Sorkin grateful sun will still rise for 'Sunset'

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The problem, as Aaron Sorkin sees it, is that we all now watch the ins and outs of the television and movie businesses as if we're viewing a sporting event.

"We can't wait to hear who won the boxoffice championship every Sunday," Sorkin pointed out last week. "And even the language is like sports: A film got 'crushed,' a TV show 'upended' something else. You'd never know in the case of TV, the ratings only affect the network and their advertisers. Yet it's discussed in the press as if it's of major importance to everyone."

It was this mindset that Sorkin believes nearly sank "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the acclaimed NBC hour that he created and executive produces along with Thomas Schlamme -- and which got an unusually late full-season pickup order five days ago that will take it through next May.

Sorkin has this dream that the people who follow "Studio 60" "will start to pay attention to the show and not how many viewers are watching it -- or who's making it." But he figures to have a long wait, given the fact that the show didn't deserve a back-nine order given its paltry numbers. NBC can point out all it wants that the series has the highest concentration of households earning $75,000-plus of any show on TV. It's what you sell when trying to justify a move that seemingly makes little business sense. An elite audience simply doesn't cut it.

So why did NBC Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly pick up the back nine? Because in return, Warner Bros. TV agreed to drop the extravagant license fee (originally higher than some NASA missions) on a weekly production budget said to approach $3 million.

And beyond that, there was perhaps a mandate inside the programming suite at NBC Universal to save face and prove the naysayers wrong when they trumpeted with glee the show's imminent cancellation weeks before all over the Internet. That, and the fact Reilly has a little bit of the Brandon Tartikoff in him: an old-fashioned riverboat gambler who goes to great lengths to stick with stuff he believes in. (See: "The Office")

But Sorkin was put through plenty of hell en route to pick-up. As soon as critics had built "Studio 60" into the greatest thing since that little drama about politics Sorkin wrote and produced, they turned on the show. It wasn't funny. It didn't ring true. It was awkward. It was no "West Wing."

"I really look at it as just the cost of doing business," Sorkin said. "I knew the reaction to the show was going to be a little bit noisier than I'd prefer. But hopefully, we're finally starting to settle in a bit. 'West Wing' was a slower build than people remember. We were not a hit in Season 1. These things take time." As he noted during another recent interview, "If this were a play, we'd still be in previews."

Not that Sorkin needs any reminders this isn't exactly equity theater. In today's primetime TV landscape, you have to deliver immediately or you find yourself delivered to the curb. You can't survive on a full-service broadcast network if you attract only well-heeled folks in the 'burbs.

That "Studio 60" has thus far managed to beat the odds and some paltry numbers is all about Sorkin. A mere mortal showrunner would have been shunted aside weeks ago, particularly at a network whose parent company just announced plans to cut 700 jobs and pretty much exit the 8 o'clock scripted programming business.

It's the struggle, however, that fuels Sorkin's inspiration.

"It feels like it did when I did 'Sports Night,' " he says. "'West Wing' felt strange to me. This feels normal."
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