Monday, May 14, 2012

Help Wanted: Showrunners

Just left New York before the big Upfronts announcements – not that any of the networks would’ve invited me to any of their launch parties anyway. (“Levine doesn’t have a show and he eats all the shrimp!”) Big new trend this year: new series picked up without proven showrunners. How can you tell? When the networks told the lucky pilot creators they were on the schedule they reacted by saying, “Yay!” and not “Oh shit!” Only seasoned showrunners, who know what to expect, say that.

In their quest to get new ideas and new voices, the networks have favored development with feature writers and actors and pretty much anyone who doesn’t have the stink of “knows how to do this” on them.  In fact, writers on existing shows were often discouraged from taking time away from work to develop.

Is it worth it? We’ll see in September. Will the ideas and voices be that fresh? My guess is no. My guess is another reason inexperienced TV writer/creators are sought are because they’re much more willing to take network and studio notes. I’ve been in pilot situations where literally twenty suits are giving notes. You sit around a giant conference table like in DR. STRANGELOVE and get bombarded by mandatory “suggestions” – many of which conflict. Do the people giving those notes have fresh ideas and voices? What do you think?

And then the downside. You obviously can’t put someone in charge of a multi-million dollar production who hasn’t done it before. Yes, there are generally Pod Producers attached (non writing producers – former executives who get cushy production deals), but this only underscores how unnecessary they are since they can't write or direct and that's sorta what's needed to make television shows.

So now you have to orchestrate arranged marriages. How often do they work? Many times the original creator gets trampled under the feet of the experienced showrunner. You’re a chef. You’ve created this delicate soufflĂ©. And now Gordon Ramsey is brought in to run your kitchen.

And for the showrunners themselves – let’s be honest – they sort of resent just being hired guns. And I don’t blame them. The networks weren’t interested in their original ideas. Instead, they're just offered a job. They’re saddled with partners they don’t feel they need, and you can understand if they don’t have a real emotional investment in the project. Should the show be a big hit, all of the articles will center on the creator and the wonderful story of how she was Paula Abdul’s personal shopper until a year ago.

It just seems odd to me that a network would order a show before knowing exactly who is going to be the creative force. Let me amend that – odd that they would order so many shows. One or two? Okay. But this year there are eight or ten. In all genres.

Does the practice pay off? Sure. Sometimes. You can win a big jackpot drawing on an inside straight. But I suspect most big game poker players would tell you that’s not the best strategy.

Hello from Boston, where tonight the M's begin a brief two-game series with the Bosox.  Join me and Rick Rizzs for the action on 710 ESPN in Seattle and MLB.COM. 


ScottUSF said...

Hey Ken, would love your thoughts on this. Maybe you know some of the writers who can add some insight. Possible Friday Questions.

Once again, I've become a big fan of 2 new shows this year that have now been cancelled - "Alcatraz" and "Awake" - both 1 hour shows that try to tell a long story over a season/series. I was a HUGE fan of "Lost" and lukewarm on "Flashback" but I still enjoyed it.

Both "Grimm" and "Once Upon A Time" would seem to fit in this similar group but they have escaped the axe for another season [I enjoy these shows also so am glad for that.]

So here are my questions/conundrums
1) Neither Alcatraz, Awake, nor Flashback got a chance to wrap up their storylines. [For Flashback I can read the actual books but I understand the TV version is different enough won't really wrap it up for me.] How can a viewer find out what the plans were to wrap up the story?
2) What is the name for this type of series? Long-form storytelling?
3) These type of shows seem to survive better on HBO or cable...why is that? Alcatraz, Awake, and Flashback certainly don't need sex/nudity/language to warrant being on HBO.
4) Am I the only one out there who gets tired of getting hooked/hoodwinked on these series.

Would love to hear others thoughts on this...maybe there is a writer from Alcatraz who reads your column? I can hope anyway.

clm said...

Chipping in (related to ScottUSF's question 1): Criminal Minds Suspect Behavior ended with a cliffhanger last year, it would be easy to resolve that in the main Criminal Minds, but they didn't - any guesses why? I assume the story after a cliffhanger is written before they start filming episode 1 of a 2-part episode?

Rupe said...

Baseball question: when we join you & Rick in Boston tonight, are you guys buying the beer & chicken?

Johnny Walker said...

The crazy thing is that, from what little I know about the industry, they won't even give these newbies a chance to find their feet. Poor ratings in the first two weeks? Buh-bye!

mp said...

Hi, Ken. I've got a question. I caught a bit of the M*A*S*H movie on HBO last week and it made me wonder about writing on a show that adapted from a movie. (I know it was already running for a few seasons before you joined, but I am hoping you may be able to provide some insight.)

Before the show had time to set a new identity, how did the showrunners instruct the staff writers to regard the movie?

Thomas said...

I actually like turbulence. I rate shows that try to tell a unique story, or do things differently. Anything pushing the envelope appeals to me, and I am happier with a TV industry where the creative forces are forever shifting rather than stagnant for too long.

That is not to say I dislike shows written by experienced writers. I am only saying I like shows that do not fall into the same tracks as those before it. If a turbulent industry is more conducive to that, then let us have turbulence.

Dan Roth said...

Just a quick note to let you know I listened to the Tiger-Mariner game the other night on my Ipad and really enjoyed your broadcast. Not a lot of play by play guys could work Roy Rogers into the conversation so seemlessly. I suppose one of the things that makes radio broadcasts fun is the sense that you come to know the announcers. Having read the blog site enhanced that feeling for me. Nice job.

Barry Traylor said...

Perhaps the networks think these people will be so grateful they will work cheap.

Soul Sucker said...

Hey Johnny Walker-
The thing that kills me is that for every 10 decent cancelled shows that just need a chance to build up an audience, there's a "Whitney", which gets renewed.
Hey Ken, how does one ink a blood oath with Satan in showbiz? I find that I don't have a strong attachment to my mortal soul and, frankly, I love hot, dry climates. Do you have any insight as to when Whitney Cummings will be serving her sentence in Hell?

cadavra said...

After cancelling HARRY'S LAW, NBC is pretty much dead to me. Outside of SMASH, there's now hardly anything left that doesn't insult my intelligence, and few of the new shows look promising--though I'll give the Anne Heche and Jenna Elfman shows a try, simply because I love Anne Heche and Jenna Elfman.

D. McEwan said...

Now Cadavra, I told you two weeks ago that HARRY'S LAW was probably doomed, and you told me not to count it out just yet. Can I count it out now? I'm sorry to see it go. I watched every episode and enjoyed them, but another quirky lawyer show will be along shortly. There's always another one.

Smash doesn't insult your intelligence? Really? I've been watching it, partly to be amazed each week at how it regularly, 5 or 6 times an hour, insults my intelligence, always finding new ways to do so, and you're every bit as intelligent as I am.

Now the renewal of Whitney is a true mystery. Has she taken NBC execs' families hostage?

"ScottUSF said...
Am I the only one out there who gets tired of getting hooked/hoodwinked on these series[?]"

No you're not, though "hoodwinked" isn't the right word. It's not like you're conned into watching it. When you watch a new serialized, long-arc drama, you know you're taking a simple gamble that it will catch on and stay. 9 times out of ten, it won't make it. The only sane thing to do if one you're enjoying (in the case of Alcatraz and Awake, enjoying alone apparently) a new show and it's cancelled, is to take a deep breath and let it go, because it's gone.

Invent your own ending. When Dynasty was cancelled, every major character was in mortal peril in a pile of cliff-hangers, and I was free to assume they'd all died. Then later they did a reunion TV movie and resolved all those cliffhangers, Drat! I liked my ending better.

As you say, with Flashforward you could buy the book, which, in fact, I did. You could even buy the book first and skip the show altogether.

As for Awake you can watch the epsiode of Doctor Who that its premise was baldly ripped of from, Amy's Choice (Guest star Toby Jones, well worth watching), and see how that ends. ([SPOILER] And it ended by having BOTH realities turn out to be false. All he had to do was let himself die in each one, and he woke back up in the real world, and the trickster who'd done it to him, Toby Jones, was foiled.)

I've become highly selective of which new serial dramas I start watching. I purposely did not watch Awake since: 1. I was offended by the bald plaigerism, and 2. Come on, Jacob Isaacs as a hero? I'm supposed to sympathize with Lucius Malfoy and Captain Hook? I was sure it wouldn't work just from the casting. I was right.

I didn't go near Revenge until late in the season, when the critical and fan reaction, not to mention a LOT of word-of-mouth from my friends, convinced me to take the gamble. I then went online and watched the episodes I'd missed from the beginning over its hiatus, and when it started up again last month, I was fully onboard with a sure-to-be-renewed serial. (Which was renewed this week. And it's a very good show.)

But If I watch one and it gets cancelled, I let it go. Why get riled over it? There's always another show to watch, always another book to read. It's not like I had money in these shows.

Doktor Frank Doe said...

SCALE, everything at scale, AND, nobody knows shit. The less someone knows, the easier they are to control. This IS THE GOD DAMNED slide rule of all American Corporations nowadays. Quality means nothing, just low wages delivered by know nothings. The experienced show-runners have been put in their respective places by having been given a "job". Everything then costs less, everybody is scared to death and easily controlled. End of Story. The end-run is simple, they're always able to fill the schedule, net year will be the same. The networks are all bullshit content anyway.

Ken, you'll agree with this. Thirty Years ago, commercials were used to drive content, NOW, content is used to drive commercials. Nothing else matters, the artisans are simply a bothersome pain in the ass to these corporations now.

gottacook said...

clm: "I assume the story after a cliffhanger is written before they start filming episode 1 of a 2-part episode?"

Not always. In the case of one of the best-known cliffhangers, the end of "The Best of Both Worlds, part I" that ended season 3 of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1990, the second part was not written until season 4 production was under way. Quotes from the late Michael Piller concerning how he struggled under pressure to resolve his own cliffhanger can easily be found online.

Paul Duca said...

“Levine doesn’t have a show and he eats all the shrimp!”

Your rabbi must be SO proud....:)

chuckcd said...

Best thing to do is wait until the show is in season 3, and then watch the seasons on dvd.

cadavra said...

Doug: I made that comment when it looked certain that NBC was picking up HARRY for 13 at mid-season. Obviously, they changed their minds. Not unique--who'da thunk WHITNEY would be back?

As for SMASH, I agree that the veer-offs into their personal lives are kind of a drag, but when they stick with the show itself, it's really enjoyable, and very smart about what makes a Broadway show tick.

WV: "smattin coundsy"--Legendary Irish rugby player.