Chuck Lorre and Dick Wolf Talk Serialization, Scheduling and Why "Platform Is Secondary"

Chuck Lorre and Dick Wolf - H 2015
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Sitting in the same Beverly Hilton ballroom that will play host to the Golden Globe awards in less than a month, prolific producers Chuck Lorre and Dick Wolf couldn't help but share a laugh.

"This is probably the closest Dick and I will ever get to this stage," the co-creator behind The Big Bang Theory and Mom said during a wide-ranging conversation with Wolf as part of the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s newsmakers luncheon series Monday.

Moderated by former NBC Entertainment president and Fargo executive producer Warren Littlefield, the panel focused on the many changes in the television business since the two got their starts in the 1980s on Roseanne and Hill Street Blues, respectively. One such hot topic was the rise of streaming companies like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon as "major prestige studios," as Wolf said, as well as major awards players at ceremonies like the Globes.

"The job isn’t trying to presume to understand what platform or where this is going," Lorre said. "[Roseanne executive producer] Marcy Carsey once said to me, 'We put the stuff in the trucks. Any truck will do,' and I remembered that. I like that. We're making things that hopefully people care about."

Lorre recalled when his series Dharma and Greg lost the best comedy series Emmy to Ally McBeal on Fox, then still an up-and-coming network. "The platform is secondary," he added. "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage, and if it ain't on the page, its going to fail no matter where it is."

Wolf pointed to the greater output expected of network series like his Chicago franchise, which will produce 64 episodes this season alone. "We write mass entertainment. If you look at it, the network, the dramas certainly, are the equivalent of the big studio movies," he said. "Cable is the realm of independence quite literally. Its 10 episodes a year, actors love it ... it seems almost like more of a hobby than a business. You work for four years and you have 50 episodes."

He added: "We're making shows that will hopefully run for years and years."

But where these shows will run in syndication is another big question — especially for Wolf, whose series Law & Order still airs in reruns on TNT, weTV and SundanceTV 25 years after its debut. "I would go so far as to say I am maybe the only beneficiary of vertical integration," Wolf said in reference to spinoffs SVU and Criminal Intent's continued airings on NBCUniversal-owned cable network USA. "There's no guarantee of the future because nobody knows what the future holds. It is easier when, I think, that in success, there are going to be ways to capitalize on success in the same company."

Wolf and Lorre also differed when it came to the state of serialization in the modern world of binge-watching.

"P.D. this year is less serialized significantly than the first two seasons. Med is probably less serialized than ER was. Fire was literally pitched and ordered as a blue-collar soap opera but even there, we're cutting back," Wolf said. "If the writing is good, people are perfectly happy to watch a self-contained hour and I think the taste is shifting back towards more procedural."

Lorre, however, pointed to the strength of characters when developing material. "Before comedy can occur for me, I have to care about the character," he said. "The jokes have impact because you're viscerally involved with the person on the TV screen. Jokes alone won't do it. Shock value is really cheap and easy and will not sustain."

Although he said that characters can't dramatically shift, "the characters have to grow incrementally. Its kind of a slight of hand. That’s one of the things I'm most proud about The Big Bang Theory; we've changed these characters," said Lorre, pointing to Thursday's new episode which will see Sheldon (Jim Parsons) finally have sex. "I would never have dreamed of [that] when we started the show. I actually imaged the character was asexual when we started."

Added Lorre: "To have him now, nine years later, having an intimate relationship with a woman is really wonderful as a writer because you're not doing the same thing every week. The characters can sneak up on you and change a little bit."

Another big change for Lorre has been the lack of comedy real estate on CBS – which for the first time in more than 60 years has no comedies on Monday nights. "It's less of an opportunity, obviously, to put on a comedy. For a long time, that was a great environment to grow shows," he said, citing Two and a Half Men and Big Bang. "These shows are discovered on the run. I've never been able to come out of the gate and go, 'This is it.'"  

Although Lorre said he wished critical favorite Mom brought in a bigger audience, "in a quest for personal sanity, I have to love the show we're making," he said. "What happens after that is completely out of my hands. I can complain but nobody wants to hear me complain."

The panel was the last with Universal Television's Bela Bajaria as president of HRTS. At the event, FX’s president of original programming, Eric Schrier, was introduced as the group's new president.