The fall TV season touches down
With the push for instant hits, producers with successful shows are in enormous demand.
LOS ANGELES — When writer-creator Robert Cochran conceived of "24," Fox's hit political thriller, he had to tackle important plot questions such as how to work in the abduction of the hero's daughter.
These days, as the show moves into its fourth season, Mr. Cochran often has other, more mundane issues on his mind, such as "whether or not the show can afford to rent a Goodyear blimp," he says with a laugh.
The "24" scribe still gets to think about what makes a believable character. But Cochran, once simply a writer, has since joined an elite corps of multitasking Hollywood insiders: TV's showrunners. These are the maestros who literally run the show - meaning they do just about everything on a dramatic series, from writing scripts and casting actors to negotiating with the networks over salaries and budgets (the blimp was nixed). Network execs don't like a show's theme music, or they object to the use of profanity in a script? Call in the showrunner to mediate.
As the fall television season gets under way, showrunners, perhaps more than anyone in Hollywood, have the vantage point to help viewers understand how the new lineup evolved - and why we'll see what we see. After all, they work at the point where creative and business interests collide - a point that, in this age of competition from cheaper-to-produce reality TV, is increasingly pressure-packed.
Indeed, these greater pressures on showrunners "directly impact what people end up seeing on the screen," says Katrina Wood, owner of MediaXchange, a consulting group that runs an international training program for showrunners.
It's easy to spot many of these pressures. Perhaps most obvious is the ripple effect from the rise of the unscripted, reality genre. "Reality TV has made a big difference in the way showrunners operate," says Richard Stayton, editor of Written By, the official magazine of the Writers Guild of America.
Because scripted shows are more expensive to produce than the reality-show option, they do not get long to prove themselves, he says. They need to produce high ratings immediately or risk cancellation. "The networks hold that ax over your head and you have to prove that you can be that much more profitable," says Mr. Stayton.
One technique showrunners have developed to reach a larger audience quickly is to include multiple story-lines. A quick glance through the freshman crop of shows this fall reveals a surprising number of shows with large casts.
"It's a chance to tell more stories, to put out more diverse points of view, to let a lot more things happen," says Shonda Rhimes, creator and executive producer of "Grey's Anatomy," a new medical drama on ABC.
The show stars three female doctors. "Stories can move a lot faster if we're not just following one doctor through the hospital," she adds.
"Lost," a new show from J.J. Abrams (creator and showrunner of ABC's "Alias"), has no fewer than four dozen cast members. The series is about the survivors of a plane crash who find themselves stranded on a desert island.
"We had to populate the island with a very, very large cast because these are the people that we're going to be with," says Mr. Abrams, explaining that long-term story arcs demanded the hordes.
The show's creators say they've learned something from "Survivor," the ever-popular reality show: Make your cast a diverse one.
Damon Lindelof, the coexecutive producer of "Lost," says they had to answer the obvious questions in creating the show's story arc: "How do we stock the island with all the elements of potential conflict, potential romance? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and who floats in between?"
The racially diverse, wide-ranging cast - which includes a rock star, a pregnant woman, and a military veteran - also gives Abrams leeway on the show's direction. It's possible that future episodes of "Lost" will focus on characters to whom audiences respond the most.
The attempt to find a niche with a particular demographic can result in a new show finding a home in an unexpected spot. The WB has made a name for itself by targeting the 18-to-34 age group. But this fall, this network-for-teen-angst has put a big effort behind the launch of "Jack & Bobby," a family drama about the early life of a boy who grows up to be president of the United States. The drama includes the teenage growing pains regularly seen in WB shows, but it also targets an older audience with stories about the boy's mother.
Veteran showrunner Thomas Schlamme says all the networks were keen on "Jack & Bobby." "I have to say the WB wanted it the most," he says, because "it would allow the WB to grow to a different kind of audience."
Networks are increasingly looking for shows with spinoff potential. "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf spins off the fifth installment of TV's longest-running mothership, with "Law and Order: Trial by Jury," slated for winter 2005. One of this fall's most eagerly anticipated shows is "CSI: New York," the third "CSI" spinoff on CBS.
Franchise shows give their creators great clout in the industry, as well as a degree of name recognition among TV viewers. "Having a franchise is huge," says Abrams. But running a franchise has its limitations. "You can't necessarily change a preexisting show too drastically without it feeling like 'Now they're trying to change the show,' " he says.
"CSI" cocreator Anthony Zuiker heads up the New York show. It's his first tour as as a full-time showrunner. He says there will be changes but they'll be subtle. The Miami version of the show is bright and well lit, while the New York "CSI" will be more subdued, with a "very crushed blue, crushed black, guttural, gritty street-real look in the pilot," he says.
At the same time, Mr. Zuiker adds, he can't alter the show too much. It must maintain the style of the original "CSI" concept by Jerry Bruckheimer.
"Don't forget, we're not making television, we're making mini-Bruckheimer movies every week," Zuiker says. "Jerry Bruckheimer will tell you, people watch TV like this," he says as he mimes heavy remote control clicking. They stop at "CSI," he says, because they recognize the look of the franchise.
Even the most established showrunner will admit that sustaining a show isn't easy because there are always demands from network executives.
"I'd hate to be starting out now," says one veteran, who asked to remain anonymous. "The pressures to do anything for ratings are just too intense if you don't have the clout to stand your ground."
Ms. Wood concurs.
"Showrunners have to be like police-hostage negotiators," she says. "They have to be able to keep their creative vision intact, be very good at multitasking and collaborating. Essentially they have to be the ultimate diplomats with a spine of steel."