See Chevy Chase Jump For Joy
This began as a comment over on Todd VanDerWerff's article about showrunners at the AVClub. If you haven't read that, you should. If you have read it and saw a really long and obnoxious comment about six pages in, then you might be experiencing Deja Vu. And if you read the article but didn't see the comment, then this may feel a bit like Vuja De.
(Although for you second timers, I have expanded the comment quite a bit, which is not necessarily a glowing endorsement for reading it, I suppose.)
For those uninterested in the original article, in it Todd discussed Dan Harmon's being fired from Community in terms of other famous showrunner/studio fights that went badly and/or public, such as those on Moonlighting and MASH, and also in terms of those that flew by under the radar, such as when the Cheers creators were forced out. He also throws in some stuff about the fight AMC had with Matt Weiner over Mad Men, the fight AMC had with Frank Darabont over The Walking Dead, and basically all the fights AMC has with everyone, possibly including random strangers AMC executives accost on the street. AMC's like the network version of Travis Bickle.
It's an interesting article, and it's notable especially for a section dealing with the difference between being a Creator and a Manager when it comes to running a television show. What it's not notable for, to me, is having anything to do with the situation over Dan Harmon getting fired by Sony. There is a major difference here between Community and every other show Todd mentions, which is this: All of those shows were hits. They were either just becoming hits, were established hits, or were hits that their studios were panicking over because they were fading fast.
And obviously, "hit" is a loosely defined term, as Mad Men draws few viewers, yet is a hit all the same for AMC. People can quibble over how much money such a relatively low rated show can generate, but it's obviously quite a bit if AMC was willing to cave in and give Matt the Weiner the tens of millions of dollars he wanted.
Anyway, Community itself is much different because it was never a hit, and so this firing of Harmon has nothing to do with trying to maintain or reestablish a hit show by altering it's creative direction. This was more about minimizing heartburn while nursing a dying animal to market before it croaks on you. In other words, I just find it very hard to believe this Harmon/Sony snit was about changing the direction of the show in order to keep it alive long term. I think this is about having fewer headaches during what Sony believes will be the final push/season to get to them to syndication.
For those who don't know, syndication is the golden calf of television. No matter the show, being able to sell it to television stations so that they can "strip" it all week (playing it at the same time Mondays through Fridays) makes more money for a production studio than anything else. A show like Community isn't going to reap a Seinfeld type billion dollar bonanza, but the difference between syndication and no syndication is many millions of dollars. And for giant corporations like Sony, even tens of dollars matter. Companies that big watch their bottom lines very carefully, and they are looking to maximize revenue every way possible. If the call is between not getting syndication money or getting it, then it's no call at all. Once that finish line is in sight, that becomes a studio's primary goal to the exclusion of all else.
In the old days, it took 100 episodes to reach that magic "stripping" level of syndication. More recently, the number everyone has been looking to reach is 88 episodes, which just so happens to be four seasons worth of episodes for a normal show order of 22 episodes per season. But in the past year or two, studios have begun to think anything in the 80 range is likely enough for them to work out some sort of syndication deal. More is always better, but anything is better than nothing.
As it stands today, with a mere 71 episodes in the can, Community is much more likely to eek out a less lucrative deal with a Comedy Central than the bigger dollar payday a deal with a TBS would provide them, so at least getting through one last 13 episode season is crucial to Sony. I think that is much more their thinking here than is the idea that they can replace Harmon now and suddenly revitalize the show into something that will reach another season or two on NBC.
Sure, maybe Sony is hoping a creative change for this incredibly low rated show will maintain or achieve a ratings level long enough to get NBC to give them 4 more (or even 9 more) episodes past that initial order of 13, thus getting them to the magic number of 88 or above, but that would have to be the maximum upside anyone at Sony is realistically considering. And even if this particular studio pulling this sort of palace coup were looked at in the light of past moves of this nature, Community is a different beast entirely from the Moonlightings and MASHes of the world. It's ratings are so low (perhaps the lowest rated show to ever be renewed by a major broadcast network), and it's new time slot on Friday is so bereft of potential new viewers, that Sony must understand that whatever miniscule number of new fans they might entice by broadening the humor on the show will very likely be offset by Harmon loving fans defecting away (as I plan to do unless someone like Todd V. tells me this fall that the show is just as brilliant sans Harmon, which I seriously doubt he will end up telling me).
So, unlike all the examples in the AVClub article, this was not a move made for long term reasons. I cannot seriously entertain the idea that anyone at Sony thinks Community will suddenly become broad based, or that there will ever be a season five, let alone anything beyond that. Oh, maybe secretly the Sony execs hope (in that small part of their heart that doesn't bleed black oil) that Community can tick up enough that it draws a ratings number that makes it decent Friday fare that is worth bringing back for yet another season, but there is no way that's a primary motivation here.
No, this isn't really about the long term prospects of this show. This is all about not having to deal with Dan Harmon during this very short time where this failed show (in terms of ratings, people, not creativity) reaches that promised land of stripped syndication, reaping Sony at least a small pot o' money that they probably never in their wildest imagination expected to see back during S2, which would have originally been the final season of Community had not NBC's entire lineup been in the toilet, and had not Sony already agreed to slash their asking price once they realized that a third season would put them in sniffing distance of reaching syndication.
So this isn't about changing the show for any serious reason other than for not allowing anything to fuck up Sony's reaching a goal they probably never seriously believed they could reach until just a few months ago, when it suddenly became apparent that NBC was still so fucked that they might just be willing to keep Community around for one more pathetically rated season, allowing NBC to have one less half hour to think about while they went about fixing all the black holes in their lineup that they still had yet to fix during the past two years.
The sad thing here is that back when Community first returned from it's very long winter hiatus, it actually appeared that Harmon himself was going to be able to stabilize Community's ratings at level that would get Sony that fourth season and all its future syndication gold. For one brief week, Community's ratings spiked upwards and made it seem that the show might be one of the least of NBC problems. But then the ratings came crashing back down, and as the show closed out its season with some of the most expensive episodes they produced this year, Community went out with three shows in a row that matched the lowest ratings it had ever received.
With the hopes that a magical ratings miracle would get them to 80-something episodes dashed, Sony likely moved to cover their bets with NBC by offering them an even cheaper deal for a fourth season than they did for the third, and NBC still only responded with a 13 episode renewal and a move to Friday nights.
So now Sony found itself in a position were they were slashing the budget for the show yet again, which is something they had reportedly been butting heads with Harmon about all year long, and now they had to seriously worry that perhaps they might not actually end up reaching any number worthy of syndication. Maybe the show gets all 13 episodes next year on Fridays, but maybe not. Friday is a lower bar to clear in terms of ratings, but it's also a night where ratings can crater quickly. In my last post I wrote that Sony probably doesn't care what the ratings are next season so long as they get their 13 episodes, and that NBC probably doesn't care either so long as Sony isn't charging them more than the most minimal amount for Community's fourth season. But anything can happen. Maybe the ratings go so low that even NBC has to cancel it after three episodes. Or maybe NBC has a miracle resurgence (HA-HA-HA-HA-HA) and can thus afford to just dump Community before it finishes it's shortened fourth season run.
Or maybe Dan Harmon has another very public episode even worse than playing private Chevy Chase voicemails in public. Maybe Dan Harmon does something so crazy that it ends up causing NBC to say, "You know what, fuck it! We don't want a season four of Community. We are tired of the nonsense, and even changing showrunners at this point is pointless."
Likely? Probably not. Possible? Absolutely. And even if it's only a 1% chance, that's a chance on missing out on millions of dollars that Sony just does not have any reason to take. They don't need a good season of Community next year; they just need a completed season of Community next year. If it's in focus and in English, then it's going to be good enough for Sony.
And then, of course, there is that beyond the pale hope against hope that Community does at least well enough to get another handful of episodes ordered, allowing them to reach 88 or more episodes and not having to worry about setting a new bar of stripped syndication at 84 or fewer. It's not really likely, but it's not impossible on NBC. It could be a back nine order, getting Community up to 22. Or it could be back four order, which would put them right at 88. And I must even admit the extremely unlikely possibility that it could even be another 13 episode order for another season, either on NBC or, as with Cougar Town, another low rated cult hit, on TBS or some other basic cable network.
Again I say, is it likely? Probably not. But possible? Absolutely.
But none of that happens if Dan Harmon fucks it up, either through some sort of bizarre behavior that results in a negative publicity wave that makes it all untenable, or through continuing to drive away any mainstream viewers that are still watching while folding their laundry or shaving their cat (which has to be fewer than 12 people at this point, but I guess you never know for certain, as I honestly believed Community had reached its ratings low point last season, which turned out to be wishful thinking).
In any case, the idea of reaching that syndication deal has got to be serious for Sony. That has to be like found money for a studio that had to sweat out even the Season Two renewal, which wasn't a sure thing by any means despite Community pulling ratings back then that today would guarantee Community a renewal on NBC. But back then NBC was still under the mass delusion that they were a major broadcast network, and so back then everyone was on pins and needles waiting to see if Community could even get that second season. Back then this idea of syndication wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye, and so right now there is no way that isn't priority #1 for Sony.
How close was Community to getting cancelled after it's first year? Close enough for Dan Harmon to record the video at the top of this page, which shows him informing a clearly nervous cast about their renewal by telling them, "Sorry, you all have to work with Chevy Chase for another year."
Ahh, the halcyon days of the Chase-Harmon relationship, eh?
This firing wasn't a battle over the soul of the show, or even over what the network wanted creatively. Dan Harmon already won that battle for us, putting on the show he wanted to write and that we few (we happy few) wanted to see, apparently burning a few bridges at Sony in order to do so. So this firing wasn't like any of the previous famous showrunner ousters. It wasn't about Sony taking creative control of a once successful show in order to try and get more seasons out of it. No, this was about not having to deal with any more pain in the ass bullshit during what will likely be the last few months this show is ever in production. This was about making a near certain death decidedly more painless, rather than continuing on with what it sounds like was, for Sony anyway, an excruciating life.
And just in case you read this far without quitting early so you could start replying about what an asshole I am for saying mean, pragmatic things about Dan Harmon and his tenure as a showrunner, let me boldface this for you:
I FUCKING LOVE COMMUNITY! I AM DEVASTATED THAT HARMON GOT FIRED. I'D LIKE TO FREEZE HIM WHEN HE"S NOT WORKING IN ORDER TO EXTEND HIS LIFESPAN SO HE CAN PRODUCE GREAT SHOWS UNTIL THE YEAR 2223!
I want him to be the fucking Winter Soldier of television comedy.
But this was not a Cheers/MASH/Moonlighting situation. This was: "We just need to make it through another six months before we don't give a shit about this show anymore, so do we really need this pain in our balls around for that?"
Sadly, the business answer was no.