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Television co-showrunners guide new talent

But hiring experienced writers to guide new-show creators comes with risks


 

Chad Batka / The New York Times / Redux

In television today, many shows need two separate but equal producers, one to create it, and another one to run it. New creators such as Lena Dunham (Girls) and Liz Meriwether (New Girl) have become famous, but they work with other, more experienced writer-producers assigned to the project by the studio. Jonathan Davis, executive vice-president of comedy development for 20th Century Fox Television, told Maclean’s recently that when a show is written by someone new, the choice of a co-showrunner is of special importance. “We have this great creator here who’s a little bit raw and doesn’t know the big world of network TV,” he explains. “We try to find somebody who will not only supervise and keep the trains running, but also help them reach their creative potential.”

These non-creating showrunners are often writers on overall deals with the studio, who get the job working on other people’s shows after their own projects don’t work out. On New Girl, Meriwether was teamed with Brett Baer and David Finkel, two writers who have been on the staff of everything from Pinky and the Brain to 30 Rock; Girls’ co-showrunner is Jenni Konner, creator of single-season sitcoms such as Help Me Help You. Unlike past hits such as The Sopranos or Seinfeld, which were largely under the complete control of their creators, some of today’s shows share power more evenly; the biggest hit drama in TV, The Walking Dead, has seen creator Robert Kirkman working with at least three different showrunners.

Many people in TV see this system as the ideal way to strike a balance between new viewpoints and experience. “I think it’s always good to have new fresh faces,” says Malin Akerman, who stars in the upcoming sitcom Trophy Wife, a show created by two inexperienced writers and executive-produced by The Office veterans Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. “But at the same time, you need your veterans who know what they’re doing.” Davis says that by teaming writers, studios have been able to take chances on creators who “maybe don’t know the day-in day-out of making a big network television show.”

An example he points to is Meriwether, a playwright and screenwriter who had no TV experience prior to creating New Girl: “The key in this whole thing is to protect the creator’s vision no matter what,” says Davis. “Liz Meriwether is that kind of bet.” Inspired in part by the success of Meriwether and Dunham, many of the new shows planned for the fall are by young creators under the guidance of old pros, like Super Fun Night, which teams creator-star Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids) with 30 Rock producer John Riggi.

A downside of the teamwork strategy is that it can lead to power struggles. NBC’s drama Smash fell apart after a well-reviewed pilot, thanks partly to much-publicized disagreements between the creator, playwright Theresa Rebeck and her assigned co-producer. And there are fears that too much splitting of power can lead shows to be watered down. “When we bring on a supervisor,” Davis says, “the last thing we want to happen is when a creator feels muted or homogenized.” He adds that studios have to be careful to make sure these teams have chemistry. “We let them have a couple of weeks to know each other, get together. We try to maintain fluidity in those situations, and not jam people together. That never works out.”

Some shows still find that they work best when one person is in charge of everything. Laura Prepon, one of the stars of the new Netflix series Orange is the New Black, says the show’s consistent tone comes from creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds) overseeing every aspect of it: “We don’t have another executive producer-writer that I’m aware of,” she says. “Everything pretty much filters through Jenji.” Still, the team-up system is one that TV studios are likely to use even more often in the future—leaving actors hoping these newly created teams will work out. Akerman says the working relationship between her producers, despite their not being a team before the show started, “has been a complete collaboration. Any issues that come up, we all get together.” But, she adds, “it doesn’t always happen, I realize.”


 

Television co-showrunners guide new talent

  1. Funny you’d mention Girls and New Girl in the same space. They are both awful creations of untalented writers whose only “talent” is the depth of their Rolodex and PR account (or in the case of the totally untalented Lena Dunham, the depth of her family’s Rolodex and PR account).

    Both show are complete flops that their network keeps renewing (again the Rolodex issue) in part because the press keeps giving them a pass on renewing a big flop.

    Isn’t it time the press start reporting facts and not PR?

    • The Season 1 finale of Girl hit 1 million, comparable with other cable series like Breaking Bad. Yes, Lena Dunham has a (relatively) well known mother…so what? Do you really think that a photographer wields sufficient power that she could bully a multi-billion dollar entertainment company into renewing her daughter’s series for vanity reasons?

      The show is profitable enough for HBO that they continue to renew it. Time Warner (which owns HBO) has it’s shareholders to appease and they don’t do that by sinking money into projects that don’t pay out. Season 2 numbers were down, I’m sure they’ll wait and see how Season 3 plays out before deciding on a 4th. You have to remember that ancillary sales like DVD, digital and other markets are what pay for many such series. Rome and Deadwood, with their significant budgets, relied on such sales to keep them going.

      • When you argue that we’re supposed to be impressed by one episode hitting one million viewers, I have to suppose you don’t know all that much about TV ratings.

        Let me try to shed some light: Breaking Bad AVERAGED a little over 2 million viewers through most of its run. It was a flop. Girls gets less than half that. It’s a mega-flop (even for HBO).

        As for her parents and money, it’s not their fame that HBO is “afraid of”, it’s their rolodex and the fact that Lena Dunham is a connected insider with a massive PR budget she is happy to spend on herself and her crappy show that keeps HBO at bay.

        Lena Dunham has no talent and if HBO was recruiting based on talent she wouldn’t be either an actress, a writer or a producer on that, or any, network. Yet, that’s something that’s never talked about (probably because it’s not mentioned in her PR releases).

        As for HBO “appeasing” shareholders, we would be so lucky if the movie and TV industry were so well managed.

        HBO executives, like their brethren, are managing for CYA factor, and an actress/auteur willing to spend oodles of money getting glowing articles even though she’s talentless is what they love.

        They don’t care about the bad ratings as long as their higher-ups don’t sanction them for that and the business model of HBO, which is based on subscriptions, makes it easy to pretend the few people that watch Girls all bought their subs because of it.

        There is a reason the US Film and TV business is in a major crisis: it is because shows like Girls keep edging out better projects that don’t get made because who you know and how much money you spend on PR (see the absurd career of the Gylenhaals for another example of connections and money buying you fake stardom in today’s Hollywood) determines what we’re offered.

        As for the ancillary markets, it’s funny they’re always mentioned in connection with flops as a reason to keep favored shows going…

        Don’t be fooled. :)

        • “When you argue that we’re supposed to be impressed by one episode hitting one million viewers, I have to suppose you don’t know all that much about TV ratings.”

          Wait a minute…is this Richard Stursberg???

          • Who is Richard Stursberg? I have to deduce from your comment I’d appreciate him. :)

          • He was the former head of the CBC who instituted the million viewers threshold for series. It was to be a benchmark meant to grow the Ceeb. The result is the current slate of reality series and knock-off imports at the expense of quality scripted content that might have found a smaller, dedicated audience or take some time to develop a following.

          • Thanks for the info. I very much appreciate your Canadian perspective. :)

            In Canada, one million is a much better rating than in the US, maybe that’s why you were impressed by Girls’ teeny tiny ratings. ;)

            There is nothing wrong in my book with wanting your shows to be watched.

            My response when I hear that this leads to more reality shows is that it tells you how awful those scripted shows are if they can’t beat a bad reality show.

            Seriously… Think about it… All those supposed “quality” shows that get beat by the umpteenth season of Dancing With The Stars…

            Unless you are an avowed snob who think people don’t like quality you have to wonder how “great” all those shows really are.

            I also object to the idea of shows needing time to “develop a following”. This is only true in the case of shows like CSI or NCIS which had very little promotional push.

            High PR shows like Agent of SHIELD or Being Human that fail right off the bat (not coincidentally are both made by supposed “hot” producers who in reality are flop-meisters) are extremely unlikely to develop over time.

            In our era where the networks (at least the US networks) no longer have the money to program full schedules and don’t have enough mid-season replacement, most new shows get big pushes, except maybe on CBS which until Les Moonves moved upstairs found hits and didn’t need to hype them right off the bat to generate pseudo-hits.

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