Karl Marx, who knew a thing or two about show business, once said that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
That’s what happens in the entertainment industry with material. If something works as a drama—and when I use the word works what I mean is makes a lot of money—people spend a lot of brain cycles trying to figure out if there’s a way to adjust it slightly and turn it into a comedy.
“We’re looking for something sort of Breaking Bad–ish,” a network comedy-development executive once told me during a meeting. “But, you know, the funny version.”
I mentioned to her that, as I far as I recalled, Breaking Bad was about a desperate and terminally ill high-school science teacher becoming enmeshed in the drug trade and tearing his family apart. I wasn’t sure about a comedy version.
“Well, not that stuff,” she said. “But we like the area of the teacher who thinks outside the box.”
To be fair, that’s a perfectly accurate, if narrow, way to describe Breaking Bad. But it’s a more accurate way to describe Our Miss Brooks, which ran on radio and television for nearly a decade, and Welcome Back, Kotter, which was a smash hit from 1975 to 1979, and Head of the Class, which had a respectable five-season run from 1986 to 1991.
Right now, I’m part of a large creative team that’s taking out a project to the various networks and streaming services. That’s what we call it: taking out a project, which sounds more dignified than what it really is, which is making a lot of sales calls with a television-show pitch.
The show is based on the childhood of a Korean-American comedian, and it takes place in the small split-level New Jersey house he grew up in, with his conservative Irish-American dad, his practical and driven Korean mother, and her 17 Korean relatives who are all piled under the same roof.
I guess you could say it’s the comedy version of the movie Parasite.
As we are preparing the creative part of the pitch, we’re getting multiple daily emails from the agents and managers tasked with setting up the meetings with the constellation of buyers.
“Spoke to the person at ABC and setting a meeting,” said one email. “Interest at CBS but wondering if it could be multi-cam,” said another. And then, late last week, “Freevee declined to hear it unfortunately.”
I was about to respond to that one with something bitter and vindictive, but first I had to ask myself, What’s Freevee?
So I found out. Freevee is an ad-supported subscription-free video-on-demand service from Amazon that made its debut in April 2022 with a mix of reruns, movies, and original programming. It’s available on Apple TV, Amazon Fire devices, and smart TVs.
As is Pluto TV, a free video-on-demand service from Paramount, which attempts to re-create the experience of cable television. It streams more than 200 channels of programming, a mix of reruns, old movies, and daytime dramas, and is available on Apple TV and everywhere else.
Pluto TV isn’t currently producing original scripted comedies, so I don’t have to worry about being rejected by them (yet). But I could easily be rejected by Tubi, a free, ad-supported video-on-demand service owned by Fox Corporation. Tubi is a service that streams reruns, movies, sports, and original content and is available on Apple TV, Roku, and the usual places.
Are you starting to see a pattern here?
Free television—simple, ad-supported content with a familiar mix of programs—is making a quiet comeback. And maybe not so quiet. Tubi was acquired by Fox in 2021, and it’s already projected to hit $700 million in revenue this year. In 2023, that number could easily hit $1 billion.
Those numbers seemed paltry a year or so ago, before Netflix announced it was losing subscribers, and media companies began to tighten their belts and slash costs. Right now, the idea of banking $1 billion in advertising fees without spending $17 billion on content—as Netflix is doing—seems like a pretty sweet setup.
Nextstar, the largest television-station group in the country, took a controlling interest in the CW broadcast network this year and has announced to the creative community in Hollywood that it will focus on reruns, movies, low-cost unscripted shows, and broadly appealing multigenerational comedy.
Which is exactly the show we’re taking out. We’re meeting with them next week.
The free TV services may not have the money to invest in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, like Amazon Studios, or House of Dragons, the prequel to HBO’s blockbuster Game of Thrones, but they’re not really aiming for the upscale luxury market. Price-sensitive viewers—and in uncertain economic times, there are a lot of those—are already cutting back on their monthly entertainment costs. Hulu, Apple+, HBOMax, Paramount+, Disney+, Peacock, Netflix, Amazon Prime—it all starts to pinch the family’s monthly budget. Suddenly, free seems very attractive.
For nearly 10 years, subscriber-based networks such as Netflix and HBO crowed about their “bingeworthy” content. Our viewers stay up way past their bedtimes to stream just one more episode of our addictive and compelling content, they bragged.
But that just trained the viewer to sign up for the service, binge-watch a series, and then cancel the service until the next must-see show appeared. Following terminology from the periodical-subscription business, streamers call this churn. It’s a growing problem for them, but they’re the ones who taught their customers to do it in the first place. Now they have to un-disrupt the business they so gleefully disrupted and release their episodes weekly (just like boring old CBS) and sell advertising. I don’t know whether it’s tragedy or farce, but it’s definitely television history repeating itself.
The free television networks have one simple task: They need to appeal to the vast American audience, which is made up of churchgoers, political moderates, households earning less than $100,00 per year, and—perhaps the most important thing—people who are not on Twitter. They need to scoop up the audience that has been priced out of the streaming business, both economically and culturally.
They may already be doing that. Freevee, the network that declined to hear my series pitch, announced this week that it is producing a new series from the 100-year-old Norman Lear—yes, he’s 100 years old, and he knows a lot about capturing the zeitgeist with lively and interesting characters. He did it half a century ago, and he can do it again today. The new show, Clean Slate, stars the comedian George Wallace and transgender performer Laverne Cox. He plays a car-wash owner in Alabama. She plays his long-lost son.
It’s sort of the comedy version of Amazon’s Emmy Award–winning series Transparent, which was technically a comedy too, but you couldn’t always tell. Clean Slate hasn’t gone into production yet, but if you close your eyes and imagine the Norman Lear version of a transgender sitcom—lots of yelling and incendiary language, people saying what’s really on their minds—you start to see how the programming on the free channels will be very different from the programming on the subscriber services.
A show like Clean Slate probably wouldn’t make it through the layers of careful sensitivities at a place like Netflix or appeal to the Neiman Marcus viewers of Apple+. But if you’re going for the Walmart free-television viewer, it may just hit the spot.
I’ll have to keep all this in mind as I make the rounds with my project next week.
Or maybe the smart move is to forget that one and take another look at remaking Our Miss Brooks. There was a darkly hilarious television comedy in New Zealand called Seven Periods with Mr. Gormsby, about a wildly un-woke teacher in a tough city school. Mr. Gormsby is a loose cannon of reactionary racial attitudes, old-school morality, and blunt insensitivities. But he’s the only teacher available to teach a particularly tough class because the students have driven every other teacher away with their uncontrollable delinquency.
It’s sort of the comedy version of Tucker Carlson Tonight, which is a good way to pitch it to the ad-supported places, but I may need to come up with a different way to put it if I want to make a sale somewhere else.
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