There’s been a quiet shift in power in the TV series game: Producers, who once exercised hegemony over their shows, are increasingly getting the boot when push comes to shove with stars.
The most recent alarm bell for producers went off when “Cybill” creator Chuck Lorre and partner Lee Aronsohn were told not to return to the series in what producers jokingly referred to as the Yom Kippur massacre, since both were said to have received the news on the Jewish holiday.
Lorre and Aronsohn knew the territory, having been ousted under similar circumstances from another show Lorre created, “Grace Under Fire,” two years earlier by star Brett Butler, who’s working on her third exec producer in as many years.
Yet these are hardly isolated incidents. Earlier this season, Rob Burnett left “The Bonnie Hunt Show” due to creative differences with its star, while Ellen DeGeneres and Disney TV have gone through numerous show runners on her self-titled ABC series in its short history. Harry Anderson was also said to have played a part in producer Fred Barron’s exit from the CBS series “Dave’s World.”
Then there’s Roseanne, who has bragged and often joked about her frequent producer firings since wresting control of her show from creator Matt Williams, who went on to find peace, contentment and millions of dollars in syndication on “Home Improvement.”
Even with that history, some producers seemed particularly agitated by what happened on “Cybill” given that Shepherd is not a standup comic. While comedians have consistently argued that they need to exercise control of their shows to protect their comic vision, show runners wonder if they’re expendable whenever a star decides it’s time for a change.
The Carsey-Werner Co. has been involved in such situations before as the producer of such hits as “Roseanne,” “Grace Under Fire” and “Cybill.” Principal Marcy Carsey says there’s a gradual tendency for changes to occur on any show but acknowledges that it’s understandable that stars want to have some creative input. “It’s their face and soul hanging out there,” she says. “It would be unnatural if they didn’t have a lot to say.”
Skelton, Berle did it
Carsey also notes that there’s nothing necessarily new about such involvement, suggesting that talents like Sid Caesar, Red Skelton and Milton Berle had plenty to say about their shows in TV’s early days.
But some writers, many of whom asked not to be identified, maintain otherwise. As one producer put it, “Can you imagine Carl Reiner turning over control of the show to Dick Van Dyke?”
They also say that the networks and studios have seemingly come to accept this exercise of star power as standard operating procedure, apparently assuming that talent drives such programs – even though a number of TV’s most popular shows (among them “Friends” and “ER”) have created stars rather than starting out with them.
Small wonder that some producers cheered when David Caruso – after expressing his dissatisfaction with “NYPD Blue” – was written out of the Steven Bochco Prods, series, which managed to flourish without him in its second season. On a smaller level, Patricia Wettig was recently allowed to walk away from the new CBS ensemble hour “Courthouse.”
Sitcoms tend to be different, especially those that are built around a single star. In the case of a Roseanne or Brett Butler, Carsey notes, “They bring with them wonderful stuff, and you’d be crazy not to use that.”
There are also few instances where series have obviously suffered because the star wielded such influence. Even with its star’s shenanigans, “Roseanne” has clearly flourished over the years creatively as well as commercially, while “Grace” and “Ellen” are both enjoying successful seasons as part of ABC’s Wednesday lineup.
In addition, once a show exhibits the potential to make it to syndication, studio execs begin to see the property as an asset that must be preserved, with concerns about a producer’s “creative vision” paling compared to the profits that may lie ahead.
Still, some producers argue that saying the shows are performing well misses the point. “I don’t think ‘ Roseanne’ would have been any less successful if Roseanne had been made to behave,” says one.
“When does the network ever back the producer?” asks a TV literary agent.
Despite the power shift, some stars and producers collaborate successfully – among them the team of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David on “Seinfeld” and Tim Allen with the creative trio behind “Home Improvement.” To their credit, Seinfeld and David have consistently remained in lockstep on the series, with observers saying Seinfeld is smart enough to realize that the show depends in part on David’s comic vision.
Carsey also cites “The Cosby Show,” saying the writers on the smash series “had a great time” working with star and exec producer Bill Cosby.
Some in the biz make two arguments countering the notion that stars are out of control. One is that the press tends to jump on stories where stars exert their influence because they’re more titillating.
Another is the perceived double standard when it comes to women. Roseanne, for example, has long maintained that the fascination with producer turnover on her show is based on the fact that she’s a woman and that similar antics involving male stars go unnoticed.
One producer who hasn’t had the experience of being fired by a star accepts at least the first half of that thesis.
“I’m sure it’s no less painful if the network or the studio does it,” says Tim O’Donnell, who’s currently exec producing “Dave’s World,” noting that when the star does the firing, “it just makes a better story.”