Episode Two

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

Now that I'm officially not making a pilot, and am deep into my seasonal I'm-quitting-this-idiotic-business muttering and stomping around, I need to get something off of my chest.

I had a friend in high school who spent part of her summer working at McDonald's. And one of the reasons McDonald's makes so much money is that they've mastered the art of up-selling. If you've seen the movie SuperSize Me you know what I'm talking about. You go in an ask for a hamburger and fries and they try to sell you a bigger hamburger, a bigger envelope of fries, and some drink to suck out of a cup too huge to fit into an armrest cupholder. They do this at fancy restaurants too, actually, with the surprisingly priced specials and the chef's tasting menus, but at McDonald's they've turned it into a system. When you order, the person on the other side of the counter or on the other side of the headset has been robotically programmed to ask you a series of follow-up questions: do you want fries with that? Do you want a drink with that? Do you want apple pie with that? So once, while my friend was working there, someone came in and ordered fries, an apple pie, and a coke. Just that. So the three things you're supposed to up-sell, already been ordered, and my friend just stood there for a moment, baffled and brain-locked, frozen like a slow web page.

"Um..." she said, finally, "Do you want any...meat with that?"

Which made sense, but sounded weird, and apparently sounding weird is something they frown on in that industry, so my friend didn't last long in the job. In her defense, she had been programmed to ask a series of stupid questions and ask them she did.

Network television is a lot like fast food when you get right down to it, except maybe for the smell. People employed in that profession are told to ask a lot of questions no matter how pointless of the people who arrive in their offices, people like me. A few years ago, it was fun to go to each network and try to guess which robotic question was going to be asked, things like "how are you platforming the characters for growth?" and "what's our way into this world?" Questions, really, that aren't all that relevant to whether a show is going to be good, or popular. But they're questions that suddenly you hear all over town, and that's because, all over town, as in the fast food industry, people are trying to figure out a way to do a job -- sell fries, pick hit shows -- the easy way, without actually thinking about it, without actually listening and evaluating each thing as it comes along. This works in fast food, where it's hard to swan around like a programming genius if you're wearing an itchy polo shirt and a paper hat, but it's silly in the entertainment business, where no matter how hard you try to simplify and reverse-engineer things, no one knows what makes a hit, what makes one show work and one show fail.

The new question around town is: where does it go? What's episode two? As if the trouble with television shows these days is that they don't develop quickly enough. This is the kind of question that sounds really good -- like "how are you planning to platform the characters?" or "would you like some McDonaldland cookies?" -- but is actually irrelevant. Ask anyone who's ever had a hit show on the air -- that is, ask anyone not me -- and they'll tell you that episode 2 is pretty much episode 1 all over again, with a few detail changes to justify everyone's salary. And episode 3 is episode 2, remixed, which was episode 1, tweaked. You repeat this until you're a hit, at which point you've promised the audience a certain style and experience, and you'd better not change it. The gang at CSI can't suddenly say, "No more blood spatter! Let's start a blog!" The people on Earl can't have him say, "Enough with the apologies! Let's do blended family!" But people in network offices ask that question, and others like it, because otherwise they'd have to, I don't know, sit in silence, contemplating the fact that this is a gut, intuitive business, and no set of faddish questions or surefire rules can change that fact. Although, honestly, I'd like, just once, to pitch something at a network and have someone there offer me fries. Do you want fries? Is always, always, a relevant question.

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll do it for free. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long