Producers Blast Net Execs

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Paul Attanasio, executive producer of Fox’s sleeper hit drama series “House,” charged last week that making great television is not executives’ top priority.

“I don’t think that the first thing that most TV executives wake up with in the morning is ‘How can we make a great show?'” said Mr. Attanasio, who was also co-creator of former NBC drama “Homicide: Life on the Street,” at an industry seminar. “That’s a mistake.”

Mr. Attanasio also said “a conservatism” in the industry is getting worse, to the point that “it’s killing the business.”

“The networks and studios are chasing what worked last year, while the viewers are craving something new,” he said, adding that sometimes a show’s ratings are poor at first-not because the show’s bad, but because it’s a fresh concept. “Some hits come out of the box, some don’t.”

Mr. Attanasio was one of five panelists at TelevisionWeek’s “Power Breakfast Series: Superproducers and Showrunners,” held April 13 at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills and sponsored by AOL Television. Joining Mr. Attanasio were Donald P. Bellisario, creator of such shows as “Magnum, P.I.,” “Quantum Leap” and “JAG” ; “CSI: Miami” executive producer Ann Donahue; “Jack & Bobby” and “Everwood” executive producer Greg Berlanti; and “Law & Order: SVU” executive producer Neal Baer. In a discussion moderated by TVWeek Editor Alex Ben Block, the producers debated topics including the influence of critics, the Internet and the evolving economic model for TV on the creative process; and creating breakthrough programming.

Most of the panelists agreed that the Internet can give viewers a powerful means for offering commentary and spreading word about a show that may not otherwise have widespread support. But while Mr. Bellisario stressed the importance of the Internet as a marketing tool for shows, he said he will always trust his instincts as a writer over the information passed down from Web users.

“You’ve got to stay true to yourself. I’d rather live and die on that sword than on trying to chase something on the Internet,” he said.

The subject of critics was among the most polarizing of the event. Mr. Attanasio, a former film reviewer for The Washington Post, said his experiences as a critic were an ideal training ground for his work today. Critics often represent the only honest opinion among an industry of yes-men, he said. He also has tapped his critic’s instinct in creating shows, having envisioned the gritty “Homicide,” whose characters primarily beat the bad guys with their minds rather than their fists, as a sort of critique of the traditional prime-time police drama, he said.

Mr. Bellisario was far less positive about critics, describing them as people who “shoot the wounded.”

Mr. Berlanti admitted that negative reviews, such as the scathing write-up Time magazine gave “Everwood” upon its prime-time arrival, can take an emotional toll. “You know your parents love you when they say, ‘What does Time magazine know?'” he said.

Mr. Baer said that the number of media options for viewers has increased the importance of lead-ins as a major factor in deciding a show’s life expectancy. “A lot of shows get lost because they’re stuck in places where there’s no one watching the channel,” Mr. Baer said.

But Mr. Berlanti argued that creating programming in an age when the general public has access to so many entertainment choices has actually challenged the industry to do the one thing it needs to do to almost certainly guarantee success: simply tell good stories.

“If you focus on how can we tell the most interesting story here possible and just keep making the story more and more interesting, you hope that makes you competitive and causes you to look at the recipe of your show and say what’s the best version of this show,” he said.

Mr. Attanasio added that the impressive performance of many prime-time shows, such as “Desperate Housewives” this year, has contradicted the claim that the threat posed by other media and edgier cable shows had finally killed network programming.

“If there’s one thing that this year has proven, it’s that broadcast TV is alive and well,” Mr. Berlanti said.

The panel wound out the seminar by detailing the challenge posed by the increasing emergence of product placement and integration.

Mr. Baer referred to the producer-advertiser association as a “dirty little relationship,” adding that while he feels somewhat indebted to the companies who essentially pay for his show, he’d rather not have to consider branding his characters to please financial interests.

Ms. Donohue said when it comes to product placement, she often finds herself caught in a tug of war between studio heads and advertisers on “CSI.”

“You end up having to play both sides,” she said. She said that on a show that relies heavily on expensive forensic technology for its stories, a company such as Dell that may be willing to donate computer hardware in return for prominent placement on the show seems welcome at first. “Then someone from the head office sees it and says, ‘Hey, Dell didn’t pay for that,'” she said. “And then legal comes down on us. So in preproduction you want to place everything. And then in post-production you want to take it all out.”

Mr. Bellisario bemoaned the effects of consolidation on television. “There’s a whole panel discussion that could be had about the vertical integration that’s been going on,” he said. “That’s done more damage in many ways than anything, where the studio owns the network and everything else.”

Ultimately the panel returned to a discussion about creating a relationship between executives and show creators that celebrates storytelling and distinctive programming rather than numbers, with Mr. Attanasio summing up the consensus in characteristic frankness:

“The key thing for a television executive is to believe in a show and then not forget why you believed in it when there are bumps in the road.”