Q&A: 'Hellcats' Creator on What Didn't Work, 'Caprica's' Misstep and 'Desperate Housewives'

Kevin Murphy talks to THR about his past projects and discusses the steps to take to lure viewers back to appointment television.
The CW

The CW’s “Hellcats” has been flying under the radar since it debuted in September. The competitive cheerleading show, from creator Kevin Murphy and executive producer Tom Welling, has averaged less than 2 million viewers as of late in its rookie season.

Now, Murphy is in the all too familiar position of waiting to see if his series gets a second season order. He’s been on both sides of that equation before, having served as head writer on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” during its early seasons, before moving to one-season-and-done series such as Syfy’s “Battlestar Galactica” prequel “Caprica.”

Murphy spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the troubles on “Caprica,” the restrictions of “Desperate Housewives” and what did not work on “Hellcats.” 

The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve had some quickly-canceled shows on your resume. What did you learn from them?

Kevin Murphy: In a case like Caprica, I came in halfway into the order. After a week or so, Ron Moore and David Eick promoted me to showrunner and one of the interesting things there was figuring out how to make it grand -- how to make it live up to the [Battlestar Galactica] franchise while being realistic about the fact that the show had ended up costing NBCUniversal a lot more than they had originally expected or budgeted for. Part of that was the nature of the beast. When you’re doing a show set on a spaceship, you can always do a bottle show where you can have a perfectly good episode where everybody stays on the standing sets of the Battlestar Galactica. Because the overall jeopardy is the imminent of the human race, it can be an exciting, suspenseful ride having people standing around on the bridge talking.

On Caprica, it was conceived to be this wide canvas with multiple families, blue skies and outdoor locations. You’re not just seeing the ruins of Caprica, you’re seeing it 24/7 on the show and you have to make it not look like British Columbia. That required a lot of CGI adjustment and changing the skyline of Vancouver. I arrived the moment the cookie jar was empty. I learned more doing that show in eight episodes than I learned on three years with Desperate Housewives. On the CW, you’ve only got so much money, doing all the tricks when you’re trying to save money, so those skills have come handy on this particular show. 

THR: You’ve spent years as head writer on Desperate Housewives. What’s the biggest difference in regards to process between that and Hellcats?

Murphy: Here’s the good and the bad of it. What was wonderful about Desperate Housewives was that we had nearly unlimited resources from the studio and the network. You catch the zeitgeist at the right moment and it becomes this wild ride. At the same time, there are also great restrictions that come with a mega-hit like Desperate Housewives in that everyone is concerned about anything that might potentially damage the franchise. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is very quick to share that opinion because everyone wants to have a fingerprint all over the show that is perceived as the big success. You would end up with notes calls where you would have 11 people on the other end of the phone all with opinions and notes. It became rather confusing at times to cut through.

When I get notes from the CW, I have one person or two people on the phone with me. Any small failure that we may have or any bad story cul-de-sac that we hit on Hellcats, it’s not going to be written about. In Desperate Housewives, when we did the Applewhite -- the Alfre Woodard -- storyline, we wrote ourselves into a corner and it wasn’t all that we had hoped it would be. On most shows, you would be like, “Oh well, live and learn. Let’s change it,” but it became press: “Desperate Housewives has lost its mojo.” Suddenly everyone got into a big panic and at the end of the day, some people lost their jobs over it. 

THR: Was there a storyline on Hellcats that you thought would hit with viewers that for some reason didn’t work out?

Murphy: We initially thought we were going to make more hay out of the romantic triangle between Marti and Dan and Louis, and that was a base hit. The home run really turned out to be Marti, Dan and Savannah. What we also discovered was we kept Alice and Louis apart as troubled exes and what became readily apparent is the two of them have amazing chemistry. We’re in the process of bringing them together over the course of the rest of the season.

That’s part of any first season show. You put a lot of different ingredients into the soup and you try to see what’s the most delicious. When something’s really good, you add a little bit more of that. Sometimes, it’s an alchemical reaction. Something happens onscreen and you don’t really know it until you try it.

THR: Can you talk about a specific challenge creatively that caused you to modify the story or a character?

Murphy: We’re moving from meat and potatoes cheerleading routines into high-concept dance routines that integrate visual vocabulary and the athletics vocabulary of cheerleading. Part of the reason for that is doing an actual cheerleader routine is one of the most difficult things you can do, whereas dance, it’s a lot easier to do and replicate. And the CW has an easier time promoting some of these high-concept things because once you’ve seen the cheerleader routine, there’s only so much variation you can do unless you’re literally shooting a cheerleader out of a cannon.

The other thing that we’ve discovered is about Matt Barr. We’re loving his chemistry with our various lead girls and we’re looking to integrate him a little more fully into the show. We’re enrolling him at Lancer and he’s going to become a film student to get more points of access to the other characters.

THR: As a showrunner, what's your biggest challenge?

Murphy: The biggest challenge for any showrunner is having to go from writing a script that everyone likes to being the CEO of a small corporation with a $2 million weekly cash flow. They’re two very different skill sets. It’s about making sure that the part of me that’s dealing with post-production doesn’t let the part of me that’s in charge of the writing fall behind -- and the part of me that’s dealing with on-set and keeping morale with the cast doesn’t fall behind -- because I’m spending too much time with the writing.

THR: Even with years of experience, are you still learning how to balance the business side with the creative side?

Murphy: A lot of it is also selling and communicating. I can have the coolest idea in the world but if I can’t convince the network and the studio that what I think is something we should actually be doing, it’ll be very difficult to do it. If I can’t convince the cast and the director that the idea is something we should be doing and they don’t really believe it in their hearts, we’re probably not going to be satisfied with the results. It’s really being able to communicate and convey enthusiasm for whatever the episode of the week or the concept or idea of the week is. That’s a big, big part of showrunning that sometimes people forget.

THR: From where you sit, how is a success defined ratings-wise on the CW? How does it compare to other broadcast networks?

Murphy: I do know that the CW is a very demographically-driven [network]. How the CW makes its business model make sense is by monetizing certain demographics and making it a place where if you want to promote a movie or a certain product to a certain demographic, this is the place to go. The idea is to serve that demographic and build out to a wider audience from that base. That’s pretty much the theory as I understand it.

THR: What do you think is the next step in terms of making sure people who DVR or watch shows on the internet go back to live viewing, or is it a lost cause?

Murphy: At the very moment you pronounce something dead on arrival, everything gets up-ended. I’ve been doing this long enough, where I remember the years when sitcom was pronounced officially dead and along came Cosby. I remember when serialized drama was dead and everything was about procedurals, and then it was scripted – everything was dead and it was all about reality. Everything ended up being cyclical to a certain extent.

The first step is getting the way that we measure who’s viewing and where they’re viewing – do we get an accurate assessment of how that’s taking place? Right now, it’s difficult to get a straight answer on how many people are watching an episode of this particular show online, how many are watching it DVR’d delayed, how many people are watching it when they’re in a group and whether they’re watching the commercials. These are all things that everyone is still struggling to find something that works as well as the classic Nielsen ratings back in the day. It’s all part of a process because everyone’s trying to figure out the best diagnostic mousetrap. Once you do that, now that you understand who’s viewing into the sampling, how do you figure out how to make money where the people are? The numbers mean totally different things for different networks. The new Paul Reiser show, which was being referred to as a bomb in the trades, at the CW, they’d be high-fiving over those numbers.

THR: Executive producer Tom Welling recently said that “everything is looking as if [Hellcats is] going to go another season.” What have your conversations been like with the network?

Murphy: What I can say is if I sat around worrying how or when that’s going to happen, I would give myself a nervous stomach.

THR: If the show gets picked up, where would you like the second season to go?

Murphy: The show’s very much about family. To that extent, it’s a little bit of a throwback to the classic WB shows, where you had found families. That’s what the Hellcats are. Stories that develop the idea that even though sometimes you want to strangle someone that you have a symbolic sibling relationship, you’re stuck with them, so you make it work out because you have to. We want to play the film school element of the college experience. We’re going to give Dan Patch [Barr’s character] an ongoing movie project. Dan is going to make a season-long musical that is going to have a Cirque du Soleil, musical and cheerleading elements in it, which will allow us to change up our paradigm a little bit.

Hellcats returns Tuesday at 9 p.m. on the CW.

Email: philiana.ng@thr.com