HRTS Panel: There's a Dramatic Shortage of Drama Showrunners

John Landgraf
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

"I believe in redemption."

“Anybody who knows how to run a show [is taken]," says FX CEO John Landgraf, citing the large number of series on air. "Drama is fully cooked.”

The rise of dark dramas on multiple cable TV outlets, along with continuing demand for quality dramas on broadcast and premium pay channels, has created a shortage among the most sought-after writers and showrunners, according to panelists at the Hollywood Radio & Television Society's State of the Industry panel Tuesday in Beverly Hills.

"I heard there are 168 dramas in production," said John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions. "Anybody who knows how to run a show [is taken]. There's nobody left in development. That's why there's more comedy in development. … Drama is fully cooked."

The shortage of experienced drama creators is even changing the deals being made, said Michael Lombardo, president of HBO Programming. "It started with Netflix's two-season buy of House of Cards," he explained.

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Lombardo said that they are being pitched packages with a star, a director and a format but "literally no script," and people are still getting series commitments.

"The competitive landscape has moved to the advantage of agencies, dealmaking," said Lombardo. "That competitiveness has created a kind of disharmony in the ecosystem."

NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert -- pointing out the presence of Robert Greenblatt, NBC Entertainment chairman, in the audience -- said it now often means they are being told they have to make a commitment to 13 episodes to get the right show, showrunner and deal done. "It takes the experience [Greenblatt] has to know when to say yes or no."

Harbert cited the CBS series Under the Dome – one of the big hits of the summer -- as a game changer in this new environment. "There's been a lot of summer shows for a long time," said Harbert, "but Under the Dome is different."

Harbert explained that it wasn't just that the show was more costly and a bigger event than typical summer fare but also because they put it on Amazon Prime only four days after it aired on CBS. He said that was a "surprise."

Why was it a surprise?

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"It was [supposed to be] just a one-off," said Harbert. "A miniseries -- it's going to be gone in a number of episodes. [But] then they pick it up for another season. That's a real change."

Landgraf was skeptical of the CBS strategy. He said because they licensed the rights to Amazon Prime on such a short window, it provided viewers another place to watch and lessened their leverage in the tense retransmission fee negotiations with Time Warner Cable this summer. "I think the windowing strategy was an abject failure," said Landgraf. "If they owned the rights they might not have been off Time Warner Cable as long as they were."

Harbert said what CBS eventually accomplished by getting increased value from TWC in line with their costs and programming quality was good for NBC and other big broadcasters. "The more [CBS] gets," said Harbert, "the better I am going to be able to do our deals."

Tim Spengler, worldwide CEO of Magna Global, said the most important trend for them is understanding the alternative ways people can view programming, from DVR to Hulu or Netflix, and deal with the reality that people may be avoiding watching their commercials.

He said that is why they are "going to place bets with big experiences like sports," because that is where they can still reach consumers.

Even Andy Forssell, acting CEO and senior vp content for Hulu, said the changes in where and when people watch TV is something everyone is studying. "We're trying to build a world where we don't care if they watch on day one or day 365," he said. "We want them to watch things they love."

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But for a traditional network like NBC, when they watch is a huge question. "We have entered an age of disruption where all the practices we've had for 50 years are just flying out the windows," said Harbert, noting they only get paid by advertisers for live viewing and DVR viewing up to three days after the initial presentation.

Landgraf noted that "95 percent of consumption is still on linear channels." But with more channels, he added, that is being divided up among more and more outlets.

Today, FX and FXX are "linear channels," Landgraf continued, "but I think five or 10 years from now [they] will be multiplatform brands" seen on all kinds of devices.

Spengler said they are pushing Nielsen to do a better job measuring online behavior and what shows are being watched on all kinds of devices.

"The key," added Harbert, "is we've got to get Nielsen to measure the tablet, the VOD, the phone. … They say they are on it, but everyone in this room knows they are a monopoly and they're going to get to it when they get to it."

"It's always coming next year," added Landgraf, "and I'm hoping it will come next year."

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One fear that is overblown, said Forssell, is how much cord-cutting is going on. He noted that the trend toward consumers dropping cable and satellite services in favor of lower-cost options is "not nearly as dire as some think."

Hulu, admitted Forssell, has "always been a lightning rod for cord-cutting, but we need that [cable] ecosystem to be healthy."

Forssell said their goal will continue for Hulu to be a complement to cable and the networks that provide much of their content.

Lombardo added that he doesn't believe offering shows on an a la carte basis is the answer either. "We have an economic model that generates a lot of revenue for Time Warner," said Lombardo. "Our subscriptions have gone up this year. But what happens in the future, who knows? Right now [a la carte] doesn't make any sense."

The State of the Industry panel, moderated by Michael Schneider of TV Guide, was the last with WME's Sean Perry as president of HRTS. At the event, Bela Bajaria of Universal Television was introduced as the group's new president.