Timeslot, cast and plain luck all play a factor in formulating a hit
Asking what makes for a hit drama these days seems to be the million-dollar question.
To a certain extent, the idea of being fortunate enough to have a breakout show — especially in a season with reality programming and franchises swallowing up bigger chunks of the schedule — makes for guarded responses.
The metaphor of capturing lightning in a bottle comes up more than once. Since the ingredients and results are not necessarily the work of any one person, the implication that some luck is necessary is not far-fetched.
Even network execs are aware of how hard it is to pull a successful drama out of a hat.
“I think it’s harder than ever to land a drama series in today’s landscape. Premium cable has raised the bar enormously, and fewer broadcast dramas (and more reality) makes the funnel even smaller,” explains Showtime entertainment president Robert Greenblatt. “Further, dramas are a very expensive form and you can only keep one on the air if it delivers on all fronts. Foreign revenue and syndication have all but dried up, with rare exception, so the prospect of creating a successful drama is very rare.”
Three showrunners interviewed for this report who were able to not only fill a void but also earn renewal orders are Barbara Hall (“Joan of Arcadia”), Ilene Chaiken (“The L Word”) and Josh Schwartz (“The OC”).
While citing a number of factors including strong writing and magical casting, Hall acknowledges that having a network that puts you in the right timeslot can make all the difference. Hall, whose mystical skein outlasted stiff competition (NBC’s “Miss Match”) scheduling- and subjectwise, also believes that in addition to topic comes tone and attitude.
“We don’t pull any punches about the nature of human existence,” she says. “We go through stages where cynicism is the trend. I’m skeptical but not cynical.”
Her inspiration was writing about what she, as a TV viewer, wanted to see. “It’s about the intention,” she says. “That’s the best way to start and it all evolves from that place.”
Similarly, “L Word” creator Chaiken opted to write what she knew, even if that meant feeling especially vulnerable.
“There’s always apprehension, no matter what the work,” she says. “In this case it was larger for me. It’s a very personal piece of writing and TV-making.”
Still, there’s no guarantee that personal desire will fuel a successful series.
The fine line that separates a hit from a flop has not gone unnoticed by “OC” creator Schwartz. While the show is now a bona fide hit for Fox and has developed a rabid following, Schwartz recalls having to use some subterfuge to sell his idea, likening his method to a Trojan horse.
“The shows that I loved — ‘Freaks and Geeks’ and ‘Undeclared’ — won’t get you even to pilot,” he says, listing influential critical successes that failed to perform in the ratings. “We had to build that horse. It had trappings of what they’re looking for: beautiful people, wish fulfillment and the nihilistic behavior of kids.”
But once the horse was at the gate, he says, “the characters are like soldiers popping out of the McMansions.”
Schwartz was fortunate enough to find a champion in Fox. While its forebear “Freaks and Geeks” was famously shuffled around on the NBC sked, Schwartz found himself the beneficiary of double runs over the summer.
The continuing onslaught of reality programming has not gone unnoticed by those dealing with the day-to-day demands of writing and producing a scripted series. “It didn’t affect what I was allowed to create,” says Hall, “but it did affect my purpose in what I was creating.”
Both Hall and Schwartz — working in two completely different genres — agree that scripted dramas offer something rarely seen these days in an era where public humiliation is the norm: hope. “I think we need something that celebrates humanity more and the resilience of the human spirit,” says Hall.