Last night, George Lopez returned to television in FX’s Saint George. The sitcom focuses on the main character’s everyday life as he deals with his family (an ex-wife, son, and various other relatives), his work, and his attempts to throw himself back into the dating world. It is an unremarkable premise and had an unremarkable premiere, but the content of the pilot doesn’t really matter. Regardless of how good or bad the program is, it’s likely that Saint George will soon be guaranteed at least 100 episodes and then, the network hopes, continue to exist in syndication for years after that. Saint George is the latest sitcom to get the 10/90 treatment, and it’s looking like this new model is only becoming more common.
This 10/90 deal is fairly simple: a network skips the single pilot and instead orders a straight-to-series run that consists of ten episodes. If these ten episodes do well (or even just acceptably enough), then the network orders 90 additional episodes. It’s a massive number of episodes; most first seasons will get 13 (six is also common, but often a warning sign from NBC that it will immediately get the boot) and then, if successful, will receive a “back-nine” to bring the show’s order up to a typical 22-episode season. Most subsequent seasons will also have 22 episodes. (This doesn’t include HBO, Showtime, and similar networks that have much shorter seasons.) The ultimate goal is to bring a show up to at least 100 episodes, which is that golden number that makes it perfect for syndication purposes: 100 episodes means a network can go 20 weeks of daily episodes (not counting weekends) without any repeats.
The 10/90 model was pioneered by Debmar-Mercury and popularized by Tyler Perry’s deals with TBS. After a test run of ten episodes, Meet the Browns eventually had 130 more. Under the same model, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne had an impressive 254-episode run (one can assume this number was chosen so it could become the longest-running TV series with a predominately black cast; the record was previously held by The Jeffersons with 253 episodes). TBS gave the same treatment to Ice Cube for Are We There Yet?, which ran for exactly 100 episodes. All three shows are currently in syndication.
The model worked for TBS, and recently, FX has been following suit. In 2012, FX ordered a 10/90 deal for Anger Management, the horrendous Charlie Sheen vehicle. There is nothing redeeming about the show, but because it came at the tail end of Sheen’s very public breakdown, people tuned in out of curiosity and gave the show the necessary ratings to get the additional 90 episodes. Since then, the ratings have drastically declined. The premiere had 5.74 million viewers and even broke the record to become the “most-watched scripted comedy broadcast in cable history — among both adults 18-49 and total viewers,” but in October, the show hit a series low of .62 million viewers, and now it’s lucky when it breaks a million. It doesn’t matter because Anger Management will still make it to 100 episodes and then probably live on in syndication, along with Sheen’s Two and a Half Men — FX smartly airs those reruns, too.
Because of the arguable success of Anger Management, FX gave Saint George this same 10/90 model, even though there’s nothing special about the program. George Lopez is affable and Danny Trejo, definitely slumming it, at least looks like he’s having some fun. Still, the show as a whole is as bland as expected. In a way, the jokes are acceptably mediocre — nothing is laugh-out-loud funny, but nothing is overwhelmingly bad, either. Mostly, it elicits a very basic, “Oh, I guess I should have laughed at that” reaction. It is a sitcom that will surely find its niche audience and quietly fade into the background for a few years. The ratings aren’t in yet, but it’s basically guaranteed that it will get those additional 90 episodes.
The key to this 10/90 model is to pick the programs very carefully: they must be fairly cheap to produce (Anger Management lacks superstars outside of Sheen and has only a few different sets — the only plots the show explores are “Charlie Sheen sits in a circle with angry therapy patients” and “Charlie Sheen has sex with a beautiful woman who will not appear next week”) and they must have some kind of main attraction at the center. TBS banked on the star power of Tyler Perry, who had been consistently killing it at the box office. Anger Management had Charlie Sheen’s can’t-look-away, disastrous-downfall appeal. Saint George has, well, George Lopez.
Lopez’s fans love him, and he’s already proven his sitcom chops. ABC’s George Lopez (oddly produced by Sandra Bullock) ran for six seasons and even netted 10.4 million viewers during the second. FX is really hoping to cash in on these Lopez fans with Saint George. In the show, George Lopez plays “George Lopez” a “working class Mexican-American turned successful entrepreneur” — a fictionalized version of the comedian that appeals to fans of his real persona.
The 10/90 model isn’t without its problems — the ratings can decline, episodes can get repetitive, and the world can get stuck with too many hours of Charlie Sheen being Charlie Sheen. This approach can come off as the television version of an assembly line, making the shows feel deeply impersonal (though I imagine creators and writers are just glad to have a few years of guaranteed work). Also, because of the lack of corporate involvement, these shows aren’t going to get many notes demanding that episodes get better. On the other hand, it’s not too risky. Only one program so far has failed to hit the necessary ratings within the first ten episodes (Comedy Central’s Big Lake, though at least its failure fit in well with star Chris Gethard’s “lose well” philosophy). FX has given the same deal to the upcoming Braddock & Jackson, a buddy lawyer comedy starring the unlikely (but intriguing) duo of Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence. I have no doubts that show will last forever, and neither does FX.
For now, this model has mostly been confined to FX and TBS because both are networks that feature safe sitcoms built for longevity (and both rely heavily on reruns, especially FX’s expansion FXX, so it makes sense to craft shows pre-built for syndication). It wouldn’t be the best fit for broadcast networks like NBC, which focuses its programs more on strong narrative arcs and long character development. (Fox has come the closest by killing single pilots and ordering entire seasons.) But, as evidenced by the news that Lionsgate TV has hired a producer specifically to oversee 10/90 deals, it’s likely that we’ll be seeing a lot more of this from FX — and it’s easy to see it expanding to other networks from there.