The Bonus

Hosted by

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

A few years ago, we shot a pilot for a network that didn't want it. They were cornered by something called a "pilot commitment" -- which means, essentially, that at some point someone at the network agreed to pay a huge penalty (something pretty close to the cost of producing a pilot) if they didn't produce the pilot. So, faced with the prospect of paying one-million-two for a something and one-million-one for nothing, they thought, "Okay, what the heck. Make it. But we hate it. But make it. Even though we hate it."

So we made it, and unfortunately, it tested really well -- the shoot-night audience, the initial focus-group audience, the larger cable-test audience -- all of them liked the show, liked the characters, wanted more. Everybody was really embarrassed because, the network still hated it, but now they sort of had to order the show and schedule it. If there's one thing that was true then about network television and is true now and will be true, probably, forever, it's this: they believe passionately in their ability to pick hit shows through market research. A show that tests well is a hit show. A show that doesn't, isn't. Which is why every year television networks manage to put so many hit shows on the air and avoid putting on any flops: through the science of audience research, they have perfected the process of making audiences happy.


The time slot they gave us was arguably the worst one in network television. A comedy hadn't succeeded on that day, at that time, at that network, for over 20 years. Our lead-in was a reality kid's game show. Our lead-out was...I forget. A news magazine? Something. We were doomed, in other words. And we knew it. And they knew it. And they knew that we knew it. So the wind was out of our sails before we even had sails up. I asked our studio executive to explain this. Why, I asked, was the studio willing to deficit finance a show -- to the tune of $1 million an episode -- if it knew -- we all knew -- that the network hates it, has given it a death slot, that short of some kind of bizarre miracle, we'd be off by November, thirteen episodes shot and paid for -- that's $13 million studio dollars, gone -- and only nine or so aired. Why not just call it a day, refuse the order, move on?

Because, he said, after saying a lot of other things that weren't convincing, after trying to persuade me that there was a scenario in which this show might make it, and after pausing for a few moments and staring out of the window, he said, "Because in your contract, you get a bonus for every show you make that goes to a second season. And I love this show -- I believe in this show -- and I think that, yes, miracles do happen. A good show can pop in any timeslot. And I don't want to pre-empt the possibility that this show is going to pop big and become a monster hit. You know why we're going to accept the order? Because I believe in you. And I want you to get to that second season bonus."

It was a few years ago, as I said, and before I learned that under the terms of his contract with the studio, he got a bonus for every pilot he sold to series. Not to a second season. Not even to a completed first season. Just to series. So he was going to get his bonus, and I wasn't. Apparently, this is or was standard among studio executives, which may explain why so many shows back then were produced at such high cost that had such low chances of survival. Of course, this was all years ago, before the networks figured out that by applying the proven techniques of market and audience research, they never had to put on a flop again.

That's it for this week. Next week, pledge week! For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long