6:30am PT by Lesley Goldberg
Fall TV's Season of Firings, Recastings and Showrunner Swaps: "It's Bad Marriages"
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It's a stat that should make the television business very nervous heading into the fall season: Half of the 2015-16 rookie class of broadcast series has suffered a retooling, recasting or showrunner switcheroo. Why?
Summer tinkering with fall shows isn't uncommon, of course, but dozens of execs and agents contacted by THR say this season is among the worst they recall, and they cite several key reasons for the turmoil. There's more pressure than ever on new shows to perform quickly in an environment where ratings for the vast majority of series are tiny. In addition, more shows are being picked up straight to series based on presentations rather than scripts (ABC's The Muppets, The CW's Legends of Tomorrow, Fox's Scream Queens and NBC's scrapped Coach revival). And with nearly 400 scripted originals in production among broadcast, cable and streaming outlets — all of them vying for talent — writers, producers and actors are thrust into jobs that some of them can't handle.
"There's not enough people, and networks don't have the patience," a high-level studio exec tells THR, noting that networks never used to fret if the second episode of a series wasn't as good as the pilot. Now, networks often want radical changes if the second episode doesn't impress. "You can't take the time to find the show — and that's true of the casting and the script," he says.
Execs polled at TV's summer press tour cited the pressure of what FX CEO John Landgraf called "too much TV" as their greatest challenge. Fox's Dana Walden lamented "how hard it is to launch a new show." ABC's Patrick Moran summed up broadcast's anxiety after the May upfronts: "It's so fiercely competitive, whether it's for a showrunner, a producing director, stage space, your crew …"
That pressure begins to bubble up in August, when rough cuts from episodes two and three begin coming in and execs start wondering whether they have all the pieces in place for success. "There's a push and pull between wanting to be close to [cable] and a showrunner knowing they're trying to make a broadcast show," says one broadcast exec. "There are a lot of voices, and it becomes nothing but creative differences — and because a showrunner can't fire a network, it's easier to jettison a showrunner."
On Aug. 24, Fox's The Grinder became the fourth first-year series to change its showrunner, with Greg Malins citing creative differences as the cause of his departure from the Rob Lowe comedy. NBC's Chicago Med parted ways with first-time showrunner Andrew Dettmann; ABC's Blood & Oil replaced Cynthia Cidre; and Shonda Rhimes' midseason ABC entry The Catch saw creator Jennifer Schuur exit, along with her top writers, as part of an overhaul fueled by, yes, creative differences.
And then there are the recastings: The Catch replaced two of its leads, becoming one of more than 10 new series (also including ABC's Quantico, Blood & Oil, ABC anthology Wicked City, Fox's Minority Report, Chicago Med, NBC's Truth Be Told and NBC's The Player) to shuffle onscreen talent. Add to that the pair of dramas slated for fall that were bumped to midseason (NBC's Heartbreaker and ABC's Of Kings and Prophets), which in turn prompted earlier arrivals for Chicago Med and Wicked City.
With Grinder, sources say it was a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Malins' vision for the comedy about a TV lawyer who joins his family's law firm was failing to jell with that of EPs Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul, Nicholas Stoller and Jake Kasdan. Insiders cite a poor table read in early August (Fox execs are said to want more of co-star Fred Savage). On Chicago Med, word is that Dettmann (CSI) wanted to balance medical plots with romance and more character-driven stories that didn't mesh with the procedural take that Dick Wolf (Law & Order) wanted. New, more experienced showrunners already have been brought in. The series also lost star Laurie Holden, who exited for personal reasons.
The Catch, meanwhile, replaced male lead Damon Dayoub with Parenthood's Peter Krause and Bethany Joy Lenz with Sonya Walger. And all that was before Schuur exited in an overhaul of the Mireille Enos drama about an investigator who is the victim of fraud by her fiance. Insiders say Rhimes had told Schuur to hire certain writers, but Schuur decided to go her own way.
On Blood & Oil, sources say creator Josh Pate's (Moonlight) vision post-pilot never was fully embraced by the network, which was looking for more "OMG" moments a la Scandal. That didn't work with the emotional soap that Cidre (Dallas) and her team had written, which led to Jon Harmon Feldman (Dirty Sexy Money) being brought in to try and create what the network wants. The series — which also underwent recastings — now is said to have two writers rooms, one led by Feldman and the other, featuring Cidre, given little to do.
In addition, the biblical saga Of Kings and Prophets was supposed to be ABC's big Game of Thrones swing, with a 15-episode straight-to-series pickup. But then the drama was pushed from the fall schedule and is reshooting the pilot with director Michael Offer amid recastings and a massive retooling.
"It's bad marriages," says a lit agent of the showrunner turnover. But networks and studios seem intent on bringing in experienced writer-producers at the first sign of trouble, and there just isn't a large pool of available talent given the scripted boom. "They're grabbing at straws of people who are not necessarily the right fit just because they've done it before," says another lit agent. Adds a third agent of the predicament, "Really good and well-run shows usually have somebody who has a plan from the beginning."
As if the talent musical chairs isn't already challenging enough for viewers — many of whom have seen marketing materials and trailers released for May's upfronts — a few shows also have changed titles. NBC's People Are Talking became Truth Be Told; Fox's The Frankenstein Code shifted to Lookinglass; and ABC morphed Blood & Oil to simply Oil before reverting back to the original, among other tweaks.
The summer drama doesn't necessarily mean the fall schedule is headed for disappointment. Several of last season's shows experienced showrunner changes, including ABC's hit Blackish (and three other now-canceled series). But it means networks will be looking especially closely at what's working with viewers and, perhaps equally important, what's working (or not) behind the scenes.