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Peak TV Gives Way to More Actors-Turned-Producers

Peak TV has yet to truly peak. In his most recent Television Critics Assn. press tour exec session, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf estimated that 2017 could see as many as 534 new original scripted television series air before the year’s end. That would represent an 18% increase from last year — and a 154% increase from 2009.

Landgraf tied the ever-growing number of television series to macroeconomic trends that have been decades in the making, as well as a “titanic struggle” between old-school media conglomerates and the emerging tech giants looking to eat their lunch.

But peak TV has also had more microeconomic effects than even Landgraf could count. Among them is the empowerment of on-camera talent. In a world of 534 call sheets, a different actor’s name tops each. More and more, those actors are leveraging the demand for lead performers to secure producing roles — and not just in name only.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus has more leverage than most. Already a multiple Emmy winner and alum of one of the most celebrated shows in TV history, the former “Seinfeld” star held an executive producer credit on “Veep” from the moment she boarded the project, and has since been honored with an unprecedented streak of five acting Emmys for the blistering HBO satire.

But on her first post-“Seinfeld” show, CBS’ “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” Louis-Dreyfus had to fight for recognition as a producer.

“It was something I did not have in the beginning on ‘Old Christine,’” says Louis-Dreyfus, who won an Emmy for that series as well. “Eventually I lobbied really hard and got a seat at the table as a producer, and that was very important to me. Moving forward from that moment, I knew that I couldn’t do a series of my own without that responsibility again.”

Seeing actors win such battles “is more common now,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “It was less common 10 years ago.”

Josh Holloway, star and executive producer of USA’s “Colony,” agrees that lead-caliber actors have gained leverage as the number of scripted entertainment programs on television has skyrocketed in recent years. “Absolutely,” he says. But a producing role is still not guaranteed.

“It’s not a position that is given easily,” Holloway says. “You have to fight for it.”

But peak TV provides options. A highly sought-after performer willing to turn away a lead role doesn’t have to worry as much as in years past that something better won’t come along.

Like other actors, America Ferrera has been active in developing projects as an executive producer. But she joined NBC’s “Superstore” as a co-producer when she agreed to star in the Justin Spitzer-created comedy long after it had begun its development phase.

“I knew what it meant to me” to get a producer credit, Ferrera says. “That’s what I needed and wanted from the process. That’s what made it worth it to me.”

For female and minority actors, the opportunities to produce have been historically scant. An overall increase in the number of series has not necessarily leveled the playing field, but it has expanded opportunity.

“It was certainly less common for women” to produce at the time that she was making “Old Christine,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “There were more male stars in a position of producing their own shows as actors.”

Rashida Jones, who stars on TBS’ “Angie Tribeca” and executive produces “Claws” for sister Turner channel TNT, notes that old stereotypes have not gone away.

“I think there’s negative associations with actresses wanting to take more powerful roles because of other people’s judgments about what actresses might be and why they might be doing it,” she says. “But now I think more credit’s being given.”

For women and actors of color, stepping into the decision-making role of producing can also be a way of safeguarding against tokenism and offensive clichés.

“I sat down with CBS and we talked about me developing a show for them,” says Jermaine Fowler, star and executive producer on the Eye’s “Superior Donuts.” “At the time I was meeting with a lot of networks. And I told them, ‘I don’t want to be acting on your show as the token black guy. I want to do something that will change a network and will change the way people view African-Americans on TV.’”

CBS developed a pilot written by Fowler, and when it didn’t go to series, they offered him a role on “Superior Donuts.”

“I told them no,” Fowler says. “I told them, ‘I don’t want to be in your damn show. I don’t want to be the token black guy. I told you what I want.’”
And he got what he wanted — eventually.

Fowler read the pilot script from creators Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan. “I thought it was hilarious,” he says. “It talked about a lot of things that I talk about — gentrification, racism and police brutality. Things I think we should be talking about. But the show was written by two white guys. They’re hilarious. But a show like this could use a voice like mine.”

Fowler told CBS as much. They agreed, to a point, and gave him a co-executive producer credit and a seat in the writers’ room.

“They gave me a piece of the cookie,” Fowler says. “Not the whole cookie.”
But when CBS decided to redevelop the series pilot and bring on Bob Daily as showrunner, Fowler was promoted to executive producer. “I felt like the POV of the show got stronger,” he says.

That Fowler, an up-and-coming comedian, was able to command greater and greater influence — and was unwilling to serve as an actor only — speaks to the shift in power toward television performers in general.

“There are so many avenues now,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “There’s just so much opportunity in terms of material and roles. There’s more flexibility, and I think that’s opened up opportunities.”

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