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‘West Wing’: Wells New Chief of Staff

May 5, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The winds of change will be felt at The West Wing next year.
With the departure of creator and executive producer Aaron Sorkin from the show, insiders speculate that the producers will respond to critics who have complained that the show is too preachy and politics-heavy and return to its roots by focusing more on the characters.
Critics have also complained that the show is not in tune with the current political climate, since it portrays a liberal Democratic president at a time when the country is leaning toward conservatism under the Bush administration.
Thomas Schlamme, who has directed numerous episodes, is also stepping down as executive producer.
With Mr. Sorkin and Mr. Schlamme out, executive producer John Wells agreed to take a more hands-on role next year in overseeing the show, which is produced by his company, John Wells Productions, and Warner Bros. Mr. Wells extended his overall production deal with Warner Bros. for four more years in February.
Mr. Wells is also executive producer of ER and Third Watch. Because Mr. Sorkin has written almost every episode of West Wing over the past four years, Mr. Wells will hire a couple of new writers, reflecting a more traditional writer’s room, sources said. Mr. Wells is looking at writers with comedy backgrounds, as well as dramatic backgrounds because the show mixes humor with drama, sources said. One question, though, is if other writers will be able to imitate Mr. Sorkin’s trademark fast-paced dialogue and rhythmic pattern that was evident not only in West Wing but in his ABC sitcom Sports Night.
NBC renewed West Wing in January for two more years with an option for a third, agreeing to pay about $6.5 million an episode.
NBC and show producer Warner Bros. called the split amicable and released a joint statement thanking Mr. Sorkin and Mr. Schlamme for their extraordinary work on the show.
Mr. Sorkin, who resigned from the show last Thursday, has one year left on his contract with Warner Bros. and is expected to develop other projects for the studio.
Creative differences with the studio and network and production cost overruns may have taken their toll on Mr. Sorkin and played in his decision to leave.
Mr. Sorkin is notorious for delaying production by turning scripts in late. He even joked about his bad habits at a panel at the Museum of Television & Radio’s William S. Paley Television Festival in March when he asked fellow panelist J.J. Abrams how he finishes effects-laden Alias episodes on time and within budget, while West Wing is always late and over budget and they just have people standing around debating the estate tax. “You have people kick-boxing on disintegrating planes,” Mr. Sorkin said.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Sorkin met with the show’s producers, who told him that the lateness and budget overruns would no longer be acceptable.
While studios and networks often look the other way on cost overruns of hit shows, West Wing is no longer dominating the ratings the way it used to. Ratings are down 27 percent in the key adults 18 to 49 demographic, and it often finishes in third place in its time period. The show is averaging a 4.5 rating in adults 18 to 49 season to date, compared with a 6.2 rating for the same period last year. The average number of total viewers has also dropped to 13.5 million from 17.3 million. ABC’s The Bachelor has stolen away a large portion of West Wing’s young female audience.
Under Mr. Sorkin’s leadership, West Wing won three consecutive Emmys for best drama. Mr. Sorkin won an Emmy for Best Writing and the Writers Guild award and has twice won the Humanitas Prize. Mr. Schlamme won two Director’s Guild awards and two Emmy Awards for Best Director for West Wing.