Warning:  This is a politically incorrect article.

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"Your Show Is Too Cerebral"

 

" Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has had considerable success in producing top TV shows in the U.S. says, 'It is getting harder and harder to underestimate the intelligence of the American public. It now averages well below the previous 6th grade level.' "


 
" ' Your show is too cerebral' (sometimes stated as 'too smart.')

Translation: The average member of a network audience won't understand enough of it for it to be popular."


In this article you are left to draw your own conclusions on how these very different success stories might affect your work in TV production.


 When All In the Family, one of the most successful television programs in history, debuted in 1971, many thought it would only last only a few episodes before being canceled.

It starred the late Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker, an outspoken blue-collar bigot, particularly when it came to blacks and Jews.

How could any show with a seemingly offensive lead character ever be a hit, and especially become one of the greatest TV hits of all time?

Although it came as a surprise to those who predicted the show would quickly be canceled, what they didn't see was that a large percentage of the audience would identify with Bunker's simple-minded bigotry. Since Bunker was a "nice bigot," in addition to letting them laugh at such bigotry, it made them feel more comfortable with their own hidden prejudices.*

Based on the ratings, TV Guide named the All in the Family as the #4 sitcom of all time, and Bravo named the show's protagonist, Archie Bunker, TV's greatest character of all time.

Before CBS took a chance on it, every network had rejected it at least once. One unconfirmed rumor had it that cast members didn't  bother to unpack their suitcases because they thought they would quickly be going home.

In 1964, the a pilot for Star Trek was first submitted for network television...and rejected.Star Trek

The major criticism was that the pilot "was too cerebral." Executives said, in effect, the show would have to be "dumbed down" for network television.

Star Trek was eventually produced.  Despite constant threats of cancellation, the series somehow hung on for a couple seasons (due largely to young fans protesting its possible demise).

The show eventually caught on during re-runs and that eventually led to three spin-offs: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager.  Five feature films based on the series were produced and dozens of computer and video games, and "hundreds of novels."

Star Trek turned into the biggest money-making franchise in the history of television.

In the last 50 years of network television there have been scores of rejected -- often repeatedly rejected -- TV shows and series that went on to be highly successful.

That's my first point.

 My second point  (which is contractory on some levels) is that TV writers often overestimate the intelligence of network TV audiences. They write for their own level of understanding rather than the 6th grade level of the average U.S. network TV audience. (We specify network TV here to distinguish it from more specialized outlets such as Showtime and HBO).

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has had considerable success in producing top TV shows in the U.S. says, "It is getting harder and harder to underestimate the intelligence of the American public. It now averages well below the previous 6th grade level."

There are shows that try to have it both ways.  For example the once very popular, Boston Legal and Ally McBeal tackled social problems while including superficial and even silly humor and situations to try to appeal to a wider audience. That ploy was successful. The shows not only had good ratings, but both garnered many awards. 

  • Ally McBeal, a TV series that is inspiring, entertaining and even illuminating is covered in this article.

  • For another element of the "cerebral issue" see Battlestar Galactica.


* These "dirty little secrets" have not been lost on some of today's popular radio talk show pundits and the writers and producers of political advertising.

According to one very successful TV producer, what a network or advertising agency doesn't want to hear when you pitch a program idea is, "this will make the audience think."  If that's your total goal -- and it should be  a worthy goal -- it would be best to save it for selected cable TV outlets such as HBO and Showtime, or feature films.


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