TV `show runners' describe difficulty in getting a series to market

by Luaine Lee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

16 April 2007


Ever wonder why there aren’t more good shows on television? The process of wrestling a show to a network is not easy. The movers and shakers behind some of TV’s kudos-catchers—shows like ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Men in Trees”—will tell you that there’s no formula and no assurance that a unique vision has a chance of catching on with the public.

Most of the shows are introduced during pilot season, the period in the fall when television creators are pitching their story ideas to the networks, then casting and actually making the pilot (a sample of the show.)

“You have 80 projects, and they’re all scrambling around competing for the same limited pool of actors,” says Carlton Cuse, one of the executive producers on “Lost.” “You’re trying to make pilots in a very short amount of time. Each of these phases is a place where failure is a high likelihood. And everybody’s chasing the same actors, the same writers, and it’s all on this clock to get everything done for announcements at Upfronts. And I don’t think that that’s necessarily the ideal way to sort of nurture something creatively.”

The “Upfronts” are meetings held at the end of May in New York to introduce the advertisers and press to the networks’ promising new shows.

“You’re asking for executives to also read your script with a fresh eye when they have most likely read, at that point, hundreds of things, which I can’t imagine is fun for them,” says Jenny Bicks, who served time on “Sex and the City” and is executive producer on “Men in Trees.”

Marc Cherry, who created and orchestrates “Desperate Housewives,” says he sold his show a different way. “I just wrote mine on my own. And by doing it on spec, I could take a year—OK, I’m kidding myself—a year and a half. And I just kept doing my own drafts and did my own kind of internal development with writer friends, getting opinions from them and kind of changing things, so that I actually handed my script in,” he says.

“And Steve McPherson (president of ABC Entertainment) bought it in September, which is a time that everyone else is going in pitching ideas. So what was really cool for me was that the show was done, the vision was done. It wasn’t just an idea. They could see the tonality. They could see the characters and everything. And we got picked up the first week of January of 2004. So I actually kind of bypassed the development process because I didn’t let it go through the blender.”

The “blender” often involves too much input by too many cooks, which tends to weaken the finished product, he says. “For me, it was kind of essential to do the work on my own and just walk in with the finished product. And I think that’s the most difficult part of the process, is pitching an idea in, say, November, October and having just a few weeks to get it done. For me, I didn’t. I went through about 17 drafts. And thank God I did.”

Damon Lindelof, one of the creators of “Lost,” says, “What’s sort of amazing about the television business is that you really are finding the show over the course of the first season. If you’re really, really good at it, you are finding it over the course of the first six, eight, 10 episodes.

“In our case our vision was very cloudy. And because the show was so unique ... no one came forward and said, `Here’s what it should be.’ And instead, we started finding it and saying, `Oh, this is a cool idea. Let’s try this’ or `The franchise of the show will be flashbacks, and we know that that’s scary and potentially alienating because it hasn’t been done before, but hey, they’re on an island, so let’s see if this works,’ and being given the opportunity to do that. . .

“I wish that I could say I had a very specific vision of `Lost’ ... But the show is constantly evolving, and our vision is constantly evolving, and I think when you stop listening to what your show is telling you, that’s when you’re going to lie splattered over the rocks.”

Sometimes the censors—called Standards and Practices in TV lingo—can get in the way. Lindelof says some things permitted on “Hill Street Blues” in 1991 are no longer possible.

“I spend like $100,000 a week taking nipples out of my show,” adds Cherry, “because I’ve got a couple of actresses who refuse to wear bras, and the Standards and Practices go, `Can’t see that.’ So what’s interesting is then I’ll turn on `Friends,’ and it’s a nipple fest. I don’t understand the difference. So that’s an interesting thing you have to deal with. ABC actually has, I think, a little bit more restrictive Standards and Practices.”

Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” says, “Part of having all these restrictions—one of the benefits is that it’s forced us to become more creative. I never would have come up with `vajayjay’ if Standards and Practices hadn’t told me we couldn’t say `vagina’ one more time in our show. There’s a lot of things like that. Some of my best lines have come because I’ve fought with Standards and Practices and lost and then had to come up with something that’s a little bit more interesting or even a little bit more outrageous but in a much different way to get where I was going. So there has been a little bit of benefit from the battle, but it’s still a very frustrating battle.”


Bobby Moresco and Paul Haggis, who co-wrote the stunning movie “Crash,” worked together again on NBC’s “The Black Donnellys.” Haggis says he loves working with Moresco “because he’s so annoying.”

“We were writing `Crash,’ and I’m sitting over there, and I’m typing away. And I’m on Page 20. And Bobby is sitting in the corner, and we’re talking back and forth. And I go, `OK, Bobby, Page 20, I’ve got this problem where this character has to meet this character and this ...’ And he goes, `Yeah, Page 3.’ I go, `Bobby, I’m not on Page 3. I’m on Page 20.’ And I just really needed his help and his input on this thing. And he goes, `Yeah, yeah, I understand. What is it now?’ So I explain the entire thing again. He goes, `Yeah, Page 3.’

“`What the hell is wrong with Page 3?’ So he makes me go back and look, and ... damn it if there isn’t something on Page 3 that’s going to inform Page 20 and work on that. He is sand in my shoe, and I love him for it. He’s fabulous. It’s a great collaborative effort. I think if you find two people who work the same way, then you find one person who just isn’t necessary. So I love working with him.”


Illuminating cinematographer Caleb Deschanel will direct one of his two acting daughters, Emily Deschanel, in the May 9 edition of Fox’s “Bones.” Deschanel, nominated five times for Academy Awards for his beautiful cinematography, has shot such memorable films as “The Natural,” “The Black Stallion,” “The Right Stuff” and “The Patriot.” Deschanel’s other daughter, Zooey, is costarring in the Sci-Fi Channel’s upcoming miniseries, “Tin Man,” an otherworldly fantasy based very loosely on “The Wizard of Oz.”


Kyra Sedgwick will be back in June as deputy police chief Brenda Leigh Johnson in TNT’s super-successful “The Closer.” The fragile-looking Sedgwick is a perfect choice as the Teflon-on-the-outside police officer. Sedgwick says she culls her own power from various sources. “Certainly my choices empower me, my family very much so, my friends, and I think ... feeling like you are capable sexually is helpful. I definitely think that’s a powerful thing and I think that not taking too much (stuff) and really making your boundaries clear makes you powerful.”


//Mixed media