Friday mailbag (March 17)


Welcome to the latest Friday mailbag! I write this installment as my wife browses Redfin and mumbles about the truly unfortunate interior decorating choices of the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. Myself, I enjoy green, velvet curtains hung everywhere, and I don't care who knows it.

Emily writes, pivoting off my last newsletter:

I have watched a lot of Paley Fest panels through their livestreams and YouTube channel. I always have a problem with Audience Q&As. What changes do you think Paley Fest needs to make or change in the future? The lineups for what shows will do panels seem to lessen in quality each year.

This, Emily, is a great question, because (as my wife constantly reminds me), I have plenty of thoughts about PaleyFest, which has never been the sort of thing I think it wants to be -- the definitive TV fan event -- while also avoiding being the thing it was founded to be (a celebration of the medium's present and past). In its present incarnation, it feels neither here nor there, especially in an era when Twitter and Instagram, in particular, have closed the gap between fans and creators enough that there's no real reason to pay lots of money for a ticket to an event where all you'll get to do is gaze on them from afar.

So that's left Paley trying to find shows that will get butts in seats, and that's meant doing fewer and fewer panels that reunite the cast of a historic show or even panels that look back at a particular era in TV history. And because of its unique influence (since it's associated with the broadcast museum) and location (Los Angeles), Paley could really overwhelm all over TV festivals if it wanted to. It just increasingly feels like it's chasing the place of prominence it had in the early 2000s, when it served as a kind of gateway to online fandom, Emmy campaign launchpad, and TV-centric Comic-Con (before Comic-Con was Comic-Con) all in one. I knew people who flew thousands of miles just to attend, and it was a must for the press. That's... not true any more.

And as Emily implies, Paley has pretty bad audience Q&As. To some degree, this is inevitable from audience Q&As -- audience questions usually fall into the category of "Assure me you're a regular person, giant star," "Please repeat this famous bit from the show," or "Can you tell me how you did [X] thing," where it's usually impossible to say -- but they're not demonstrably worse than the audience Q&As at Comic-Con or ATX or any other number of events. Audience members are just interested in kinda boring stuff. And networks LOVE the chance for their talent to interact with "the fans," so these are probably not going anywhere.

So if I were going to make one change to Paley to make it great again (and believe me, I have more than one change I'd like to make, but we don't want to be here all day), I would move it back to a smaller venue. It used to be in the Arclight Cinerama Dome, which holds 800+. That's where the very best Paley sessions I've ever attended (including one for the first season of Mad Men) were held, and the smaller crowd sizes also meant the festival could swing for the fences with smaller shows people didn't care wildly about but networks did want to get in the eye of Emmy voters, etc. (Mad Men in its first season, for instance. That theater was maybe half full.)

Now, the event is in much larger venues (the last Paley panel I attended -- Orange Is the New Black S1 -- was in the DOLBY, which holds 3400), and Paley feels the strain of trying to make it financially feasible. The days when Paley was a major newsmaker are probably over. Might as well go back to what it was in the start: a small-scale celebration.

(I haven't been following Paley all that closely. For all I know, they've already done this.)

Rae writes:

I have started doing some freelance writing, but I'm pretty early on in my career. I feel like I end up pitching stories either too close to a pop culture event (so coverage is already planned) or way too early before it (so no one is even thinking about it yet). I'm sure it changes, but do you think there a sweet spot when planning coverage of a movie or TV show?

This is always the tricky thing to answer for freelancers. Unless you're writing for a place like The A.V. Club in 2009, where you could just be, like, "I'd like to cover this random-ass show," you need to convince editors they need your words. And the best way to do that is to pick subject matter they're already interested in hearing about.

The problem, of course, is that if they're that interested in it, they've probably already assigned coverage to somebody on their staff. No offense to any freelancers out there, but when The Leftovers returns, my editor is probably going to assign either Caroline, Alissa, or myself to write about it, because we've all done so extensively in the past. And Leftovers, being a boutique show, probably can't sustain a whole bunch of posts. So that freelancer door is probably closed, unless you have a particularly interesting angle.

I would say that's where you should really look: the angle. What's a thing you can write about that nobody else can, tied to something people are talking about right now? This may be a Vox-specific method, but, to be honest, the best time to grab us with a pitch for something is right after we know it's a hit. Like the best time to send us a Beauty and the Beast remake pitch is probably Monday morning. We know it's doing decent traffic, we know the movie is a hit, and we probably don't have that much more planned on it.

This, of course, is a dice roll for you. You're betting a paycheck on there being interest in something after the fact. But this is an approach I don't see a lot of freelancers utilizing, and not only will it have a higher success rate for you, but it will also result in your pieces being better (since you can actually see the thing you're writing about). Sometimes, it's a bust. But sometimes, your pitch for Stranger Things is ready when the internet's appetite for articles about it is seemingly bottomless.

(If you really want to write about something of limited appeal, well, that's where your angle -- and especially your proposed headline -- will stand out. Is it on Netflix? Tell us! Does it have resonance with other things happening in the world, from some Trump executive order to some other major hit? Tell us that too! Lean heavily on what you want to say, not just, "Can I write about this thing?")

Kim writes:

Let's talk Top Gear. Did you like the original? Do you like the new original? Do you like Grand Tour? Did you like American Top Gear? I've been a fan of what Amazon has done with the original cast, making something fresh and different (and, blessedly, shorter). I also loved American Top Gear, with Adam Ferrara, Tanner Foust, and Rutledge Wood, and was disappointed that it didn't really take off. At its core, Top Gear is such a simple concept: car people (well, car dudes) do fun stuff with cars. So why does it feel a bit like the original was lightning in a bottle?

I will be honest: I've seen maybe five hours total of various Top Gear things over the years, mostly for assorted reviews I thought about writing at AV Club. (I always assigned it out, because I always realized how ill-equipped I was to discuss what is obviously a favorite of many.) I have enough of my upbringing in me to know a little bit about cars (I could, theoretically, perform most basic car repairs and maintenance tasks in a pinch), but I would not describe myself as a "car guy."

That said, I thought the other portion of this question was interesting, especially because it's kind of curious how this show just didn't translate in the States the way you'd think it would. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it's part of a genre the US seems resolutely uninterested in, despite Britain's best attempts to reverse that opinion: the panel show.

The closest thing the modern US media landscape has to a traditional panel show is probably NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. The hallmark of the panel show is that no matter what else happens (game show quizzes, cooking tasks, driving cars around at top speed), we're tuning in to watch the hosts banter and have fun. The chemistry between those hosts is vitally important, and if you get the hosts right, well, you can run that show as is for years and years.

You can see a little of this in most reality shows with judging panels. At this point, The Voice may as well be a soap opera about its assorted judges, for instance. And a close cousin of the panel show -- the game show with a rotating series of celebrity contestants or judges -- has done quite well in the US's past but is struggling a bit at the moment. Last summer's Match Game reboot was a great example of the form.

But the straight panel show has never been a big deal in the US for reasons I'm not quite sure of. We seem to favor individualism in our chat shows as much as we favor it in most other endeavors. There are bits and pieces of panel show DNA here and there (Late Late Show with James Corden, for instance, is heavily influenced), but the American format for almost every show like this is "one host, one guest, let's do something together."

When I've talked to my friend David Sims, who grew up in the UK, he's long lamented the lack of good American panel shows. I'd love to see that change, but networks are understandably gun-shy about even trying. Oh well.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.