Accused, Night Court: How to Create a New Broadcast TV Hit in 2023
IndieWire spoke with the hosts of Fox’s “Accused,” CBS’ “Fire Country” and NBC’s “Night Court” about the challenges of traditional TV in the streaming world.
Cable came of age when the original “Night Court” aired on NBC in the ’80s and early ’90s. Forget Netflix; When Harry Anderson first got behind the gavel as Judge Harry Stone, Napster founder Sean Parker was just 4 years old. This “Night Court” starring Melissa Rauch as Judge Abby Stone exists in another century, but it might as well be another world.
But showrunner Dan Rubin (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) knows he has the same advantages as other freshmen. “It’s great to know that name,” he told IndieWire.
It’s not the heyday of TV, but there’s always room for a hit like Fox’s “Accused,” NBC’s “Night Court” and CBS’ “Fire Country.” The journey from idea to air is both similar and different. These days there are summer originals, series orders, smaller episode numbers; the midseason premiere is no longer a sign of desperation. Today’s pilot process is less centralized than it was in the old days, but the general rollout remains: introduce new shows in early May and debut in the fall.
Beyond the name and iconic set, Rubin’s “Night Court” also enjoys what he calls an “old-school network push.” NBC covered the new “Night Court” full billboard and bus ad. The show’s recognizable TV stars, Rauch (“The Big Bang Theory”) and the returning John Larroquette, have also been booked on any talk show that will take them.
It works. “Night Court” debuted to 7.4 million total viewers on Jan. 17, the biggest comedy series premiere since ABC’s “The Conners” in 2018 (and NBC’s best since the return of “Will & Grace” in 2017 “). Two weeks later, “Night Court” was renewed for a second season.
Compared to the season 4 peak of the original “Night Court,” which averaged 20.3 million viewers per episode, 7.4 million viewers sounds a lot less impressive — but streaming has fragmented audiences beyond recognition, and convention TV has all but died out. There were 599 scripted series in 2022, and you can watch most of them at any time – if you can find them.
It wasn’t always this way, kids.
Jordin Althaus/NBC/Warner Bros.
“I remember watching everything,” 41-year-old Rubin recalled about his viewing habits a decade ago. “For example, every new network show, whether you’re interested or not. You just took a sample.”
Nowadays? “You’re going to hear about a show that people are talking about and it’s not even on your radar,” he said.
Reviving the IP, as Rubin did, creates an automatic blip on the radar. Of course, there is no guarantee of success, but this is a shortcut.
Other hacks: To attract the largest possible audience—and to appease your in-person studio audience—stretch the humor. Older Americans, the kind who might gravitate toward the new “night court,” will appreciate it. Rubin says his parents and friends like his new show better than his long-running ABC sitcom “Happy Endings,” where the cast talked “too fast.”
When the OG “Night Court” had all of our parents and their friends in a tizzy, Howard Gordon was a lowly writer on “Spenser: For Hire.” Many Fox hits and one “Homeland” later, Gordon found himself promoting his new anthology series “Accused” around town. Yet Gordon’s autobiographyit was not easy.
“I was swimming a little bit upstream on this one,” Gordon, 61, told IndieWire.
Ultimately, it was this very longstanding Fox relationship that he was “accused” of on air. Gordon said his friendship with FOX Entertainment chairman Michael Thorn and then-CEO Charlie Collier (now Rob Wade) gave him a closer look at Fox, where he produced “24” and “The X-Files.”
That’s what friends are for: “Accused” is the top-rated new series of the season among adults 18-49, traditionally a key demographic for entertainment advertisers. “Fire Country” and “Night Court” are, in that order, the most watched new shows of the season among viewers of all ages.
“Fire Country” showrunner Tia Napolitano, 38, had her own unique advantage in creating a new broadcast television hit: others, notably Tony Phelan, Joan Rater and star Max Thieriot, had created it.
When Napolitano (“Cruel Summer”) appeared on the project, the pilot “Fire Country” had already been completed – and it was good. But he is the one who steered his “Fire Country” into a more “soapy” turn. The result? This is fire.
While Napolitano isn’t in a position to answer how to get a new TV series off the air, he’s a prime example of how to get on board with one. In 2010, she joined Shondaland as a writer’s assistant on “Grey’s Anatomy.” That’s where “Scandal” and “Station 19” came from, before becoming friends with “Council of Fathers” at CBS. Plus, get invited to the right, elegant pilot screening at the right time — as Napolitano says he intended for “Fire Country.”
“Country of Fire” follows a prisoner who seeks a reduced sentence through a fire escape program. Among the lessons Napolitano has learned along the way is to be “very, very specific.”
“Yes, there are plenty of fire shows out there, but they’re mostly in cities,” he told us. “These are structural fires, these are internal. We’re out in the wild, which feels fresh. And that’s unique to Northern California, and you can really feel it.”
Ultimately, the best way to make a successful TV show for television is to… try.
“Secretly, if you’re not trying to (hit), something’s wrong,” Gordon said. “You must be wondering why I am telling you this story now?” And, “Why will people, especially in times of saturation, have the courage to say, ‘This is worth my time?’
“The Accused” Tuesdays at 9/8c on Fox; “Night Court” airs Tuesdays at 8/7c; “Fire Country” airs Fridays at 9/8c on CBS.
Register: Stay up to date with the latest movie and TV news! Subscribe to our email newsletter here.