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Magic of Drama

This article originally appeared in the MIPCOM 2014 issue of World Screen.

In television’s new golden age, studio and network execs are learning new ways of finding, and keeping, top writing talent.

WANTED: Writer for TV drama project; must have original voice, a compelling story to tell and willingness to take advice. Oh, yes, must be able to communicate the vision to a room full of other scribes, interface effectively with nervous nellies at the network, and manage an oft-unruly production team. Job could last anywhere from three weeks to seven years. Base salary: not as much as you’d think—unless you’ve done this for 20 years, or currently have three hits on the air.

Granted, no network has actually put out such an advert, but the above description reflects what media companies, in numbers greater than ever, are clamoring for. And it would probably resonate with any number of young Hollywood hopefuls, many of whom aspire to be the next Vince Gilligan or Greg Berlanti.

“Drama has never been better,” says Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corporation, which lays claim to a mix of long-running procedurals like NCIS on CBS as well as edgier cable fare such as Ray Donovan on Showtime. “There are many more channels programming drama. You have the premium-cable services—Showtime, HBO and Starz—and then basic-cable networks like FX doing terrific programming; the list goes on and on. In addition, each of the broadcast networks also has a number of dramas that they can point to where the quality is terrific. You can talk about The Good Wife on CBS, or The Blacklist on NBC, or Scandal on ABC. Every network has them.”

On how the drama business has evolved, Moonves notes, “Cable has become a different animal than it used to be in that they are doing a lot more original drama.”

The list of cable networks that have ramped up their drama offerings in the last few years includes TNT, which was recently repositioned with the catchphrase “Drama that thrills.” TNT is nurturing several new series, and in a couple of instances has engaged veteran writer-producers to oversee less experienced ones: Howard Gordon supervises David Wilcox on Legends; Steven Bochco backs Eric Lodal on Murder in the First.

Such apprenticeships are in the DNA of Hollywood, one insider says. What’s changed is that there are so many more outlets for drama and a finite number of players able to pitch, write and herd the production cats at the same time.

To respond to that growing demand, the Writers Guild of America, West quietly set up a Showrunner Training Program (SRTP) nine years ago. Since then, graduates have gone on to create, co-create or exec produce almost 80 shows. Among them are Matt Nix (Burn Notice), Veena Sud (The Killing) and Scott Gimple (The Walking Dead).

The workshops were the brainchild of showrunner Jeff Melvoin (whose credits range from Picket Fences to Army Wives), who saw that “apprenticeships were not enough, and that so many new shows were getting greenlights but not finding sufficient talents to run them,” explains Carole Kirschner, who is the program director for the eight training sessions a year. “Our focus at the SRTP is to help our members go from being writers to managers,” she adds.

In what has become in the last several years a fertile field to which top—and aspiring—talent in front of and behind the camera are flocking, the stakes have never been higher. With single episodes of hourly series costing $3 million to $4 million to make (and some pilots easily $5 million), failure is costly, not to mention demoralizing, while long-term success, though elusive, can be enormously lucrative and energizing.

A number of executives at both broadcast and cable outlets are vying as never before for the top writer-producers to shepherd dramas as varied in tone, approach, genre and even length as The Blacklist and Scandal, Badlands and Fargo, Covert Affairs and Rizzoli & Isles, Turn and Tyrant.

“The ambition of drama series has never been greater and the expectations from viewers have never been higher,” believes Paul Buccieri, the chairman of ITV Studios US Group. Like its rival, BBC Worldwide, ITV Studios has goosed its efforts to participate in this resurgence of scripted drama Stateside, readying Aquarius for NBC, Texas Rising for HISTORY and The Good Witch for Hallmark Channel.

If there were 30 or 40 such scripted series on U.S. airwaves 20 years ago, there are now easily 200, states Jeff Sagansky, whose 30-year perspective as a top network (CBS) and studio (Sony) executive gives him a special vantage point from which to observe shifts in the industry. Even the most unlikely of players—think the Science Channel undertaking The Challenger Disaster (William Hurt toplining) or superstation WGN America’s period piece about the nuclear scientists at Los Alamos, Manhattan—have entered the fray. Not to mention the high-profile forays into original content being made by Netflix and Amazon.

The results: with experienced, seasoned showrunners hard to come by or otherwise booked up, there’s been a shift toward more intense vetting of projects in the initial phases, in the hopes that wrinkles can be ironed out before they ever disrupt proceedings on set. 

Interestingly, that’s how it’s been done in Britain for decades. “[We have] rigorous conversations at the outset,” says Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s controller of drama commissioning. “Our job is to help the writer get at the heart of the story so that he or she can create the best version thereof. The worst thing is for writers to try to second-guess us when what we really want is [for them to be] passionately committed to their ideas, whatever the genre or style. As long as we’re on the same page at the outset, I don’t believe in a lot of notes.” 

At the U.S. broadcast networks, oversight can on occasion still be onerous, but even there the suits tend to stand back if they feel as though things are in the right hands. “When they have a gifted quarterback in place, they want to let him run,” suggests Warren Littlefield, who spent most of the 1990s as president of entertainment at NBC and now, as an indie producer at his eponymous company, is overseeing Fargo for FX. “It’s only when the vision isn’t clear, the showrunner is off his game or casting goes awry that network execs get deeply involved.” In his opinion, what’s changed is how competitive the landscape has become to secure the services of top talent. “Yes, broadcasters [as opposed to cable channels] have a larger population of folks who supervise development and production, and they are putting up all or most of the money, but when they have a great showrunner, they don’t want to drive them away, to the competition.”

Sagansky, who as an investor in media is currently president of Silver Eagle Acquisition Corp. and chairman of Hemisphere Media Capital, argues that the quality of the storytelling in American serialized drama is “amazing.” So too, he adds, are the variety of ways in which shows are now being financed, speaking from his own experience as executive producer on Sex, Lies and Handwriting (with Lionsgate and Tandem) and on a Canadian-originated western called Strange Empire.

In short, there are now more financial models for getting scripted shows made, more work available for both seasoned and fledgling writer-producers, and more styles and approaches to the production process than ever before.

Whether at the mainstream Big Four broadcasters or the increasingly self-confident basic-cable outlets, the first challenge is to attract original voices, give them the freedom and resources to execute their visions, and not micro-manage. However, for executives at corporations whose money and stock price are tied to these content plays, knowing when and how to step into a production when the story arc falters, the actors don’t gel, the third season sags or the exhausted showrunner simply collapses is crucial.

None of this is as simple as it sounds, nor is the formula for intervention foolproof. The failure rate of new series on U.S. networks is still conservatively 80 percent.

At broadcasters NBC and ABC—the former coming off its first ratings-winning season in 18 to 49 in a decade, and the latter bent on fixing recent prime-time stumbles—the emphasis has shifted in the last several years. Tension between art and commerce? Not so much anymore. Memos from once-pesky Standards and Practices people or calls from irate advertisers about steamy shower scenes in NYPD Blue or pedophile priests in Law & Order now seem like quaint quibbles. There are still a few no-no’s in terms of content, but much more can be said, suggested or shown nowadays, as even a cursory glance at ABC’s Modern Family, NBC’s Hannibal or CBS’s 2 Broke Girls proves. Their main focus, broadcast types assert, is fashioning an arresting concept into an ongoing story with broad appeal, without it becoming pasteurized in the process.

“What do we want? Big bold ideas, ones that break through the clutter,” says Patrick Moran, executive VP of ABC Studios, who adds that his new job is to “raise the bar” and be “more adventurous.” Moran is already making notable strides to expand production efforts beyond the main task of supplying the Alphabet network with long-running series. “Talent recruitment is a big part of what we do—matching voices with ideas and then finding the best home for them.” Under his auspices, the unit has placed Red Band Society at FOX in this attempt to diversify its customer base.

Over at NBC, Jennifer Salke, the president of entertainment, says her team works along two tracks. First and foremost, they must identify and nurture pitches that are broad enough “to invite everyone into the tent.” The trick in that regard, she explains, is to come up with plots and characters in which “broad” does not equate with “generic,” “bland” or “dumbed-down” but with “relatability” across various demos. What makes that attempt ever trickier is how much more fragmented consumers’ tastes have become in everything from music and movies to food and fashion. “Just being OK is not enough; an idea has to resonate widely,” she contends.

At the same time, both Salke and Moran explain, cable’s inroads on the drama front have spurred broadcasters to go after “the best filmmakers,” in the former’s words, and “fresh voices” in the latter’s. To do that, the Big Four are competing directly with cable by commissioning shorter-run series, thereby attracting a new set of talents to entertain the idea of working in television. (So far, CBS is leading in the limited-series sweepstakes, launching Under the Dome last summer and Extant, starring Halle Berry, this year.)

It’s hardly a secret that film talent prefers shorter commitments: for instance, Glenn Close insisted on such in Sarah, Plain and Tall as a TV movie (rather than a series) 20-odd years ago. Berry, too, opted for a shorter run in this summer’s mini Extant. HBO landed Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson for season one of its anthology series True Detective.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the drama series world is the occasional clash over creative differences between producers and showrunners. To wit, in mid-August, high-profile showrunner Ed Bernero (Criminal Minds) exited State of Affairs, purportedly over differences in approach with producer Joe Carnahan. A few such departures take place every season, but with so many dramas now shooting, the scramble to replace top-notch talents like Bernero is increasingly intense.

For writer-producers and showrunners, it couldn’t be a better time to be in the biz. ITV Studios’ Buccieri says there’s a “blending” of different creative models on both sides of the Atlantic. In some cases a piece is authored by a single writer, in others by a team; in still others there’s a non-writing producer who oversees the production and works in conjunction with the writer. If in the U.K. the tilt is toward larger orders of episodes and in some instances deficit financing, in the U.S. limited series are in vogue, and some projects are being ordered straight to series on the basis of a script and/or packaged star alone.

“There’s no one way to do it. That’s the beauty of it,” Buccieri, who is also chairman of ITV Studios Global Entertainment, says.

“Now more than ever, outlets are clamoring for many of the same talents, so to compete we have to aggressively enhance our roster of writer-producers,” ABC Studios’ Moran points out.

In July, for example, ABC locked down an exclusive first-look arrangement with John Ridley, of 12 Years a Slave fame, following the greenlight for his American Crime pilot.

As for finding showrunners  to commandeer all these projects, NBC’s Salke says it’s typical for more attention to be paid to those projects overseen by the less seasoned. Sometimes, too, there are pleasant surprises. For example, George Nolfi, the film writer-director who brought the format of the espionage series Allegiance to NBC, had no intention (or experience) of “running” a small-screen series. However, once he waded in, he took to the job like a duck to water, “exceeding all expectations,” Salke says.

Other top writers—including Carol Mendelsohn (coming off the CSI juggernaut at CBS), who recently inked with Sony Pictures Television, and Howard Gordon (overseeing Tyrant for cabler FX, among other projects), who is based at Twentieth Century Fox—are also finding their services in great demand.

And where the talent goes, the money follows.

“I’d say there’s a dozen guys (and gals if one rightly includes ABC-based Shonda Rhimes) who are making top-dollar doing what they do,” says Bert Salke, president of Fox 21, which functions as a cable-production arm at 21st Century Fox. “In nine years we’ve gone from one show to nine on the air,” Salke says. “And because we’re part of the corporation, we can take advantage of the [clout] Fox has in attracting and nurturing key writer-producers like Ryan Murphy [Glee, American Horror Story], Kurt Sutter [Sons of Anarchy] and the like.”

Salke emphasizes that Fox 21 is first and foremost “a writers’ studio”—“they’re above even the stars” is how he puts it. One of his recent deals involves an arrangement with publishing giant Condé Nast whereby Twentieth Century Fox Television and Fox 21 have dibs on a number of its top magazine articles, with the idea of enticing some established writer-producers to take them on as TV material. Like Moran at ABC, he also contends that it makes sense to pitch projects to various outlets and not just in-house sister divisions. Recent track record? “We have a 35- to 50-percent sales pitch-to-production ratio right now,” Salke estimates. What does the world want right now? “Big stories, big stars, big locations, big everything. In short, you have to stand out,” he says.

Fox 21’s Salke also epitomizes another trend in the business, in that he is an executive who hails from the writer-producer ranks himself. It used to be that network execs, once their (usually short) tenure at the top of the entertainment division ended, were put out to pasture with a production shingle around their necks. Now, with so many outlets jumping into the original content game, these companies are hiring producers to come run their operations. “As a showrunner myself, I’ve been in the trenches,” the Fox 21 head says. “I’m the guy who’s been on their side, so we tend to have a pretty close relationship with creators. They almost all want our notes.” 

It is, in fact, notes that can be a nettlesome issue. WGA’s Kirschner maintains that pertinent executives at networks and studios shower producers with notes. Per several sources, The Simpsons is the only show in town to which no one has dared deliver a production note for at least a decade. “In our program at the WGA, we try to teach our members to have a positive relationship with executives and not be defensive,” Kirschner stresses. “Showrunners need to be partners with broadcasters, not the problem.”

Sagansky, who is certain that note-giving is “much more prolific” now than 30 years ago, says, “Back then you were lucky if producers came in to the office and gave you a two- or three-liner before going off and doing their thing.” (He was referring to auteurs like Steven Bochco, Bruce Paltrow and David E. Kelley, not to mention Stephen  J. Cannell and Aaron Spelling.) Nowadays, he says, the back-and-forth involves a three-page springboard, then a 15-page outline, then extensive notes from various sources. “That formalized process,” he contends, “is one of the reasons network shows became less distinctive over time.”

It’s also one of the reasons basic cable seized the opening, ditching its reliance on reruns and placing its bets on its own original fare.

FX, for example, has branded itself as “fearless” with edgy offerings like The Bridge, Tyrant, Fargo and The Strain. “We make a point of giving our producers one set of notes,” says Eric Schrier, FX’s president of original programming. “Our team watches rough cuts together and we distill one single point of view. We’re not telling creators what to do; we’re guiding them like a coach.” From Schrier’s perspective, the super-talented show­runners can “read our thoughts” and enjoy the dialogue.

Or, looked at another way, being deluged with notes occurs in proportion to the richness of one’s track record and the number of hits a producer has on the air. (By all accounts, Dick Wolf and Shonda Rhimes are not flooded with pieces of paper from nitpickers.) ABC Studios’ Moran, for one, says he’s much less anxious about the Alphabet’s new Thursday night lineup—with three of Rhimes’s series back-to back—than he is about newcomers on other nights. For her part, NBC’s Salke says she comes away from visits to Wolf’s operation feeling “extremely confident,” having seen the lengths to which his staff go in mapping out on storyboards every plotline and character arcs for an entire season of each show.

Michael Rosenberg, the executive VP for U.S. scripted TV at Entertainment One (eOne), concurs with Sagansky that notes can be stultifying. “The networks tend to be all over you,” he says, though he attributes the tendency to their nervousness about the risks involved in working with folks without a long list of credits. The eOne exec further observes that a lot of the attention has shifted toward the front-end prep for projects, especially at the cable networks.

“Cablers [don’t invest in a lot of series each season], so they’re bent on getting everything right from the get-go,” he says. Once they’re convinced the project will take off, Rosenberg suggests, they largely back off and leave it to the showrunners to do their thing. (As an indie outfit with access to Canadian subsidies, eOne prides itself on being able to bring in shows cost-effectively.)

Other sources noted how producers working for cable, in being charged with at most 13 episodes a year, aspire to craft each episode as a mini-movie. They also mentioned how rare it is for the cable channel in question to cancel such series once they’re up and running.

For all the buzz that series like Mad Men, The Bridge and Breaking Bad have generated, their importance arguably lies more in their ability to brand the channels on which they air than in the money they rake in. “A number of scripted cable shows don’t actually make big bucks,” a longtime media analyst, who declined to be identified, contends. “But they do create cachet, which in turn allows the cable network to demand more in carriage fees from MSOs.” (Several cable execs demur, insisting that their top scripted shows aren’t just trendy but do indeed make money for them, especially if they own the rights and foreign license fees are factored in.) And, certainly, the top-tier broadcast network dramas, if perceived as less trendy, still continue to rack up significant paydays for their studio owners.

“It’s like the car industry—the Escalade versus the Prius,” another analyst suggests. “The majority of the profits at General Motors still derive from SUVs, which, ever since the recession, have been sneered at by the cognoscenti in favor of hybrids. But lots of folks are still driving these big vans (just the way they’re still watching long-running network shows like NCIS, Law & Order: SVU and Grey’s Anatomy). Hybrids, of course, are gaining traction, and it’s that diversity of output that’s healthy, just like in the TV biz.”

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Andrew Davies

This interview originally appeared in the MIPCOM 2013 issue of World Screen. Prolific writer Andrew ...