Scripted Showrunners: Reality Television is Killing Scripted TV

From Left: Tom Yellin, Felicity Huffman, Phil Rosenthal, Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius
From Left: Tom Yellin, Felicity Huffman, Phil Rosenthal, Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius
 Rahoul Ghose/PBS

BEVERLY HILLS – PBS – the network with no commercials – delves into the creative process of creating commercial television in the four-part documentary America in Primetime, bowing in October. The documentary special includes interviews with numerous actors and showrunners. And appearing at the Television Critics Association press tour here were Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, Nurse Jackie co-creators Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem and Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, who appears in the “independent woman” hour of the documentary.

Wallem called the film, “a beautiful valentine to television.” But what came through during the panel discussion was just how capricious the business is.

Selling your show in a network pitch meeting, said Wallem, has become more difficult at a time when network’s are desperately chasing eyeballs in a vastly fragmented media landscape.

“You’re talking to a room full of fear,” she said. “You literally have to deal with their [network executives] fears in that room. I always tell them, ‘Oh don’t worry, it’s going to be funny.’”

Rosenthal – who recently directed and starred in the documentary Exporting Raymond, about his journey to shepherd Everybody Loves Raymond into the Russian market – blamed reality television for diverting network resources from scripted television.

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“Sure they’re to blame because they’re cheap to do,” he said. “The glut of reality shows that we’re seeing could signal something larger than just a trend. And that is the end of civilization.”

The documentary is chock full of clips from current (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Modern Family) and long-wrapped (The Honeymooners, All In The Family, The Cosby Show) programs and one recently cancelled series that has particular resonance for Rosenthal: Men of a Certain Age.

The series, created by Everybody Loves Raymond writer Mike Royce and starring Ray Romano was axed earlier this month by TNT.

“Those idiots who canceled that show,” said Rosenthal, adding that the truncated way the network scheduled Men of a Certain Age all but guaranteed its failure.

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“Everything is so short-term oriented now. It’s not just in TV. It’s in our government. It's on Wall Street.

“And by the way, there was never a golden age [of TV],” added Rosenthal. “There’s always lots and lots of crap and a few good things.”

When the documentary’s producer, Tom Yellin, offered that there is probably more quality television on now, Rosenthal retorted: “That’s only because the amount of crap has quadrupled.”

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