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It hasn’t been an easy year for showrunners. From the WGA strike to steepening FCC fines to the rise of reality television, scripted comedy and drama have been taking it on the nose.
In the lead-up to one of the most atypical Emmy seasons in recent memory, The Hollywood Reporter’s James Hibberd brought together five of television’s most stalwart showrunners: Bryan Fuller (ABC’s “Pushing Daisies”), David Shore (Fox’s “House”), Damon Lindelof (ABC’s “Lost”), Matthew Weiner (AMC’s “Mad Men”) and Craig Thomas (CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother”).
The Hollywood Reporter: How has your business changed since the writers strike?
Bryan Fuller: I think the studios are feeling that some of the money that they hemorrhaged during the strike has to come out of their shows a little bit. So budgets are definitely tighter.
David Shore: Didn’t, during the strike, they take the position they weren’t losing any money?
Damon Lindelof: Not only that, I think that it was actually a boon for them.
Matthew Weiner: Yeah, they had a cash windfall in the fourth quarter that turned into poison in January.
Lindelof: We spent 100 days basically carrying signs and saying that these people were exploiting us and taking advantage of us. And then you go back to work on Valentine’s Day, and you’re trying to act like none of it ever happened. So there was a period where it was like, “I used to be in love with you, we had a huge fight, we broke up, and now we’ve gotten back together.”
Craig Thomas: I never stopped sleeping with the executives. (Laughter.)
THR: Ratings in general have been down post-strike. Is that having an impact?
Lindelof: I can’t process the fact that people used to, at 9 o’clock on Thursday night, watch (ABC’s) “Grey’s Anatomy,” and now those people have decided, because it was off the air for 100 days, to play chess instead. They’re still watching it — I just think they’re watching it on their TiVos.
Weiner: “The Sopranos” was off for 18 months. And I know, because I wasn’t paid during that period. (Laughter.) It comes back, and people want to watch it. But I have to say that part of our leverage during the strike was that in the strike of ’88, people changed their viewing habits. I don’t think they’re playing chess. They’re watching other things. They’re playing video games.
Lindelof: But (Fox’s) “American Idol” wasn’t affected by the strike, and their numbers are down proportionately with everybody else’s.
Fuller: Viewing patterns were already changing before the strike even was a twinkle.
THR: So with broadcast ratings and budgets going down, and cable ratings and budgets going up, is AMC a better place to be than ABC?
Weiner: I’ll tell you what’s better about where I am compared to my experience in network television —
Weiner: No! I can’t say the f-bomb, and I can’t show any nudity. I went there because I was promised creative freedom. The best thing about working on basic cable is there is no assumption that it has to appeal to everyone. But I never know if my lead-in’s going to be (1992’s) “A Few Good Men” or (1995’s) “Die Hard: With a Vengeance.”
THR: Do your numbers change depending?
Weiner: Oh yes.
Thomas: Yeah, the only way I caught your show is because I was watching “Die Hard: With a Vengeance.” (Laughter.)
Lindelof: Fundamentally, though, that’s interesting. There’s a branding aspect where you take “Pushing Daisies” and, because of that show, ABC was branded as the network with the best new shows this past season. When you take a show like “Mad Men,” which opened the door for a show like “Breaking Bad,” you’re now developing a branding behind AMC that didn’t exist before. That is much more lucrative than the 400,000 people who watch it the first night that it’s on.
THR: Speaking of f-bombs, another issue has been FCC fines going up, especially in the past year or so.
Lindelof: “Lost” was an 8 o’clock show in its first season, and we had Naveen Andrews torturing Josh Holloway and shoving bamboo shoots under his fingernails and doing all sorts of nasty and horrible things. But you can’t say “asshole,” and you cannot depict a pelvic thrust if two people are lying on top of each other. And one thing that we’ve always tried to do is have a character begin to say the word “shit” and then cut on the “sh–” noise. But they’re like, “You can’t do it, because we know that they’re saying ‘shit.'” And then (NBC’s) “Heroes” did it.
Weiner: You know, they were talking during the strike about putting our show on a network, and everyone had a very, very easy time dealing with (Showtime’s) “Dexter,” which is about a serial killer who greets everyone at the door with a piece of Saran Wrap. But the smoking in my show was far more offensive even though we all grew up with it and it is a historical reality.
Lindelof: Have you gone up against it in terms of the pill popping on “House”?
Shore: The only note they gave us was they made us promise that we’d deal it with it in a responsible way and that we would have his addiction be something that’s real.
Thomas: We had the oddest experience. Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) used the phrase “change your oil” to mean having sex. We got a call from the censors: “Do you know what ‘changing your oil’ means? We went to UrbanDictionary.com and looked up the phrase ‘change your oil.'” And sure enough, we went on there, and it’s a really horrifying act that a man and a woman, when they love each other very much, engage in.
Shore: We had a clinic patient actually masturbating, and we couldn’t say that, and they objected to all of the euphemisms, probably from going to UrbanDictionary.com. So I sent out an e-mail to all my writers: Please submit your own euphemisms for female masturbation.
Weiner: Did you use the five-finger discount?
Shore: We came up with a bunch of kids’ movies. We had “Finding Nemo,” “Ya-Yaing the Sisterhood” and another one.
Thomas: Ultimately, you do come up with something possibly more fun.
Weiner: Unless they say something to you like, “Don’t talk about Anne Frank — it makes people unhappy.” They do say things like that. Not at AMC, but when I was in network TV.
Fuller: We had a baby being born on the show. And when the doctor spanked it, we had to cut the entire scene.
Thomas: Wait, when you say “spanked it” … ? (Laughter.)
Fuller: We couldn’t show a naked baby because it was an FCC issue. And it was a plastic baby, and its bum didn’t even have a crevice.
Shore: That is disturbing, actually!
Fuller: We were told that it was an FCC issue regarding pedophilia.
Shore: We did an episode in which a guy confessed part way through it that he had had sex with his daughter. That was OK. Then the next episode we had a story, which was a B story, but — believe it or not — it was integral to the story that the guy confessed to his attraction to cows. And they would not let us do that.
Lindelof: Just memorize the following sentence: “Do you watch (ABC’s) ‘Boston Legal’?” That show gets away with everything. They’re having sex with cows on camera!
THR: Moving along, sitcoms have gone from half-dead to nearly bulletproof in the ratings after the strike. Could the genre see a revival?
Thomas: It is the Great Depression for sitcoms. There are still only four sitcoms on CBS and four sitcoms on NBC.
Lindelof: The thing is, there’s really only 12 hours of primetime over the course of the week to be programmed now. So when that’s all the real estate, I think reality television killed the sitcom. And sometimes American sitcoms don’t play well internationally.
Weiner: I heard that “Seinfeld” and “Hogan’s Heroes” were put on Saturday night in Germany, and “Hogan’s Heroes” was a huge hit, and nobody watched “Seinfeld.”
Lindelof: That doesn’t surprise me.
Weiner: Never order a kosher meal on Lufthansa, right? I just think, in terms of what’s going on, these things are cyclical in the history of TV.
THR: So in terms of this year’s Emmys, who’s particularly deserving?
Shore: I would like to congratulate Matthew. Well done. You had an excellent year.
Weiner: Are you trying to jinx me? People have said very nice things to me, and I would love to be in contention.
Lindelof: Everyone on our staff is a huge fan of “Mad Men.” I’d love to see (HBO’s) “The Wire” in the mix. And more (Sci Fi Channel’s) “Battlestar Galactica.” It’s an exciting year for drama, at least, because “The Sopranos” is not at all a contender. (Fox’s) “24” didn’t produce a season last year. So you expect to see a couple of new shows in that category. Is “Pushing Daisies” going as a comedy or a drama?
Lindelof: Is that a call by the network?
Fuller: No, they ask what category, and it’s really tricky being a show that doesn’t really have a firm foot in either, so I’m not holding my breath necessarily.
Lindelof: In the same way that (ABC’s) “Desperate Housewives” was able to position itself as a comedy, I think when you look at your show in paneling versus traditional half-hour sitcoms, it will feel very different and alive. (To Thomas) If I were writing on your show, I’d be like, “‘Pushing Daisies’ shouldn’t be here! It’s not fair that I’m up against Barry Sonnenfeld’s
$7 million pilot when I have three sets!”
Thomas: Yeah, I’m kind of bummed out right now.
Shore: Can I say what I love about the Emmy broadcast as opposed to the Oscar broadcast? You watch the Oscars: Everybody takes the stage and thanks their director. Watch the Emmys: Everybody takes the stage and thanks the writer. As writers, it’s nice that we’re appreciated.
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