21 Network Chiefs on Challenges, Dream Showrunners and Projects That Got Away

Breaking Bad Episode 14 Ozymandias - H 2013
Ursula Coyote/AMC

THR caught up with TV's top executives during TCA to discuss the next big programming trend, the best note they've given, their TV guilty pleasures and more.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The New Trend That Concerns Me Most

MICHAEL LOMBARDO, HBO: Spec scripts packaged looking for a production commitment. It's the new agency trick: everything comes in with a script, writer, director and cast, and they want a production commitment.

DAVID NEVINS, SHOWTIME: The expectation of pitch to production. I still believe in reading and developing scripts.

NINA TASSLER, CBS: Piracy and privacy. Within each of our companies, a lot of information and content gets sent via the Internet, so protecting it and making sure it doesn't end up on some rogue site is key.

JOHN LANDGRAF, FX: Television is an ecosystem, and an ecosystem by definition means that a whole bunch of organisms in different niches have to survive and thrive -- they may be in competition, but they're also symbiotically linked to one another. My concern is, I don't think all of my brethren and sisteren are thinking about the ecosystem; they're thinking about their niche in it and how they can gain an advantage. I have a colleague in the feature film business who says frequently, "You're only as smart as your dumbest competitor."

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MICHAEL WRIGHT, TNT/TBS: How do we make the digital platform our friend? How do we make it additive and not something to fear?

ROBERT SHARENOW, LIFETIME: Knockoff programming. I feel like it feeds on itself and makes for some very dull programs.

KENT ALTERMAN, COMEDY CENTRAL: Cord-cutting. There's a lag between how people are watching content and how we're able to monetize it.

CHRIS MCCUMBER, USA: The cost of programming continues to accelerate at an alarming pace.

SARAH BARNETT, SUNDANCE: Capturing, measuring and being paid for all of the various platforms on which content is viewed.

CHARLIE COLLIER, AMC: Time-shifting. In fact, I'm not going to answer this fully for another four days. Take that, ad sales!

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PAUL LEE, ABC: I'd kill daily ratings!

EILEEN O'NEILL, DISCOVERY/TLC: [Audience] measurement. How we get it and what it's based on.

PERRY SIMON, BBC AMERICA: What is the audience looking for? And how do we get back in touch with what the audience wants, because we somehow often get so caught up in the economics and the challenges of our industry that the first topic would be, "How do we get ourselves back inside the heads of our audience?"

MATT CHERNISS, WGN AMERICA: How can we all find our own date to premiere our shows so that none of us has to feel like we're competing against one another?

NEVINS: I would want to share information on who pays what for what. I want to understand.

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The Next Big Programming Trend

BOB GREENBLATT, NBC: More live events!

MARK PEDOWITZ, THE CW: At some point, we'll be oversaturated with genre, and we'll move back to the family drama. It feels like we're slowly getting there.

DAVID MCKILLOP, A&E: A hybrid of scripted and unscripted. Lines will be blurred to the point that scripted will start to feel more like unscripted and vice versa.

TASSLER: You're already seeing long-running shows mix things up: get rid of a character, add a character. I think that everyone in the broadcast business is feeling bullish about being able to make those kinds of shifts within the season.

WRIGHT: You're going to see the next wave of Big Brother-type unscripted shows, but more complex, more dangerous and more, "Holy shit, did they just do that?" In scripted, we're in the middle of an explosion of serialized storytelling, so I'll predict that three years from now, you're going to see an abundance of episodic storytelling. It's just a matter of supply and demand.

SIMON: We've played out the dark antihero thing. I think you're going to see TV and audiences trending away from that.

O'NEILL: We're pursuing the survival category.

The Showrunner Atop My Wish List

JENNIFER CASERTA, IFC: Kurt Sutter. I think he could do a tremendous dark comedy.

WRIGHT: Vince Gilligan. Vince always tells the story of me passing on Breaking Bad, but he's so gracious about it, and he knows it wouldn't have worked for TNT.

SHARENOW: I'm a little bit obsessed with Sofia Coppola as a filmmaker.


LEE: We hope we'll end up in business with David O. Russell.

LOMBARDO: Vince Gilligan. He has it all: great storyteller, great human being.

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BARNETT: I'd love to work with Kathryn Bigelow. I'm fascinated by a woman filmmaker who is obsessed on an intellectual level with violence and can represent it in a way that is so thrilling.

CHERNISS: Can you get Chris Nolan to do television?!

MCKILLOP: Ryan Murphy.

PEDOWITZ: When Damon Lindelof finishes The Leftovers, I'd like him to come back to work with us. Surely I can convince Damon that the conveyor belt system will work for him. And Carlton Cuse!

LANDGRAF: Isn't Vince Gilligan at the top of everybody's list?

The Best Note I've Given

CHRIS ALBRECHT, STARZ: When David Chase handed me the script for The Sopranos [when I ran HBO], he said, "I think maybe there are too many therapists, maybe we should take it out." I read the script and said we'll pick it up as long as the therapist is in it.

SHARENOW: No narration in Intervention [when I worked at A&E] felt like a bold note at the time because documentary programming was very narrator-focused, and I felt if we were really going to do this, it was going to be real verite.

BARNETT: The note I gave [Rectify showrunner] Ray McKinnon -- it's actually the most recent note I gave -- was about episode 201: "Make it more f---ed up."

The Project That Got Away

KEVIN REILLY, FOX: Howard Gordon gave us the script to Homeland and I thought it was a cable show. I don't know how much higher-rated it would be if it was on Fox, but I would have liked to have taken that challenge. I think about notable challenges that I've had in the past -- like Friday Night Lights, which broke my heart when I was pushing that boulder up the hill -- and I think it was worth it because it was a great show. So on some level, I wish I didn't let Homeland go.

NEVINS: True Detective. I was really enamored of Nic Pizzolatto's script.?

DANIELS: Survivor. [When I was at The WB], we offered a $1 million pilot, which is what Mark [Burnett] wanted. I was so excited that we even went there because [The WB] didn't do reality at the time.

ALBRECHT: There's a lot of folklore that? when we were at HBO we passed on Mad ?Men, which is total crap. It was never available. The one that got away: David Letterman's show. I wish at any network I had that show.

CHERNISS: We developed Breaking Bad ?at FX when I was there and chose not? to move forward with it. I don't know how anything can quite add up to that.

GREENBLATT: The Following. It made ?sense [for it to go to Fox] because we were already doing Hannibal, and how many serial-killer shows can you have? But I? loved that pitch, and I'm a big fan of [creator] Kevin Williamson.

LANDGRAF: Well, I tried really hard to buy True Detective. I really did.

WRIGHT: Longmire. We developed it and then passed on it because we decided to make Perception instead. They've both done very well.

CASERTA: A John Mulaney comedy. That's a guy I wish we would have been able to snag, but it was a wrong place wrong time kind of situation.

COLLIER: The Bible. I'd heard it was a best-seller but never got around to reading it. And now it turns out it was good enough to be a TV movie.

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The Show I Wish Was Mine

COLLIER: The Super Bowl.?

LANDGRAF: Game of Thrones.

LOMBARDO: The Americans. It has legs and would work on HBO.

MCKILLOP: Discovery's Naked and Afraid. It's a very original concept.

TASSLER: The Blacklist.?

LEE: The first season of Homeland.

REILLY: Game of Thrones

BARNETT: Enlightened. ?It's this complete, brilliant,? beautiful surface gloss at ?odds with this really uncomfortable character stuff going on.?

ALBRECHT: Any of them that are doing great that all the critics love.

SHARENOW: I'm obsessed with Veep. That's my happy place.

ALTERMAN: I hear Sarah Palin is doing a comedy show on some sports network. I wish we had that one.

DANIELS: I'd like the ratings from Duck Dynasty but I don't know about the show (laughs).

O'NEILL: I like Brain Games on Nat Geo. It's a good show

CHERNISS: The Walking Dead.

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TV Guilty Pleasure

WRIGHT: Mob Wives. It's my ?wife's fault.

NEVINS: I've been known to watch an episode or two of Duck Dynasty.

LOMBARDO: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

REILLY: I go on binges for like eight-episode marathons of Hoarders or Storage Wars. I've had some time where it's a little weird.

CASERTA: I still believe I'm a 16-year-old girl, so I love Awkward and The Carrie Diaries.?

DANIELS: Survivor. And I watch ?Bar Rescue with my son. It's awesome.

LEE: Top Gear.

GREENBLATT: Project Runway.?

SIMON: Downton Abbey, as if I can't get enough British programming in my life!?

MCCUMBER: I love Shark Tank, and I don't feel guilty watching it!

LANDGRAF: I have none. I really don't watch crappy TV. I'm sorry.