had ideas. The lead male characters, Elliot and Michael, were advertisers who questioned their social role. It was hard not to read Elliot and Michael’s efforts to survive in advertising, at times, as an allegory for Zwick and Herskovitz’s experiences in the TV industry. Indeed, after many advertisers dropped out when a 1989 thirtysomething episode dared to show two gay men talking in bed, the producers seemed to amp up their critique of the culture industry. Miles Drentell–Michael and Elliot’s boss, one of the all-time great TV villains and an obvious stand-in for the network suits–warned Elliot and Michael not to bite the hand that feeds them. It is unlikely that thirtysomething would have criticized advertising if the show had been produced in-house, under ABC’s full creative control.

Zwick and Herskovitz took revenge for advertisers’ rejection of thirtysomething‘s peripheral gay characters by including a gay teenager as a central character on My So-Called Life, a program that barely survived the 1994-95 TV season. MSCL, as its legions of cult fans often call it, was too depressing, too real for most viewers and advertisers. Looking back on it now, one is struck not only by the accuracy of the show’s representation of tortured adolescence but also by its feminist slant. This was a show that took girls seriously, examining body image issues, mother-daughter relations, anxieties about sex, and the joy and pain of an all-consuming crush on a boy who seemed so deep that the fact that his soulful eyes needed Visine and he couldn’t express his feelings–or even read–could not possibly be interpreted as flaws. The show, largely because of writer Winnie Holzman, cared deeply about girls’ feelings.

Given the current rise of product placement on TV, what’s also striking about MSCL is the relative unimportance of stuff on the show. Characters wear their favorite faded old shirts over and over again, instead of highlighting designers who have contracted to promote their wares. The camera does not linger longingly on lipsticks and shoes and cute little purses, and episodes don’t end with montage sequences featuring cross-promoted songs. In other words, MSCL may not talk about the ethics of advertising, like thirtysomething did, but it practices an ethics of advertising–one that fizzled out with the end of fin-syn and the rise of digital recording devices.

Today the big networks–and hundreds of smaller cablecasters–are cogs in larger companies like General Electric, Viacom and News Corp. These behemoths produce and own most of the content their subsidiaries air, and, anxious that TiVo households will skip all the ads, networks and their corporate parents want to embed as much advertising content in programs as they possibly can. Of course, product placement is as old as TV: George Burns and Gracie Allen extolled the virtues of Carnation evaporated milk in coffee, and Ernie Kovacs made a point of smoking Dutch Masters cigars throughout his show. When the networks switched to multiple sponsorship in the late 1950s, in the wake of the quiz show scandal, they decided to keep ads and shows separate. The firewall started to crumble in the 1980s, when the VCR’s fast-forward function began to undercut the power of the thirty-second spot. To counteract that, Seinfeld featured guest appearances by various breakfast cereals.

But product placement, while not dead, is now rather passé. Instead, producers strive for product integration. The ideal is not simply to place a product in a scene but to make it crucial–and “organic,” the buzzword of product integration–to the events that unfold. This strategy is particularly prevalent on reality shows. Top Chef contestants are asked to make dishes featuring Kraft products, and Project Runway participants design clothes for Banana Republic. Viewer tolerance for product integration in so-called unscripted entertainment seems high, and promotion for General Electric, Snapple and NBC itself in the sitcom 30 Rock is largely tolerable because of the way the show playfully makes fun of the integration strategy. But it is much more challenging to integrate products into dramatic programming gracefully. Imagine a Sopranos episode scripted to promote Pizza Hut or the Olive Garden.

How can a small independent production company continue in the new world of branding and product integration? It helps to already be a brand yourself. Character-driven, introspective dramatic programming is not only the bread and butter of Zwick and Herskovitz’s Bedford Falls production company but also its brand identity. When Bedford Falls struck a deal with ABC in 2004 to develop 1/4 Life, the network must have had a pretty clear idea of what kind of bang it would get for its buck. After all, ABC had aired not only thirtysomething and MSCL but also Bedford Falls’s Once and Again (1999-2002) and Relativity (1996-97). If Once and Again was often referred to casually as “fortysomething,” 1/4 Life would be a “twentysomething” kind of show about a group of artistic, blog obsessed, lovesick friends struggling with low self-esteem… and global warming.

When ABC pulled out of the deal, it gave the rights back to Zwick and Herskovitz, who now had a premise for a show but no one to distribute it. Their solution was to break the episodes up into ten-minute pieces, releasing one segment each week on the Internet. The quarterlife (as it is now spelled) website is more than just a place to display the show. It’s a social networking site of which the show is only one piece. As you watch it, the material around the frame incessantly reminds you of the brand you are consuming. A tag line at the top informs you that you are experiencing “a community for artists, thinkers, and do-ers.” Discussion forums include topics such as art, activism, money, health, love and music. It is all extremely earnest, though many entries feel like auditions for paid writing gigs. Contributors on the topic of love offer platitudes that seem lifted from Cosmo advice columns. Or worse, Cosmo sidebars. Artists tout their work ethic and include pictures of their products. One even cites Andy Warhol: “making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” I think Warhol was being cynical, but you’d never know it here.

Like previous Bedford Falls productions, the show is a love-hate affair. Depending on your taste in melodrama, these kids seem either excessively weepy and self-absorbed or in touch with their feelings and genuine. The show doesn’t really break new ground in terms of serial drama, but it does offer a quiet alternative to the macho Sturm und Drang of Lost and the libido gone wild of reality shows like Flavor of Love. And, frankly, it’s nice to see a program wearing its good intentions on its sleeve, with no trace of irony. This is a show whose most insecure character actually gets sick of herself and decides to go to New Orleans to help build low-cost housing as a way to escape her self-absorption. Quarterlife bends over backward so far to merge the personal and the political that its spine sometimes seems to be cracking. An actual line from the show: “Disrupting the G8 conference is important work. I’m not sure you should give it up for little old me.” Still, you have to give quarterlife an A for effort, for insisting that “we neurotic kids can make a difference if we all just pitch in!” It’s like Andy Hardy on Prozac.

Ultimately, quarterlife is important for raising some big questions with long-term industrial ramifications. The program is a kind of beta test for showing TV online. Is this a viable platform for initial distribution? It’s a different gambit from repeating shows for viewers who missed them, as the networks do, or airing podcasts to promote (and provide plot details and teasers for) an on-air show. In an era of media convergence, little entertainment now exists on only one platform. TV shows are on TV, on the web, on your iPod and on DVD, but we still understand TV as originating on a TV screen. Can a program begin its life online and then migrate to other platforms? What are the odds for “Internet only” TV in the future? So far, cute little shows like The Burg and low-concept rubbish like Roommates have stayed squarely online. But the industry buzz is that daytime soap operas, increasingly financially strained, will begin to migrate online and lose their broadcast presence altogether.

If programs are shown online, without thirty-second spots, can they survive financially? Quarterlife was funded by Zwick and Herskovitz themselves, with underwriting from Toyota and Pepsi. In fact, the show opens with two of its lead characters pitching an ad they want to produce to the grumpy owner of a Toyota dealership. “We are your demographic,” the boys insist. They create a slick high-concept ad that the dealership employees coo over and the boys’ friends applaud as brilliant. But the crass Toyota businessman insists that he “couldn’t see the cars.” It’s hard to imagine a better example of a show having its cake and eating it too. It benefits from the funding that comes with product integration but insists that it is above it all. Only squares demand thirty-second spots that clearly show the product. There’s even one lefty activist character who dismisses the Toyota ad because, visible car or not, it’s still an ad. The earnest young ad men insist, “We’re not trying to get into the commercial industry. This is just a stepping stone.” And one of them has dreams of being the next Michel Gondry.

By being critical of advertising and the Geritol crowd oblivious to the brave new world of sponsorship–a crowd so old and uncool they actually remember Geritol ads–the show tries to satisfy Toyota and not alienate viewers. On the other hand, the show’s Pepsi sponsorship follows an old-school production placement approach that irks. Why are the kids riding to Las Vegas in a bus with a Pepsi logo on it, with Pepsi products littering almost every frame? It’s enough to make one yearn for a thirty-second spot. Ultimately, one of the most important things about quarterlife is not its product integration strategies but its low budget. “The show offers an example of how the industry might rethink production costs and financing models,” says Amanda Lotz, author of The Television Will Be Revolutionized. “The controlled budget is a significant counter-example to the extraordinary escalation in production costs for hits such as Lost and Heroes.” In other words, the networks can’t afford to make blockbusters only, and reality shows, while cheap, often draw a less desirable demographic. Cheaper scripted shows like quarterlife make good economic sense.

Still, does independent TV production have a future, if not on the big boxes on our walls, then on the little boxes on our desks or on the tiny ones in our hands? The short answer is no. Without fin-syn, only superhero producers like Dick Wolf, who created the Law & Order franchise (he hates the word franchise and insists that Law & Order is a “brand”), will have full creative control over their own content. Wolf is a major player, about as “independent” as David O. Selznick. If Wolf is TV’s Selznick, the handful of struggling Internet shows are today’s Monogram, the old poverty-row movie studio. A handful of the online shows may move to TV, but most will sink into oblivion. On the other hand, Michael Eisner has recently started making Internet shows, with some success. Intrigued by The Burg, Eisner approached creator Dinosaur Diorama for ideas and ended up with The All-For-Nots. With Eisner as a poster boy for “independent” online production it’s hard to see much future for more low-budget ventures, but it’s neat that The Burg functioned as a successful calling card for indie producer Dinosaur Diorama.

Ultimately, it may be somewhat romantic to bemoan the death of independent writer-producers. They have overwhelmingly succeeded insofar as the shows created under fin-syn paved the way for the complicated characters and story arcs so common on scripted programs today. Indeed, it would be hard to dispute that we are in a third golden age of television. Some of the best programs ever created came after fin-syn–Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Arrested Development, The Wire, The Sopranos, 30 Rock and Battlestar Galactica. Notwithstanding a sea of uneven reality shows, scripted programming has never been sharper. This became all too apparent during the recent writers’ strike, when viewers faced endless episodes of tiresome unscripted softcore like A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila. But just because the number of great shows is at an all-time high doesn’t mean the loss of independent production doesn’t have important repercussions. The strike happened because talented writers weren’t getting what they deserved. If you can’t own your creative work, you need at least to cut a good deal for yourself, especially if the networks are going to recycle your work not only on TV and DVD but also on the Internet.

Having turned to the Internet as an alternative distribution venue, Zwick and Herskovitz did finally return to the regular TV fold. Quarterlife was picked up for broadcast during the writers’ strike, and the episode fragments were cobbled together and censored slightly for broadcast by NBC in February. Despite a putatively strong lead-in, The Biggest Loser, quarterlife earned the lowest 10 pm Tuesday rating recorded by NBC in seventeen years. Why any programmer would imagine a gimmicky reality show about dieting fat people to be a terrific lead-in for a talky drama featuring mostly anorexic girls is a mystery. In any case, quarterlife quickly migrated to the cablecaster Bravo, where it ran just once as a marathon. Zwick and Herskovitz have made niche programming all along, never ratings grabbers for a mass audience, so a small cable channel may well have been the best place for them. But Bravo’s bread and butter is reality shows, and it’s likely that viewers preferred the bona fide, talented young artists of Project Runway to quarterlife‘s supposedly artistic kids endlessly circling their problems. Could this be Auf Wiedersehen to the last of the independents?

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