Mailbag: We Answer Your Questions About NBC's Ongoing Struggles, Amazon's Pilot Process, Broadcast vs. Cable, and More

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Hey there, party people. The Winter Olympics are about to conclude, which means there's a glut of brand-new and returning shows coming at us in the next week or so. As such, we figured now would be a good time to sneak in some answers to some of your most pressing questions! Let's get right to it. 

We start, as we often do around these parts, with NBC...

"Does NBC truly get anything valuable out of airing the Winter Olympics that isn't offset by the losses from losing audience momentum while not airing their regular series?" —JT_Kirk

"Can NBC get their act together post Olympics?" —maritimer00

The suggestion that NBC might actually lose something by airing the Olympics, or at least that the network won't gain that much, would be much more compelling if we lived in a world where NBC wasn't the television equivalent of a decade-long simmering dumpster fire. You could argue that saturating primetime with tape-delayed Olympic events for two-and-a-half weeks disrupts the momentum of high-profile shows like The Blacklist and perhaps totally destroys the momentum of brand-new offerings like Chicago P.D., and that could be true. However, even though Olympics coverage has recently hit relative lows for NBC—that's what happens when the Illuminati poisons the eyes of our national treasure Bob Costas—the Olympics are still regularly winning the ratings. And yes, most of the other broadcast networks have given up the real estate during this period, but a win is still a win. And more importantly, what the heck else does NBC have to put on? I can't imagine too many people are chomping at the bit for Growing Up Fisher. The Olympics, and event TV in general, are always going to appealing. Even if NBC had an amazing schedule full of hits, there'd still be value in airing the Olympics—if only to drive competition off the air for three weeks. 

As for what happens next week, after the Olympics are over? Time is a flat circle and, that dumpster fire keeps on simmerin'. NBC is naively hoping that previewing its new comedies About a Boy and the aforementioned Growing Up Fisher during the final nights of the Games will give those shows an early boost, but the Peacock tried that approach during the Summer Olympics in 2012 with Go OnAnimal Practice, and Guys With Kids—or, as you may remember them, three comedies NBC canceled by the spring of 2013. The strategy is only marginally successful at best. 

So let's just assume that both of those comedies will get canceled, at which point they'll join Welcome to the Family, Sean Saves the World, and The Michael J. Fox Show on the scrap heap. In that theoretical yet likely world, ALL of the new comedies NBC debuted this season will have been axed. The likely survivors? Parks and Recreation and Community, which the network can't kill off even though it would probably like to. If NBC is a dumpster fire, its Thursday-night comedy block is the big piece of inflamed garbage at the bottom that you just can't believe is still going. 

I've said it countless times, but NBC needs to quit putting comedies on Thursday. The network is going to try new dramas Believe and Crisis on Sundays come March, which is an interesting strategy in that hey, they're not Celebrity Apprentice, but it's hard to imagine those shows surviving against Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and everything else that might air on that busy night. NBC doesn't have much relief ahead, but it can at least point to a handful of big victories: The Blacklist is a big deal, Chicago Fire has done well in its move to Tuesdays, and Hollywood Game Night is generally great. And I have a few more thoughts on the matter, but they lead right into the next question...


Last October, I suggested that NBC burn its Thursday comedy block to the ground, based on the theory that the network could, if things got REALLY ugly, try The Voice on Thursdays. Moving the singing competition to Wednesday/Thursday would disrupt the network's schedule, opening up the earlier days to be destroyed, but Thursday is a more valuable night as far as advertising rates go. But then the NFL announced that it wanted to sell half of its Thursday Night Football package, presumably to a broadcast network. NBC was the clear destination, considering its Sunday Night Football coverage is A.) tremendous and B.) the most popular show on TV. What better way to solve a HUGE problem? Welp, we know how that worked out: CBS bought the package, reminding the world that Les Moonves don't play. 

Now NBC isn't alone in having to figure out what will happen to its Thursdays for eight weeks in the early fall. It certainly won't be able to launch new programming at the beginning of the season, and neither will Fox, which has pretty substantial holes there as well—especially with The X Factor finally being mercy killed. For ABC, the question is, do they trot out random stuff to get squashed, or they bring out the big guns (i.e. Grey's Anatomy and Scandal)? It has to be the former. 

And what does CBS do, considering that The Big Bang Theory currently dominates Thursdays? I'd move Big Bang back to Mondays for eight weeks, just in time to help launch what will likely be a newish night of comedies there. I wouldn't be shocked to see a Big Bang-How I Met Your Dad-2 Broke Girls-New Show block. Then, once football is done, Bazinga! and company can shift back to Thursdays to build out some other comedies (likely The Millers and whatever else). This is probably the time to let Two and a Half Men go. Fingers crossed!

"What do you guys think of Fox dumping the pilot system? Should Showtime keep on using it? Do you think the pilot system should still be around?" —Ian281099

Great question, though one that conflates a couple of processes. Fox's suggestion that it wants to abandon the pilot process is a good one, in theory. As I discussed in the first mailbag, so much of what leads to disappointing seasons full of mediocre-to-bad shows can ultimately be traced back to the strenuous pilot system. The studios and networks try to do way too much in such a short period of time, when the pool of talent resources at all levels is very diminished. I know things have been done this way for a very long time, but the current industry climate necessitates something else, even if the changes are only slight. So opting out of pilot season might be a good idea. 

However, I wouldn't get too excited about Fox's big declaration. These things tend to make headlines during the Television Critics Association's regular press tours or Upfronts and then never quite come to fruition. When Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman were running NBC into the ground in the middle of the last decade, they loved talking about the "year-round" schedule that is only sort of now becoming a thing. Even if Fox follows through, you won't see the system go by the wayside for a long time. What you will see, and what we're already seeing, is more projects being developed "off-cycle," meaning not during pilot season. The likely outcome is a somewhat more flexible system, with off-cycle projects meshing with others that came out of the crazy pilot season scrum.

As for Showtime, the good news is that it isn't beholden to the same kind of schedule as the broadcast networks. Same goes for HBO, FX, and AMC. They all develop shows on a more patient, free-flowing basis, and each has their own way of doing things. Cable channels give projects more time to grow between the pitch and pilot and even beyond that, which is certainly not a bad thing. It doesn't always mean that all cable projects are better than broadcast, cable handles development better for sure. Now, should Showtime specifically blow up their pilot system because they decided not to pick up the Vatican show with Kyle Candler? Well, yeah. That I agree with. Let's stick with the pilot thing for a second. 

"How much impact do the viewer surveys Amazon provides for its pilots actually have on which shows are picked up?" —Emma R. 

In case you're unaware, part of Amazon's pilot process solicits viewer feedback (and hashtagged tweets!), which the company suggests allows said viewers to "call the shots." The truth is that we don't actually know how much Amazon takes these opinions into account when the company eventually picks up projects, because Amazon doesn't release that info. However, what I will say is that viewers do not "call the shots." That's just B.S., and really nothing more than an attempt to get people to watch (and tweet!) under the guise of participation, half-baked conceptions of democracy, etc. If 40 million people stream The After and the survey comments are enthusiastic and supportive, will Amazon order the Chris Carter pilot up to series? Probably. But the streaming numbers and and critical buzz undoubtedly matter much more than the surveys. 

Amazon's pilot process is weird, and I'm still not sure it's actually a good idea to open it up this way. Contrary to popular belief, executives do know what they're doing a lot of the time, and keeping some the developmental stuff private seems like one of those instances. The bottom line is, all pilot processes are kind of wonky.

"Due to the recent and future endings of popular cable shows (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Blood, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, etc.), what does the future of cable look like? I was worried about Showtime but Masters of Sex is great, and Homeland is still getting good numbers, whereas AMC seems to be reliant on The Walking Dead. Can HBO continue to churn out decent and water-cooler worthy content? And can FX continue its great streak of making brilliant television? Is this even a question any more? Erm, discuss?" —Nick W.

The best questions are the questions that fold onto themselves and barely seem like questions by the end, so great job. I'll first point you to my recent essay on HBO and my less recent essay on AMC because I'm nothing if not a self-promoting shill. You're right to point out that so many big cable shows are gone, or about to be gone, which leaves quite the void. The two channels you don't have to worry about are HBO and FX; they are simply too good at developing programming to assume that the end of True Blood and Boardwalk Empire or Justified and Sons of Anarchy means they'll go down the drain. Both networks have some big, interesting stuff coming up. And while I could beat up on AMC some more, I won't... other than to say that reality shows about arm wrestlers are absolutely the key to killing the void left by Breaking Bad. Smart. 

Showtime is the network I haven't written as much about, but perhaps I should. Masters of Sex was kind of its saving grace in 2013. Dexter cratered at the end, Homeland got lost in the woods, and Ray Donovan was ineffectual at best. The network just renewed Shameless, which is the annual winner of the "Show People Can't Help But Say Is Underrated" award, as well as  House of Lies, which is the annual winner both of "Wait, That's Still On?" and "Poor Kristen Bell" awards, so... cool, I guess? Philip Seymour Hoffman's death will derail the only recently announced Happyish, and that's a bummer on every level. Showtime has never been on HBO or even FX's level as far as I'm concerned, but it's going to need something else, and soon. It can't count on Homeland to pull out of the funk it's in. I guess there's always that Dexter spin-off!

But truly, the future of cable is also in the smaller channels—the Sundances and the A&Es and the Cinemaxes of the world. More and more of them are going to be churning out original programs, and TV will be better for it. As long as they're not about arm wrestling.

"Why do network television series follow the format of 20-24 episodes? I ask because I find that while the premise of some network series are really great (i.e. Revenge, White CollarPerson of Interest), by the tenth or eleventh episode it starts to lose its momentum and direction. Is there some kind of regulation that it's following? Then you have programs like Drop Dead Diva on Lifetime and Hannibal that only last 13 episodes, so I'm just curious what governs the number of episodes for any given TV show." —YiWernYoong

There are a whole bunch of variables that go into the episode order decision. Obviously, the broadcast system has traditionally required more episodes. In the past, some shows produced upwards of 35 episodes a season, and the whole industry has sort of decided that 20-24 is the number that everyone can churn out within nine or 10 months without dying. Networks have to fill the schedule because they need to sell ad time, and showing a bunch of shorter-run stuff at 10 to 15 episodes a clip isn't as economically viable. If you're going to pay Emily VanCamp all that money, you'd better put her to work, am I right? This is another instance where cable has more flexibility, because its business model is different and not as advertising dependent, so it has more room to try new things, switch up episode counts, etc. 

However, your Hannibal example is a good one, because like the pilot system discussed above, the episode orders on broadcast television are growing more flexible in their own right. Hannibal is basically a cable show that's airing on network TV (with the low ratings to prove it), but shows like Sleepy Hollow or The Following are illustrating that networks can develop shows and grab an audience in a shorter amount of time. We've also seen a resurgence in miniseries and "special event" programming, which is a good thing. Now, The Following's audience has dropped off in Season 2, and we haven't seen what will happen with Sleepy Hollow, so the shorter orders could still turn out to be a terrible idea in the long run. But networks like Fox do recognize the viability of the strategy. 

And of course, certain premises just aren't meant to last that long. People raised that concern about Revenge right from the start, now that the show is Season 3, it's easy to see the strain. White Collar just wore out its welcome as it aged. What that means, then, is that more networks and channels need to embrace the shorter series runs. It'd be okay if some shows, like Revenge, just did 25-40 episodes and got out, ya know? 

"Twitter has become the perfect companion for live TV watching. Users give instant feedback and participate in live polls. Will it only get more annoying?" —efonsecajr

"Does tweeting take away eyeball time from commercials? Are the networks shooting themselves in the feet by asking their audience to tweet about their shows and hoping the audience will wait for a break, only to lower viewership in the ads that sponsor their shows? Does Nielsen track this yet, and if not, will Cory?" —JT_Kirk

Isn't it fun when "old" media discover "new" media? It's like watching your dad figure out how to use the internet. And social media and TV have become quite the pair. Just by watching, we can sense that Facebook and Twitter are growing in importance for the industry, even if they don't know exactly what to do with all the activity. Interestingly, according to a recent Ad Age report, the number of tweets for big events like the Super Bowl are down, year-over-year. But that probably won't stop the industry from pushing social media down our throats. I'm not sure exactly how things could get more annoying when we already have live Twitter voting, huge hashtags at the bottom of the TV screen, and fake jobs like "social media ambassador" on The Voice, but that doesn't mean the networks won't think of something. 

As for whether tweets (and Facebook posts; we can't forget them, unfortunately) are affecting who sees commercials, I don't believe the hard research is there yet. Nielsen is tracking tweets, but not necessarily their relationship to commercials. This is something I follow in my other career as an academic, and I can tell you that people are asking the same questions. The industry and advertisers are, in some ways, worried. That's why we're seeing more networks push their own second-screen experiences (AMC Story Sync comes to mind) or try to fund others (Zeebox is one; there are others). That way, if you're going to be looking down at a device during the break, at least you can "sync" to the official experience—which just means that you'll be bombarded with ads in various other forms. 

"Why haven’t we heard whether Almost Human will have a full season? Is it only 13 episodes? What are the chances of a renewal for this great show? It seems to not get much attention." —Scott M.

"Have you heard whether Marvel's Agents of SHIELD and Almost Human have been renewed for a second season, yet? I hope they'll both get another season." —Geek_Queen

First of all, how dare you, Geek_Queen, for not using the periods! It's S.H.I.E.L.D.okay? Second of all, yeah, Almost Human was almost always guaranteed to run for 13 episodes, especially after its late debut. Third of all, I'd say both shows are safe, though Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is closer to a lock than Almost Human. ABC can't be thrilled with its performance, but it hasn't been a ratings disaster in a season that's been quite full of disappointments. I gave up on the show a long time ago (like, in Episode 3), and it'll probably take quite a bit to convince me to return. The optimist in me hopes that ABC will renew S.H.I.E.L.D. and then allow it to get a little weirder (especially after Guardians of the Galaxy introduces moviegoers to some of the more obscure parts of the Marvel universe), but who knows if that's even possible, with so many proverbial cooks in the kitchen.

Almost Human, though! Did you know that the show is barely doing worse than The Following in the ratings on Monday nights? The Following is probably the worst show on TV that doesn't involve arm wrestlers, but not very long ago, it was pretty popular. I have to assume that Fox will keep the Kevin Bacon horror show (in more ways than one) around for at least another season, and if that's true, how does it not also keep a show that's performing almost as well, and with less promotion and star appeal to boot? While I don't see Fox building a whole night around Almost Human in the fall, the network seems committed to shorter season orders, and as I just said, that's a good thing. I expect it to be back.

Finally, some administrative emails. You guys just love to know about the inner-workings of the site. Jen, take it away. 

"How do you guys decide on a show that will get a weekly review? What happens if the said person to write the review stops liking the show altogether?" —Nerdnot

I use a top-secret recipe that involves writer interest and workload, reader interest, a show's critical buzz/acclaim, and, of course, traffic, reader discussion and engagement, and my available freelance budget. There's no one factor that determines how or if or even when we cover a show. Sometimes we start out doing weekly reviews of a given series, only to have traffic and reader discussion drop off to the point where our time is best spent elsewhere. Sometimes reader interest will grow over the course of a season or three, and I'll realize that all of a sudden there's a big-enough audience to sustain weekly coverage of a show that I never expected would earn much attention. Sometimes the number of comments on a review will vastly outnumber its pageviews, and vice versa, which can also affect our coverage plans. While there are plenty of "givens," there are lots of little things that matter, too. 

If a writer stops liking a show, that's usually not a reason for us to discontinue coverage. Once again, it's a situation with a lot of variables. Sometimes it can be very valuable to have one person stick with a series, even if they aren't as keen on it as they used to be, because it provides some interesting critical perspective of how a show changes (or doesn't change) over time. Sometimes we'll reassign reviews from one writer to another. It all depends! Regardless, for ongoing coverage, I always try to match writers' interests with the shows they review. And of course there's a flip side, which I kind of touched on above, where a writer might love a show to pieces but the reviews get no pageviews and only like seven people comment and we stop reviewing the show and we're sad about it, but that's just the way things are.

"How are the 'trending shows' decided on the homepage of" —flintslady

Magic! J/K the list is algorithmically driven, and search results and pageviews both factor in. Also, the "turnover time" is pretty quick; the list not only changes frequently, but is sometimes affected by news events—for example, if people start searching for an older show because a celebrity has died, you might see it appear in the list. In contrast, the 'most popular shows' list on the righthand side of the homepage, while also algorithmically driven, doesn't refresh as often as the 'trending shows' list—so it tends to be more stable with regard to the shows that appear on it. 

To submit questions for future editions of the Mailbag, send 'em via email to, via Twitter to @corybarker or @tvdotcom, or just post them in the comments, and we'll try to get to as many as possible!

PREVIOUSLY: Mailbag #1: Marvel's TV Plans, the Quality of the Fall Season, FXX, and the Future of Late-night TV

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