Television, like every other industry, is heading into unknown territory with the coronavirus shutdowns. More people are watching TV as a form of safe entertainment at home — but before too long, what will be available for them to watch? Eventually, it seems, the new-programming shelves will be empty, too.
Some series are ending their current seasons early, others have postponed the air dates of their coming seasons (“Fargo” season four, worst of all), and the pilots for next season’s lineups are at a standstill. The longer the coronavirus keeps us from working together, the less new primetime material will be available to watch. The networks can’t even throw together reality shows — something they tend to do cheaply to solve an excess of air space.
Even the late-night hosts, who historically have served as anchors for viewers during national and global crises, are unable to do their unifying work. Some of them are delivering mini-logues from home, and releasing them on YouTube, but without the kind of mainstream resonance as before. Those snippets aren’t going to offer comfort in the way that David Letterman and Jon Stewart did after 9/11.
The pay cable channels and streaming services are also facing a problem, though it seems less urgent. They run on subscriptions, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a list of older shows to catch up on. Now is the time to dig into the backlogs of the likes of HBO, Hulu, and Amazon, where all those shows that I’ve been pushing on you over the past decade still sit waiting for your eyes. But before long, will the price of premium TV become too much for those financially strained by the outbreak? Will people reach the bottom of Netflix’s well? It’s quite possible.
Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to come up with ways that TV — particularly primetime network TV, which is ad-driven and free — can move forward if the coffers are running low. Some of these ideas are whimsical, even impossible, I know, and that’s my overall message. It is time for the networks, so accustomed to formula and a factory-like approach to production, to be resourceful and newfangled in whatever ways they can.
1. REPERTORY NIGHTS
I don’t mean that NBC ought to re-air “Cheers” every week and transform itself into a kind of MeTV, the cable channel that airs oldies such as “M*A*S*H,” “Gunsmoke,” and “The Flintstones.” But what if the networks deployed old TV episodes in a new way, packaging them to reflect our current, more compulsive relationship with our TV shows? What about a night of the best-ever sitcom finales, or a re-airing of the famous “Love’s Labor Lost” episode of “ER.” The curating could also be crowdsourced, so that, after an audience online voting process, a network could air the six best-loved episodes of “Seinfeld”?
How about a night of sitcom episodes featuring actors who later went on to greatness — Leonardo DiCaprio in “Growing Pains,” Jennifer Lawrence in “The Bill Engvall Show,” George Clooney in “The Facts of Life,” Tom Hanks in “Bosom Buddies,” or Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Day by Day”? The possibilities are endless.
Sure, we can call these episodes up whenever we please, in this age of on-demand. Any “Seinfeld,” any time. But that’s not how many viewers — particularly network TV viewers — operate. They just watch what’s on the air at a given moment. And I admit that sometimes I just want to click around and land on something. In an era, thanks to on-demand and streaming, when we never really have to watch what’s being served up, sometimes it’s soothing to just sit back and be passive.
I know this is pie in the sky, in some ways, regarding rights to series, which might require some mutual compromises. It’s not my problem! Anyhow, the idea is really just to think outside the box and capitalize creatively on the current strength of the medium.
2. EXTRAS, EXTRAS
Almost every TV series or movie that comes to the market on DVD, Blu-ray, or as a streaming purchase includes a few extras. Sometimes it’s a blooper reel — and, to be honest, I get enough of a kick from blooper reels from my favorite shows and movies to spend an inordinate amount of time seeking them out on YouTube.
Other times, it’s something more substantial, including alternate endings (“Get Out”). “Lost: The Complete Collection” contains some 32 hours of extra material, including documentaries about the casting process, the making of the pilot, and an “epilogue” of the entire series that focuses on the characters of Ben and Hurley. “Parasite” has an interview with director Bong Joon-ho. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” offers 20 minutes of additional scenes, a few behind-the-scenes clips, and a look into the elaborate 1969 production design. Many old classics are accompanied by documentaries, such as “The Wizard of Oz,” whose 70th anniversary edition contains interviews with the cast as well as deleted scenes.
You know where I’m heading. I could imagine seeing the best of these pieces somehow deployed in primetime, to introduce an episode of a show, say. Or air the episode or movie with the DVD’s audio commentary by the director or the stars. One DVD version of “This Is Spinal Tap” features commentary by three members of the band — in character.
3. RIGHTING WRONGS
As a bitter TV critic who, 20 years and counting, still hasn’t stopped resenting NBC for its dire mistreatment of “Freaks and Geeks” in 1999-2000, I like this suggestion the best of all.
Get those brilliant but canceled shows queued up and let ‘em roar. Over the years, I have compiled a number of lists of shows that deserved to live longer than the one or two seasons they got, if audiences had only found them. Sometimes the networks didn’t properly promote or position them; other times, the stars just weren’t aligned.
But “Grosse Pointe” was a very sharp satire of the backstage machinations on the set of a “Beverly Hills 90210”-like series. “Action” took no prisoners as it skewed Hollywood, “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” was to office sitcoms what “Scrubs” was to hospital sitcoms, and “Better Off Ted” was an office sitcom that, like Comedy Central’s current “Corporate,” was spiky fun. So as an act of apology and kindness, maybe the networks could give them a long lost moment of glory.
4. COLOR COMMENTARY
It could be a bit of weird fun to get actors from shows to deliver audio commentary for specific episodes. Or put a few commenters together virtually — actors, directors, writers — and have them discuss what we’re seeing. It’s a lot like the extras features I mentioned above, but these would be freshly made. The commenters could appear on their home cameras, too — in the way that late-nighters including Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel deliver their mini-logues — but in the corner of the screen. They could be current actors and shows, or they could be actors from, say, old Norman Lear comedies, reminiscing over an episode. There has been a renewed interest in Lear’s work of late, as ABC has twice redone old episodes with today’s actors.
Or maybe just revisit the “Pop Up Video” format, and provide bubbles of information and jokes during an episode of “Modern Family,” or “The Bachelor.” I know it’s not as good as getting fresh episodes, but perhaps it would offer some entertainment value.
Peak TV may go on hold for a while, leaving us in the middle of a new era: Make Do TV.