Showrunners talk shop at Variety breakfast

Exec producers weigh in on technology, creative concerns at Emmy Elite gathering

The ways technology is transforming the TV business were top of mind for the Emmy-nominated showrunners Variety convened for its Emmy Elite breakfast confab at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills on Friday.

The explosion of new distribution options from Netflix to iTunes was first addressed in the opening panel featuring the showrunners of Emmy-nommed comedy series who spoke bluntly about the inherent promise and pitfalls.

Paul Lieberstein, exec producer of “The Office,” lamented that digital platforms aren’t as profitable as the primary broadcast window. “There’s no question it hurts the final syndication window when it’s still available (online),” he said. “That goes back and affects our budget. It is a concern.”

Compounding that problem is the basic inability to count how many people are watching across all windows, noted “Parks and Recreation” showrunner Mike Schur. “I feel the Nielsen system as it currently stands, which still is what anyone seems to care about — that is not close to the number of people who are experiencing the show.”

Asked whether they’re seeing any real coin from digital residuals yet, showrunners said there’s been no windfall. But Schur was emphatic that the fight for those residuals during the 2007-08 writers strike was worth the sacrifice.

“It was totally worth it even if the money hasn’t started rolling in,” he said. “We should continue to fight even if we don’t see money for years.”

The conversation with the comedy showrunners — which also included “The Big Bang Theory’s” Bill Prady, “Modern Family’s” Steve Levitan and “Glee’s” Brad Falchuk and Dante Di Loreto — moderated by Variety’s Stuart Levine and Cynthia Littleton — ranged from a discussion of favorite shows to mentors to the challenges of juggling the many duties required of a showrunner.

Prady described what it’s like dealing with the chaos of the job: “The fear never goes away, you simply learn to manage it. There’s no point where you’re going to be comfortable and confident.”

In the drama panel that followed, “Friday Night Lights” exec producer Jason Katims addressed how serialized programming once deemed kryptonite for traditional syndication has become a hot commodity in the emerging digital marketplace. “Typically, those kinds of shows are not very valuable after the initial airing,” he told Variety’s Brian Lowry. “I think for a Netflix-type of thing it actually adds to the value.”

David Zucker, an exec producer of “The Good Wife” along with Robert and Michelle King, noted that diversifying revenue streams is lessening the dependence on advertising. “There’s so many other ways companies are making money on these shows.”

But “Dexter” exec producer Sara Colleton added some perspective with her warning that focusing too much on all the financial considerations can be a distraction from what really matters. “Don’t you worry at some point that taking all the things into account is antithetical to the creative process?” she said.

“I refuse to be terrified by technology,” added “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, who credited Netflix with bringing a whole new audience to past seasons of his series. “It’s an attitude that I decided to discipline myself for, especially as someone who works in the past the way I do.”Much of the conversation with the dramatists — which also included “The Good Wife’s” Michelle King and Robert King — revolved around the differences between producing for cable and broadcast TV. Katims quipped that he never knows quite how to answer that question in the case of “Friday Night Lights” because the show aired on NBC and in a commercial-free format on DirecTV.

Other highlights from the panels:

n One of the sticking points in Weiner’s recent renegotiation with “Mad Men” producer Lionsgate TV and AMC was the running time of segs, as AMC wanted to add more commercial time. When Weiner’s pact was announced in March, AMC said most segs would run about 45 minutes on air but run in full at 47-48 minutes online. But Weiner disclosed at the panel that there will be only one version of episodes for the coming season that will clock in at 47:30 across all platforms. “I don’t know how they managed to make that work out,” he said. “It was a lot of worry. I’m so thrilled.”

n “Modern Family” co-creator Steven Levitan intends to stay at the helm of the series for the duration of its run, which isn’t what he did at a previous series of his: “I did another show and left after three seasons, it ran for another four (NBC’s “Just Shoot Me”). While I was involved with it, I wasn’t involved in the same way. I always regretted that. Personally, I can’t imagine for me a better experience than I’m having right now, doing a show that I love….I would love to stay with it to the very end.”

n Lieberstein suggested that his show doesn’t operate as freely creatively speaking as it used to now that NBC is under new management: “We have a new company, Comcast, and they have their own mandates and we have a new president (Robert Greenblatt) who runs things differently. He’s very hands-on. There’s a lot of eyes on the transition and a lot of conversation that we didn’t previously have.”