The New York Television Festival demonstrated the breadth of television programming these days with a panel session Tuesday night featuring six exec producers who happen to be women.
Blair Breard (“Louie”), Anya Epstein (“The Affair”), Barbara Hall (“Madam Secretary”), Courtney Kemp Agboh (“Power”), Michelle King (“The Good Wife”) and Stephanie Laing (“Veep,” “Vice Principals”) regaled the crowd at the SVA Theater with stories of learning the ropes the hard way, network notes for good and ill, episode-order envy, mentors they’ve had (or not) and things they’d really like to see on TV.
Making it: Epstein counts herself as an “accidental” showrunner. “I was happy writing the scripts,” she said, but as her career progressed she had to take on more responsibilities. King knew whereof she spoke. “You don’t want to be a showrunner until you create a show and then watch someone else run it,” King said.
Mentors: Some get ’em, some don’t. Hall cited her apprenticeships with Josh Brand and John Falsey and later David Chase. Epstein owes a debt to Tom Fontana. Breard and Laing came up through paths other than writers’ rooms, where helping hands were hard to find. “I desperately wanted one but I didn’t get it,” Breard said. “Now I do everything I can to help people who are coming into the business.”
Numbers game: Moderator Margaret Lyons of New York magazine asked the group what they thought was the ideal number of episodes to produce each season. The consensus seemed to be 13. Breard learned that eight is definitely not enough after “Louie’s” most recent season. Hall is bravely delivering 23 installments in season two of “Madam Secretary.” “It’s hard to talk about without crying,” she said.
Just a note: Missives from the network are not all bad. King, Kemp Agboh and Hall agreed that good notes can happen, pointing out plot holes, inconsistencies and moments that might not be as clear as they should be. So take the good and ignore the bad. “You’re a fool not to take a good note,” Hall said. Kemp Agboh added: “And they know by now that ‘We’ll look at it’ means ‘f–k off.’ “
Cheapness pays: Finding the heart of the show is the biggest challenge, one that can take more than a season. Breard is convinced that FX picked up “Louie” after season one because it costs “about 15 cents to produce.”
The game: Kemp Agboh threw down the gauntlet when it comes to comparing broadcast vs. cable dramas. “It’s ridiculous that we let broadcast and cable shows compete against each other at the Emmys. They are not the same animal,” she said, speaking from her experience on “The Good Wife” as well as her own Starz series. “With the sex and violence (latitude on cable), if I can’t pull off good TV in 58 minutes, I’m an idiot,” Kemp Agboh said.
Shoot now, ask questions later: The upcoming HBO comedy “Vice Principals,” starring Danny McBride, is more than halfway through shooting its two-season, 18-episode order. Except that season one episodes haven’t been edited yet, which could prove challenging down the road, Laing admitted. “We don’t have the time to figure that out yet.”
Biggest perk of the job: “I love the room. I love watching a story get better through the (collective) writing process,” said Epstein.
Biggest pain of the job: “Time,” Hall said.
What I’d really like to see on TV is …: “More women who are over 25,” Breard said. “It’d be so great for television to look like the country,” Kemp Agboh said. “The biggest, baddest drug dealer on our show is gay, and it ain’t no thing.”