Dialogue: Hank Steinberg

The executive producer didn't expect to get pulled into the missing persons racket, but he couldn't resist 'Without a Trace's' siren call.

When CBS' "Without a Trace" came into Hank Steinberg's life in 2002, he wasn't exactly hot to produce a drama series. He was coming off the high-profile HBO telepic "61*," which had earned him both WGA and Emmy Award nominations, and he possessed a blind script deal with the eye network. Unfortunately, that last one had just produced one rejection for a show about college basketball.

Then, at the behest of his agent, Steinberg met with Jerry Bruckheimer Television president Jonathan Littman, and before he knew it, Steinberg was creating and executive producing a series focusing on a topic with which he had a passing knowledge -- at best. But as he would say later, "This was Jerry Bruckheimer, and it's very hard to turn down Jerry."

These days, Steinberg is developing and producing ABC's new drama "The Nine," which premiered earlier this month. However, he's still listed as an executive producer on "Trace," having been its showrunner for three seasons and taking primary responsibility for giving the series wings in the early days and molding it into a consistent hit. As the drama reaches its 100th episode, Steinberg spoke about his experiences with "Trace" with Ray Richmond for The Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter:
How does a guy who writes biographical films about Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Robert F. Kennedy wind up making a procedural series?
Hank Steinberg: I saw the potential early on to create a series that focused on the character of the missing person, where the idea was, "Who they are will tell you where they are." That made it an intriguing concept for me from the get-go. Because we didn't start with a dead body, it was never about finding a killer but what happened to the person.

THR: You seemed to try to buck the procedural trend somewhat by inserting more and more character elements as you went along.
Steinberg: That was very much done on purpose. We crafted the show as a back-door character piece, a thriller with a fixed clock. We wanted it to have a kind of European, noirish feel, exploring the toll it takes on the people involved in the search and how it impacts their lives personally.

Didn't it make people nervous that you were trying to sort of mold two typically incompatible genres?
Steinberg: Oh, all the time. The first season ended with Samantha (Poppy Montgomery) getting shot and Jack (Anthony LaPaglia) going back to his wife, and we never looked back. My arguments were always helped by the ratings, which, thankfully, kept growing.

THR: So, the numbers kind of vindicated everything you tried to do creatively?
Steinberg: Not entirely. Everything was a tap dance. But you don't get the cover page of TV Guide and have Anthony LaPaglia win a Golden Globe (in 2004) unless you're doing something more substantial than a case-of-the-week formula.

THR: The Federal Communications Commission also noticed that you were doing more than just a humdrum drama, fining you $3.6 million this year for the show's so-called "orgy scene." That makes it the most expensive 48 seconds in TV history, no?
Steinberg: We knew that scene was on the borderline when we shot it; we knew it would be provocative. On the other hand, it was always meant to serve as a cautionary tale. Context is always forgotten. The whole thing seemed to be very arbitrary. No one really knows where the standards are anymore.

THR: What was the fallout from that whole situation? Any decision is still pending, but did it have a chilling effect on content from your perspective?
Steinberg: Ironically, I believe the effect on network TV is destined to be a positive one. Because we working in the broadcast realm can't do a show as titillating as (FX Network's) "Nip/Tuck" or with the kind of graphic violence you see on (HBO's) "The Sopranos" or as sexually suggestive as "Six Feet Under," it's forced the writers to be more creative in their storytelling to operate within the confines of the federal government and our own standards department.

THR: How difficult has it been to have to let go of a series you brought into the world?
Steinberg: Very tough. It's like with your kids: You're always worried. But fortunately, in (executive producers) Jan Nash and Greg Walker, I left it in very solid hands, and they've done a terrific job. Fortunately, I'm too busy with "The Nine" to obsess over it, or I absolutely would.