THE RATINGS GAME (1984) – Danny DeVito directed and starred in this telefilm – now being re-released under the vague-to-the-point-of-meaningless title The Mogul, which was produced by Showtime back when they and HBO Films were emerging as a genuine creative force in original content.
That era saw HBO Films churn out many made-for-cable movies that reflected studio-level production values and often adapted fictional and non-fictional properties that neither networks nor Hollywood felt like tackling at the time.
Telefilms like And The Band Played On, Barbarians at the Gate, Gotti, Kissinger and Nixon plus many, many others received critical acclaim AND proved commercially successful when released on video or in syndication to – ironically – network television.
The Ratings Game – written by Jim Mulholland and Michael Barrie – was a perfectly respectable satire on the network television ratings system but it has become unjustly forgotten. The change of title for its latest release seems like a desperate attempt to change the telefilm’s fortunes.
Personally I really like The Ratings Game. It definitely qualifies as one for my list of Aristophanes Now productions, in this case because it captures the feel of the Parathespian Comedies from Attic Old Comedy. (But let’s face it, it would probably have been written by Strattis instead of Aristophanes.)
Part of the reason for this telefilm’s obscurity may be the way it satirized the flaws in the network ratings system. This flick was released when Nielsen and similar ratings outfits still often used a mere 1,100-1,200 participating homes to extrapolate the ratings numbers on which television programs lived or died.
The unfairness and obvious inefficiency of such a system was often criticized, especially after “demographics” were introduced as a new measuring stick. “What the hell are demographics?” was the question supposedly asked of Jackie Gleason by Red Skelton when both of their highly-rated television shows were canceled because their viewers were deemed “too old” for advertisers to care about.
All of this necessary background information may be unknown to viewers who have never been interested in this aspect of television history, which means the premise of The Ratings Game may not seem relevant or at all relatable.
Danny DeVito stars as Vic De Salvo, a well-to-do trucking bigshot who dreams of becoming a big wheel in the entertainment industry. Vic writes purely from his own experience, so all of his scripts are what you would expect from a 1980s stereotype of a horny, blue-collar Italian-American from New Jersey.
Studio executives – including a still-rising Jerry Seinfeld in a VERY brief scene – can’t reject Vic’s offerings fast enough, as you could imagine. Eventually Vic meets Francine Kester, played by DeVito’s real-life wife Rhea Perlman. Francine works for the movie’s fictional Ratings Company which makes kings or beggars in the industry.
Eventually, when a bitter and soon-to-be-departing network executive spitefully picks up one of DeVito’s asinine T&A scripts for production, the network suits that still work there do all they can to sabotage the show.
The generous contract from the departing executive guaranteed one on-air broadcast so the “bad guys” at the network simply use Vic’s comedy pilot as a sacrificial offering thrown to likely disaster in a can’t-win time slot. (Think of shows like Hizzoner, The Kalikaks, Viva Valdez, The Montefuscos, or some of McLean Stevenson’s post-M*A*S*H bombs.)
Vic figures his dreams of show-biz success are about to die, but Francine, angry at being passed over for promotion by a typical Hollywood airhead who sleeps her way to the top, tells Vic how a mere 1,100 to 1,200 households dictate what makes a hit. Even if the rest of the country ignores his college T&A sitcom pilot, if THOSE households watch, it will be a hit.
Our hero Vic gets some of his Teamster-ish associates to occupy the homes of the ratings families – sending them on a pre-paid cruise in the meantime. (Remember, Vic has a lot of money, he just wanted show-biz success for the fame it brings.)
With Michael Richards as one of the thugs making sure all the TV’s in the ratings households are tuned in to Vic’s awful sitcom, it becomes a surprise hit. The sitcom is a very on-the-nose parody of the tasteless T&A “jiggle” sitcoms associated most closely with Freddy Silverman, whose spectacular downfall at NBC would have been fairly recent for 1984 viewers.
Anyway, the show is picked up as a series and DeVito’s co-conspirators go on ensuring that the faux-Nielsen households continue to make it a ratings blockbuster.
Networks come crawling to Vic with additional production deals and soon the airwaves are dominated by “action-adventure” shows about pimps, cartoons about New Jersey gavone called Goombahs ( a hilarious Smurfs parody) and my personal favorite: a Hill Street Blues/ L.A. Law/ Saint Elsewhere– styled “deep” wallow about … garbage men.
I can’t give too much away about these fake shows without blowing the jokes because much of the humor comes right in the titles. Suffice it to say Vic’s greedy desire to have ALL of his shows become enormous hits eventually makes a few jealous network execs put two and two together about the ratings households, thus setting the stage for De Salvo’s downfall.
The ending of The Ratings Game borrows a little too much from The Producers, but that’s forgivable. This entertaining little honey wasn’t trying to pave the way for revolutionary new comedy. It was just a fun, funny satire about television networks and how ratings work.
Anyway this charming telefilm is a perfect example of the type of thoroughly workable comedy that would be utterly ruined if it was in the hands of someone like Adam Sandler.
And after you watch The Ratings Game you’re sure to think about it with a smile every time you hear someone exasperatedly ask something like “How do stupid shows like (fill in the blank) get to be hits?”
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