When TV Brands Go Off Brand

9:14 PM PST 11/23/2010 by Tim Goodman
Patrick McElhenney/FX
The buddy-cop drama “Terriers” doesn’t quite fit in with other FX shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Rescue Me” and “The Shield.”

FX’s "Terriers" is the latest example of what happens when even good shows don’t conform to a channel’s clear identity.

There was a time when, if you were flipping through the TV universe, you could spot a CBS comedy with the volume off. Heavy husband, good looking and sassy wife, brightly lit stage. Not much has changed (though the fat husbands are on the decline) in that CBS remains adamant about traditional multicamera sitcoms with a laugh track or an egregiously giggly studio audience to sweeten the punchline payoffs. As a brand, it works.

Even better branding is the fact that CBS is home to the time-honored procedural, mostly about crime and punishment. Few networks have believed in that drama form more than CBS, and few have managed to continually produce so many hits with it. Why? Because that’s the CBS brand. It’s what the audience knows it will get. Better yet, it’s what the audience wants.

Although the audience for broadcast television doesn’t seem to explicitly understand that each network has a brand of some sort — a type of show it uses to lure the kind of viewers it wants — subconsciously they must. That is, unless a network strays so far from what it wants to be or what it’s perceived to be that nobody in their right mind can figure out the hidden identity.

Branding is a little more blatant on the cable side, where HBO once wasn’t even TV, it was just HBO. Story apparently matters at AMC (just not slow stories). And TBS is “very funny,” though for the longest time that was merely wishful thinking. Two cable channels that have carved out a brand through a consistent identity in their programming are FX and Showtime. FX has yet to make a series that isn’t for mature audiences, and Showtime hasn’t found a topic too hot to tackle.

But the branding can cut both ways.

It might not take a miracle, but it will definitely take a last-minute reprieve if FX’s superb but barely seen Terriers gets renewed for a second season. There are fans who have held on from the start and now are praying for renewal, and there are critics who liked the show at the start who now love it and are beating the drums to draw in a bigger audience.

Good luck with that.

The series is averaging roughly 500,000 viewers each episode, and FX just doesn’t have the kind of largesse to let that stand. The basic-cable channel has one of the industry’s most impressive track records for launching quality shows, but it doesn’t have the budget to be patient with a series that might be blooming too late. And so the question is, what happened? Why hasn’t Terriers captured the imagination of viewers?

Sure, you can blame the name, which didn’t help sell the concept of two low-rent private investigators catching the case of a lifetime and redefining “buddy series” along the way. And the show didn’t exactly come out of the gate with guns blazing like FX’s Sons of Anarchy.

But there is a lot there to love. The acting from leads Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James is impressive, particularly how they spin the witty banter from creator Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven, Matchstick Men) and the show’s writers. And despite the sluggish start, subsequent episodes began to flesh out the intent of the series, making it part drama, part comedy, heavy on the buddy element but also surprisingly deep and soulful as the characters took root.

No, the real problem with Terriersis that it doesn’t reflect the FX brand. More accurately, it took way too long to reflect that brand. When you think FX, you think The Shield and Rescue Me. You think It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and even the animated Archer. Series on FX have balls, no question about it. They are aggro, not Zen. The shows on that channel are rated MA for a reason. Although an argument could be made that the engaging and captivating Justified, with a few tweaks, also might be a network series, there’s a notable difference. In the pilot, blood was spilled, a rocket launcher went off, and Timothy Olyphant inhabited his character with such distinction that you knew he was a badass with a badge and no hesitation on the trigger.

In short, an FX series.

In Terriers, no amount of clever riffing can mask that it’s about as edgy as Murder, She Wrote. Executive producer Shawn Ryan made it clear he didn’t want to do another show as savagely bleak as Shield, and credit him with steering Griffin’s vision to stellar heights. The show just always has felt out of place.

And that certainly speaks to the power of a brand. It’s less of an indictment of Terriers and more affirmation that FX has almost always been on point.

Staying true to your brand is an issue that’s always in play in the TV industry, even if certain players believe their network truly is a “broadcaster” and capable of being all things to all people. Not so. Even CBS, far and away the network that best understands its audience and programs with alarming accuracy directly to it, has suffered a few hiccups along the way by veering off-brand.

Jericho? No. Swingtown? No. And bless Nina Tassler’s Broadway-loving heart, but Viva Laughlin? No, no and no.

This is not at all to pick on CBS, because the programming efficiency there is scary. It’s just to note that even when a successful network tries to shake things up, sometimes the brand won’t let it. For example, in 2006, CBS aired Love Monkey, a hip and engaging series starring Tom Cavanagh as a music scout. Everybody in the cast worked — from Jason Priestley (in one of his best roles) to Judy Greer, Larenz Tate and Eric Bogosian — but CBS didn’t have any other series quite like it, so it stood out in the wrong kind of way.

In 2007, Fox aired the Steve Levitan comedy Back to You, starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton. But that’s when Fox decided to go against its brand and become CBS Lite, and the series never had a pulse. If Back to You had been on CBS, it would still be running.

It appears that Fox might finally have rediscovered what its brand was all about — having lost it in the desert or the closet for years, especially when it came to comedy. (There was a time when no other network was as clearly and cleverly branded as Fox, but then it tried to grow up.) Is Raising Hope a Fox show? Yes. Was ’Til Death? God no. But it took Fox four long and laughless seasons to figure that out.

The strange thing here is that broadcast networks love to talk about “the brand” but frequently greenlight pilots that should be on other networks. Is this a case of being blind to what works or adamant about expanding boundaries? Maybe both. It could be argued that CBS reloads instead of relaunches because it understands its audience so well and, in turn, that audience knows what to expect from CBS, so it’s brand loyal. NBC and ABC are less defined in their brands, with Fox slightly better focused, but all of them essentially are begging for new viewers (from the same pool) every time they premiere a show.

Who’s to say a strict brand is a good thing, however? Take a look at HBO and ask yourself what’s going on over there? Lots of good stuff, no doubt. But any channel that runs Bored to Death next to Eastbound & Down feels pretty comfortable wearing plaid and paisley. How do you market that? “From the network that brought you The Pacific… and Flight of the Conchords.” What? Maybe undefinable diversity is an asset, not a drawback. (That said, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency should have been on CBS.)

Sometimes branding works so well that it can grow static. Robert Greenblatt may have accomplished one of the greatest branding turnarounds in recent times by taking Showtime from a movie channel that also made original movies to a purveyor of unique original series. Greenblatt was so successful that he made “HBO or Showtime?” a legitimate question among debating subscribers. But when he left Showtime during the summer, the channel had become all too predictable in its black humor-heavy half-hour “comedies” starring women of a certain age. It was a remarkable formula, but with the shows more bleak than funny, it eventually reached a level of eye-rolling humor when The Big C was announced. Of course it would star the amazing Laura Linney (joining Mary-Louise Parker, Edie Falco and Toni Collette before her), and of course she would have cancer. With drug-dealing mom, addicted-nurse mom and multiple-personality mom already on the bench, it was clear that cancer mom was the next up. Weeds, Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara are fine shows, but there’s a pattern here. Now it’s David Nevins’ job to rebrand Showtime as something else.

So it goes in the business. Don’t shed a tear for obvious misfits, but spare some sympathy for a quality series like Terriers, which might be a casualty of “one of these is not like the others.”      

TIM GOODMAN ON TV BRANDS: NETWORK PLANS VS. REALITY
Often executives and the public see it different ways - or not at all

IFC
Brand Identity: "Always on. Slightly off."       
Reality: Good place to find a JIm Jarmusch film when you're stoned.

ESPN
Brand Identity: "The worldwide leader in sports."
Reality: The worldwide leader in sports - with an East Coast bias.

TBS
Brand identity: "Very funny."
Reality: Home of Coco. And reruns.

Bravo
Brand Identity: Um?
Reality: Mishmash of reality shows.

A&E
Brand Identity: "Real life. Drama."
Reality: Wasn't this an arts and entertainment channel once?

ABC
Brand Identity: Uh, comedy and shows for women?
Reality: Shows for women.

NBC
Brand Identity: Are you kidding? Have they had a campaign since "Must-see TV"? OK, how about upscale young city dwellers?         
Reality: The Hindenburg, Titanic or the Network That Killed Coco.

Fox
Brand Identity: "So Fox."
Reality: So CBS Lite. Sunday cartoons. Sports.

The CW
Brand Identity: "TV to talk about"
Reality: The who? That channel for young girls.

TLC
Brand Identity: "Family, home, style, cooking."
Reality: Shower after watching.

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