Great Numbers

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Great Numbers!

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

About a week or two from now, everybody with a new show on the air is going to know if they've got a hit, or if they're dead.

They won't know for a fact, of course. No one is going to tell them outright. But they'll know in that way you know things -- deep in that pit of your stomach, the part of you that says this isn't right and this isn't working and this is going to be a disaster. You know, the part you never listen to.

The odd thing is, if you have a show on the air, by now you've already filmed the first ten episodes. If things are going well, you can convince yourself that you've got a hit on your hands. But the truth is, every day without a disaster just makes the inevitable one that much more brutal. And the inevitable one takes place when you get your first set of ratings.

It's a strange sort of lag, but familiar, too. By now, most shows are deep into the production process -- characters have been defined, and in some cases redefined; story areas have been discovered and tossed out; the creaky ensemble of strangers has begun to click together. Your show, in other words, is finding itself.

Except that nobody has seen it yet. So you think you're doing fine. You love your show. America, though, has yet to be consulted. And when that happens, when you have your opening night, all of the enthusiasm and humming energy and optimistic window-shopping and open-house-in-Santa Monica canyon going will either seem brilliantly intuitive or just hilariously delusional.

It's this way all over Hollywood. It takes a year, at least, for an actor's hard work, or a director's vision, to make it to a screen near you -- and by that time, they've probably forgotten the tantrums and struggles and the certain knowledge that the picture they're working on is just an absolute pile. Maybe, in the ensuing months, their memories have embroidered the experience into something good and auspicious. So later, then the movie comes out, and they're pushing it at press junkets worldwide, they have to relive the entire episode, and are humiliated a second time; and later still, when it comes out on DVD and there's another round of humiliations. And on. And on. The lag is a killer.

In television, if possible, it's worse. Because you're always about eight or ten episodes ahead of your air date, in the early stages you really have the sense that the show is getting better all the time. It's a foolish sense, though, because the audience is going to see them in order, bad ones first. And they may not stick around to watch a series get better.

I remember once, a few years back, when I had a show on the air. Each week the ratings would come in, and each week they got a little weaker and a little less impressive. We were dying. Anyone could see that. Anyone but me.

See, while it is a gross generalization to suggest that comedy writers are mathematically ignorant, it's a fairly safe bet that most of them aren't trained statisticians. Nevertheless, when the ratings came burping out of the office fax, a writer -- me -- who cannot tell time and who routinely tips 100% in restaurants ("Easier to figure out...just double it.") instantly became one of those super computers, you know, the kind the Pentagon uses to listen to our phone calls.

I would look at the ratings, while the rest of the writing staff gathered around me, and I'd... parse them. Spin them. Twist them into a hit.
Hey, hey, hey. This is good news.
We're a new show. We're
on at nine-thirty, we have a rotten
lead-in, I mean, this is better than they
expected. They promised the advertisers
a four share, so we're all way, way ahead.
I begin shuffling through the pages in sweaty earnest.
ME (CONT'D), look at our numbers in the key
major markets -- the urban markets. We're getting a
six or seven in the Midwest, parts of the
South give us a solid four rating, New York
City loves us...
I reach for a calculator, begin pounding away.
(high pitched; frantic)
...and we're retaining, in most of the major
markets anyway -- but after all, that's
what we're talking about here -- we're
retaining about 95% of our lead-in,
which is pretty damn good! I mean,
we should be celebrating --
"We're dead, Rob" someone says.
I know! Don't you think I know that?
But of course, I didn't. Not really. I mean I knew it, in that part of you that always knows, but I didn't really know it. And there are a lot of people in Los Angeles today -- right now -- who don't know it either. I mean they do. But, well, you know what I mean.

That's it for this week. Next week, well why not? We're having fun. More ratings

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long