God Complexity: 'ELI', KINGS, the Almighty & Network TV

Guggenheim, Green, and God

In a broadcast television landscape filled with successful cop shows and popular reality TV, marketing something new and different to the viewing audience isn't easy. Shows with out-of-the-box concepts like Fringe or Pushing Daisies aren't easy to explain in a short promo clip.

"They were very confused with how to market our show," said Michael Green, the creator of Kings, which was replaced by NBC this season after airing only the first four episodes. "And I think, ultimately, I think it's one of the reasons they lost the desire to make a success out of it. It's very easy to say, 'we have a nice cop show we executed really well for you.' It's harder to say, 'we have a character-based soap that's got some bizarre elements to it.'"

"With both of our shows, I think what made them special is you don't see them on TV that often," said Marc Guggenheim, who co-created with Greg Berlanti the recently canceled show Eli Stone. "They were original. So how do you market that to a broadcast audience? The broadcast audience has become exactly what it says – the 'broadest' audience possible. And I'm not sure they're interested in checking out a show they don't understand."

For both shows, the challenge of explaining their concepts was complicated by another element: God. Eli Stone told the story of a reluctant prophet whose aneurism gave him messages from above. Kings was a modern retelling of the story of King David of the Bible.

Green said that while the network was extremely supportive of how Kings approached the story of King David, there was discomfort with advertising it.

"I talked extensively with them about this," Green said. "It was a very bizarre divide. I found that in the development of the show, on the creative level of what the episodes and their content would be, I got nothing but support and interest in the religious or magical or somehow belief-inspired storytelling.

"When the time came for the marketing, there was a very deliberate, outspoken, loud desire articulated by them that, 'We are not going to say King David.' They were scared to say King David. They just felt that that would be detrimental to the show," Green explained. "I thought it was the clearest way to express what the show was about, and I thought it might actually generate interest. But there was a fear of either backlash or marginalizing or pigeonholing. There were a lot of reasons they had. They wouldn't go near it in the marketing, but they never had a problem with it on the creative level, which is why I was so baffled."

Green said there was also a strange rumor that got started about his show relating to one of their sponsors, Liberty Mutual, controlling or censoring the show. "It was reported like they were calling the shots on the show and telling me what to do, which is something I found extremely distasteful," Green said. "It was completely untrue. I had invented a world that had no commercial products and no pop culture reference to our own so that I couldn't advertise products on the show."

Guggenheim said he didn't run into as much backlash for Eli Stone's spiritual nature – early network promos actually showed one character comparing a sunset to God – but he thinks the problem with marketing Kings and Eli were related to how different they were from previous spirituality-related shows.

"There are plenty of shows in the history of television that have dealt with God and have been successful: , , , ," Guggenheim said. "Where Kings and Eli differ from all those shows is that Kings and Eli are very, very outside the box."

Guggenheim said he considered reaching out to what he called the "Passion of the Christ" audience to tell them about Eli Stone, but he wasn't sure it was a good marketing strategy, since the show wasn't as much "religious" as it was "positive and hopeful."

"Our sense, particularly in the latter days in the show, we found ourselves wishing we could visit the parallel universe where Eli premiered after Obama got elected," Guggenheim said. "I'm not meaning that to be political at all, but it just seemed like messages of hope were tough to sell to America in the final days of the last administration."

Green said he was actually hoping religious America might take an interest in the show because he thought it was a show they would enjoy.

"But my experience was that they didn't know about it," Green said. "The marketing stayed away from it. To their detriment, they spent their money on a campaign that tried to sell the sci-fi aspects of a monarchy. And that utterly failed to generate any interest in the show. So nobody knew what it was."

The writers said both shows were designed to be watched and discussed by families. "Maybe you don't bring the 6-year-old kids in," Green said. "But we both had that as a goal. And where people found the shows, that happened."

Guggenheim said he believes the family-aimed nature of Eli Stone was one reason the show failed -- not because of the concept, but because it was on too late at night.

"Because of the writer's strike, Eli got stuck at 10 o'clock because that was the only option the network had. It wasn't really their fault, but as a result, it stayed at 10 o'clock. That killed the show right there," Guggenheim said. "It was never conceived of as a 10 o'clock show. Kids are asleep by 10 o'clock. We ended up in the wrong time slot, and once you're there, it's very hard to move. And that's just what happened."

Because both writers are also comic book writers – Green on and Guggenheim on and – they know there is audience out there who are fans of serialized, out-of-the-box fiction. But the challenge comes in trying to attract a broader audience to those types of television shows – enough to justify broadcast networks putting money into innovative, serialized television.

"I do think there's an audience out there for this stuff," Green said. "The audiences for Lost come at it with an incredible amount of intelligence. I think it's the job of the network to generate an interest in these products."

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