Pretty much every single day this week has brought with it news of yet another freakin’ movie being adapted into a TV show. First, there was going to be a continuation of Say Anything on NBC, and then Cameron Crowe killed that in less than 24 hours via the power of Twitter. Next, there was Uncle Buck at ABC, a decent-enough John Hughes movie which was already turned into a TV show which nobody watched in 1990. Then there was In the Heat of the Night at Showtime, which has also already been turned into a TV show except unlike Uncle Buck this show was pretty successful, running from 1988-1995. Now, there’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Sony’s delightful adaptation of Judi and Ron Barrett’s children’s book. After just 2 films, they’ve decided to try a TV version focusing on the high school years eccentric young scientist Flint Lockwood, voiced brilliantly by Bill Hader in the films. On top of those, apparently the Val Kilmer semi-classic Real Geniuses has been in development for TV for several weeks now, and Rush Hour is being made into a TV show at CBS by Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence. Plus, Showtime is reviving David Lynch’s old show Twin Peaks (new episodes premiering in 2016), and Fox is remaking The Greatest American Hero.
Movies being rebooted as TV shows is nothing new, lest we forget TV’s version of Ferris Bueller taking a literal chainsaw to a cardboard cutout of film’s version of Ferris Bueller, and the same goes for TV shows being revived or rebooted. However, when so many of them are announced in such a short amount of time it kind of jumps out at you. What the heck is going on here?
Pretty much the same exact thing that is happening with movies (and, actually, Broadway) right now: Unoriginality is king because originality is too hard to sell in a marketplace drowning in too much content. So, anything that is a format which has worked elsewhere or has brand recognition is going to move to the head of the pack. As a result, we have multiple foreign TV adaptations either here already (Homeland, Gracepoint, The Bridge, Mistresses) or on the way (A&E’s The Returned), movie prequels (Hannibal, Bates Motel), adaptations (About a Boy, Transporter: The Series), and weird spin-offs (Taxi Brooklyn, a new take on Luc Besson’s film 1998 Taxi). This new TV season is even bringing us multiple telenovela adaptations, NBC’s Mysteries of Laura (from the Spanish Los misterios de Laura) and The CW’s Jane the Virgin (from the Venezuelan Juana la Virgen). Plus, there are 3 returning comic book shows, 5 which are debuting, and 18 in development.
One can look at all of that and rail against the increasing lack of originality on TV just as you can do the same with movies. For example, there are those who will argue that someone like CBS has absolutely no business giving a series order to a Supergirl show because CBS doesn’t need some kind of pre-sold brand; CBS IS the brand. Sure, they’ve been carried by their NCIS and CSI spin-offs over the years, but they can also launch original shows like Person of Interest if they care to try. However, honestly, when I look at the numbers I have some sympathy for those making the decisions about which shows to develop and put on the air.
The number of channels that the average U.S. TV home receives has been steadily increasing, rising from 128 in 2008 to 189 in 2013. However, despite this increase the number of channels that the average U.S. TV viewer actually watches has remained steady at 17. So, the cable companies are giving us more and more channels, and we’re simply not watching any of them. On top of that, when we do actually find TV we want to check out 41% of the stuff we save to our DVR ultimately goes unwatched.
That’s TV in 2014. There are too many TV stations, too many shows, too little time, and never enough space on the DVR. All of that before you even get to mentioning Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime.
When Nielsen reported these TV viewing figures earlier this year it concluded:
This data is significant in that it substantiates the notion that more content does not necessarily equate to more channel consumption. And that means quality is imperative—for both content creators and advertisers. So the best way to reach consumers in a world with myriad options is to be the best option.
Some will take that conclusion to heart, and double down on trying to make their network the home of the best quality programming. Others will simply think it means they need to make nothing but movie reboots and adaptations. This has resulted in a bit of a brain drain, with many of TV’s most innovative thinkers simply abandoning the networks in favor of cable and streaming outlets, as TV critic Maureen Ryan argued in the most recent episode of KCRW’s podcast The Spin-Off:
“I think what’s happening is that a lot of the most adventurous creators are saying, ‘I’m going to go from here or there, Netflix to Amazon to FX or to AMC or whatever’ because they feel like they have more of a home for their riskier ideas which don’t have to be based on some pre-sold brand […] Twin Peaks is coming back on Showtime instead of ABC where it originally aired, but I still remember watching that show when it debuted and just having my mind blown. I had no idea what this was, but I knew that it was strange and unique. Is there a real chance of someone like David Lynch going to ABC, and getting Twin Peaks on the air now?”
The answer to her question is that, of course, there’s no way Twin Peaks would make it on ABC now, but, oddly enough, if David Lynch had gone to ABC with his idea to reboot the show they’d probably have been all over it because it’s a brand they could sell. As it happens, ABC never got a chance since the only network Lynch pitched his idea to was Showtime.
Of course, just because something is a re-make, revival, adaptation, whatever, doesn’t make it bad nor does something being an entirely original concept grant it instant-classic status. On top of that, very few of the announced comic book shows, foreign adaptations, and movie reboots are actually guaranteed to ever make it on air. However, it’s becoming pretty obvious that if TV in 2014 for the viewer means having way too many options, then TV in 2014 for the programmers means doing everything possible to get our attention. For example, tell me you’re doing a buddy cop comedy about a motor-mouthed black guy and comparatively quiet Jackie Chan-type and I may not care; tell me it’s an adaptation of the Rush Hour films, and you’ve got my attention.
Or so they hope.
I don’t begrudge TV’s programmers for trying to give me pre-sold products. In fact, it’s actually kind working on me. A lot of the shows I’ve chosen to watch this season, e.g., Flash, Selfie, are ones based on pre-existing content because at least I had some idea what I was potentially getting into. However, I stretched myself last night and gave NBC’s original rom-com A to Z a chance via Hulu. It’s actually a gosh darn delight, if perhaps not exactly ideally built to last beyond two seasons. Plus, two of my favorite shows over the past couple of months have been animated originals, The Awesomes on Hulu and BoJack Horseman on Netflix, both of which I gave a chance based on the talent involved.
What about you? Are you gravitating more toward shows with some kind of brand recognition? Or are you giving some original shows a shot? Or do you not care one way or another – good TV is good TV, even if it’s not even traditional TV? Let me know in the comments.