Emmy Watch: Writers and directors

The ground is shifting for today’s television writers and directors

Times are changing for television writers and directors.

As everything from the cable model to the Internet redefines time-tested rules of their professions, it's not surprising that the field is wide open as the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences chooses the 2008 Primetime Emmy Award nominees for writing and directing.

Offerings on broadcast networks and cable are looking more alike than ever.

"I know that a lot of the network scripts I've been looking at, even for shows that are fairly formulaic, seem to be taking chances on story lines and plot lines," notes Marcos Siega, a director on Showtime's Emmy contender "Dexter" and a veteran of network shows like CBS' "Cold Case" and the CW's "Veronica Mars." "Producers are also approaching directors and saying, 'We want this to have a style. Give it a look that's going to hold up to the cable standards.'"

The differences between cable and network are made muddier by the fact that most media giants own both. Just this winter, the WGA strike prompted CBS to bring episodes of "Dexter" over from Showtime, with only minor cuts and edits. Similarly, HBO's "Sex and the City" has been syndicated as a nighttime network offering for years now to great effect.

This crossover strategy is not only employed for established hits, but sometimes even as a part of a show's early development. Such was the case for NBC's "The Office," which won 2007's comedy series writing Emmy and will be a front-runner again this year. "NBC also has cable properties, and when they were launching the show, we would be on Bravo or USA Network to try to get people to watch the show," observes executive producer Greg Daniels.

While networks may be starting to look more like cable, both are increasingly resembling feature film. And with more shows blending comedy and drama, TV is starting to tell the kind of stories once only found in movie theaters.

"Right now most studios are interested in making tentpole movies, sequels and broad mass-audience romantic comedies," says veteran filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld, who now executive produces and directs the dramedy "Pushing Daisies," which ABC chose to submit as a comedy. "What's happened is the networks have embraced much more visually and narratively quirky, unusual material because there's a real vacuum everywhere else for those products."

Executives have sensed the change, too.

"I think that television is very comfortable in the gray area," says Katherine Pope, president of Universal Media Studios. "Dr. House is both incredibly heroic and incredibly flawed. That's what makes great television."

Nowhere is the shifting territory of television more expansive and less charted than online. According to Pope, the entertainment industry now has two massive, symbiotic distribution mechanisms in the form of traditional television and the Internet. "They don't exist side by side," she says. "They're quite co-dependent right now. And when the show fits that audience, we can really utilize the online community to help build the national audience on the broadcast side."

That strategy has worked for NBC's Emmy favorites "The Office" and "30 Rock." For the "The Office's" Season 4 premiere, 20% of the audience watched online, and the fastest-growing show on NBC.com is currently "30 Rock." "It's better for the audience because there are a lot of different points of entry to the shows they love," Pope says. "And it makes the shows better because (the writers) can get their ideas out."

Indeed, the Internet has provided an outlet for writers' deleted scenes and jokes -- and at negligible cost to the producers or studios. "What is happening," Daniels says, "is that when you work on a show, you are constantly making suggestions and constantly thinking about the characters, and a very small percentage of the jokes that are pitched actually make it on-air. Those of us who work on the show are walking around with all this extra material in our heads that we find entertaining, so the audience is getting an opportunity to get more of that material."

Nevertheless, by expanding the universe of the show in so many directions, showrunners and writers do have to worry more about maintaining continuity. If a character blog, for instance, contradicts the content of the aired show, the audience might feel confused.

Sci Fi Channels's "Battlestar Galactica" leads the way in terms of secondary content on cable, online and in comic book and video game stores.

"The secret is that it's all done in-house, and the content has been provided exclusively by the writing staff," says the show's creator, two-time Emmy nominee Ron Moore. "We are the ones that are in the room day in and day out. You run into trouble when you try to outsource that material. That's the problem with the video games and the novels and the comic books."

Some shows are proving that the Web is not just a destination for extras. Under a deal negotiated with Fox, Unilever put down the money to produce a series of short Internet spinoffs of "24" on Fox.com to promote Degree Men deodorant. The result was "The Rookie," an entirely original Web series with production values matching anything currently on television.

"There were no product tie-ins at all, and I was thrilled about that," says "The Rookie" director Rodney Charters. "The cool thing about Unilever is that they're smart enough to know that if you're going to endorse something like this, the best thing to do is to back off. The concept was enough for them."

Despite the changing landscape that TV writers and directors inhabit, it's anyone's guess as to which way everything will trend and what impact this will have on the Emmys.

"Right now it's still very early in all of this," Moore says. "You keep discovering things that you can do. The problem is that none of these things are yet worked into an ongoing structure."