Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Hollywood Babble On & On #989: Retool This Post

When you're making a network television series there are two words you fear the most.

The first fearsome word is "cancelled" but it's like a bullet to the head, one shot and you're pretty much done and dusted.

The second fearsome word is "retooled." Unlike "cancelled" it means that your troubles are only just beginning. If I were to stick with the bullet metaphor, it's like getting shot in the gut. It hurts like eight kinds of bitch and it's going to take a while for you to die.

"What is 'retooling' you ask?" furrowing your brow in a feeble attempt to understand. Well, retooling is when the people running a network think they can make your show more popular by changing stuff about it.

These changes can be subtle, like making a recurring character a regular on the series, modest, like adding a completely new character, or drastic, like turning a police procedural about cops solving gory murders into a family sitcom.

Right now the networks are on a bit of a retooling binge, changing elements of shows like Touch, and Body of Evidence, and NBC is retooling the sitcom Up All Night so radically it will probably need a new female lead.

Now has retooling a show ever worked?

It's hard to say. Because if it's done subtly it can just look like the natural progression of the show's central story, like characters getting married, moving to a new home, etc... However, drastic and radical changes  that look like they're the brain-farts of a committee of network marketing executives usually do more harm than good.

When you retool a show that has a modest but loyal audience you run the risk of driving away the existing audience while attracting no new viewers, because hardly anyone is going to start watching a show they don't already watch just because it has a new coat of paint.

A classic example of retooling killing the golden goose was the 70s sitcom Mork & Mindy.

The show, a spin-off of Happy Days, had a killer first season as the #3 show in the country.

Now you would think that the network would leave the show alone in a case of "If it ain't broke then don't fix it." Thinking like that is why you're not a network executive.

The folks running the network thought that while was doing great, it could do better. So they started tinkering with almost everything associated with the show. The changed the theme song, where the characters hung out, dropped some regulars and brought in new ones.

Did it work?


Ratings started to decline in the second season. The network panicked, brought back some of the regulars they had dropped in season 2, and tried to recreate some of the magic of season 1.

Did it work?


The decline in the ratings became a plummet. The network renewed the show for one more season, and ordered even more drastic retooling, pulling an offbeat variation of the "Cousin Oliver" by adding comedian Jonathan Winters as an alien baby.

Did it work?


The fourth season was the last one, giving the show a long and painful death.

So I guess the lesson here is that when it comes to retooling, one should only do it if they absolutely have to, but even then it has to at least look natural in the context of the show to avoid driving away the audience it already has.


  1. Blast Hardcheese20/2/13 4:22 pm

    Yeah, I remember the Mork and Mindy episode (4th season?) when Mork somehow got Incredible Shrinking Man Syndrome (exposure to chemicals? something like that) and he shrank down and down, leaving a little pile of clothes on the floor, and then he found himself in a microscopic little kingdom with a microscopic version of Mindy (named Mandy, of course), and then..


    Wait a minute...

    They were on DRUGS, weren't they?

  2. A really mindbending retooling was Baywatch Nights, first of all the premise was bad enough Mitch starts a nighttime detective agency, after the crappy ratings for S1, they went all Xfilesand had episodes dealing with paranormalm UFOS and frozen vikings. I am not making that up, those were episodes.