What's the Frequency?Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Just spent an hour chatting with Lisa about a science fiction show concept I'm having trouble with. She wants to change the main character from a 35-year-old [snip] struggling with what he does to a 17-year-old [snip] struggling with who he is. Her point was: who's the audience? What network is this on? And she had a very good point, because while I think I have an interesting show concept for the 35 year old guy, it is hard to imagine what network it would be on. It's a very pay cable network. But The Movie Network has a primarily female audience who probably wouldn't relate to the thing that the guy does, and the SF networks have a much younger demographic.

The point here isn't the details, which I haven't told you, but the process: you don't want to create a show that doesn't have a natural outlet. In TV there are very few outlets, and they are fairly well-defined. In the US there are the broadcast networks, which have slightly different flavors. There's HBO and Showtime. There's AMC and F/X. Lifetime. And then the family and youth channels. You will rarely have a show that's right for broadcast and pay cable; and even if you do, you'll need broadcast and pay cable versions of the show.

Who's the audience for your show? Who's going to sit down and watch it? There's a reason there are so few broadcast shows about old people. It's not because old people are boring. It's because the audience for broadcast is young. And young people spend money on toothpaste and cars. Old people tend to watch TV less, and tend to spend money on ... well, medicine, mostly.

If you're going for a network with a female demographic, do you have a female protagonist? If not, is the show mostly about relationships?

As networks and cable channels define themselves better, it gets harder and harder to pitch the same thing across the board. Instead, you find yourself working up a perfect show for, say, ABC Family. Or something that can only fly on HBO. It's more work that way. On the other hand, both HBO and ABC Family want shows that reflect their branding. HBO wants shows that can only air on HBO -- e.g. transgressive shows about dysfunctional families. So if you do the work, you can give yourself a good shot at the one network the show is right for.

Sometimes the "natural" form of your show isn't the ideal form for any network. Unfortunately, you'll have to rethink it so that it does fit a network. You may need to make your protagonist a girl instead of a guy. Or young instead of old. Or make your protagonist an intimate antagonist and create a new protagonist who's a foil. (It worked for Melville, didn't it?)

Try to see the show through your potential network exec's eyes. Sure, your show sounds fun. But does it fit the network's brand?

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Why can't it be about a 35-year-old struggling with who he is? I mean, The Mentalist isn't exactly a young pup. Sci-fi syndicated shows like Stargate, Star Trek, and Farscape also feature older characters.
I totally get the need to know your audience, but there are just too many shows out there about young people with identity problems, and women coping with relationship issues. Plus, shows with young male protagonists, like Chuck, still get cancelled.

By Blogger Norlinda, at 6:29 PM  

This is so depressing. Why can't it just be a good show?

Failing that, maybe the protagonist can be a 27-year-old [snip]? and split the difference?

For what its worth, I'm female, 35ish, and I'm interested in more than female protagonists (show me a good one) and relationships (bleh). I'd love to see a good, fresh SF premise.

By Blogger tnt, at 9:59 PM  

To be fair, my suggestion wasn't based on age alone. With the older character, most of his drama was about whether he'd made the wrong decisions in life. It was looking backwards. I'd rather watch someone MAKE the hard, ambiguous decisions in the first place.

By Blogger Unknown, at 1:05 PM  

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