Bad Morning Television

It was upon returning to my hotel room at 5 in the morning after seeing some of the best and oldest bluesmen in Chicago and celebrating the existence of an L-train with a trip to a 7-11 to get some cheese-filled-bread (or bread-filled-cheese) with a side dish of whatever was left on the room service tray a few doors down and being confronted with the blurry, blobby outline of Tony Danza that I came to a grave realisation. In the land of 24-hour business, late licensing, and all-night dining, there’s nothing on TV in the middle of the night. So why have two major TV events recently debuted in the early hours of the morning?

Last November the comedy short Too Many Cooks aired around 4am during the infomercial block on Adult Swim, the late night version of Cartoon Network. A parody of both the opening credits of 1980s sitcoms and the insanely dark and genre-bending possibilities of TV comedy in that decade (and before you dismiss it as exaggerated, remember that ALF was dissected by the government in the finale), Too Many Cooks became a viral video smash and was repeated each day at midnight for the next week. The perverse choice of a graveyard slot more or less guaranteed the short’s success, not only because re-run and internet re-circulation was necessary, but also because there was no competition.

Adult Swim seemed to cotton on to the fact that there’s an undiscovered country of television between the hours of 1 and 6 in the morning. I understand why they’d want to be the pioneers, but I don’t understand why there’s not a frontier-style rush to claim territory from every other producer in TV. If the entertainment market is so damn saturated, why not get a head-start by putting out your show in the vast wasteland of unused hours in the TV day? For once, having a variety of media platforms to re-play TV on is a blessing, since audiences will need and want to see your show again once they hear they’ve missed out.

It’s surprising that the networks haven’t come to these conclusions already, since they’ve had such great success by pushing their best programming later and later in the evening. The 11 o’clock talk show is an institution that has spread to virtually every channel in the schedule and their midnight sister programmes aren’t far behind. This weekend NBC celebrated 40 years of Saturday Night Live (ironically on Sunday and in primetime), a show which begins at 11.30pm and runs to 1.30 in the morning. This isn’t, as I once thought, because Americans stay out or go to bed later, but because it’s untapped resources. In Britain at this hour, they start playing movies starring Eric Roberts.

And what if you actually need to bury a show? There was surprise in early February when FXX aired a pilot for a series based on the popular Wheel of Time fantasy novels by Robert Jordan at 1.30am. Not only do the books have a huge fan-base, but with Game of Thrones still going strong, there’s a deep well of fantasy (probably with a goblin in it) that everyone in TV can draw water from. It soon became clear, however, that the air time wasn’t a stunt to get the show ahead of the competition but to keep it firmly under the radar, being the best all-round solution to legal issues facing such a project.

The television rights to the books were to revert to a new owner on February 11 (two days after airing) and so the previous owners were probably trying to get something based on the books out on TV before that happened. Author Jordan’s widow has contested the claims of the producers to the rights and they are threatening legal action. Interestingly, FXX were able to offload responsibility by treating the pilot as ‘client-supplied programming’ i.e. an infomercial. If you’ve got a show mired in legal trouble, 1.30 in the morning is clearly the place for it. The Wheel of Time pilot used the early-morning hours as a dumping ground for toxic material but it still shares similarities with Too Many Cooks’ deployment of late TV.

Both programmes traded on the idea that anyone watching at that hour can’t be sure of what they’ve seen; one for comic effect, the other for legal protection. With each one, being mistaken for a promo or infomercial actually helped. It makes financial and creative sense. Why still the hesitation?

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