Kurt Sutter, creator of the “biker family drama” Sons of Anarchy (which has become a big hit for FX, often beating network shows in the so-called key demographics), unleashes a nice diatribe against executive-driven network TV and the way the networks have driven away not only most of the creators who supplied their big ’90s hits, but the executives who were good at encouraging creativity.
Now, I have a natural suspicion of any statement that executive interference is worse than it used to be, because the selection bias is obvious: TV history is mostly told from the point of view of the people who made it (the executives mostly get fired after a few years, even the good ones; creators have more longevity in the business). And in the retelling, any good decisions are the creator’s alone, usually in opposition to the executives, while any bad decisions are the result of executive meddling. The narrative that all good television results from executives “leaving the creative people alone” is one that has a lot of truth in it; most cliches do. But it obviously leaves out something, which Sutter himself touches on when he says that FX execs “were completely up my ass during the pilot, pilot reshoot and the first four or five episodes.” Network executives have to meddle, particularly early on; part of their job is to make the creator fix stuff that isn’t working. (And if they get these things fixed early, they can afford to back off for the rest of the season, because the mechanisms are in place to make good episodes.) This is another thing that came up in my interview with HBO’s Richard Plepler, when I asked him, as delicately as possible, how the network goes about giving notes and telling creators to fix things that aren’t working:
When you create a partnership with an auteur, you are entering into a kind of unspoken understanding that you want to try and bring out the best creative voice that you can. Hopefully implicit in that, the creator wants the input of the people who believed in him in the first place. It’s how you do it. Mutual respect has to inform the relationship from the start. And while we don’t want to be looking over the shoulder of an artist, we also have a responsibility to make sure that the vision he’s executing is the vision that we all agreed on.
So on cable, executives say: “You’re a genius, fix this.” On networks, they say “You’re a hack, fix this.” But they all have to fix stuff.
The big problem, of course, is not so much the existence of executive interference as the fact that there are so many executives with so many different jobs, and conflicting points of view, that either a) Nothing gets done, or b) The creative decisions made have to be the blandest ones possible, because they’re the only ones that a group of executives can agree on. The system that creators were most comfortable with at the networks, which has existed on and off, is to have basically one executive in charge of a particular show. Most of the quirky or groundbreaking network shows were under the protection of a particular exec who liked the show, fought for it at the network, and had the ear of the creator, who would change stuff in consultation with that one person.
You can still argue very plausibly that the dumbing-down of shows by executive fiat is no worse, and a lot better really, than it has been at many other times in TV history. (You think today’s exec-dominated environment is bad; what about ABC in the ’70s, when nearly-unknown executives like Michael Eisner rose to positions of incredible power, and had major input into the development of shows by creators who barely even knew them?) But the current environment certainly has a “too many cooks” quality about it.