Emmy-nommed showrunners and exec producers talked shop, shared their beefs and mused about their new roles as “brand managers” on Friday during Variety’s Primetime Emmy Elite Showrunners breakfast and panel seshes at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.
Early on, Paul Lieberstein addressed the hot topic for “The Office”: star Steve Carell’s plan to exit the NBC laffer at the end of this season.
“There is absolutely a plan in place (for the show),” he assured. “But we also abandon most of our plans.”
Lieberstein was joined onstage for the comedy panel by his fellow “Office” exec producer Greg Daniels plus Brad Falchuk and Dante Di Loreto (“Glee”), Steve Levitan (“Modern Family”), Jeff Schaffer (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius (“Nurse Jackie”).
Falchuk was asked about the crucial role that music has played in making “Glee” such a pop culture phenom.
“Music and the show go hand in hand,” he said. But “the drama has to come first, the stories have to come first. … I’ve noticed that the songs that sell the worst are the ones where we really didn’t set up the song so well (in the show).”
This provided an opening for Daniels. “These are the same songs I tried to get my kids to listen to, and they said, ‘Oh those are dad’s stupid old ’80s songs.’ They’ll listen to those same songs on ‘Glee.’ ”
Schaffer got big laughs in describing Larry David’s unusual approach to starting every season.
“Every season of ‘Curb’ stops with it being the absolute end. The eighth season — we basically wrote it on spec,” Schaffer said.
Levitan raised an issue that is top of mind for many creatives and industry execs, namely, the question of whether widespread online distribution of full-length episodes widely on Hulu and other online vid sites is such a good thing for the biz.
“When you’re saying, ‘Here it is. You can watch it on your phone, and on these new shoes, and this way and that way.’ I just think we’re bending over backwards to give these products to viewers without any sense of keeping it special,” Levitan said. “I’m concerned that we find ways to make sure that every viewer is counted no matter how they’re watching it. …We’re judged by how many people are watching the show.”
Participants in the drama panel were no strangers to new media. “Lost’s” Carlton Cuse noted the immense pressure from studios to deliver ancillary products and new-media extensions of shows.
“Now there’s a whole new word that didn’t even exist when we started ‘Lost,’ which is ‘transmedia,’ ” Cuse said. “Being a showrunner is sort of like being a decathlete.” Now you have to add five swimming events to your repertoire as well….But if you’re not putting most of your time into the mothership, all the ancillary stuff is worth nothing. Studios are putting enormous pressure on showrunners to expand the brand, expand the brand. It’s completely changed the business.”
Lindelof added that sometimes a showrunner’s most important job is “killing stuff” that could hurt the show in the long run.
Cuse and Lindelof were joined by Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), Clyde Phillips (“Dexter”), Robert King (“The Good Wife”) and Gregg Fienberg (“True Blood”) on the panel.
Fienberg noted that contempo viewers, particularly younger viewers, have come to expect more from their favorite TV shows than just a new episode each week.
“Once something catches fire, they want five other avenues into the show,” he said. “We need to feed the beast yet be really careful about how you do it.”
King said he was pleasantly surprised to be having success on CBS with a heavily character-driven series, given the Eye’s emphasis on procedural storytelling. He and his wife and co-showrunner, Michelle King, were ready to give the network whatever they wanted, and early on they found “CBS pushed us to do more character stuff,” he said.
Gilligan made a point of applauding the “Lost” duo for their unprecedented move to negotiate an end date for their show with ABC back in 2007, which gave them a clear-cut time frame in which to unravel the island’s many mysteries.
“It would be great if this is a new paradigm” for ending series, Gilligan said.
Much of this year’s panel consisted of showrunners whose skeins have ended, or their work with them has ended.
“I just realized half this panel is unemployed,” Phillips joked. Phillips exited “Dexter” after three seasons to focus on new development. He called it “probably the hardest decision of my life.”