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NPR Arts & Life

Television 2015: A Whole Lotta Guys In Ties

This is one in a series of essays running this week and next about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters.

If television is so interesting right now, why do parts of it seem so old-fashioned?

One of the most curious sessions at the recent Television Critics Association press tour was the presentation of a Warner Brothers daytime syndicated show called Crime Watch Daily, set to premiere September 14. Warner Brothers television described it this way: "The show kicks off with headline making investigations ... as well as on-set stings, murders, mysteries, and cold cases with a twist. We'll be busting scammers and con artists, airing caught on tape footage you've never seen in elaborate studio debuts. Plus, our programs will have segments featuring dimwitted criminals and heartwarming stories like Hero Dog."

So: dimwitted criminals andHero Dog. Plus "on-set stings," whatever that means, and murders, which presumably are not on-set.

The show's clip reel featured a correspondent pursuing someone and demanding to know, "Are you ashamed of your perverted behavior?" as well as various people being asked questions about whether they ever could have imagined the events that eventually happened to them, and a super-serious explanation that one of the correspondents is so respected and so intimidating that he goes by the moniker, "Ambush Man."

What, one might reasonably wonder, are the requirements for an ambush man? Do you need a degree? Is that an official title? Are you certified? What are the coursework requirements?

But as profoundly silly as this presentation was (and it was), it was a helpful reminder that as much as journalists and analysts love to think about and write about experimentation and vanguards and change, much of television chugs on in rigid formats that have existed for seemingly eons. In this case, that means an un-self-consciously sensational approach to crime stories and scams and ripping the veil away from phony psychics that's been standard on local news and some national shows for decades. In fact, perhaps the finest question of the panel came from a journalist who asked, "The network edict has always been 'if it bleeds, it leads.' What leads on a network show where everything bleeds?" This show seemed, more than perhaps anything else during those two-plus weeks, like a continuation of the breathless headlines and you-won't-believe-it style that's been propping up television since a much younger Bill O'Reilly was the host of Inside Edition.Television changes, but there are many hundreds of hours devoted to programming that is tweaked and massaged more than it is in any way upended or replaced.

That's not only true in syndicated daytime true-crime; it's somewhat true in any established format, even ones that operate on the talents of very bright people working at a much higher level of craft than you might expect to see from someone who goes by "Ambush Man." And despite the fact that there are certainly some women in some of these places some of the time, they knit together as part of what often looks very much like Guys In Ties television.

Few things in television get as much attention, for example, as late night, relative to how many people actually watch it. And after long periods in which late night changed very little, it's suddenly gone through a period of personnel churn. Of the eight slots most commonly at the center of late-night gossip (NBC, ABC, and CBS, each at 11:30 and 12:30, plus Comedy Central at 11:00 and 11:30), six will have host turnover between the beginning of 2014 and the end of 2015 – Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon at The Tonight Show, Fallon to Seth Meyers at NBC's Late Night, David Letterman to Stephen Colbert at The Late Showon CBS, Craig Ferguson to James Corden at The Late Late Show,Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah at The Daily Show, and The Colbert Reportto Larry Wilmore's The Nightly Show. So the names are changing and the faces are changing, but in every case except Wilmore's, the show may very well wind up being a similarly constructed show with a different person in the chair. (And for all the conversations about diversifying late-night that inevitably arise every time a spot is open, all four of the vacated broadcast network chairs that previously belonged to white men went to other white men.)

When Colbert appeared at press tour to talk to reporters about his plans for The Late Show, which premieres September 8, he was asked what he had planned as far as format, but he remained vague. So the next question was more pointed: "Are you looking to do monologue-desk piece-guest-guest-musical guest-goodbye? Or something else?" Colbert and the assembled press all chuckled. "Well, that sounds boring," he said. "So no. I'm going to go with 'no' on boring." But despite the laughs, it's not a silly question. It's a question that accurately describes the formula.

It's also consistent with Colbert's description in a recent profile in GQ, in which he compared doing late-night to being on the show Chopped, where chefs compete to make what they can from a set of dictated ingredients. "Late-night shows are Chopped," he said. "Who are your guests tonight? Your guests tonight are veal tongue, coffee grounds, and gummy bears. There, make a show.... Make an appetizer that appeals to millions of people. That's what I like. How could you possibly do it? Oh, you bring in your own flavors. Your own house band is another flavor. You have your own flavor."

Set components; good execution within them. That's what The Tonight Showis and was much of the time. It's what Letterman is and was much of the time. If it sounds boring, it's because what works in late night – and this goes back to at least Johnny Carson – doesn't come from the empty buckets that make up the format. It comes from what goes into them, and it's only fun when the host and the guest (and sometimes the band) work effectively inside that format. Actually altering the formula in any real way is so rare that it was written up in the press when Seth Meyers delivered his monologue sitting down instead of standing up. That's an intense level of micro-tweaking. That's on the list of Ways You Know Your Format May Be Stuck.

Trevor Noah came to press tour, too, just days before the end of Jon Stewart's run. When Comedy Central introduced Noah, they said that he would "bring the show into a new multi-platform sort of ever-present era." What that means isn't entirely clear.

Noah himself talked about how the target of the most ridicule is likely to change, since the 24-hour cable news cycle isn't as dominant as it once was, and there's more interest in what's going on at places like Gawker and BuzzFeed. The takeaway: Noah doesn't plan to spend as much time with Fox News as Stewart did. He also pointed out that his way of seeing the world as a younger, biracial South African is naturally different from Stewart's way of seeing it. So the changes will come from the point of view in theory, but with most of the senior staff staying on (at least in the early days), at the very moment when freshening up the show could be emphasized, what they're driving home is continuity. Not surprising when a show as well-liked as The Daily Showis handed off, but a challenge when so much of TDScomes from Stewart. It makes sense that they'd wantto keep making fundamental the Jon Stewart Daily Showwith a different host, but it's not clear that they can. Balancing the sturdiness of the operation with Noah's own talents will be the story of the show's first year.

Producers and hosts also grapple with fixed or mostly-fixed formats on awards shows. Andy Samberg came to press tour to talk about his upcoming hosting gig at the Emmy Awards telecast on September 20. Awards hosting is not a job that readily lends itself to experimentation – the biggest successes in hosting in recent years have been Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes, and all they did was stay strictly within the format that's been used for decades and do it better. Samberg's news, though he's still early in the process of writing for the show, wasn't that he was doing anything massively different; it was who he was putting on his team. He's working with Scott Aukerman and the team from Comedy Bang! Bang!and will add more writers, including some from SNL.

In fact, producer Don Mischer, who's been producing awards shows since the 1980s, told reporters the two things that make the most difference in the success of a show like the Emmys are who wins and what those people say in their speeches. "And as a producer," he said, "you have absolutely no control over that. We hope that we will have unexpected winners, which will make the show more interesting."

Furthermore, Mischer knows about some of the things you perhaps don't like about the way awards typically work, like having to play people off with music when speeches carry on too long: "It's a very hard decision to make. But every time I've made it, it's been wrong. Because when you decide to play that music, this is unequivocally, it always happens this way. You'll have a winner that gets up and starts to talk, and he'll talk for like a minute and a half. He'll pull out a list and start talking about agents and managers and this and that and so forth. And then you're right to the part where you say 'Go music.' You say 'Go music.' And at that point, it never fails. He says, 'And finally to my mom who left us two weeks ago. Mom, I knew I would make it, with your support.' I mean, that's what happens." Similarly, Mischer said he understands the trope of rising and falling applause during the In Memoriam segments that salute artists who have died, and understands how gross it is to put what amounts to an applause meter on the departed. In fact, he said producers ask the live audience not to applaud until the end of the montage, but people don't always listen. (And you thought there were no courageous rebels in Hollywood.)

But as with late-night, they don't change the fundamentals in awards shows despite the griping, because they don't have to. Nobody is going to take one of the few things that reliably brings in large audiences and start tinkering with it just because people make fun of it on Twitter. Awards shows are like sports in that they're disproportionately consumed live and consumed socially, making them particularly valuable (maybe disproportionately valuable) in a landscape where everyone is still struggling to make money on the many ways ordinary television can be watched.

The challenges of innovating in a fixed format come into play as well where you don't even control the events – like in news. CBS's new political director John Dickerson, who recently became the host of Face The Nation, appeared with CBS News director David Rhodes talked about how they intend to cover the conventions leading up to the 2016 presidential election. "We think that just the physical infrastructure around covering the major party conventions is, frankly, a little bit out of date," Rhodes said. "You're going to see from us less anchoring from air conditioned skyboxes that are removed from the action and more of a dependence on people close to the subjects we're reporting on, and, frankly, a great deal more coverage leading up all the way to Election Day on CBSN, our digital network."

And then there are, as we've all recently been reminded, debates. CBS will have two in the primary cycle, one with Democrats and one with Republicans. Rhodes gave this answer to a question about whether he intends to replicate the large and enthusiastic audience of the recent Republican debate – note how seamlessly his answer moves between the immovable matter of dealing with presidential politics and the flexibility of presentation from a network: "I think you do need to allow an enthusiastic audience in a primary cycle, which this is, to participate a little bit in the process. And then the challenge for John, or any moderator, is how much do you let that out and how much do you not? If you suppress the enthusiasm too much, you're making it almost unnatural, and it has to be authentic and natural in how you approach it."

Television news is tasked with both giving news and making television, and when they're entering into a pre-formatted event like a debate or a convention, they oddly face some of the same "How much change is too much change, and how much do you just try to execute well?" questions that arise in late-night or awards contexts.

Of course, if all else fails in the complicated stew that is covering politics, they could always call Ambush Man.

Previously: Dropping episodes all at once or one at a time; Is there really too much television?; The 25 Ways To Watch Television; Netflix Is A Video Store. Next: Diversity? Anyone?

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