Wednesday, May 20, 2009

...And the Shows You Rode In On

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.


Luke Weiss said...

nice. anybody got video?

Anonymous said...

Awesome! Just aweome!

rwiawa said...

He'll never steal Craig Ferguson's spot in my heart, but I will actually watch his show.

He actually makes advertising amusing (the bits he does for sponsors at the beginning of the show). And "Uncle Frank Explains..."

Anybody else wondered what sex with Sarah Silverman was like?

Benoit from Ottawa said...

Interesting article.

Typo annoyance, perhaps twice in a phrase: an "a" is missing, and perhaps is there an extra "l" in "honestly", in "Yesterday, in A seemingly career suicidal moment of honestLy for himself"? (My caps of course.)

Enjoy reading you. Few are as honest and straightforward.


Chez said...

Thanks for the catch. Sorry but I don't have a copy editor.

Anonymous said...

The trifecta of Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, and Matt Damon is something to admire.

Kudos to Kimmel for having the balls to say something all of us are thinking every time we see some shitty new show in a network's lineup.

Oh, Ben Affleck's awesome too.

Cheetah Chrome said...

There is a Catch 22.

A substantial percent of the viewing public will actually (shudder) get excited about a retread of "BJ and The Bear" if it's hyped correctly. The entertainment industry knows all-too-well that the machine runs on a shell game of constant distraction. The major trouble is that intelligent, discerning viewers will pick, perhaps a half dozen shows to watch regularly... what about the other 87% of airtime that needs to be filled? Not only can there never be great TV on 24-7, but statistically, there must be an overwhelming amount of crap to support 5,000 cable channels, pumping "entertainment" all the time.

To criticize the networks for being duplicitous, lying hucksters is redundant.

I like the fact that Jimmy Kimmel is "keeping it real," but there seems to be a certain smug, pointlessness to it.

I'm not sure I can join you, Chez, in lauding the fact that he is in no danger of losing his job for his words... If there is no risk, is there really much honesty?

Bill White said...

I'm glad I zoomed by your lefty blog today, Chez. I can't believe BJ and the Bear is coming back!!!! I know it won't be the same without my hero, Claude Akins, but I think I might like this Kutcher fella in it. I'll give it a shot.
But you know somethin' Chez, you have to be loyal to the one who is writing your check. You learned that the hard way. If my right-hand guy Alex went around town talking smack about me, I'd have him taken out to the woods, stripped nude and duct-taped. OK, I wouldn't duct tape his mouth, but I would wrap up the rest of him. Anyway, that Kimmel boy should be fired just like that skinny, smart-ass twerp Bill Maher. I'm still fuming over that "man." How dare he degrade our fighting men. If I ever saw him, I'm not sure what I'd do with my wrench. I know Jesus would be on my side.

Anonymous said...

Refreshing, and yet... a little gross to bite the hand that feeds you.

chenry said...

I would pay sums of money to see footage of this.

exoskeleton said...

I'm living proof that if there's one thing TV networks don't like, it's honesty.Huh. It's a good thing we never get tired of hearing about that incident.

Chez said...

You're right. It is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

i love bill white. did he have a role in Deliverance?

Jeremy said...

When I get too tired of hearing about it, I'll quit coming here.

It took me about nine years to quit mentioning in every other breath that I was fired for reporting facts on EPA violations from an area industry that the political machine in the county were upset over, even though they were being printed in every other paper outside the immediate vicinity (and now I've gone and broken my streak, damn you Exo!)

But I understand. When something shatters your ideals about "freedom" of the press and expression (even if you were already a little cynical before the incident), it informs your world view from that moment forward.

ben said...

" 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."

Where the fuck were you for the past 8 years??!!! Bush/Cheney/Rumsfled/assorted cronies did nothing BUT lie to everyone's face.

And this new hyper-connectivity makes it much easier for lies to get disseminated and harder for them to be disproved.

TheReaperD said...

@exoskeleton & Chez: Actually, more to the point, it's Chez's blog so, he can bitch about as much as he wants as often as he wants.

For me, it's usually a fun read for me and I sometimes learn something.

celery said...

i started a satirical claude akins fan club in grade three. he replied by sending thirty autographed head shots to my class.

the next year, i wrote a sincere fan letter to don knotts, but he didn't reply. total heartbreak.

BJ and the bear will be terrible. maybe ashton's step daughter could play the role of "bear" and save an innocent monkey from the indignity.

Chez said...

Admittedly, people still believe what they want to believe. And yes, when you're talking politics, those with a preconceived opinion tend to stick to that -- even creating their own set of facts that usually don't intersect with the "facts" proffered by their adversaries. But I have to disagree with you: Thanks to all the information now out there and readily available, it's tougher to put one over on everyone. There were always contrary facts being dug up on the Bush Administration's bullshit, but not everyone wanted to hear it. I also think that the tendency toward not listening to outright lies is, I hope at least, increasing exponentially as more and more information is made available (because the more light you shine on something the harder it is to find darkness to operate in).

You can't argue that the internet hasn't brought with it transparency where there used to be none. Like I said though -- politics are a completely different story. A lot of people at the extremes subscribe to a philosophy and stick to it. Others just don't ask questions.

TheReaperD said...

@ben: Yes but, everybody that wasn't putting their finger in their ears and going "la la la la" or were too busy quoting Leviticus or Revelations knew they were being lied to. The problem was that the previous groups made up more than 50% of the voting electorate at that time (2004).

The only thing that saved us this round was enough of the first group were slapped awake and enough of the other group were disgruntled and didn't vote. The big question will be how active will these two groups be when the next big election rolls around.

Stephen said...

How did a conversation about a late night personality's tirade against the ridiculous nature of network sitcoms and "reality" TV turn into a political debate?

Don't get me wrong, Kimmel's totally correct, I completely agree, and it's amusing to read this and know that TV is just going to get dumber and dumber and more and more filled with pointless advertisements to cure maladies that don't exist, but ... politics?

Matt Osborne said...

Kimmel's come so very far since "The Man Show." His career is taking an arc that I like very much, and this just ices the cake for me.

That said, TV has always been a wasteland, and even more so when 500 channels compete for my attention. In 1992, I read an article (wish I still had it) in which the author, a successful TV and movie writer, said that there were about 6,000 members of the west coast screenwriter's guild, about half of whom were competent enough to write a script at all. Only about ten percent were capable of writing a decent script, and only half of them were consistently able to write a great script. Those 300 writers, the author claimed, were responsible for most of the TV shows and movies we watched.

At the time, there were four networks and maybe 20-30 cable channels if you lived in the right area. I have no idea what the actual statistics would be today, but let's charitably assume the number has tripled since then. That would be 900 or 1000 writers for 500 channels. The proliferation of content channels has only diluted the talent further -- which is why there are so many reality shows (they don't need so much scripting) and recycled classics (AMC is remaking The Prisoner, for the love of God!!). So not only is the cultural wasteland bigger, its size actually encourages the recycling and destruction of its own best culture.

Stephen said...

BJ McKay and his best friend Bear!

I'm going to have that in my head for weeks. They could sell this really...they just have to throw a dump truck full of money at Tom Selleck to be Sheriff Lobo.

Tania said...

I applaud Kimmel's awesome Emperor's-new-clothsing - but it's one thing to point out the problem, it's another to know how to fix it.
Does anyone have any ideas? (It's no use asking me. The only alternative method I've seen in action is the BBC, currently engaged in disappearing up it's own fundament...)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Read something like this a year or two ago, and according to Troy Patterson at Slate, this is something Kimmel does every year. I think ABC might be even more cynical than even you give them credit for.