The Tube: March 2011

Conservative producer Joel Surnow’s eight-hour miniseries, The Kennedys, will now premiere in April on something called “ReelzChannel” after being rejected by the History Channel, the nework that originally commissioned it. Its citation-free depiction of Kennedy’s sexual shenanigans (including a scene in which Joseph Kennedy gropes his secretary while advocating U.S. compromise with Hitler) sparked preemptive outrage from prominent historians and inflamed the nation’s ever-growing pundit class. Despite staggering production costs, History Channel executives deemed the series unfit for its brand, effectively banishing miscast star Greg Kinnear’s painful Boston accent to the Cable TV hinterlands.

Surnow (24) has built a niche market out of conservative entertainment, with mixed results. Most of his work aims to correct the imbalance he perceives in political representations on television. The Kennedys serves as his right-wing response to CBS’ 2003 liberal screed The Reagans, while his dreadful Half Hour News Hour, from 2007, was billed as a “Daily Show for conservatives.”

At first glance, “uber-liberal” Hollywood seems like an ideal setting for an indignant conservative like Surnow, an appropriate boys’ room for him to smoke in. But his posturing only works on a superficial level. Hollywood is the most hyper-capitalistic address west of Wall Street and savvy deal-makers there aren’t exactly shoved to the margins. It’s an Arizona State frat party by the freeway. Its “B” and “C” lists are saturated with such Republicanism that A-listers like Barbra Streisand have to schmooze extra hard to conceal it.

Even television’s modus operandi is becoming increasingly Republican.

For generations, TV networks have ordered high-budget series from independent production companies and poured lots of money into assembling the best casts and launching the best marketing campaigns. Thus, throughout TV history, the profit incentive on dramatic series has been overwhelming. When this formula produces an ER or a West Wing, the costs are justified. But when it turns out a flop like The Kennedys, all that money goes to waste. The History Channel will never recoup the capital it spent on Surnow’s costly script rewrites or on Kinnear’s unqualified vocal coach.

Token Gen-Y writers at national news magazines label our current media landscape “democratized.” They’re right. The standard TV production model is outmoded and irrelevant. The cost of risk-taking is too high and hits come too few and far between. So forward-thinking executives now attack the problem with some very conservative strategies.

FX president (and Rupert Murdoch employee) John Landgraf orders more pilots than any executive in television. He keeps the budgets low and minimizes risk. While other networks allow producers like Joel Surnow to steer big-budget prestige projects into icebergs, Landgraf instead hopes that one of his numerous low-cost ventures will generate positive word of mouth and succeed on Hulu or iTunes. His cost-cutting measures are downright Reaganomical and his strategy reflects a fundamental faith in the marketplace.

By keeping his budgets so low, Landgraf avoids bigger production companies and their high commission demands, instead handing his capital directly to the creative teams responsible for writing and producing his pilots. He cuts out the middle men like a true free-market fundamentalist, dodging all the petty “industry” concerns that render big production companies so unproductive. He values innovation (famously greenlighting It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia after seeing a $200 digital short produced by creators of the show) and entrepreneurship (granting comedian Louis C.K. just $250,000 and some cameras to shoot the pilot for his now-hit series Louie.) And he fights government agencies tooth and nail to keep censorship and archaic content guidelines away from basic cable.

Landgraf has already lectured on his theories at the Museum of Television and Radio. Media pundits and fellow Hollywood executives are taking note. His playbook represents the future of a medium that many insiders believe lacks one, a last-ditch remedy for an overpopulated, bureaucratized market.

While Joel Surnow congratulates himself for taking on the Kennedys (in 2011), John Landgraf brings conservative strategy to the world of scripted entertainment–and it’s working. Surnow plays blustering idiot to Landgraf’s shrewd behind-the-scenes innovator, dealing in standard industry tropes while Landgraf changes the way the game is played. The death of The Kennedys, in light of Landgraf’s success, should send Surnow an unequivocal message: Stop swaggering like a conservative and start producing like one.

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