[07/13/09 - 02:12 PM]
LaTV Fest: Steve Levitan on the Future of Network Comedy
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

It's no secret to say character-driven dramas and family comedies have hit a rough patch on network television in recent years. From the rise of edgy cable alternatives to the continued dominance of procedurals in the ratings, making a drama series that's just about a character's life on network television is a tall order as of late. And for comedies it's even more challenging: the landscape for the format in general - on any outlet - continues to shrink. In a pair of luncheon conversations at NATPE's LATV Fest, two men who have firsthand knowledge of the aforementioned issues - "Brothers & Sisters" executive producer Greg Berlanti and "Modern Family" co-creator Steve Levitan - shared their thoughts on the challenges ahead for their respective genres.

Click here to read Part 1 of this feature.

"The only one that didn't want it was NBC and Kevin Reilly," Levitan says about the original bidding war for his short-lived Kelsey Grammer/Patricia Heaton comedy "Back to You." "So we went to the people who wanted it the most [FOX], which was a mistake, a giant mistake on our part, because it wasn't the right fit. FOX was not the right fit for the show. But then on top of everything, in terms of it not being the right fit, Kevin Reilly came over to FOX. So the only one who didn't want it, originally, was now the person deciding its fate... but if it had not been canceled, we probably wouldn't have done ['Modern Family'] and I think this one's chances are better."

So why the switch from a multi-camera show with two big names to a single-camera show with mostly character actors? Levitan credits a enjoyable experience filming his low-budget FOX pilot "Foothooker," a mockumentary about a band that's huge in Japan but can't get arrested in the States, a few years back as well as some lessons learned since "Back to You's" cancellation, namely the perceived value of having big stars attached to your show. "I don't think it does anything for you," he notes. "That's my new opinion. I don't see it working. You know the old saying, 'TV makes stars.' I think it's true, look at... 'Friends,' 'Grey's Anatomy,' you name it, people like to discover new talent... It [however] gets you past the [development process because] networks feel more comfortable having a star because they can promote it."

Levitan adds that there was even some concern about casting Ed O'Neill in "Modern Family," due to his connection to Ed Bundy on "Married... With Children." "I noticed in one of the initial print pieces that came out for the upfronts, there was Ed O'Neill front and center and everybody else is two, three miles behind him. But it's so not his show, it's a true ensemble show. And we ended up telling the network, 'Don't do that.'"

He however is quick to point out that the development hurdles today are just as difficult as they were over a decade ago when making his first show, "Just Shoot Me." "We turned in our six episodes which we did [as a midseason replacement] and I remember getting called, I heard that Warren Littlefield and Preston Beckman - he was the programmer at NBC at the time, now he's the programmer at FOX - they looked at each other after watching the first six episodes and one of them said to the other, 'How many of these do you think are airable?' And the other one said, 'Three.' He goes, 'That's three more than I think.'

...And then I got called into Don Ohlmeyer's office to talk about the show and basically him telling me how they were going to burn it off in the summer but because they like me or they wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt or whatever, they were going to put it on the air and give it a shot. So we went on the air or we were about to go on the air, it was a week out and I hadn't seen a single promo... meanwhile the new Arsenio Hall sitcom, I could not drive to work without six buses passing me by with [seeing] Arsenio, our new competition in that time period. We had nothing on honestly the week before... Arsenio Hall was the big hope for I think it was ABC at the time. And we premiered and we beat Arsenio Hall."

It's FOX however which Levitan saves most of his ire: "[I've done] four or five shows in a row on the FOX network, none of which have worked. So I swore off the FOX network, we didn't even take ['Modern Family' to them]. And I have a deal with FOX, the studio [20th Century Fox Television]... My partner Chris [Lloyd], for a while, he was really, when 'Back to You' got canceled he was really annoyed. And I think like once a week - our show aired on Wednesday and they replaced it with [the short-lived 'Do Not Disturb'] - every Thursday morning Chris would e-mail Kevin Reilly congratulating him on the ratings. He never got a response."

ABC conversely has been nothing but a pleasure for Levitan but as always there's plenty of room for concern. "The networks have gotten very impatient," he notes. "And the audience has so many more choices right now - video games, internet and everything else, DVDs, movies on demand and all that - so you've got to grab them even more, you've got to... when I grew up, in September, the TV weekly in the Chicago Tribune would come out and there was a grid with all the networks and I'd rip it out, I'd put it on my bulletin board and I knew what every show on the three networks at the time was, I could recite the whole thing. Sometimes programmers still think the audiences act that way. And that they know when you move a show around the audience is going to follow it. And I just don't think that's the case - look at those who've had success, most notably in comedy, most notably CBS, why is that? They stick with shows, they leave them in time periods for multiple years, they by in large don't touch them, they just let them be and [you] build an audience over time... Monday nights, comedy on CBS, it used to be Thursday nights, comedy on NBC, if a bigger way than the two-hour block they [have now]."

In terms of ABC itself, Levitan points out "they're creating a comedy block on Wednesday nights that will hopefully become that, what it is on Monday and Thursday for [the other] networks... and that's really risky and [could be] a recipe for disaster. But I think they had no choice. I think it's the right move. I keep on saying, just stick with it, a least stick with the idea of the comedy block, leave us alone, we will find an audience - I guarantee. Just leave us there, promote us, we will find our audience. I believe that's the way to do it. 'Just Shoot Me' in seven seasons was in 13 different time periods. The premiere of our last season we were listed in one hour in DirecTV, three days before they switch it to a different time period. So anybody who TiVoed it, who was used to watching it, the hour they marketed it [as], they already missed it."

"The other thing I think that happens is, you know the whole single-camera format - I think what happened to single-cameras is people stopped trusting the comedy and the characters. It became about swish cams and nobody can get up without a sound effect and music, wall to wall music. Watch some of the single-camera comedies that were produced in the last 8-10 years, there's music everywhere. That's great, that's fine but our show has about 15 seconds of music in the entire show. Because we just said from the beginning, because it's a documentary it gave us permission to do this but let [the show] breathe, live by itself, find its own rhythm. But everybody's gotten so distrustful of the process of their own material that they just gave up on just letting comedy play. I think that that didn't help either. And comedy's hard. It's really hard. I've certainly had my share of failures in those years because it just doesn't always come together... you can make 9,999 decisions right and you easily have to make that many when you're making a pilot, but when [you have] the wrong lead, the wrong network, the wrong whatever and you can be dead before you start."

"Modern Family" launches on Wednesday nights at 9:00/8:00c this fall.

  [july 2009]  


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