TV Upfronts: Showrunners Reveal How They'd Run a Broadcast Network

Issue 18 FEA Characters Illustration - H 2013

Issue 18 FEA Characters Illustration - H 2013

"Parks and Recreation's" Mike Schur, "Sons of Anarchy's" Kurt Sutter, "Last Resort's" Shawn Ryan and other hitmakers dish about the best note they've ever received, the characters they'd want to write and the best — and worst — part of upfront week.

This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

With the 2012-13 television season coming to a close, The Hollywood Reporter reached out to more than 20 top showrunners to talk TV. Below are their candid thoughts on their worst pitches, wackiest notes, favorite characters and the best --and worst-- part of Upfront week.

If I were running a broadcast network, the first change I’d make is…

Shawn Ryan (Last Resort)

I’d do everything a month earlier than the other broadcast networks: I’d pick up my pilots in December; I’d make my decisions in April. And as a result I’d get a much better, more finished product — and I’d be able to hire the best writers and directors available before the other networks got their hands on them.

Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy)

I’d hire development people with experience in the arts: writing, music, theater. Most d-kids are communications/ business hacks who wouldn’t know a good creative choice if it leaked out of their spastic colon.

Tom Fontana (Copper)

I’m trying to come up with something that won’t kill my career, but you know what? I’d fire the entire research department. All of the people who do testing. I would do what the guys did a long time ago: They watched a show, and if their gut told them it was good, they’d put it on the air. I think people rely on testing because they’re unsure?their gut is correct.

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Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation)

I’d remove all the animated lower-third snipes for other shows, and the TV14 (or whatever) graphic from the beginning?of every act, and?stop the credits from running under the?last 30 seconds of?the shows. The experience of watching network TV is being destroyed by the constant imposition of stuff clogging up the screen.

Todd Holland (Go On)

1. Shorten seasons. ?2. Preempt less.? 3. Commit to what you air. Audiences want to know they can rely on shows being there for them. Yanking shows at the first ratings shortfall hurtles us?all toward the “binge” programming of Netflix. 4. Unshackle the ball and chain?of the fall launch. People will find it if?it’s good — and if you promote it.

Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries)

Bring back the sweeping event miniseries. I need my next Thorn Birds.

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Brett Baer (New Girl)

More act breaks. When I started in TV, we did two act breaks; now we do four. I think we should move to an 87-act structure. That way we could take an act break after every joke: setup, punch, commercial; setup, punch, commercial. Imagine the ad sales!

Peter Tolan (Rake)

I would absolutely and without a moment’s hesitation abolish testing. It is deeply flawed and seems only to serve as a crutch for those unwilling to form or stand by an opinion of their own. When network television?is finally dead and the media cops are looking for the murder weapon, I’ll put?my money on testing.

Craig Thomas (How I Met? Your Mother?)

I would work out a new provision with the FCC stating that every series on my network could, without bleeping it, say one filthy swear word per season. Just one. But showrunners could use it whenever and however they wanted. For example, you could save it for your big season-finale cliffhanger moment  -- "Oh f---!" CUT TO BLACK. Or (and I think this would be more interesting), you could just throw it away off-handedly in the middle of a random scene: "Shit, we're out of Doritos." (Product placement opportunity alert!) Network news anchors could save it for really big breaking stories. Live ratings would surge, because viewers would be too scared to miss an episode of their favorite show.  You'd constantly be wondering, "Is this gonna be the week the Modern Family kid drops an F-bomb? I can't miss that!" And of course, twenty-three episodes a year, you'd be disappointed. But when you catch that one magic moment? Worth the wait.

Robert King (The Good Wife)

Bring back the limited series.  And find ways to supplement the usual 22 episode seasons with 13 episodes seasons. 

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If I could join the writing staff of another show, I’d join…

Tolan: Family Guy. I’m guessing?they have a lot of fun in that room, and ?Seth MacFarlane is a handsome, talented man. OK, it’s not about the work; I’m looking for a love connection. At least I can be honest, which I think Seth would admire.

Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead): ?It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I absolutely love it. They take chances, and they don’t care.

Baer: A cable news channel. Those guys have complete creative freedom; they come up with whatever crazy-ass stories they want.

Schur: Game of Thrones. Adapting that story is the ultimate writing challenge.

Howard Gordon (Homeland): Breaking Bad.

Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad): Childrens Hospital. Damn funny show.

Plec: Scandal. Everyone on Twitter knows of my admiration of Queen Shonda.

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My worst pitch entailed...

Christopher Lloyd (Modern Family): Being asked to pitch?an episode idea to the bosses during my first year as a writer on The Golden Girls. I’d sweated for a week over this bad idea, which involved the ladies falling for a stray dog, and finally the day of the pitch came. The other writers, sensing my nervousness, invited me to join them for Chinese food that they had ordered. They listened to my idea, gave me pointers, said encouraging things, generally tried to relax me and at the end of lunch invited me to take one of their fortune cookies. I opened it, and it said, “The dog story stinks.” I saw six people fall off the couch.

I. Marlene King (Pretty Little Liars): A talking dog. 

Greg Berlanti (Arrow): A doctor who moves to the country to open an abortion clinic. That show sold and became Everwood

Sutter: A barber with Tourette’s and his very fat son.

Tolan: Thanks to a childcare mix-up, I pitched to the head of one of the networks with his five or six-year-old son in the room. I don't remember the entire ordeal, but at one point the compelling narrative I was attempting to lay out was interrupted by the boy turning on the television in the office, then wailing when his father moved to turn it off. I was charming and magnanimous about the whole thing, which I hoped would lead to a sale. It did not.

Bill Lawrence (Cougar Town): A network president literally falling asleep. True story.

The best/worst part of upfront week is...

Carter Bays (How I Met? Your Mother?)The best: When you have no horse in the race and can really just focus on drinking and having nice dinners at your agent’s expense. The worst: When you have a show or pilot on the bubble.

Schur: When I worked at SNL, upfront week meant one thing: a thousand identical-looking agents in dark suits and light-blue dress shirts asking to come to the afterparty. That was the worst thing. The best thing is that it’s only a week long.

Adam Horowitz (Once Upon a Time): The best: If you’re picked up and the Yankees are in town. The worst: The weeks leading up to it and the waiting to hear. For those of us with a bit of neurosis, it can be ... trying.

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If I could write for any character on TV, I’d write for...

Ryan: The idiots on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia since that’s the kind of writing I don’t get to do very often. I’d love to write an idiotic episode of that show.

Gordon: Hannah on Girls.

Sutter: Without a doubt, SpongeBob SquarePants.

BerlantiCartman [of South Park].

Bays: King Joffrey [of Game of Thrones]. I would try to give him a little more edge.

Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel): Danny McBride on Eastbound & Down.

Edward Kitsis & Horowitz: Frank Underwood from House of Cards because he can get a bill through congress and enjoys BBQ any time of the day or night.  We have expertise in one of those areas. You guess which.

Lloyd: Donald Trump. He is a great dramatic character, being stone-hearted, but also a great comic character, being utterly devoid of self-awareness. Above all that, he seems a perfect exemplar of the Twitter generation, a person convinced his every thought is consequential, a person who's genuinely convinced himself that the rushing sound in his ears is the sound of faraway applause and not the howling wind of indifference.

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Most constructive network note I’ve received is...

I. Marlene King: Tweet, tweet, tweet.

?Kitsis: When ABC greenlighted the pilot for Once Upon a Time, their biggest note — and it was dead-on — was that Prince Charming should live. Yeah, in the pilot we killed off Prince Charming.

Lawrence: On Scrubs: “I know you want me to give a shit about the act break, and even though I love the show, I didn’t care.” (This person is now my business partner.)

Berlanti: Don’t make your pilot about an abortion clinic.

Tolan: Any note I got from John Landgraf during the run of Rescue Me. John was incredibly bright and extremely perceptive when it came to identifying flaws in my writing. Which also makes him, in my mind, a real prick.

Sutter: "I promise you, no one wants to see the severed balls of a rapist clown," from John Landgraf.

Lloyd: Every character needs to want something. Only it wasn't from an executive, it was from Kurt Vonnegut.

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Most insane network note I’ve received is...

Horowitz: You can’t kill a dwarf named Sneaky because “sneaky” sounds derogatory. If you name him Stealthy, it’s OK. So we named our eighth dwarf Stealthy. Killed him. And hopefully avoided hurting the feelings of sneaky people around the world.

Gilligan: On The X-Files, I got a note that we couldn’t have Mulder pointing a gun at his own head. He was forced by a guy with psychic powers to play Russian roulette. So I thought, “Well, that’s going to put a crimp in this scene.” Then I went home that night and watched a guy on Perry Mason put a gun to his head.

Cuse: We had a scene in Lost where a character was running a rat through a maze, and we got a note wondering if we could understand the rat’s point of?view. It’s a tossup between that and a note I got on a feature Iwrote—p.76:“We feel it’s too early for these characters to be barbecuing a goat.”

Lawrence: On Scrubs: “Could the patient that dies be a horrible person? Like a racist, maybe?”

The best joke I've had to cut is...

Kitsis & Horowitz: on Lost, in season 2, when Locke is trying to sweet talk Charlie into taking a shift pressing the button in the hatch he attempts to entice him by telling him there's a record player down there. We took it another step when, off Charlie's hesitancy, Locke presses: "Do you like Foghat, Charlie?" -- Damon [Lindelof] and Carlton [Cuse] thought it was too much. They may have been right, but just the thought of Terry O'Quinn saying the word "Foghat" still makes us laugh. Agree to disagree, DL/CC. Agree to disagree.

The show that should be remade is...

Michelle King (The Good Wife): Hogan's Heroes. There is no reason why a comedy about a World War II prisoner of war camp should have worked. It could have been a spectacularly unfunny, tasteless train wreck. And who doesn't want to tempt fate a second time?

Ryan: The Cosby Show. You'd need to find someone to replace Bill Cosby, which is very difficult, but I'd love to see a show about an African-American family that was being broadcast broadly and not just narrowly to the African-American audience.

Holland: The Sunday Night Mystery. Come on! It's pure cable: big stars, short seasons.  I mean, Columbo, McCLoud, and McMillan & Wife? That's hot!

Schur: Enlightened. But it shouldn't be remade, it should just be made-more.

Berlanti: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

If my show were on broadcast TV, it would be...

Gordon: Something other than the show we know as Homeland.  

Sutter: Boys of Anaheim.

If my show were on cable, it would be...

Plec: Naked.

Holland: Longer.

Robert King: Survivable. Doing 22 to 23 episodes a year [of The Good Wife] is pure madness. 

Additional reporting by Stacey Wilson, Michael O’Connell and Lesley Goldberg.