Figuring out the equation for a hit television show is so simple a high school math dropout could do it. And for a while it seemed like the network execs were catching on. They simply needed to take viewer preferences as seen in recent history and add them to an innovative show concept to achieve success and acclaim. But when the critical moment comes in which execs must continue acting on viewer preferences or abandon them altogether, most jump ship. And shark. And before they can say “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World,” they watch in horror as a once wildly popular show nosedives in the ratings.
Because the network execs are having a hard time getting it right, maybe it’s time someone work out the equation for them long hand on the blackboard. We have Robert McKee to guide us through the principles of good storytelling, so perhaps we need a primer for creating a hit show in today’s society.
What are the patterns of recent history telling us? Which show elements seem to resonate with young and old, sci-fi geek, and TMZ addict alike? What consistently intrigues viewers and drives ratings across the widest sector of the viewing audience?
Perhaps if producers stopped churning out shows like 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter and started following these Eight Simple Rules for Creating a Primetime Hit, they’d actually have a better shot at success.
Rule #1: Put together an ensemble cast of 10+ people who are extremely diverse in both age and ethnicity.
Everyone should be interesting to look at but no one should be overly attractive. The men should outnumber the women.
In our disconnected society, viewers gravitate toward ensemble casts because there is an instant sense of community. Characters should be from all walks of life and parts of the world. Every race, religion and creed should be represented.
Viewers like stories about people they can imagine in their own world. Thus, each character should be interesting to look at, but not so striking that the average person would be distracted. If sex appeal is necessary, it should be heavily weighted toward the male gender (think McDreamy and McSteamy on Grey’s Anatomy). Shows where the men outnumber the women are more likely to become hits.
Rule #2: The overarching plot must involve all cast members learning to overcome their differences so they can collaborate to achieve a common goal or fight a greater evil.
A common goal for the characters must be so great that each person will have to sacrifice to achieve it, (think Winning Sectionals in Glee or Escaping Fox River Penitentiary in Prison Break). If the group isn’t working toward a common goal, they will need to be pitted against a greater evil—which could be personified as anything from the Devil himself (Supernatural) to terrorists who want to nuke L.A. (24) to a bitter cheerleading coach with a secret agenda (Glee). The more mysterious the greater evil is, the better. Even the name is best left ambiguous, (think the Company on both Heroes and Prison Break or the Others on Lost). The common goal or the greater evil is best if it threatens cataclysmic consequences—something on a large scale that stands to affect many people.
Rule #3: The writers should be under the assumption that the average viewer is actually intelligent. Thus, characters must speak as people do in real life.
Conversation between characters must be believable. It should not involve stating the obvious, recapping previous events, providing lengthy exposition or pointing out things the audience should be smart enough to pick up on themselves. One of the oldest axioms in screenwriting is “show don’t tell,” yet writers continue to tell. Less dialogue usually accomplishes more.
There are a few words and phrases writers still incorporate into teleplays that should be banished. For instance, people simply do not qualify their statements with “look,” or “listen.” And if there are only two people in a room, one person is probably not going to utter the other person’s name during the course of conversation (unless that person has just finished reading How to Win Friends and Influence People).
Rule #4: The show’s underlying themes must pose interesting new questions about the nature of humanity and the meaning of life.
Audiences actually want to be encouraged to think when watching television. The recent Battlestar Galactica remake would not have scored with audiences were it void of military and political themes—not to mention its running commentary on what it means to be human. To become a hit, your show must include intelligent, thought-provoking ideas.
And just because we live in a pluralistic society doesn’t negate the fact that, at a subconscious level, we want to explore religious ideas. Audiences have proven time and again that they gravitate toward storylines that involve faith, spirituality, morality, ethics, and the meaning of life.
Rule #5: When a character is a hit with fans, give him or her more screen time. If the fans dislike a character, write the character out. The same goes for a specific romantic pairing.
This rule, also known as the “Michael Emerson Rule,” is a direct result of the Internet age. When Michael Emerson joined the cast of Lost as Henry Gale he was only slated to be on the show for a couple episodes. But there was such a buzz about his performance on message boards, fan sites, and podcasts that the writers developed a new role for him and he is now one of the most fascinating, complex characters on Lost.
On the other hand, if you notice that a particular character or romantic pairing is making negative waves among fans (think Gizzy on Grey’s Anatomy), forget the plan and appease the viewers.
Rule #6: Shock the viewers. Do it rarely. Make it count.
After a television series is over and done, viewers will likely only recall a couple of scenes from the many episodes they watched. Those scenes are almost always the shockers—game-changers that made jaws drop and had people buzzing.
This rule is also known as the “Teri Bauer’s Dead Rule.” Nobody saw it coming in the final scene of the 24 season one finale when Jack Bauer’s trusted sidekick Nina murdered his wife in cold blood. It was the shot heard ‘round the primetime world and instantly elevated the show to “must-see” status. That status is the reason shockers were invented.
Rule #7: If new characters are introduced after the first season of a show they must be integrated into the old group of characters the way a sketchy friend of a friend would be integrated into a super tight clique: very slowly and with a good deal of debate and skepticism.
When new characters are introduced into a show, some members of the original cast must clearly articulate what the viewers are already thinking: “Just who the hell do these people think they are?” Any attempts at a seamless inclusion into the primary cast will not be well received. Viewers don’t like change.
Audiences can accept the death of a primary character followed by the introduction of a new/replacement character if, and only if, a few conditions are met: 1) there cannot be more than one main character death per season; 2) the character who dies must not be a fan favorite;
3) the death must be necessary and believable, not melodramatic or trite; and 4) the audience must be given a few episodes to grieve prior to the introduction of the new/replacement character.
Rule #8: Romantic storylines are acceptable in small doses. Relationships should be grounded in reality.
If viewers want to see relationships in constant turmoil they’ll set their DVRs for Days of Our Lives. Primetime relationships must progress beyond romantic angst and drama. Most viewers will best identify with real, down-to-earth romances where people have identities beyond their sexuality.
Most viewers are in happy, well-adjusted relationships where their primary struggles involve communication and external stresses such as family and money. Using these struggles to depict relational tension rather than the constant threat of an affair will go further to hook the audience long-term.
Shows That Broke the Rules
Now that the Eight Simple Rules for Creating a Primetime Hit have been laid out, let’s examine four different shows that began by following the rules—thus gaining a large and loyal following—only to later break the rules and take a nosedive in ratings.
Prison Break – The reason everyone loved that first season of Prison Break is because the show respected the rules. The large, multi-ethnic, mostly male cast was very diverse in age and background. The plot in season one provided both a common goal to achieve and a greater evil to fight. The inmates needed to escape Fox River Penitentiary, and they had to get past the sadistic guards to do it.
Other rules followed:
• Rule #5. After T-Bag became a hit with fans, the producers used him more.
• Rule #8. The romantic thread between Michael and Sarah was kept marginal.
• Rule #4. The “meaning of freedom” theme was clear but not obnoxious.
The show’s second season had an uphill battle to fight. The main cast of characters had already achieved the goal of escaping Fox River—so the primary plot that had originally hooked viewers vanished. The writers tried to redeem this by creating a new common goal: Uncovering a hidden stash of money. This goal wasn’t cataclysmic enough to satisfy fans. By the time the writers introduced a new greater evil (the “Company” in season three), the show had already lost most of its audience.
Other rules broken:
• Rule #6. The shock of Sara’s head being cut off was exciting… until… oh wait, that wasn’t her head after all.
• Rule #5. When a stereotyped hard-ass female agent named Gretchen was introduced in season three, she was written too sexy and too coy to be remotely believable. Any intelligent viewers still left in the fan community were immediately vocal about their distaste for her. The producers didn’t listen and kept her as part of the cast.
Heroes – Heroes might be the saddest example of all shows because nearly every rule was kept during the first season. So when the show did fall from grace, its fall was as long and disturbing as Peter Petrelli’s first attempt at flight.
The Heroes cast was as brilliantly diverse as any cast has even been. Viewers even got regular glimpses into cultures across the globe (think Mohinder’s family in India, Hiro’s family in Asia, etc.). The age range of the characters was equally broad, from Angela Petrelli all the way down to Claire.
Other Rules Followed
• Rule #2. The plot was well crafted because, like Prison Break, it incorporated both a common goal (Save the Cheerleader) and a greater evil (Sylar) in a way that was cataclysmic in nature (Save the World).
• Rule #5. After fans embraced characters such as Hiro and HRG, they were written more heavily into the show.
The writers kicked off the second season by breaking rule #7 when they introduced two new characters in the first scene of the season premiere. They continued to break nearly every rule during the show’s second season. Without a pending apocalypse and no clear-cut evil to fight, the Heroes plot formed a confusing web of nonsense. Storylines became so silly that even diehard fans couldn’t stomach them.
Other rules broken:
• Rule #4. The destiny theme became cheesier as the heroes waxed on about their circumstances.
• Rule #3. See above. The dialogue sucked.
• Rule #5. Fan favorites were given bizarre and boring storylines. (Anyone recall Hiro stuck in the past for half a season?)
24 – The show was epic in scope and remained fairly strong for a few seasons with only minor exceptions, (e.g., Kim Bauer vs. the cougar). CTU agents and government officials always worked toward a common goal which also involved stopping a greater evil.
Other rules followed:
• Rule #6. The 24 writers set the “shock standard” with Teri Bauer’s death on the season one finale. Then, in season three, they managed to shock yet again when Jack Bauer pulled out a gun and shot his boss Ryan Chapelle at point blank range.
• Rule #5. When quirky geek Chloe scored big with fans, she took a more significant role in the show. And after fans complained about the purposelessness of Jack’s daughter Kim, she was written out.
During season five the writers didn’t adhere to the stipulations for killing off main characters (as noted under Rule #7). They killed off too many characters in questionable ways and the long, slow decline began. Before long, even Jack Bauer trivia buffs were slipping sheepishly past the water cooler on Tuesday mornings.
When the producers announced that season six would “no longer focus on Jack trying to save the world” but rather on him “trying to save the people closest to him,” it didn’t take a CTU agent to recognize they were concocting a formula for disaster. Jack fixed things on a big scale, not a small one.
Other rules broken:
• Rule #7. When the writers decided the greater evil in season six would include Jack’s never-before-mentioned father and brother, viewers shook their heads in disbelief.
• Rule #6. Though the 24 producers inspired this rule, they also broke it when they decided to bring the previously dead Tony Almeida back to life in season 7.
Grey’s Anatomy – During Grey’s Anatomy seasons one and two, people couldn’t stop buzzing about the medical show that eclipsed all other hospital dramas. From the onset, Grey’s Anatomy followed Rules #1 and #3 to a near perfect degree. The cast was brilliantly diverse and interesting to look at. The males greatly outnumbered the females and the sex appeal weighed heavily toward the male gender. Add to all this writers who could write excellent dialogue and it’s no surprise that Grey’s had a cult-like pull on viewers.
Other rules followed:
• Rule #5. When characters such as Bailey, Callie, and Addison became fan favorites, they were given more screen time. When a poor romantic pairing (Gizzy) made fans cringe, it was put on the backburner.
• Rule #6. Several great shockers kept viewers entranced. Watching a bomb blow a man into millions of pieces is a TV moment that’s hard to forget. And fans who stuck with the show even after its decline were finally rewarded for their loyalty with the “George-getting-hit-by-a-bus” shocker on last season’s finale.
Season three marked a tough transition for Grey’s when new character Lexie Grey was revealed as Meredith’s sister and the prosaic plot became rife with cliché family drama.
Other Rules Broken:
• Rule #5. As Meredith got more whiny and obnoxious she needed to be given less screen time. But this didn’t happen.
• Rule #8. McSteamy made it sexy to be a slut—which would have been permissible if everyone else at Seattle Grace hadn’t followed in his footsteps. The more the doctors all appeared interested in one thing and one thing only, the more the show played out like an implausible juvenile soap opera.
Fates Yet To Be Determined
The three shows that earned the most pre-season buzz this past fall were ones created with the rules in mind: Glee, V, and FlashForward. Though their ultimate fates are yet to be determined, several have already stumbled. The good news is there is still time to turn things around if showrunners exhibit a renewed willingness to play by the rules.
FlashForward – The large diverse cast and cataclysmic plot of Flashforward were on target from the pilot. Yet so far the show has been a bit of a disappointment. Paying close attention to these rules might make up for lost time:
• Rule #3. Between all the ridiculous verbal qualifiers and recaps, the Flashfoward dialogue has never been believable. If the writing improved, so would the ratings.
• Rule #4. Theme is still a stumbling block for the show. The overused “destiny” motif has yet to be handled in an intelligent, unique way.
• Rule #8. Romantic relationships have been too great a focus.
Glee – A large, diverse cast seeking a fresh, fun common goal made Glee a show with a real shot at success. Though this success has been realized in part, the Glee writers and producers should pay close attention to these rules:
• Rule #5. Fan favorites should be given even more screen time (think Jane Lynch).
• Rule #4. Writers should dump the propaganda and deliver a new spin on the theme of what it means to be an outcast.
V – The show with the best chance for success in the coming years is V. The cast, plot, dialogue, and themes have been on point more often than not and no rules have been blatantly broken. V producers should pay close attention to these rules if they want the show to continue generating momentum:
• Rule #6. More shockers are needed to create a buzz.
• Rule #8. Romantic storylines (especially ones between human and alien) are not original and should be kept to a minimum.
The Model of Success
There is only one primetime show on television right now that has acquired both critical acclaim and an obsessive fan following. Lost is an international success that has won the allegiance of fans across the globe through the ups and downs of five seasons. Millions of viewers will experience the depth of the show’s title after the series finale airs in 2010.
How has Lost accomplished a feat so rarely seen in primetime? By following the rules, of course.
• Rule #1. The Lost cast has more than 30 characters at last count. These characters range greatly in age and ethnicity. The men outnumber the women.
• Rule #2. Each season unveils a new common goal and a new greater evil more insidious than the last. More and more layers are pulled back as the sides of good and evil are revealed.
• Rule #3. The Lost writers rarely write a line of extraneous dialogue. Character interactions are almost always believable.
• Rule #4. From the science of time travel to the philosophy of John Locke to the theories of B.F. Skinner, fans are treated to a comprehensive mythology that includes a hodgepodge of fascinating themes worthy of further research.
• Rule #5. Whether creating a new role for the Ben Linus character or killing off Nikki and Paulo, the Lost writers they’ve been consistently on point when it comes to utilizing fan favorites and dumping hated characters.
• Rule #6. The audience won’t soon forget the moment they realized they were watching a flash-forward instead of a flashback during the last scene of season three.
• Rule #7. Every time the writers have introduced new characters (e.g. the Others, the people on the Freighter), the newcomers have been viewed with great skepticism.
• Rule #8. While the Jack-Kate-Sawyer-Juliet quadrangle can get a bit nauseating at times, the writers have found a balance when it comes to romance—offering up a little when needed, but never at the expense of good storytelling.
Now you know Eight Simple Rules for Creating a Primetime Hit and how only one current show, by following these rules, has found great success. Viewers know what they want and they have spoken as loud as a swirling black cloud of smoke in the middle of an island jungle.