'Fringe' Executive Producer Calls Season 4 Renewal 'Gutsy'

J.H. Wyman Jeff Pinkner 2011
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Fresh off the fourth season renewal of sci-fi drama "Fringe," which had the Internet buzzing Thursday night, executive producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman have a lot to be happy about. Despite disappointing ratings in recent Friday airings, the Fox series -- which, until yesterday’s announcement, was widely viewed as a bubble show -- will be back for another round.

With the Season 3 finale right around the corner, Pinkner and Wyman talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the surprising -- though they'd beg to differ -- full-season pickup.

The Hollywood Reporter: How surprised were you by the renewal?

Jeff Pinkner: We might be foolish but no, we were not surprised. [Laughs] Fox has been supportive throughout this process, from the beginning and certainly this season, wall-to-wall. They told us they were thrilled with the show creatively, the number wasn't exactly what they would’ve hoped for but they know the audience is deep and loyal and returns, and that's valuable to them. The critics have been so supportive and they were up front when they were moving us to Friday night that it wasn't one step closer to the door, it was actually a, "Hey, if the audience follows us to Friday night, we're in great shape." And the audience did.

We started to hear word back and forth between Fox and Warner Bros. What would the show look like next year over the past couple of weeks? So when a literal call came in yesterday, we were thrilled, but not necessarily surprised.

THR: How did the cast react when they were told?

Pinkner: The cast, they were thrilled. Ecstatic.

J.H. Wyman: When you get to this point, so many people have been saying since we moved [from Tuesdays] to Thursdays -- the initial move -- "That's the end. That's it. They're done. It's over." Fox kept saying, "Well wait a minute, we're trying some stuff out here. We believe in this show." So every single step along the way, people have been killing the show before it was dead and I think that [the cast] became a little bit immune to those types of things and realized, "OK, we believe in what we're doing and we're going to just consistently do the best work we can and the chips will fall where they may." They're saying, "I would love to not have to give up these characters, but I'm living for today." They were very appreciative.

Pinkner: No matter what, you create a role for a moment in time. That moment in time could be 10 years or it could be three episodes or it could be a stage play or a movie that lasts; the character lives on but the role doesn't. No one was mourning the patient. Everybody had the highest expectation that they were coming back. Yet, the call is still thrilling.

THR: It helps that [Fox entertainment chief] Kevin Reilly is a big supporter of the show ...

Pinkner: It's the Sally Field moment: "They like me!"

Wyman: Kevin has been a supporter and a believer in the program since the get-go. Like Jeff said, they've been completely up front and straight the entire time about what their plans are strategically, what they're trying to do. It's not an easy place to be in their positions. A lot of fans have supported this program, the press has been so incredibly kind. Without that, who knows? I don't think that we wouldn't be here, but the truth is, they did exactly as they said they were going to do and kept us informed the entire way. I'm sure they get tons of phone calls all the time about, "Hey man, you know you did the wrong thing this one time but we believe you did the right thing." People should call them and say, "Nice job!"

THR: The critics love the show and there is a loyal following, as you're well aware.

Pinkner: We were told fans sent buckets and buckets of red licorice to Fox today.

Wyman: Kind of cool right? 

THR: Can you talk about the big DVR numbers that the show gets?

Wyman: Jeff and I both felt at the beginning, when we start to see what was happening on Thursday nights, we realized a lot of people want to watch Fringe, they just don’t want to watch on Thursday nights. We start to talk about conceptually what does Thursday night mean to the viewer. We landed sort of on, well, it's sort of a romantic comedy night. People are watching Bones and then they're going over to Grey's [Anatomy]. It's sort of a heavy pill to sit down and watch a science-fiction show in the middle of that. They were watching, they just told us when they wanted to watch it so we were confident that the fans would follow us to Friday.

The DVRs now, we're in a weird evolution when it comes to how are we tracking shows and who's watching them and advertisers, I'm sure they're also asking, "How do we track this? How do we sell now? What does this look like?" I know for sure that the DVRs were definitely a part of the decision, they would have to be.

THR: Did you have to push for a full 22-episode order?

Pinkner: It's not really our job to push. It's our job to tell the best stories we can in the best fashion we can. Trust the marketplace, trust that the fans are there, trust that the studio and the network recognize that. This is such a hard moment in time to get people to commit to anything. We were saying to each other a couple days ago, when you go to a movie, you already know that there's an end. You might not like it, but you know when you leave the theater, you will have seen the end of the story.

So much TV these days doesn't make it to "the end," whatever the storytellers have in mind, or there is no end in place. It's hard to get people to commit and showing loyalty to an audience, which is obviously what Fox is doing here, really gains a lot of value for Fox. It's like, "Watch these shows we're putting on the air because we're going to stand behind as you do."

Wyman: They're saying, "Hey, we believe in this program and we want to be the purveyor of programs that are critically acclaimed and purveyor of programs that people are really responding to and really embracing," which sounds obvious but there's a lot of critically acclaimed shows that have gone by the wayside in the past. There's something to be said about that decision. It's gutsy.

THR: Do you have opinions on lead-ins for next season?

Pinkner: It's like saying, "What song should the next Radiohead album kick off with?" As fans, we can all speculate about that and the game is really fun to play, but as producers, we have no control over that. The network has a lot of people -- we couldn't even begin to understand -- with the years of expertise that we don't have.

THR: How disappointing is it to see these ratings come in each week?

Wyman: We have loyal fans and they're watching on DVRs. It would be great to have fantastic ratings, but the quality of our viewer is there. Their commitment to us is there. I think it's only getting harder for people to make appointment television. Families are all over the place, people have to work, they get home, they're exhausted. I'm on the inside and I'm also watching shows on DVR. For a science-fiction program, Jeff always says it's like licorice. There are people who love licorice and then there are people who don't, but the people who love licorice really love licorice.

Pinkner: The number is not our outcome goal; our outcome goal is to tell stories that people connect with. We don't wake up and look at the numbers as an objective thing. For all we know, for every one of those Nielsen boxes, there's 100 people watching the TV next to each other. One TV is on, but who knows how many people are sitting there.

Wyman: I always like to see these Nielsen families. I'd actually like to see them. [Laughs]

THR: Do you know anyone who has a box?

Wyman: I've never met anyone who has a box, have you? But you know what, I think we've just discovered something. I think you're right. I don't even think there are Nielsen boxes. How's that for a conspiracy theory?

THR: Now that the season is wrapping up, what can viewers be expecting leading up to the finale?

Wyman: Consistently, we've tried to have a new chapter begin at the end of the seasons. The first season was the Twin Towers and the second season was Olivia over there. This one will have the same effect that, sort of the beginning of a new understanding of the program.

THR: Has there been a plan in place story-wise for Season 4?

Pinkner: We don't have all the episodes written but we have the framework of a plan for the next series.

THR: Can you tell us anything about what you see happening in Season 4?

Pinkner: [Laughs] We can't, sorry. We have to let Season 3 finish first.