Bill Lawrence has a pretty impressive TV track record. Of the four live-action shows he's created (1996's Spin City, 2001's Scrubs, 2009's Cougar Town, and 2013's Ground Floor), none have been canceled in their first season, and three have gone on to run for several critically acclaimed seasons. This spring, he'll launch two new shows: Undateable on NBC and Surviving Jack on Fox.
After that, however, Lawrence may be finished with the broadcast game. "I would be surprised if I ever personally ran a network show again," he told BuzzFeed during a conversation in his bungalow on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. "The system has changed. We're talking about a landscape now where the difference between a 1.3 rating and a 0.9 rating is the difference between a 22-episode pickup and getting canceled, which is crazy."
Media pundits have been decrying the seemingly insurmountable task of successfully launching a new show in today's overcrowded marketplace. While a few freshman series debut to huge ratings, the "one and done" is becoming increasingly more common.
However, contrary to a popular theory, Lawrence doesn't believe audience apathy is to blame for the failure of so many new shows, and instead suggests that the cause is audience ignorance. "I don't think shows are rejected as much as they're simply not breaking through," he said. "The climate is not friendly to awareness, which is an odd new thing that I experienced with Ground Floor. That was a 10-episode order, and on my own Twitter feed, people I assume are fans of my work because they follow me would ask when the show was starting. That killed me because it had been on for the last nine weeks and I talked about it every day."
That's why he believes "the battle today is doing anything you can to make enough people aware of your show."
Lawrence first dabbled in grassroots marketing in 2012, when he flew the Cougar Town cast to half a dozen cities for screenings and Q&As designed to show ABC how many fans his Cul-de-Sac Crew had. It was the first time a showrunner had organized a promotional tour for a network television show without the network's participation.
"What happened with Cougar Town was Disney owned it, it was produced by ABC Studios, and it was on ABC, so I couldn't understand why they would jerk around a show that was creatively doing well to slide in shows they didn't own and didn't stand to make as much money off of," Lawrence said, his frustration rising to the surface once again. "I'm in good stead now because I turned out to be correct: It's been a series of disasters after [they pulled Cougar Town]. I would be singing a much different tune if Happy Endings, which I liked a lot, became a huge hit and was on for years and years. I take odd pleasure in that, a few weeks ago, someone pointed out that no show ABC has put on after Modern Family has matched Cougar Town's audience retention."
The key to flicking such a large middle finger at ABC, without being branded a "troublemaker" in the industry, was going about it in a polite way, even as he self-funded the earliest screenings. "I took great pains to not be disrespectful because I knew I was incredibly biased in thinking my show deserved better," he said. "By approaching it respectfully, the studio started to think they could find another home for Cougar Town and actually began to help out financially by paying for some of the events to keep it going. And then to give ABC studios more kudos, by the end, when we really had a toehold, they footed the entire bill and were a huge part of, for the first time in their history, moving that show to another outlet."
Lawrence recently kicked off his second grassroots effort, The Undateable Comedy Tour. But there are two big differences this time. First, he's not trying to save an existing show, he's trying to create early buzz and awareness for a new series: Undateable, which stars stand-up comics Chris D'Elia, Brent Morin, Ron Funches, and Rick Glassman.
Second, he has studio support from the start. "Warner Bros. is footing the bill for this tour and NBC is supporting it because they really like the show," he said, with a pleased-as-punch smile. "The tour itself was my idea, because all these comics are on tour anyway, but it was Warner's idea to restructure our schedule around NBC's biggest affiliate cities."
In the old days, networks would fly their actors out for meet-and-greets with the local network affiliates, which are privately owned, because they did — and still do — possess a great amount of influence, since their executives choose which programs to promote during local air time. But this city-by-city glad-handing has become less common as networks have placed more importance on unproven factors, like social media. "For us to actually trot out the whole cast, you'd be shocked by how well it was received," said Lawrence. "It makes me think that, in this landscape where every little bit helps, it's going to help tremendously."
Lawrence will have to wait and see if his second marketing push worked since Undateable still doesn't have a premiere date — but he won't be alone. Given the hearty applause his Cougar Town gambit received within the industry, it's safe to say the networks are keeping an eye on the show's ratings as an indication of whether or not this promotional model could be applicable to their own series. And, therein, Lawrence believes, lies the problem.
"The hitch with TV grassroots promotion is that, on some level, you think that you're looking for Nielsen Families, but you will not not find one of 26,000 people," he said. "It's impossible. I've never met a Nielsen Family in all my years of doing this, and I don't even pretend to care about trying anymore because I find the whole system to be cartoonishly flawed."
To prove his point, Lawrence then posed a question:
If a Nielsen Family is watching American Idol and they turned the channel right before every commercial break, and turned it back on right after, what would that rating be?
"The answer is zero, because the Nielsens monitor how many people watch the commercials in a given half hour, not how many people watch the show," Lawrence revealed. "The Nielsen ratings are an advertising tool! That, and the small sample, makes you realize it's not gauging, empirically, what's being watched."
To further prove his point: "If you look at the ratings, Spin City dwarfed Scrubs. But, anecdotally, out in the world, 10 times more people approach me about Scrubs than Spin City. I think the best way to tell whether or not a show is connecting is through fan passion. I can't think of a single show that's truly working that doesn't have a voraciously excited fanbase."
And Lawrence believes it is through those fans that we'll see the next major evolution of network television. "Every showrunner has the same pipedream now that the ratings have come down and social media has enabled you to basically brand yourself," he revealed. "There are a couple of people who could do this: Shonda (Rhimes), J.J. (Abrams), Chuck (Lorre), but the fantasy is to be able to say, 'Here's my new show, it'll cost you $40, but you'll get all 10 episodes now.' Basically, we would bypass the studio system."
The mass-release model appears to be working, at least judging from Netflix's powerful grip on the social media conversation, and it's an approach that South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone are currently attempting to use with their Troublemaker Studios, but Lawrence conceded it will be a good, long while until it's the norm. So, for now, Lawrence is happy to bring about change from the inside.
"Fifteen years ago, if you were the showrunner, your job was head writer," Lawrence said. "Now, you're a head writer, a shrink, an accountant, a salesman, and a marketer. The days of just saying, 'I hope the network airs good commercials' are over. If you count on that, you're screwed."