Michael Schur, Prentice Penny on What Happens After Peak TV: "Everyone's Wildly Flailing"
The showrunners behind 'The Good Place' and 'Insecure' discuss the networks' and studios' "absurd" Peak TV pay-out, and Schur reveals he was once told that 'Parks and Recreation' was "$145 million in the hole."
Two comedy writers walk into a bar and … two years after their first collaboration, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Good Place creator Michael Schur, 41, and Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny, 43, are sharing a drink for the first time in, well, too long. (You can blame the four series and five children they have between them.) But when they do, there's plenty to discuss, including topic A: how there's no way to really tell what works these days.
Is staffing as hard as it was a few years ago?
PENNY No. The way shows are limited runs or off-cycle, we have writers on our show who went off and did Great News and Vice Principals during the break. It never affected us.
SCHUR Everybody has two jobs now. People are still working on 22 episodes a year; they're just doing it on different shows. Showrunners have had to get flexible, letting their people leave [a season] early or come back late. It would be inhumane to tell someone who's on an eight-episode season to remain dormant the rest of the year.
Higher-ups are cool with that flexibility?
SCHUR I think they are. There's still weird turf battles at Netflix or HBO or whatever. I don't know. But there aren't those hard and fast rules about exclusivity — same for actors. In the 1980s, it was like, "If you want to see Richard Mulligan, you can only see Richard Mulligan on our show!" For the most part, that's over.
What expectations are there on your shows to perform?
PENNY People care more about just cracking the marketplace. It's more important that the show has resonance than 10 million people watching it. TV is becoming bespoke. And the more specific you are, the more of a talking piece you become. The days of the wide net are over.
SCHUR No one has any idea who's watching. Everyone lies to you all the time. The amount of money that networks and studios are making has never been higher; the amount of money they're losing has never been lower. So there's no incentivization to tell you.
PENNY For sure. None.
SCHUR It's unclear that it even matters. On The Good Place, [NBC] picked up the show for season two and made a deal for the show to air on Netflix. That pays instantly to make the new episodes. It's insane. [By comparison,] after Parks and Recreation ended, I got an official letter from NBC that said, "Here is your first profit statement as a part owner of this asset." It had the total number of episodes and the total cost, and we were $145 million in the hole. It was almost like, "Do I owe you?"
PENNY It's like when you get your taxes. This is not a bill! (Laughs.) Can you imagine what John Wells owes?
SCHUR What about Shonda Rhimes? She must be $4 billion in the red. The good news for people like us is that it matters less, in the short term, how much they're lying. They used to lie and cancel things. At least they don't cancel things anymore. But it is getting harder for these companies to cry poverty because they are making so much money. It's absurd. The one time they didn't was Parks and Recreation.
Is there a trend in the industry people are not talking about enough?
SCHUR Most of the conversations I have had recently are centered around the plain and obvious fact that no one has any idea what's about to happen to the entire industry, and it's kind of scary. Everyone's guessing. Everyone's wildly flailing around and trying to project confidence, but no one actually has any idea what the landscape of television is going to look like in five years. No one. John Landgraf might.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.