Interview: 'Cougar Town' producer Bill Lawrence on the mid-season move
"Cougar Town" co-creator Bill Lawrence blames himself, in a way, for the show being pushed to mid-season on ABC's new schedule, where it will air Tuesdays at 9 in between installments of "Dancing with the Stars," while "Happy Endings" takes up resident in the post-"Modern Family" timeslot Wednesdays at 9:30.
Lawrence has a development deal with Warner Bros., which means next season will likely be his last as a hands-on boss at "Cougar Town." And one of the things he wanted to accomplish before he handed the keys to Kevin Biegel was to try to establish the show as something that could stand on its own at the start of a half-hour. He'd been asking ABC president Paul Lee about it for a while; he just didn't necessarily expect it to happen this quickly, or with "Cougar Town" not airing at all in the season's early months.
I spoke with Lawrence this afternoon about the move, which he's known about for a few days, about what he learned from the seasons when "Scrubs" aired at mid-season, and about how he and the cast and crew intend to continue the guerilla marketing they did during this season's mini-hiatus. As often happens with Bill, he talks a lot and I get in a word on occasion.
So how did you feel when you found out? Is it not a big deal for you to be on at mid-season?
I knew about this a little beforehand, and I'll paraphrase what I wrote to the cast and the writers. I said I feel like I brought this on in a good way, which is I've been hounding Paul to give us a chance to lead off an hour. I think that's important. I don't know if you're a retention guy or a ratings guy. I'm happy for "Happy Endings," which has a bunch of "Scrubs" people working on it, but one of the things they'll find out about their lead-in is that if you can't retain that ridiculously high number you get as a hit, every Thursday for a year you get to see Marc Berman's column say you're a giant loser and shouldn't be on television. "The Middle" is rightly called a hit with a 2.0 (demographic) rating at 8, and the only way we'll know if this show is worth any money is if we lead off an hour. If we have a core audience and can get a 2 or a 2.4, then the show is a giant success.
I'm not totally spinning. If I could have designed what I wanted to have happen this year, it would've been to be on after "Modern Family" until "Dancing" went off and then go to Tuesday. My hope would be that that happened, that we would get our old timeslot for the first month and a half. My fear is that we would just be listed as a mid-season show. Coming on after the holidays would be too big a gap. This didn't really bum me out.
I know for a fact that "Apartment 23" is one of their favorite new sitcoms, if not their favorite new sitcom, and we're on with them. Somebody in the cast said, "Wouldn't it bum you out if you continue on into the summer?" I said, "You're talking to me as a guy who feels like these last two episodes of our season are our strongest, but they're now against two-hour episodes of 'American Idol' and will be absolutely obliterated. Maybe they'll only be watched on DVRs." To me, I'm a guy who is still intrigued why they don't just roll out shows year-round. 10 years ago, I would see FOX roll out shows in August, and it actually worked. I'm looking at this last TV season, and if I could go back in time and run a network for a year, I would take a show like "The Chicago Code" or "Lone Star" and find a place where I could roll them out where there was no pressure on them, where they weren't being overwhelmed by the masses. Give them a chance to get a toehold and develop creatively.
It's a long-winded answer, but this stuff doesn't really bother me. "Scrubs," when we got rolled out for mid-season back on NBC, it really helped us. Here, let me read to you from that e-mail I sent: "The positives: our show gets ruthlessly criticized following 'Modern Family' with lower numbers. If we get those numbers leading off an hour, you get praised. The network will have no money for promoting old shows in the fall other than 'Modern Family,' so we'll be ignored, while we might actually get a push at mid-season. The only negatives, for real, is that it feels shitty." I'm on the phone with you, in part, because all my friends are TV writers, and for the next few weeks, they walk up to you like you just got diagnosed with cancer. "Oh, you got moved to mid-season. I'm sorry..." This is a town of negative perception. To me, the only negative is being off the air for so long.
You wound up in this exact timeslot, airing in between two "Dancing" seasons, with that final "Scrubs Med" season of "Scrubs," and ABC gave up on that partway through the season and started airing episodes on other nights. Of course, that was a show that was dying, so will this be different?
That was a show that they did not believe in creatively, and it felt like a burn-off to me and everyone involved. This time, we are helping to launch a sitcom ("Apartment 23") that I'm quite honestly surprised isn't on the fall schedule. With a new president, he's not seeing this lightly. He sees this as a timeslot that has a winnable hour, if not an entire comedy bloc that, in success, could exist in the future.
Maybe I'm looking through rose-colored glasses
This morning, Paul said you still had a 22-episode order, but there aren't going to be 22 weeks in between "Dancing" seasons. He said he wasn't sure what to do with the leftovers yet, and that they might air in the summer or something. What has he told you?
All he's told me is that they'll air. Here's the thing that a network president can't say to you, especially on a day like today: in the best possible year ABC could hope for, two or three of the shows you're writing about this week will exist at the end of the season. That's the best possible outcome. Most of these shows will fail and need to be replaced, some of them in the middle of the season. Is a network president ever going to stand up and say, "By the end of the year, that 8:30 show isn't going to be working, we're going to bump it for 'Cougar Town'"? He can't say that. All I know is that our episodes aren't going to be held over for the following year. Our worst-case scenario doesn't bother me that much. If you do the math - and I like to do the math - you'd be looking at 3 or 4 episodes ending up in May or early June. And I could care less about that.
We talked a few weeks ago about all the viral marketing you did to keep "Cougar Town" fans engaged during the spring hiatus. Do you have any specific plans yet for what you'll do this time?
We're having a big old meeting this coming Monday to really talk about how to keep the show alive. I really enjoy the social media experiment, as to whether or not you can do anything other than on a limited basis market your show. If we can keep it alive, we're gonna. I also don't believe that this time is going to feel as long as our hiatus did this year. On some level, people that watch network television are still geared to shows start when they start. To me, our show is just starting in late fall rather than in the morass of premiere season. No spin, my only giant fear is that coming on completely forgotten is always risky.
We've talked before about how that first year when "Scrubs" was on at mid-season, you guys got really really weird with no audience feedback to play off of as you made the episodes.
"Scrubs" got weird because of that show's nature. The core message of what you're hitting on, that we'll do again, is we're going to do a show that cracks us up. When you're doing it this way, it removes you a little from network guidance of what your storytelling style is going to be. In the fall, you're only going to be on your 5th episode when your show premieres, and it becomes, "Well, people are responding to this, so do more of this, ditch this, give her more to do..." This way, there's less creative tinkering. So let's just make something that really makes us laugh.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com