By Bill Carter
May 2006, 384 pp., $26.95
In the late-1980s cult classic UHF, the bumbling janitor at a rundown local TV station wanders into a studio, steps in front of a live camera, and instantly catapults the channel to the top of the ratings. It's pure Hollywood fantasy, but after reading Desperate Networks—an inside look at the outrageous and mercurial business of network television, where the "smoking hot hit" is the only real currency—you might take UHF for a documentary.
The book lays out in telling detail how the shows that transformed the fortunes of the major networks in the last few years—CSI, Survivor, American Idol, Desperate Housewives, and Lost—came to be. Every network, often including the one that ultimately bought the show, initially passed on these megahits. Mark Burnett's Survivor rode the merry-go-round of rejection from ABC to CBS, NBC, Fox, and back again. The numbing chorus from risk-averse executives? "We don't know this guy; let's pass." Only after Burnett secured his own sponsors and sacrificed his paycheck was his show grudgingly picked up by CBS. Meanwhile, Marc Cherry, Hollywood's Job, was broke, approaching 40, and living with his mom when he got an idea for a show about disenchanted married women adrift in suburbia. He called it Desperate Housewives. For many, the freshness of his idea didn't matter given the no-name attached to it. As Bill Carter writes, "Network executives want something that is not yet on the air—only after it actually is on the air and has proven itself by bringing in viewers."
Even when the dream starts at the top, as was the case with then-ABC honcho Lloyd Braun and Lost, the dreamer still has to do the heavy lifting himself. Braun ultimately lost his job in part because of his determination to get Lost on the air, but despite being kicked to the curb, he was reportedly still calling in favors in a tortured quest to save his baby. In a poetic twist, the show's grateful producers use Braun's voice to introduce each episode.
Such juicy inside detail is exactly why Desperate Networks works. But its case studies of the determined pursuit of creative vision come wrapped in a narrative that reads like a dime-store potboiler. Carter, a veteran New York Times reporter on the TV beat, chokes his breathless prose with clichés and mixed metaphors. Look past the clunkers, and Desperate Networks shows that for all the strategy that goes into script selection and scheduling, even the best ideas ultimately make it primarily because of luck, mixed with a heaping measure of guile.
A literary history for the entertainment addicted, including the next book in the lineage.
Adventures in the Screen Trade → The Evening News: A Novel → So You Want to Be a Producer → Desperate Networks → Hello, the Agent Lied
A version of this article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.