• ARE THE CHARACTERS LIKABLE OR RELATABLE?
There is exactly one TV-viewing demographic that still cares about this: development executives laboring under the delusion that they’ll eventually find the next Cheers or Friends (both of which, by the way, were full of characters who often behaved terribly). You know who doesn’t care about likability? People who watch Game of Thrones, or Breaking Bad, or Mad Men, or Archer. This is usually the point at which networks assert that cable shows don’t have to reach as large an audience. But that doesn’t wash anymore, not when any number of network series are pulling lower ratings than Duck Dynasty and Sons of Anarchy.
• WILL THE AUDIENCE GET IT?
Most cable series proceed from the assumption that their viewers are looking for a good show. Most network series proceed from the assumption that their viewers are stupid and inattentive. That’s why the second episodes of network dramas are usually so boring that viewers flee — they’re essentially designed to reiterate and re-explain everything that unfolded in episode 1.
• IS THE SHOW LIKE SOMETHING ELSE THAT’S ON THE AIR?
This is actually not a bad question; the problem is the answer, which the networks want to be “Yes” when they, and we, should always be rooting for “No.” Only in network TV is past failure considered a sure sign of future success.
I get the counterargument: Safety sells. Familiarity works. Formula rules. Otherwise, the No. 1 show on TV wouldn’t be the 95th season of NCIS, and the reality shows we were enthusiastically watching in 2000 wouldn’t be the same ones that half of us are halfheartedly half-watching now. Still, something is amiss: In the recently concluded February sweeps, NBC finished fifth. And there are only four big English-language networks. Which means that maybe the most relevant question programmers should be asking when they consider this season’s pilots is “What do we have to lose?”
Mark Harris is (was?) a senior editor at Entertainment Weekly, which makes him an industry flack, even if his boy friend is Tony Kushner. His first question is completely misconceived, because the vast majority of supposedly good shows are every bit as committed to likable and relatable characters. It's just that cable's version of likable is sexy, which is a tougher to broadcast. Cable's version of relatable is bad ass, which many relate to because they can't imagine anything else they would want to be.
The second question is disingenuous. Broadcast really asks "Will the advertisers get it?" Or the FCC. This country's commitment to free speech depends largely upon the widespread tacit agreement not to exercise it in any major venue.
The last questioni is also disingenuous. Marris is a professional, so he knows very well that the broadcast networks have always offered some innovative programming, particularly when they were desperate enough that even smaller audiences would have been acceptable. There's a good case they have been more open to genuinely different formats than most cable offerings. I offer Cop Rock as the prima facie example.
Harris' examples (NBC's My Own Worst Enemy, Awake and Do No Harm) are complete BS. First, there are in fact very significant differences which shouldn't have been overlooked. Second, and more importantly, Do No Harm may not have been any good artistically. But it doesn't matter, because no one bothered to find out. Not getting an audience at all simply is not the same thing as being rejected as bad entertainment. The assumption is that popularity is a sign of artistic merit, and obscurity is the devil's mark of failure. This is mental bankruptcky.