Q&A With Thomas Schlamme

Veteran director/producer says producers and studios must share fiscal responsibility in TV's new economics

As an executive producer on major-budget shows like The West Wing and Studio 60, Thomas Schlamme knows the big-money world of network television well. Now he's directing the Matthew Perry pilot Mr. Sunshine for ABC, and he's back on NBC this season with the Tuesday-night drama Parenthood, which is filling one of the 10 p.m. hours previously occupied by The Jay Leno Show. And while Parenthood slipped 16% in its second outing last week, Schlamme is optimistic about his show, and the ability for producers and studios to find news ways to work as the TV model evolves.

Schlamme spoke to B&C Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie about the changing economics of TV production, the post-Leno reality and how much things haven't changed. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Has the downward pressure on broadcasters trickled down to you?

Sure. I think that when you're working for a studio that has to lay people off, it's then hard to justify [asking for] a little bit more money for our show. And you have to be sensitive to that. This is a very different time. Martin Mull has this great quote: "Hollywood is a place where everybody wants to be paid a little more than what's fair." And I think we might just now get to the point where we actually get what's fair.

I think what you feel more is that the need for success probably is greater and greater, and the patience to let something nourish or grow or change and be something different is harder. And not harder because the networks are desperate, but harder because they're having to answer to a financial situation in their corporations. They don't have the leeway to just give it time. Wall Street is saying to them, "We don't have that time." So, they're looking for something that immediately makes impact. And that's tough in television.

Do you think NBC dumping Leno at 10 signals a recommitment to scripted television instead of just trying to find ways to save money?

Yes. And at the same time, it's our responsibility as creators to try to figure out ways to develop shows that can be done within the financial restraints that are there, that don't restrain storytelling. You have to be careful; if you're going to want a big show with a huge cast, you maybe have to think, "Well, maybe we can cast unknowns, or maybe we can shoot this in a different way," so it doesn't become, "We created this show and now you're not letting us do it the right way."

And that's the responsibility of the studios, too. Don't pick up a show that you can't finance. It's the responsibility of all of us now to be aware of these financial restraints but at the same time not inhibit the idea of coming up with really good shows, and that's going to be my priority.

With all the talk of viewer fragmentation, it's still pretty important what your lead-in is and what day of the week your show is on.

Right. And that's shocking. Those were the models that were done with the idea that people didn't have remote controls. They weren't going to get up from their couch to change the channel. I never understood lead-ins years ago. You have a remote. But people don't use it. Look, I think Conan was hurt dramatically by putting Jay in at 10. And all the other repercussions of that choice: News didn't do as well, Conan didn't do as well, [NBC's] numbers at 10 o'clock didn't do as well. Yes, they saved that money, but where else the pinball hit caused a far greater disruption than the money that they saved.

Are you happy with the ratings for Parenthood so far?

It's hard for me to read ratings now. I've been doing this a while. I think the show did very well. But I can also honestly say that I've been canceled for shows that did three times better than that many years ago. I think they did a great job of advertising it. I don't think they overadvertised it. I just hope for the network and hope for [executive producer] Jason Katims and this cast that the show gets to find its sea legs.

ABC has found a hit in its single-camera comedy Modern Family. Are we witnessing the continuation of the single-camera laugher trend?

I can't speak for whether or not their brand in comedy is now this. They had great development last year. They created an evening of really wonderful comedy. I think that they're wise-enough people to say, "Let's figure out the best and funniest shows that touch people." Mr. Sunshine can certainly fit within that block.

The only way I can approach any of those things is, I try my best to do really good television and hopefully that will fit. Obviously there's a wide range of brands, and that's certainly true in network television. I just think they hit on something that really worked for them: not the conceptual nature of its family-driven comedies, but that these were really funny shows.

There were a few of those; Community on NBC became a really funny show and they said, "That works." For me, what half-hour has become in network television is they're breaking all the forms and playing around with traditional stuff, different things and seeing what works. It's somewhat what hour television was eight or 10 years ago. All of a sudden, hour television broke out of its traditional mold. I think some of what was left was very traditional, and some of the other stuff was not. And I think that's exactly where half-hour has gotten to. It's an exciting time.

Do you think the failed Jay Leno-in-primetime experiment was a referendum on the power of storytelling?

We've all sat around campfires. We want to tell stories. And the stories are the stories of our lives, whether it's silly and fun or escapist. Storytelling is universal, and it's very primal. There is this medium that has allowed us to tell stories. And sometimes we used it in great ways, and sometimes we squandered it. But I still think our need for it is pretty great. At the end of the day, you can figure out ways to monetize and make money and cut back, but you still have to figure out a way to have a beginning, a middle and an end to a story.

It was probably a moment for a lot of people like you where you felt some satisfaction and vindication.

Well, I didn't feel any satisfaction that somebody failed. So the Schadenfreude of it all...I have to be careful. But the truth is, if you really think about it, 33% of actors, writer and directors lost their jobs. You only have three hours a night, and one of those hours got taken away. So that means that one-third of everyone who was employed in primetime television at NBC lost their jobs. It's a wonderful thing to open the plant back up. So, for that reason, absolutely. And especially if what comes out of that is really good television.

Does broadcast television still have an imprimatur? Or is everyone niche-ified?

It seems like they are. I don't know what's going on behind closed doors. And I don't know if that is by design or by default. When I think about Desperate Housewives and Lost and Grey's Anatomy, these big soapy ensemble [shows], those seem to work. ABC realized that they had these viewers that were watching those shows. Or are they behind closed doors, saying, "At this point, we need to do what the cable networks do, we have to brand ourselves"? I like the [concept of] the network of quality television; that WAS what NBC once was. You would think of certain shows and you knew they had to be on NBC. So, if NBC goes that way, I think Parenthood could be a great show for them.

This interview in five years will be different; maybe not dramatically different, but different nonetheless. [TV is] evolving and changing, and we're trying to figure it out. This pilot season, if I close my eyes and think about the pilots and how many there are and how much development there is, this could be the year I shot West Wing. And yet 10 years ago you would have said, "It's going to be so different in 10 years." But it didn't change that much. You feel a little bit more pressure as the club becomes a little smaller. But it's not like we're doing three-minute dramas on my phone.

Well, some people are doing three-minute dramas for your phone.

But that's not now our major form of entertainment.

Do you think the iPad will change television consumption?

I have no idea if there will be holograms in a few years. I just know it will change, but it will be a gradual process even though the gradations will come quicker and quicker. We're frightened of enormous change. I have a 21-year-old and two 16-year-olds. My 16-year-olds live in Los Angeles and they're bombarded by [media], and they're on Facebook. But the kinds of things they're going through in their lives, thinking of their future, and their friends, their relationships, and how the hell to get away from their parents, all of those things don't seem to be enormously different than when I was 16, and that was a long time ago.

The world is actually not that different. But how the Internet and technology relate to storytelling will just be a different process. I think there's still going to be longer-format stories being told.