DW McKim – By now, you’ve probably heard news about how “The Muppets” have been performing on ABC. They enjoyed a spectacular premiere night but have been falling each week since. Such rumblings have Muppet fans asking: “What does this actually mean?” “Should we be worried?” and “What can be done to turn things around?” Hopefully this article should help answer those very questions!
So, if we’re gonna talk about those Ratings, the best place to start is to look at what the numbers actually are. There are two sets of data that networks (and media analysts) are primarily concerned with when it comes to renewing/cancelling shows – number of overall viewers and the Age 18-49 demographics (demos – many actually consider these to be even more important than overall viewers.) The numbers also come out in waves. There’s the “overnights” – the data that’s available the day after something aired which indicates how many (and who) watched the live television broadcast. Live viewing is becoming more of a rarity these days so important updates are the “Live +3 (days)” and the “Live +7/Multiplatform” reports which measure time delayed viewings such as DVR, On Demand, and Online Viewing (such as Hulu) in addition to live viewing data that wasn’t readily initially available. Here’s a look at the Overnight numbers for the first four episodes:
Viewers (in millions) / 18-49 Demo:
#1: 9.0 / 2.9
#2: 5.8 / 2.0
#3: 4.8 / 1.7
#4: 4.5 / 1.3
At first glance, such a table might not look so good – drops each week and a current loss of half the viewers that tuned in for the premiere. But before we put those numbers into greater context, let’s look at the adjustments that have since been made available at the time this article is being written:
Same Day: Live +3: Live +7: Same Day: Live +3: Live +7:
#1: 9.0 11.1 11.6 2.9 3.8 4
#2: 5.8 7.5 2.0 2.6 2.9
#3: 4.8 4.9 1.7 2.2
You can see where those viewers who watch the show later become pretty important. Especially given the competitiveness of its timeslot (which we’ll get to in a moment). So, do these numbers mean Muppet fans should be worried? I would say no. Concerned, maybe. But worried, not really. The reason I would say that is because what’s missing in charts like this is context:
– Premieres typically attract a higher number of viewers than what will eventually become a show’s regular base. “The Muppets” was one of the most hyped/promoted new series of the season so many watched out of curiosity and/or tuned in live when they might normally choose to watch later. A sizable drop between weeks one and two was fully anticipated and expected. During weeks two and three, “The Muppets” was up against other shows’ premiere nights. The evening of its fourth episode happened to be the night of the first Democratic Party Debate as well as a baseball match-up between the Chicago Cubs vs. the St. Louis Cardinals that actually pre-empted that night’s episode of “The Muppets” in at least one major market cutting into its numbers.
– Another new factor that night: NBC moved up “Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris” (which just so happens to be the closest thing on American network television resembling the original “Muppet Show”‘s variety show format) into that timeslot! (I can’t help but wonder what Neil himself, who is one of Hollywood’s biggest celebrity Muppet fans, feels about directly competing with them!) For a while, I had thought there could be some good cross-network promotion opportunity for the two shows with Muppets guesting on Neil’s show and vice-versa – but now that they’re directly opposite each other … never mind.
– “The Muppets” are in one of the most competitive timeslots on the current schedule. Not only is it up against CBS’ powerhouse “NCIS” (which pulls in a whopping 16 million viewers a week), but it’s also up against several shows that are not only high-profile, but of interest to groups of viewers that “The Muppets” would appeal to (most notably “The Flash”). I continually see comments from people questioning what Tuesday night shows they should watch live versus later because there’s such a wealth of good stuff on.
– ABC knows full well that timeslot is a killer – yet, they had confidence enough in “The Muppets” out of all other possible choices to put there. They would (hopefully!) be completely aware what the show is up against and taking that in account when they pour over their data. And there’s lots of good news – despite being in a timeslot which could be seen as “set up to fail”, the show is this season’s #1 comedy in Adults 18-49, delivering great demos, and (“NCIS” aside) is still generally outperforming its competition on the other networks. Four million viewers is good news! (By way of contrast, popular comedies like “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” tend to currently bring in viewers in the upper three millions.) The show has consistently made each week’s Top 25 programs.
– Other things working in “The Muppets”‘ favor: It’s a co-production of its broadcasting network which makes it a safer investment plus the franchise itself is owned by the same parent company as ABC. The show recently made several strong deals for international distribution which also lessens its chances of having the plug pulled too hastily.
So all that taken into account, its ratings so far are hardly “doom and gloom”. If there’s any cause for concern, it’s only that network programmers can be an unpredictable lot so there are no firm guarantees – but the current network heads were huge champions of the show, rushing it into production for the current season. Falling ratings of television broadcasts is a condition of the television landscape in general and “The Muppets” is holding its own well enough in relation to the entire 2015 fall schedule. We’re not at Panic-Level by any means.
Still, having said that, because the ratings have fallen each week so far, a major question both for fans and those involved with producing the show at this time would be: “What can be done to turn things around?” So, I’ll close this article with various suggestions – some for the production team, others for ABC Network or Disney Company. But before i offer up my critique, let me first state the perspective that my feedback is coming from…
I’m a huge fan of the new series and a major cheerleader of it. We know there’s no shortage of both professional critics and buzz from the general public as to why they’re not as enamored of the current concept and format. Many of it comes from people who either still confuse The Classic (Disney) Muppets with “Sesame Street” or those who will always complain that things aren’t the exact same as they once were. There’s those who state “I’ve always loved The Muppets but…” I’m most assuredly NOT among that group. Bill Prady is one of my favorite of the Muppet writers and since i heard he’d be not only returning to The Muppet team but as co-creator/show runner, i’ve been bouncing off the walls! I’ve been totally onboard for his concepts and visions and i’m always happiest with a Muppet project when they play more to the adult base than the lil’ kiddies – as Jim Henson always intended. Rather than going into shock – SHOCK I TELL YOU – over Muppets drinking at a bar while claiming “The Muppets I grew up with NEVER would have done that”, i can not only offer several examples of how they have indeed done just that but will happily direct you to a Muppet Wiki page dedicated to the subject (http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Muppets_imbibing_alcohol)
I know full well Kermit has said things like “Hell” as far back as 1974 or “sexy” since at least 1978. I can point out where there’s an implied Kermit/Piggy sex scene in The Muppet Movie that completely flew over your head when you were a kid. I’m insanely giddily happy with this new show and am ecstatic that it’s on the air. I spend lots of time each week thanking its sponsors, talking it up, and well…doing all the things i suggested in my prior articles on how to help make the show a success! So all the things i’m about to suggest are coming from the viewpoint of someone who actually fully “gets it” and not only completely understands what the current team is trying to do but is also fully supportive of it.
***THE TIME FACTOR
Perhaps “The Muppets”‘ biggest obstacle is also its greatest strength. When it comes right down to it, the series was rushed into production. During pilot season, they had to scramble to assemble a ten minute pitch where most other shows had a full length pilot available for evaluation. Filming for their mid September debut didn’t start until the last day of July. If, as many critics and fans have pointed out, the episodes have felt a bit uneven so far, the rushed production is probably the main reason why. But on the flip side of that equation is that it’s easier for a show cutting it so close from completion to airing to adjust itself early on as the initial feedback comes in. The main creative powers can see how people are reacting and tweak the shows they’re working on accordingly and have those changes reflected onscreen sooner. They can note the ratings, see professional critics’ and armchair message board denizens’ gripes – and thoughtful articulate suggestions from leading Muppet fan-sites <grin> and right any wrongs quicker than normal. Hence the following notes –
*** SO, MAYBE THEY COULD TONE IT DOWN JUST AN EVER SO SLIGHT TAD…
Muppet fans like you and i know full well The Muppets have a long proud history of doing adult jokes and situations in such a way as to fly over the heads of the kids in the audience. This is not a “new concept” by any means – it’s a major part of who they are and why people love them! But perhaps there was so much emphasis on this being “an adult Muppet Show” that it affected the lens people are viewing it by and being more sensitive to the risque material than they would have been if that element wouldn’t have been one of the main talking points in the headlines. One Million Moms glommed onto the show in a desperate attempt to make themselves seem relevant (before even viewing an actual episode) and while such organizations are made up of the worst kind of extremists, they did at least get the message out that “this may not be safe to watch with your children” which is a legitimate concern for any parent. Yes, there are unfortunately those who can’t get the whole “Muppets = Elmo and Big Bird” idea out of their heads and there’s probably little that can be done about such cluelessness. But in making a show aimed at “those who grew up with The Muppets”, they may have overlooked a segment of that population – those who grew up primarily exposed to The Muppets as “Muppet Babies”. That odd time where Jim Henson was so involved with numerous projects that Classic Muppet material suffered and the Babies were left carrying the mantle (with a show that lasted two more seasons than “The Muppet Show” did!) They have a tendency to think of Muppets not so much as for-adults-yet-still-family-friendly but as Saturday morning fare Learning Valuable Lessons.
“The Muppets” so far hasn’t come anywhere close to “Family Guy” or “South Park” levels of inappropriateness. Muppets can get saucy or risque but never really crude. But people coming to the show – whether misinformed about The Muppets Vs. Sesame or actual longterm fans – can be a bit overloaded, especially since all the pre-show buzz conditioned them to “be on the lookout” for the more adult jokes. I do think maybe there was a small element in the first batch of episodes of “hey, the adult jokes are this toy we haven’t been able to play with for awhile – let’s see what all we can do”. I mean, when one of the very first lines in an episode ten seconds in is “hey be nice, no dirty drawings!”, you’re pushing the envelope too far too soon and people viewing with kids are understandably going to get anxious. Denise does not have to offer an innuendo-laced visual demonstration with straw sucking in the background to drive home a line that no one probably would have raised an eyebrow at without such accompaniment. They really don’t have to tone things down all that much – but ultimately they should venture through each stage of production imagining the show through the lens of the intended target viewer at home watching the show with a younger child and maybe an older grandma sitting down with them. The writers have acknowledged in interviews their respect for the cross-generational appeal and how to do more adult humor in a way that’s more subtle that kids won’t get. Maybe they might want to try just a little harder. After all, the big danger isn’t so much the kids getting the jokes; but rather the uppity adults that get them!
***SEEK COUNCIL FROM THOSE WHO KNOW BEST
Many who only knew of Bill Prady via “The Big Bang Theory” were surprised that he was the main person behind The Muppets’ return to television, not knowing of his Muppety beginnings. Indeed, not only has Prady long been a Muppet Writer, but as i mentioned earlier, he’s actually one of my favorites. But of the show’s credited writing (and directing) staff so far, he’s the ONLY person on it who has prior Muppet Writing Experience. (The other writer that comes closest would be Dave Caplan who was a frequent writer for Henson Company’s “Dinosaurs”). One of the biggest things they could do to help get the feel of the show right – and a satisfying experience for both the casual and diehard Muppet fan – is recruit more people who have extensive history writing for The Muppets – who have gone years – decades – living and breathing these characters and what works best. I would strongly recommend Kirk Thatcher (“strongly” meaning “what the frog are you doing NOT including him??!! Are you nuts?!”) Of all the current Muppet writing personnel, Kirk seems to best understand the relationship between humor vs. heart with the Muppet brand. He knows how to keep things funny and edgy without veering into cliche or over-sentimentality. Plus, he recently directed the Audi advertisement that in addition to being a cross-promotion between Audi and The Emmy’s also served as a teaser of sorts for the new series so he already has established somewhat of a relationship with the new show. All the current writers have excellent “pedigrees” with lots of acclaimed television shows under their collective belts so they know how to tell good stories and produce a good show…now they just need to take it that important final step and learn from a Master how to make it more Muppety. Whether he’s able to be on-set or serving as a consultant from a distance, “The Muppets” need to get Kirk on the horn pronto! I find it odd that the show runners are saying the exact right words in interviews – Prady notes he constantly hears from others learning of his role with the new show to “Please don’t ‘ruin my childhood'” and executive producer Bob Kushell has said “Rightfully or wrongfully, The Muppets became more of a kids’ product over the years. We want to bring them back … to what they were intended to be and then some. But never so much that anyone has to explain anything uncomfortable to the kids.” And yet so many viewers are expressing EXACTLY the reactions they say they wanted to avoid. Someone like Thatcher can help guide them on how to better make their intended goals a reality.
Okay, “The Muppets” is not “The Muppet Show”… nor should it be. Bill Prady’s idea of working with a format that’s relevant to today and both new and familiar at the same time is spot-on. The concept is absolutely right! The execution so far…maybe not quite so. The most common comment i see regarding the new show is “It’s 30 Rock just with Muppets plugged in.” Now as Muppet Freaks, you and i might roll our eyes and think “Please! The Muppets were 30 Rock long before 30 Rock was 30 Rock!” But there is some validity to such sentiments – the show still hasn’t quite learned how to go that extra step and give it that full Muppet touch. (That’s why including someone like Thatcher is so crucial.) Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl used to instill in their team that if something they were writing could be done with any regular human actors in its place, then the piece still needed work. Muppet writers need to strive to craft their material in such a way that only The Muppets could pull it off. In many ways, the new show is there – Elizabeth Banks pushing Scooter off a golf cart or Swedish Chef imitating a down elevator to avoid answering a difficult question are all things that work perfectly because they can’t be done with standard human actors. But there’s still a lot of scenes that are “Just Talking” without enough action or lunacy or random craziness and those watching with younger viewers note they find it boring. Kushell noted to The New York Times that certain of the more abstract elements and characters like talking food or dancing chickens may not work so well with the mockumentary format. Yet maybe those dancing chickens are a part of what seems to be missing. Certain Muppet trademarks like explosions and Monsters wreaking havoc are a little too absent.
As shows like “The Simpsons” (which some of “The Muppets”‘ writers have written for) have shown, it is possible to do story-based comedy shows that still have musical numbers. Yeah, maybe Muppets might not break into song complete with orchestral backing behind the scenes but there’s still ways to get such things in (as “Pig Out” – the “karaoke episode” proved quite well) Part of the appeal of showing behind the scenes of Piggy’s talk show was to still have the feel of Muppets putting on a show and seeing part of the show they’re putting on. So far, there’s maybe too much “backstage” and not enough “show”. So far, the Muppet cast have their defined roles – Gonzo is a writer, Uncle Deadly is in charge of wardrobe, etc. But the show needs to avoid pigeonholing each character too tightly in their “backstage position” allowing each Muppet the freedom to “multi-hyphenate” and show up in different ways. On “The Muppet Show”, “backstage characters” like Scooter, Beauregard, and Hilda still frequently found their way on stage. Allow The Muppet cast to have their respective places within the production of “Up Late” but continually explore ways not to just leave them there. Gonzo, Rizzo, and Pepe demonstrating their idea for “Dancing with the Czars” was one of the premiere’s most Muppety moments. But they don’t have to just do that kind of stuff “in the writers’ room”. The backstage staff could all be repertory players on Piggy’s show (how many talk shows regularly bring out members of the staff for bits on stage?)
Interestingly enough, there already exists somewhat of a model of how there could be a better mix of backstage vs. show-within-a-show. In the 1980’s there just so happened to be a sitcom about an eccentric female – puppet – late night talk show host which was geared more towards an adult audience – “Madame’s Place”, starring Wayland Flowers’ bawdy creation. That show was definitely “adult” – shown in the late night hours – but the main thing that show did well that “The Muppets”‘ is still struggling with is the balance between the “show” and the “offstage”. The new show doesn’t have to be a Muppet Show retread. But that doesn’t mean such classic Muppet trademarks like music numbers, random bizarre lunacy or penguins jumping about have to be sacrificed to the mockumentary genre. Find ways to make the format work for The Muppets – not the other way around.
***GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT (IN OTHER PLATFORMS)
So yeah, a lot of people miss the old show, they want it back, they’re upset that “The Muppets” isn’t “The Muppet Show Season Six”, they want the songs, the sketches, the Pigs In Space… this is the day of multimedia – so why not use it? We know from the various con circuit interviews that The Muppets have also been working on more viral videos – ROLL THEM THE HECK OUT STAT! Fans who miss the music numbers can see them on Youtube – then their desire satiated, can come back to the new series enjoying it for what it is. (I know we have Fozzie Fridays – but a 30 second or less bad joke isn’t near enough – we already hear Fozzie telling his jokes on the new show.) Those REALLY wanting to watch “The Muppet Show” should have the old episodes commercially available (i.e. Disney – move Heaven and Earth to finally get those season four & five box sets out NOW). ABC could commission a few Muppet specials to supplement the series – with the specials being more of the variety type. Find ways outside the Tuesday night episodes to satisfy the fans missing the old format so they can later relax and enjoy the new format more for what it is.
While reading/posting on a leading television forum, one of the first comments to come up after the premiere aired was “no wonder Frank Oz wants nothing to do with the new Muppets – he’d be appalled that they were making them too adult” which i had a laugh at as i quickly pointed out that Oz has historically been one of the larger proponents of The Muppets appealing more to adults and not being kiddified or too saccharine. Granted, i don’t know for sure what he thinks of the new show but based on his history, my educated guess is that he’d be supportive. If so, he should come out and say so, giving the new series that “stamp of approval” that’s closest to Jim’s from someone who’s still with us. Actually, what i’d REALLY love to see is him guesting on the show – not as a Muppet performer but as himself – being a guest on Piggy’s show talking about his directing career. Of course in the end, not everything goes well and he can walk off mumbling “there’s just no working with that woman!!”
***TIME TO MOVE?
While ABC felt confidently enough about “The Muppets” to put it in its extremely difficult timeslot – and it’s still holding its own despite all the incredible challenges that come with it – there may come a time sooner or later if the numbers slip more that ABC might be better served moving the show to a better place in its schedule allowing more people who would be more apt to watch live and enjoy the show discover what they’ve been missing during the crowded Tuesday field. It seems to me that the best place for “The Muppets” would be paired up with “The Goldbergs” as their target audiences match up perfectly. Placing the show where it would be most effectively appreciated and watched live would be the far more reasonable and smarter option than cancellation.
Just as this may be crunch time for those producing the show to reevaluate what can be done to improve the show’s performance, it’s also time for the fans on the other side of the screen to show their support. Re-read my articles on ways to help the show succeed. Not a Nielsen Viewer? Watch on Hulu or On Demand. Talk up the show anywhere and everywhere you can – help drown out the negative talk with social media posts about “You really need to tune in and see what you’ve been missing – the show’s continually getting better and better!” CONTACT the network, your local affiliate, and the sponsors to thank them for the show – viewers very rarely contact such people unless it’s with negative feedback (such as those Moms of a Questionable Number). Combat the negative with the positive. Ask why they still haven’t renewed their “#1 New Comedy”. Between the fans’ support and the show working hard to make it the best it can be, any questions about “The Muppets”‘ longevity should become yesterday’s news as the show grows to become a major hit that lasts for several years. Seven years and multiple awards from now we should look back and laugh at those early days when we actually thought the show could be in trouble!