TV’s ‘show runners’ work their magic behind the cameras

[5 July 2007]

By Luaine Lee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

Ever wonder what it takes to run a TV show? It doesn’t take a village. But it does require some creative, determined and innovative people to wrangle a series that lasts through the shark-infested first few weeks of a season. In TV parlance these conjurers are called “show runners.”

They are usually the creators of the piece and the people who hang around to make sure their original vision is maintained. Sometimes they work with hordes of writers, but the good ones keep their ink wells filled and put their imprimatur on the show week after week.

Of course, the biggest challenge is selling the idea in the first place. Shondra Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” recalls when she approached the network with her idea for the show.

“I remember very passionately arguing that people would have conversations about their relationships while cutting open people’s body cavities and that there would be a lot of people sleeping with people in the hospital and that the doctors would care more about themselves than they would about the patients.”

She predicted that the pace of “Anatomy” would be much slower than “ER,” at the time the top medical entry on the air.

“I think pitching that the shows are about the characters, that you’re going to stay true to who the characters are - as opposed to just paying service to the plot - was what made the show get picked up,” she says.

Jenny Bicks, show runner for ABC’s “Men in Trees” (which will be back on Fridays next season), says her pitch was similar. “I basically said everything Shondra said - without the hospital - so that worked for me. No, I actually got to talk a lot about the fantasy elements of kind of escaping and creating yourself anew. And for me, I wanted to do a little romantic comedy every week, like a little romantic comedy movie ...”

Marc Cherry, creator and show runner of ABC’s homerun hit, “Desperate Housewives,” wrote his script on spec and was both surprised and delighted when it was picked up. But Cherry says he finds it depressing when his love child begins to suffer criticism in its second or third season.

“I desperately care what everyone thinks,” he says. “My whole thing is that you just kind of have to go - I was broke (when he wrote the script). People not liking the second season of your hit show, piece of cake. Borrowing $50,000 from your mother, not so easy. So for me, I just put in perspective of going, `This is part of the journey.’ And I tried to learn from it what I could, and I learned a bunch of stuff,” he says.

“I mean, so many of the successes we had the first season were completely fluke-like and accidental. And I actually kind of learned why my show was good and what made my show work the second year. So suddenly I was able to make choices that made the third season better. So for me it was like, well, this is the journey I’m on. It’s not fun to read articles where people say, `You’ve failed and you’ve made Sunday nights a miserable place to be. And thank God, at least, for “Grey’s Anatomy.”’

“But, you know, you go about your work. You pray. You tell (ABC Chief) Steve McPherson to move the ... damn show to Thursday night, and then you feel better about yourself.”

“Grey’s Anatomy” blasted “Desperate Housewives” in the ratings its premiere night. Cherry says he phoned Rhimes. “I called her and said, `Congratulations. Good. It’s your time to have this thing.’ Because the truth is none of it’s going to last forever. And the cool thing for me, whenever I go to an awards show, I always look around and go, `Yeah, this is going to come to an end. This is going to come to an end. At some point, I’m not going to be invited to the party, so let me just enjoy it while I’m here.’ So I think that’s the cool thing. If you’re raised like I was to kind of understand, enjoy the good stuff, let go of the bad stuff, and just, for God sakes, learn, then it gets really easy ... Once you start to believe that you deserve it, I think then you’re really screwed.”

Cherry says monitoring opinions on the Internet shakes him up.

“I read a message board once, Season 1, and it was after our highest-rated episode of the first 10 episodes. Some fans were just taking apart this episode that I thought was brilliant, and my feelings got hurt so I never read it again. It was like, `You’re a toll booth collector in Topeka, and you’re dissing my show? Stop it.’ That’s the weird thing about the fans, is that you can’t - those message boards - these are the people who want to get together after the show and talk about it.

“Some of them really want to take the weirdest things. And then you have other people in the chat room saying, `Oh, shut up, it was good.’ I was reading. I was going, `Oh, this is too much humanity for me.’ I just kind of said, `No, I think I just need to please myself and stuff.’ A little connection with the fans is good. A little too much can be frightening and sad.”

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The first season of Fox’s “Til Death’ will find new life on DVD when Sony Pictures Home Entertainment delivers its three-disc version in August. The show, which stars Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher as an old-time married couple, will be back on Fox this fall. The first season includes guest stars Margaret Cho, Ted McGinley, Dan Butler, and an uncredited cameo by Ray Romano.

Fisher says when she first saw the script she didn’t feel she was right for it. “I read the script and I thought, `I feel she’s a good deal older than I am.’ The way the pilot was conceived they didn’t really care about what they looked like. At best they wore sweatpants. She wasn’t a girl who shopped or did her hair or cared how she looked anymore. I was, like, `I’m not old enough to have been married 24 years.’ They said, `Well, they love the idea of you and Brad loves the idea of you. Just go in and they’ll fix it.’

“We immediately clicked and made each other laugh. Next day I went to the table reading. I didn’t suffer at all.”

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Donnie Wahlberg is pitted against John Leguizamo in Spike TV’s heart-stopping eight-hour series, “The Kill Point,” premiering July 22. Once again Wahlberg is operating on the right side of the law (as he did in “Boomtown”). But in real life Wahlberg could’ve gone either way.

“My brother, Mark’s, run-ins with the law are well documented, but I grew up in the same house, in the same streets,” says Wahlberg.

“But I was, for some reason, fortunate because I was able to embrace opportunity unlike most people where I come from. I think a lot of my brothers and sisters are talented. I think Mark and I are the two least talented, to be quite honest with you. But where they chose to apply their talents wasn’t always the right place. And where we came from breeds that. It breeds a lack of belief that there’s something better for you out there. I just had that belief.”

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Josh Duhamel, hot from his NBC show “Las Vegas,” opens in the feature “Transformers” this week. Duhamel tells me he was doing OK as a model in the beginning when he decided to give commercials a go. “I knew that I wasn’t making that much money modeling. Anyway, there’s a million better looking dudes in L.A. than me so I figured my advantage was to maybe make people laugh or try to break the mold a little bit.

“So I just literally went for it and didn’t care. If they didn’t like me they didn’t like me and from there I really started getting serious about acting. And it’s become an obsession.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/tvs-show-runners-work-their-magic-behind-the-cameras/