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In a Flyover State: Picking New Shows Is Really Easy, Right?

I was emailing back and forth recently with one of the top network honchos, and I was sent the following, which I have to leave as anonymous because I’m sure they would like to keep their job: “After over 20 years in the television business, I’ll be the first to admit that one of the few certainties is that no one can predict when and where a hit will come from. Anyone who thinks they have a formula for creating hit television shows is either (i) lying, (ii) delusional, and/or (iii) an agent. In my experience, hits happen by accident and bear little relation to cost or auspices—it’s usually the last pilot ordered, the script paid least attention to, the series kept on the air for lack of anything to replace it with, and so on (there are many examples of this— Seinfeld, Survivor and CSI are just a few).”

So, with that cheery set-up, welcome to Upfront Week! That’s right, a top network exec just basically told you that despite the glitz and glamour and confident proclamations you will see this week, they have about as much clue of what’s happening as that guy who unknowingly live-tweeted the bin Laden raid.

But upfront veterans will tell you every year at this time that there are actually plenty of certainties, though none of them are new shows.

You know things will take place, like hearing the same pop song in multiple pilot clips at every upfront, everyone checking watches if an upfront creeps too long past the hour mark, and Jimmy Kimmel trashing a lot of people at ABC’s show on May 17.

And what’s certain, unfortunately, is that less than half of the shows that get introduced this week will be on the schedules next fall. Which is why it bears asking every year at this time: Is there really no recipe for a hit? And of course, the answer is no, there isn’t.

No one knew American Idol or Survivor would work; that’s why everyone passed on them at least once. You really think the networks enjoy their upfronts resembling a Mets game, where everything in the lineup is wildly expensive, but most of it inevitably ends up sucking every year?

Still, as I thought back to two of the newer shows that really popped in recent years, trying to find some common ingredients, I did come up with a couple of things I would look for in a new drama if I was choosing what to put on the air. Because, you know, reverse-engineering a hit in television is an awesome idea that is sure to work.

Anyway, here’s what I’d look for in a show if I was picking them:

• Something men and women can watch together. In other words, something between UFC, which is too violent for my wife, and HGTV, which she loves but makes me want to bludgeon myself.

• It had better play in the flyover states. Take the pilot to Minneapolis and Kansas City and places where real people live and test them there. Shows that work in New York and Los Angeles will impress your friends and the 900,000 people who will watch; shows that work in the Midwest go for $2.3 million an episode in back end.

• Closed-ended episodes with an ongoing story line. If you want that $2.3 million per, it had better have both, but especially that first thing.

• A lead character you can’t figure out. You want someone who keeps you guessing, who sometimes you want to be, while other times you can’t believe how stupid they are.

• Lots of hot people. It’s OK to admit it: Television is better when you think unsavory thoughts about one or more of the characters.

• Hot same-sex couples. The gloves—and the rest of the clothes—are off when it comes to same-sex couples on network primetime TV. Go there.

• Great, great, great writing. It goes without saying, but it’s amazing how rare it is. A great concept and lots of cool special effects don’t mean anything if you can’t get goose bumps and the occasional tear out of your audience.

When you add all this up, what do you get? You get one of the consistently best shows on television—The Good Wife—which I fundamentally can’t believe more people don’t watch. If I am CBS, I am spending tons of time and money nurturing this show and getting more people to watch. It has all seven of the points I make above, doing many of them better than anything else on TV.

Or you get another show that, when it is good, it’s fantastic: Glee. It is undoubtedly gutsier than The Good Wife, and the breath of fresh air network TV so desperately needed. It just needs to be a bit more consistent week over week to keep growing beyond the phenomenon it’s become.

Both shows have all or most of the above components, and both are shows that have broken through as hits at a time when the broadcast networks are struggling to make new ones.

Obviously, picking shows with the above points means absolutely nothing. There are many more things I could have mentioned, from “always picking the passion projects of writers” to “picking at least a couple of shows that are unlike anything else on the air” to “picking shows with big stakes each week.” Just go back to what the network exec said at the top of this column and see how useless this all is.

But when you look at the very few breakout shows from the past couple of years—and obviously Hawaii Five-0 warrants mention, based on the big payday it already got in off-net—there are some common themes. Of course, you can’t reverse-engineer a hit, but give me a bunch of good-looking people reciting fantastic writing and appealing to my (and more importantly, my wife’s) Midwesternlike sensibilities, and you at least have a shot. I think.

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