If you look at television from the outside, you might see a seemingly endless fountain of content, some bad, some good and even some great. And from the steady growth and sheer amount of it, you might think that what you’re witnessing is a thriving and robust process at work. But, take a closer look and you’ll find things are not as they seem.
Television development has changed dramatically over the past ten years. The proliferation of cable outlets and the subsequent spreading and thinning out of audience shares are two of the main reasons. These phenomena have resulted in an ever-changing – some would say constricting – culture at the executive level at both studios and networks. Add to this the mushrooming of content providers by way of the Internet and the screws tighten even more.
This article is the first in a series that attempts to explore how things have changed in television development and how they might evolve.
To get a perspective from the trenches, I reached out to a comedy showrunner team with a solid track record in cable, and a drama showrunner who has been very successful in both cable and network television. They have all been developing television for over ten years, and you’ve probably seen a few of their shows. For the purposes of getting candid answers, they are participating in this article anonymously.
NICHE AUDIENCES = NICHE CONTENT = BACKWARDS DEVELOPMENT
When they began developing television, there were “only a handful of networks,” says one of the comedy writers. “Now there is a lot of basic cable to sell to.” The drama writer agrees, but, though this has led to greater creativity in television series—as exemplified in shows ranging from Girls to Breaking Bad, the truth, he adds, is that, “each outlet has become more specialized, targeting a more specific niche audience.” Development in the cable arena has become, in his words, “more about designing a show for a particular audience than about making the best of the original idea or material.”
The comedy writers gave an example of how they had written an adult-skewed comedy centered around a restaurant. When they heard that ABC Family wanted a restaurant show, they retooled their pitch to fit the ABC Family demographic. They call it “backwards development”—basically trying to come up with a pitch based on what the outlet is looking for. According to the drama showrunner, “The market research has become much more granular, so the execs can say with much more confidence what they think their particular target audience wants.” The trouble starts when the idea doesn’t quite fit the need, so it becomes about trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. What you end up with is something neither side intended or is very much interested in.
“THE SHEER SIZE AND IMPLACABLE SPEED OF THE MACHINE”
As far as network development is concerned, the obstacles may be different, but the results are the same. On the network level, the process has become more complex than it was even just a few years ago. One of the comedy writers explains, “[In the past] you’d take an idea to someone and try to sell it. Something you were passionate about. Now you are put with a non-writing Executive Producer. It used to be people that had had successful shows, but now it’s old execs that have production deals. So you have four or five people you are contending with. A lot more layers, too many cooks in the kitchen and the purity of the idea gets diluted.”
As the drama writer explains it, the problem is “the sheer size and implacable speed of the machine. A thousand execs are reading thousands of scripts, making hundreds of pilots and putting dozens of shows on the air, all on a rigid seasonal cycle. So any one project is going to be battered and beaten for many months by way too many—albeit intelligent, perceptive and talented—people before it gets to the air. As a result, most shows die long before airing.” Again, as with cable, the resulting product is a kind of creative mush lacking the spark of the original idea.
EMERGENCE OF THE SPEC
To combat this, many writers have turned to writing on spec. The comedy showrunners are doing just that, explaining, “When pitching, it’s harder to end up writing something that you are passionate about, so that’s why a spec is nice.” Once a bit of a novelty that seemed to solve the development conundrum, this method has started to see its own set of roadblocks. “The window of opportunity is closing because more and more specs are being written.”
PACKAGE, RINSE AND REPEAT
And according to the drama writer, “shows that get on the air tend to be ones that deliver a package that the network already wanted. You might have the best show ever written, but if it’s about something nobody has already considered doing, your chances of getting on the air are virtually nil.” Then there are, as he puts it, “all the levels of internal business politics; who wants to work with who, who won’t work with who, what kind of financial deal can be made and who benefits most, etc.” Attempting to anticipate these factors when writing on spec can be mind-numbing.
As far as he is concerned, the things to focus on when developing your show are, “heart, relatability and replicability.” “By heart, I mean a lifelike feeling, a sense that these are real people, not roles.” And in terms of relatability, “Popular shows deliver happy endings, comfort, familiarity and warmth.” And when a show is able to be replicated, as in the case of every procedural from “Law & Order” to “Bones,” they can last for several seasons, which is when the networks start making the most money.
THE HEALTH OF THE INDUSTRY
Ultimately, the shows that make it through the development process “are the outliers,” as the drama writer describes them. “The fact that shows on the air appear to be healthy and well-made suggests that the development process works well, but, if you saw the vast bulk of scripts and the vast bulk of pilots that are unwatchable, badly made trash, you would think again. You can’t judge a hospital by the number of healthy babies that come out the front door. You have to know how many babies died in the delivery room and left via the back door.”
From the outside, it does seem that we are living in a kind of heyday of television from comedies like Modern Family and 30 Rock to such dramas as Mad Men and the aforementioned Breaking Bad. Some might argue that we are seeing some of the best television ever made, so yes, sometimes the process does work, but just imagine if it worked like that more often. Perhaps some digging by all the parties involved into the concerns raised by the writers I spoke to might help us find answers as to how we can make the process better and thereby make television even better. In that spirit, I will next turn to an agent and a manager to get the perspectives of the dealmakers on what’s right and what’s wrong in television development today. Stay tuned.