I'm living proof that if there's one thing TV networks don't like, it's honesty.
When precious ad revenue is at stake, especially in a flatlining economy, a self-deprecating sense of humor isn't simply something that's sure to go unappreciated; it's the kind of thing that can get you shown the door by security and your name removed from a prime spot in the parking lot in a matter of minutes. You can openly roast just about everything else in television, which on the whole is an absurd industry ripe for ridicule, but don't you dare screw with a network's ability to make a profit -- because in the end, that's all that network cares about. Really -- all it cares about. Insulting the CEO's mother would be considered less offensive.
Which leaves me wondering what the hell ABC's going to do with Jimmy Kimmel this morning.
Yesterday, in a seemingly career suicidal moment of honesty for himself -- and a truly historic come-to-Jesus event for the business of network television itself -- the host of ABC's popular late-night talk show delivered a brutal and blistering comic attack on his network's new fall season. It happened during ABC's "Upfront" -- the annual live presentation of a network's fall prime-time lineup, including new shows and mid-season replacements, to the press and, more importantly, an audience full of potential advertisers and ad agencies.
Upfronts are generally pompous affairs held in places like Radio City Music Hall and featuring bombastic musical numbers, live celebrity endorsements, laser light, and a stage brimming with overly animated network assholes -- all of which is aimed at distracting the people with money to spend from the fact that your Wednesday night is anchored by a relaunch of BJ and the Bear, starring Ashton Kutcher (finally putting his trucker hat fetish to good use). But like everything else these days, through a combination of internet-led media transparency and the general cynicism of the masses, who've finally come to understand that they're being bullshitted nearly 24/7, the roll-outs for the new TV season are being met with a certain amount of reservation, rather than the wide-eyed awe of years past. In other words: advertisers, like the rest of us, now know how the television business works; they know the truth; they know that the Upfronts are a lot of dazzle, but that the reality in a couple of months -- canceled shows, rearranged schedules, flops that should've been hits -- will likely be much uglier.
Still, famous faces are expected to get on board for these things and behave as if the awful truth doesn't exist. They're expected to bury their self-respect and enthusiastically pimp for the network. For actors, who pretend to be someone else for a living anyway, this may not be much of a problem. For Kimmel, though, it was apparently impossible.
From writer Dave Itzkoff, in yesterday's New York Times online:
Bouncing onto the stage at just after 4 p.m., Mr. Kimmel self-deprecatingly declared, “All of ABC’s late night comedy talent is assembled here on one stage.” After rattling off a few statistics about the affluence of his viewers, he then admitted that he’d made all the numbers up. (He said so in a more obscene way.)
Then, in a “Jerry Maguire”-like moment of clarity, Mr. Kimmel said, “Everything you’re going to hear this week is” nonsense. “Let’s get real here. Let’s get Dr. Phil-real here. These new fall shows? We’re going to cancel about 90 percent of them. Maybe more.”
If ABC is so confident in its new fall shows, he asked, why is it announcing them at the same time it announces the midseason shows that will replace those fall shows? “This show ‘Shark Tank’ has the word tank right in the title,” he said.
To the ABC advertisers, Mr. Kimmel said, “Every year we lie to you and every year you come back for more. You don’t need an upfront. You need therapy. We completely lie to you, and then you pass those lies onto your clients.”
Mr. Kimmel then took a verbal swing at his own network, reminding the audience that ABC had attempted to hire away Mr. Leno when his tenure ended at NBC’s “Tonight Show.” But, according Mr. Kimmel, NBC said it would not give up Mr. Leno, “even if we have to destroy our own network to keep him.”
By devoting its entire 10 p.m. lineup, Monday through Friday, to Mr. Leno, Mr. Kimmel said NBC is “giving Jay’s viewers exactly what they want. An early-bird special.”
By deciding on their fall schedule in April, Mr. Kimmel said, “NBC got such a head start, they’ve already had time to cancel half their schedule.”
Mr. Kimmel also aimed a couple of zingers at Fox. That network’s action series “24,” he said, was “a head butt away from cancellation.” Next season, he said, Jack Bauer would have a new sidekick “played by Kiefer Sutherland’s probation officer.”
Returning to ABC’s advertisers, Mr. Kimmel said, “Next year on ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ your product could kill Dr. Izzie. It just depends on how much you want to pay.”
In closing, Mr. Kimmel said, “I think all our shows are going to work this year. I really do.” He paused. “I don’t, really.”
Before departing the stage, he said: “The important thing to remember is: who cares, it’s not your money.”
Now make no mistake: I have no idea how the network's going to address Jimmy Kimmel's comments, but he won't lose his job over this; firing him would be a tacit confirmation by ABC of every single point he cleverly made. In fact, it's a thing of beauty that Kimmel went into that meeting yesterday knowing full-well that the network likely wouldn't touch him and that, ironically, that too was confirmation of what he was saying: He makes money for the network, and short of walking into Bob Iger's office and hitting him repeatedly with a baseball bat, there was no way ABC would pull the plug on him.
The fact is that Jimmy Kimmel understands something that network executives are still refusing to grasp -- or are simply fighting tooth and nail against. He gets that in our new hyper-connected culture, it's beyond the realm of possibility to lie outright to an audience -- and therefore it's fucking stupid to even try. Kimmel's a comedian, and someone who comes from a talk radio background -- an industry to which those who tend to be masochistically honest are drawn and usually thrive. As such, he did what all decent comedians do: confront the harsh reality of our times through a wink and a smile; help us laugh at the absurdity so we don't cry about it.
What Jimmy Kimmel said yesterday, his pulling back of the facade of television's dying "magic box" ethos to reveal the soulless profit-machine now at its core -- it needed to be said.
And it's a damn good thing he's in a position to not only say it but get away with it.