The Hit Man
Wells nurtures talent in creating quality TV
By Ben Grossman -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/25/2005 8:00:00 PM
While in Hawaii on a staff retreat for the two venerable NBC shows he oversees, ER and The West Wing, John Wells got a bit of a reality slap.
One night over cocktails, he asked each staffer to name the show from their childhood that made them want to get into television (his was Hill Street Blues). When it was a young writer's turn to speak, she said something that made Wells cringe: She mentioned ER.
It made him realize just how long he'd been in the business. “Just hit me in the head with a bat, why don't you?” he thought to himself.
But it also made Wells realize just how much he'd learned—and how much wisdom he had to pass along to junior staffers. While Wells is indeed the caretaker of two of television's more senior citizens (ER began in 1994, West Wing in 1999), his extensive career in production has ingrained in him not just a talent for winning viewers with clever storytelling but a passion for the business of television—and lots of insights into how to fix it.
According to those who work with him, Wells, 49, is the rare combination of producer, business exec and teacher. “John is one of the most creative and professional producers in the business,” says NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly. “It's very hard to find that kind of animal that has both the striving for creative excellence and is truly an expert businessman and manager.”
Born in Alexandria, Va., and raised in Denver, Wells studied fine arts at Carnegie Mellon and then the University of Southern California. But he says his most memorable experiences during college were his summers spent as a roadie for rock tours.
“I was the lowliest grunt there, but you made $300 a week,” says Wells, who toured with bands ranging from the Beach Boys to the Eagles. “You'd sleep four hours and eat McDonald's on the run. I couldn't last one day of that now.”
Fortunately, he doesn't have to, thanks to an extremely successful career as a writer and producer with Warner Bros. His first major project was writing and producing for Vietnam War drama China Beach, and in 1999, he was involved in the creation of both Third Watch and West Wing—the latter of which he took over from Aaron Sorkin two years ago.
With multiple shows on-air and several movie projects, including Far From Heaven and One Hour Photo, over the years, Wells' professional life is a balancing act. At the helm of two veteran shows, he's all too familiar with the financial realities he faces.
“You have stockholders who are expecting an annual growth rate,” he says, “and to say to them you are going to take off some shows that actually make money and put on a bunch of new shows that may fail—now that's a tough conversation.”
Mention NBC, and he talks about the pressure (“You can talk to people working in the parking lot over there that are a little tense”) and how the network got caught up in remaining No. 1, instead of developing new hits. “In this business, it seems you ride the wave as long as you can possibly ride it, and then you get completely battered at the beach, and then you try to swim back out,” he says. “That's what they are in the middle of.”
Wells thinks it'll take NBC at least three years to get back on top, but he sees bigger problems than one network's ratings challenges. Among them: what he calls a grave lack of talented showrunners.
“It's like expansion in baseball—at some point there is not enough qualified, experienced talent to spread around,” he says. “People are in the business two years now, and then they're running a show. You get a lot of shows that don't work simply because they haven't done it enough.”
Wells, who worked in television for seven years before he became an executive producer, says the notion of young talent being groomed over time is a thing of the past. He says the current model is one reason he would never want to run a studio.
“Too often, someone takes a kid from being a co-producer on one show and says, 'You have $50 million, and you're going to spend it in the next nine months. Go!'” Wells says. “If you were going to start up a $50 million company, you would not do it with the least experienced person you could find.”
Instead of simply bemoaning the system, Wells is trying to change it by developing the young talent around him. Says his childhood friend, Law & Order: SVU executive producer Neil Baer, “Not a lot of producers take the time to train up-and-comers, but he is a teacher, from the staff writers on up. From staff retreats to post-production to casting, John has influenced a lot of what I do, and a lot of what many others do as well.”
Advice to young producers
Wells advises young producers to think twice about—and even turn down—big deals so early in their careers. “You're not pro athletes. You're not gonna get hurt,” he says. “If you go out too early and fail, then that could set back your career years. It's very tough to recover if you've had a disaster.”
West Wing star Jimmy Smits sees firsthand the way Wells develops talent. “John really has his hands on everything in terms of what's happening with the company,” he says. “But he encourages a collaborative environment, not autocratic. He develops great people around him, and he really delegates and trusts them.”
Fittingly, Wells is working with the Writers Guild of America (he's the former president) to set up a weekend program to teach younger writers the skills they need to run a show.
For now, he's busy with crime drama The Evidence, an ABC midseason replacement that gives him yet another task to balance—not to mention a new staff to teach.
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