License to Stink

License to Stink
Image via the Peabody Awards/Flickr. 

As promised, I want to do a quick followup on my Longreads essay (which you can read here if you haven’t yet). Mostly this will consist of stray thoughts on threads it didn’t make sense to include in the piece, but I’ll also share some interesting context I received from Harry Shearer… read on.

The Money

One of the biggest shocks I encountered in my research was the sheer size of SNL’s budget: $101 million in Season 44 (2018-2019), or $4.8 million per episode. That’s a huge amount of money. To use a recent comparison, it’s more than the budget for Oppenheimer. To use a more direct comparison, it’s $10 million more than the cost of that same season of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, which ran $91.6 million and airs five nights a week. SNL didn’t always cost so much. A October 1984 New York feature pegs the budget for that season at “considerably more than $500,000,” which—using a low estimate—translates to north of $1.2 million per episode in 2018, or $25 million/season.

Unsurprisingly, it’s also making much more money these days. The show generated $16 million in profits in the 1980-81 season, according to that New York article, which translates to about $47.8 million in 2019. Extrapolating from public data about SNL’s budget and reports about its advertising costs, the show has made tens of millions more than that in profits from TV commercials in recent years, which aren’t its only sources of revenue. In addition to digital advertising—reportedly not a huge money-maker for late night, which most people still watch live—SNL has also featured sponsored content in the past, and reports suggest that its cast members’ appearances in commercial campaigns are at least sometimes part of bigger NBC ad deals.

To state the obvious, $4.8 million is quite a bit of money for 64 minutes of sketch comedy, though it does explain the seemingly blank check that SNL’s designers enjoy for sets, props, costumes, hair, and makeup. I'd also venture that the show pays its stars quite well these days, not to mention the longtime production staffers with functional sinecures. I’ve sent public record requests to the New York state agency that handles film tax credits—which is where we’re getting all this budget information—for SNL’s application, though I suspect any juicy information will be redacted. I’ll keep you posted about what I find.

The Secret to SNL’s Longevity

The one and only Harry Shearer (!) wrote in yesterday to school me about something my piece overlooked:

Highly interesting, especially since you quoted me.
But seriously, like most people who write about the show, you don’t mention the principal reason for its longevity.  It’s a simple fact, easy to ignore, but extremely powerful.   SNL has never had to contend with competition on either of the other two major networks.   It’s the only place to nationally advertise on television on late Saturdays.   That’s what you might call “license to stink”.

And in a subsequent email:

There was a short-lived comedy series [MADtv] on Fox, but SNL was well into its third [or] fourth decade by then.   The other networks can’t get that time back from their affiliates, because the stations make too much money selling spots into old movies on late Sat.   The only reason NBC controls that time period is it convinced the affiliates to give the network the slot for the Johnny Carson reruns!   In fact, AFAIK, the “rundown”—the minute-by-minute routine for the program—is still the old Tonight Show routine.


Obviously a Supporter

This is just a very small thing that interested me, but the piece mentions Lorne Michaels’ statement in support of the WGA strike, which he gave in an interview at the Cannes Lions advertising festival in June. Here’s what he said, per The Hollywood Reporter:

“I’ve been in the [Writers] Guild since 1968, so I’ve seen a fair amount of this,” he said. “I’m obviously a supporter, and I hope it gets resolved. But that decision will get made, probably, on the West Coast. I’m behind it, and would like it to be over before our [next] season.”

This caught my eye because it echoed what Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, one of the biggest villains in Hollywood right now, said a month earlier, after getting booed while giving a commencement address at Boston University (emphasis mine):

“I am grateful to my alma mater, Boston University, for inviting me to be part of today’s commencement and for giving me an honorary degree,” Zaslav said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “As I have often said, I am immensely supportive of writers and hope the strike is resolved soon and in a way that they feel recognizes their value.”

I’m obviously a supporter and I hope it gets resolved. I am immensely supportive and hope the strike is resolved soon.

I’m not suggesting the talking point is coordinated, of course—probably this is just the path of least resistance for bosses asked about a labor action, which makes it a noteworthy (if unsurprising) sign of where Michaels’ interests lie. His fellow union members are waging an existential struggle on a battlefield where he holds considerable power, and here he is distancing himself from the fight. It’s a West Coast issue.

An Army of Monsters

Do you remember a couple months ago when The Other Two got canceled amidst allegations that its creators, former SNL head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, were abusive bosses? Allegations that Tina Fey alluded to in March at the PEN America Literary Awards?

“Nobody indulges writers like Lorne Michaels,” she said. “Lorne, you have unleashed an army of monsters into the world. You know it, I know it, and the crew of The Other Two knows it — oh, I was supposed to change that. I was supposed to change that. That’s inappropriate. Oh well, it’s not livestreaming.”

Yes yes, this is an evocative lesson about the cultural impact of Michaels’ leadership style. Yes yes, it’s also depressing evidence that powerful people are happy to accept it as a cost of doing business. What I would like to note, however, is that Fey and Michaels were at this event because he was receiving the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, whose past recipients include Stephen Sondheim, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith. This is interesting to me because Michaels is a major donor to PEN America: according to his charitable foundation’s tax filings, he gave it $200,000 between 2018 and 2021.

Water is wet; rich people use philanthropy to burnish their reputations. This is no great revelation, but I still think it is worth dwelling on just how insanely wealthy this guy is. Did you know he owns thousands of acres of land in Maine? Here’s the Bangor Daily News a few years ago:

Michaels’ farm just north of Josh Pond is among more than 5,000 contiguous acres of forest and blueberry fields that the television producer owns in Whiting and abutting Marion Township through various limited liability companies that he controls. Through his LLCs, Michaels also owns a 15-acre parcel off Route 191 in Cutler, a nearly 20-acre lot on Ridge Road in Marshfield, a 32-acre parcel on Route 1A in Machias near the Whitneyville town line and a 73-acre lot on Route 191 in Machiasport. All four of these lots are undeveloped with a mixture of blueberry fields and woods.
Michaels, who is 75 and was raised in Toronto, bought the land surrounding Josh Pond in 2009 for $1.45 million, according to public documents accessible in the Washington County Registry of Deeds online database. He has continued to buy undeveloped land in Washington County since then, most recently in 2018.
In a 2018 article in Down East magazine, Michaels said he bought the land around Josh Pond to protect it from development and then decided to build a summer home on the pond’s north shore. A home on the property has an assessed value of $900,000, according to the town of Whiting’s online property tax records.
“I fell in love with how staggeringly beautiful that part of Maine is,” Michaels told the magazine. “It’s remote and preserved in a way few places are any more — I intend to keep it that way.”

None of this is particularly suspect, it’s true. I bring it up because I happen to believe a few things:

1. What extremely wealthy people do with their money is of public interest;

2. The preservation of the natural world, which belongs to everyone, should not depend on the (ostensible) good will of individual moguls;

3. Local journalism is vital, but national media cannot abdicate its duty to monitor the affairs of powerful people.

Which is all a roundabout way of making my usual complaint: Lorne Michaels is an extremely weird guy with huge amounts of money and power which he’s demonstrably used in harmful ways, with every bit of evidence suggesting we don’t even know the half of it. It seems very dangerous to me that anyone should treat him as a wise old statesman, and yet here we are in a world where virtually everyone treats him that way.

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