News Articles

Series by Committee

8/26/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

New fall schedule? Gotta pull in women with shows in the spirit of Desperate Housewives. Then again, everybody saw the runaway success of Lost last year, so there’s plenty of science-fiction and fantasy. And, of course, virtually everything produced by the Jerry “CSI” Bruckheimer machine turns into ratings gold, so police procedurals are a no-brainer.

That might describe the chatter about the big programming themes running through network schedules as September looms, but what are the people who actually make the shows talking about? The unprecedented micromanaging of every decision—financial and creative—by layers and layers of network bureaucracy.

The complaints heard from veteran show-runners go beyond the usual moaning about interference from the folks who are more interested in Wall Street than Main Street. In the past, network executives gave notes on scripts. That was to be expected. But now we hear that they’re weighing in even earlier in the process, giving notes on the outlines of scripts.

Even marquee-name producers are talking about a new level of interference that runs everything through the corporate Cusinart, where creativity too often gets squashed. On NBC’s new Pentagon drama, E-Ring, a Bruckheimer show, focus-group testing came up with the conclusion that star Benjamin Bratt’s character shouldn’t be married, so the show was promptly retooled to do away with his wife. Sorry, honey, the people we paid 50 bucks for their opinions insisted.

Of course, the creative types complaining about all the meddling seldom go on the record—they want to keep working—but it’s a constant complaint, and it may help explain why there’s so little buzz about the new slate of fall shows. B&C Business Editor John Higgins talked to one veteran producer last week who—echoing the sentiment of many—told him, “The greatest accomplishment for a creator of a show is to recognize it when it gets on the air.”

What’s happening reflects an environment where the networks have more power than ever, especially with so many shows being provided by studios that the networks control. Big corporations in turn control these networks, and their investors expect a certain return on their money. I talk to writers, agents and studio executives all the time who wonder if all the micromanaging and trying to create series by committee is sapping the vitality out of the business—and flirting with doing to TV what interference from heavy-handed studio executives has done to the movie business: alienated audiences with mediocre product, resulting this year in a box-office nosedive.

My old boss, Variety Editor-in-Chief Peter Bart, has written about his freewheeling days as a studio executive at Paramount, back in an era before “the suits” dominated the business, and when wonderful, non-formulaic movies like The Godfather and Chinatown could get made—and score at the box office. These days, when the movie business seems mostly to get things wrong, TV still has places where they do it right. The lucky few who create series for HBO and FX wax poetic about those networks’ relatively hands-off approach, which has fostered breakthrough shows like The Sopranos and Nip/Tuck. Desperate Housewives’ Marc Cherry and Lost’s J.J. Abrams have talked about how being allowed by ABC to make the shows they wanted to make—with network guidance that was supportive, as opposed to dominating—was key to making those shows click in a big way.

In an interview with B&C’s Ben Grossman (page 8), Ali LeRoi, the creator of UPN’s Everybody Hates Chris, the most anticipated series of the new season, notes that plenty of networks wanted to be in business with him; they just didn’t want to do Everybody Hates Chris. It looks like UPN has it figured out: Less interference equals good business.

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