Tag Archives: Shonda Rhimes

Creative arms race

As Netflix and Amazon continue to flex their financial muscles, battle lines are being drawn between network, cable and digital channels in the fight for top writing talent.

Call it what you will – peak TV, the new golden age or even the first platinum era of television – there are few signs that the number of scripted dramas being produced around the world, and particularly in the US, is on the wane.

So as the transfer window for football leagues across Europe enters its final days, television is doing its best to keep up, with rival players fighting to sign up some of the small screen’s biggest talents in the hope of continuing to attract viewers.

If former Barcelona superstar Neymar is worth a world-record transfer fee of £200m (US$258m) to Paris Saint-Germain, how valuable is showrunner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes (pictured above) to Netflix?

However much Rhimes will earn, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos would doubtless say she is worth every cent after the showrunner agreed to bring her Shondaland production company to the US streaming giant in a multi-year deal that will see her create new series for the platform. Indeed, Sarandos described Rhimes as “one of the greatest storytellers in the history of television” after securing her signature.

Shondaland’s ABC series include long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy

And who is in any doubt over the credibility of that statement? This is, after all, a writer and producer who has her own night on US network ABC, with Shondaland series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder bringing in primetime audiences every Thursday.

But while becoming synonymous with ABC, which also previously aired Shondaland dramas The Catch and Still Star-Crossed, among others, Rhimes has slowly built up a relationship with Netflix. The streamer has global rights outside of the US to How To Get Away With Murder and also airs Grey’s and Scandal in many other territories.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that despite a long and successful partnership with the network, she has jumped ship with the promise of untold production budgets and the opportunity to tell any story she likes without having to jump through the hoops laid out by a broadcast network’s standards and practices department.

Robert Kirkman

“Her work is gripping, inventive, pulse-pounding, heart-stopping, taboo-breaking television at its best,” Sarandos continued, with all the hyperbole of a football club chairman announcing his club’s latest star signing, lacking only a Netflix T-shirt with Rhimes’ name across the back. “I’ve gotten the chance to know Shonda and she’s a true Netflixer at heart – she loves TV and films, she cares passionately about her work and she delivers for her audience.”

Rhimes hinted at the potential to break away from the more stringent rules at ABC when she said: “Ted provides a clear, fearless space for creators at Netflix. He understood what I was looking for – the opportunity to build a vibrant new storytelling home for writers with the unique creative freedom and instantaneous global reach provided by Netflix’s singular sense of innovation. The future of Shondaland at Netflix has limitless possibilities.”

While Grey’s, now entering its 14th season, and its ABC stablemates will not be moving with Rhimes, one wonders what new projects Shondaland will be pitching to the streamer.

In the case of The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, the dark content that comprises his comic book back catalogue and the output of his Skybound Entertainment prodco provides a clue of what is likely to come now that he too has agreed an online deal, with Amazon being the beneficiary in this case.

The Walking Dead is one of the biggest shows in the world, giving cable network AMC the kinds of ratings that broadcast networks would once have considered unremarkable. Kirkman is also behind Cinemax’s Outcast and is developing pre-apocalyptic drama Five Year, which is being prepared for multiple territories including Germany, India, Brazil and Italy.

“Robert is a gifted storyteller who shares our passion for elevated genre storytelling that pushes boundaries,” said Sharon Tal Yguado, head of event series at Amazon Studios, which is ramping up its focus on science-fiction, fantasy and horror series. “Robert and the team at Skybound are some of the most innovative and fearless creatives in the business. Together, we plan to explore immersive worlds and bold ideas for Prime Video.”

Kirkman is best known as the creator of AMC’s The Walking Dead

The digital tractor beam has also managed to pull in major movie talent, with Netflix revealing it had tapped the sought-after Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men) to produce western anthology series The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – a six-parter starring Tim Blake Nelson that will feature six different frontier tales featuring the eponymous character.

“We are streaming, motherfuckers,” said Joel and Ethan Coen, understatedly, in what was another coup for Netflix in the wake of Disney’s revelation that it would be pulling its movie titles from the SVoD player in 2019.

It’s a stark reality that the some of the biggest names in TV and film will head to Netflix and Amazon due to the promise of being given the freedom to let their creative juices flow. But what is left for the networks they leave behind? AMC will have to make do without the next series from Kirkman, while Matthew Weiner, who spent eight years at the channel with Mad Men, has also set up his next show – The Romanoffs – at Amazon. Cable rival FX, meanwhile, has been tying down its biggest creative assets, among them Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion) and Donald Glover (Atlanta), for fear of them also moving on.

Noah Hawley

But it is broadcast networks that will face the biggest challenge. Already trailing in the wake of their subscription-based competitors and unable to place the same bets on niche dramas as their cable and streaming rivals, the onus is on them to unearth new gems each year to keep their advertisers happy.

ABC Studios has been doing some transfer business of its own, reuniting with veteran showrunner Carlton Cuse (Jack Ryan, Bates Motel) who oversaw six seasons of Lost for the Alphanet Network. The hope will be that he can steer some new shows in its direction.

But like smaller football clubs facing off against their bigger rivals, television now has a new ecosystem, and it’s likely networks will have to get used to seeing their best and brightest talents picked off.

The demanding nature of network dramas means they should continue to be the biggest training ground for up-and-coming writing talent as writers rooms grapple with the demands of 22-episode seasons. That’s where the next great storytellers will emerge to take the places of Rhimes et al.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,

A stroll through Shondaland

Showrunner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes walks back through her career, from her start in films to launching Grey’s Anatomy and bringing through new writers at her production label Shondaland.

With four series currently on air, it’s no wonder Shonda Rhimes is regarded as one of the most powerful women in television.

The showrunner is most famous for Grey’s Anatomy, the ABC medical drama now in its 13th season, while political thriller Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, recently returned to the same network for its sixth outing.

Through her production company Shondaland, Rhimes (pictured above) is also an executive producer on other ABC dramas such as How to Get Away With Murder, The Catch and the forthcoming series Still Star-Crossed (working title).

Her other credits include Grey’s spin-off Private Practice, which ran for six seasons to 2013, Gilded Lilys, Off the Map, The Princess Diaries 2 and Britney Spears film Crossroads.

Named Mipcom’s Personality of the Year 2016, Rhimes walks DQ back through her career, from her beginning as a film screenwriter to her current home in television, revealing how she works with actors and what she has learned running her own production company.

Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Rhimes’ first produced project

There wasn’t a time when she didn’t consider herself a storyteller…
I was always a storyteller. I don’t think there was a time I thought of myself as anything but. I really was making up stories into a tape recorder and trying to get my mum to type them up before I could write myself. That’s sort of how we spent our time as kids, my sister and I.

She started off with aspirations to work in film…
Back then, I got out of film school and, at that point in time, film really was what was happening. Television wasn’t as big. Sitcoms were big – it was the Seinfeld era – but dramas weren’t, so movies really did feel like where it was at. I thought I would write movies, so I started out doing that. I sold spec scripts and things but my first produced project was Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which starred Halle Berry, for HBO.

But series such as 24 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer demonstrated the possibilities of television…
I started writing teen girl movies – Crossroads and The Princess Diaries 2. I enjoyed it, it was a living and it was great but there wasn’t a lot of character development going on in those movies. Things were more blockbustery. Then I had a baby – I adopted a baby – and I was at home a lot. What you realise when you’re at home that much is there’s a lot of television to be watched, and I started really watching it. I watched an entire season of 24 in 24 hours and I loved it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is where all the character development is happening, this is really interesting.’ I watched three seasons of Buffy in four days – babies never sleep,so you’re always awake and you’re watching. It was genius to me because that’s where you could really develop characters. I remember calling my agent saying I wanted to do TV. He sent me over to ABC Studios, which was then called Touchstone, and I had a meeting. They said, ‘You want to write TV, that sounds great, let’s try it out’ – and we tried it out.

Medical drama Grey’s Anatomy is now in its 13th season

Her first pilot didn’t get made – but her second was Grey’s Anatomy…
The first year I wrote a pilot about war correspondents. I wrote the script and I was really proud of it, it was a really great experience. It didn’t get made because it was about war correspondents and they were having a lot of fun, drinking and having a lot of sex while covering the war. We were at war so that did not feel very appropriate. The next year I remember asking very clearly what [then Disney president] Bob Iger wanted to see. They said he wanted a medical show – so I wrote a medical show about people who were very competitive and had a lot of sex and really enjoyed doing these things while doing surgery, and that was Grey’s Anatomy.

It was a big change going from movie writer to TV showrunner…
It’s a really interesting job. You go from being a movie writer where you’re at home in your pyjamas by yourself and you type one script a year – literally I would spend 300 days doing nothing, 40 days thinking, 15 days writing and one day celebrating the fact I’d written something – to suddenly you have to churn out a script every eight to nine days, you have 300 people working for you and you have to run a writers room and know what you’re doing. It was zero to 3,000 in an instant. And if you’re a very introverted person, if you’ve never held any other TV job before apart from possibly being an assistant, it’s pretty intense, so I learned a lot. I learned pretty much everything you could possibly learn as fast as possible.

Every season of Grey’s Anatomy is treated as a different show…
I always think of the fact that [lead character] Meredith Grey has been on a journey now for 13 seasons. It’s not the same show every year and even though there’s a procedural element every week, it is a character journey. I feel like I’ve been writing a novel for 13 years and Ellen Pompeo, who plays Meredith, and I have been locked together in this very interesting journey for a long time. I try to look at each season as if it’s a completely different show, not as if we’re going to tell the same story we told last season or we’re going to try to repeat the feeling we got the last season. Instead, we question where Meredith is now, how we make that story feel interesting and how we are going to tell it. On Grey’s, I know how each season is going to end. We start with that last episode in mind and try to get there.

Grey’s spin-off Private Practice

Life and death experiences are at the heart of any hospital drama…
On a bad day [in the medical profession], you actually kill someone. That is the point of the job and, on a good day, you save someone’s life. When you have a creative thought in that job, you are inventing a new medical procedure that’s going to change the way someone lives or dies, or breathes or moves. In our job, when I have a creative thought, it just changes the story. So there’s something really visceral about that job that I love. I also loved, especially in the beginning, the cut-throat nature of it for women. There really were about six women out of 20 for every medical class, which is what they say in the pilot. That was interesting to me, to be in a place where you were so overwhelmed by the men in the programme and thought to be less. That’s no longer true – there are a lot more women surgeons now – but at the time, that felt like a fascinating world to enter.

Private Practice was born when ABC wanted a Grey’s spin-off…
Private Practice came along because the president of the network at the time, Steve McPherson, said he wanted a spin-off – and I am nothing if not obliging. I’m a very straight-A student and I thought, ‘Well, OK, let’s make a spin-off.’ I started thinking about it and I really loved the character of Addison, who had come on to be just a guest star and ended up staying. It was something about that character and who she was and what she could be that felt interesting to me, and I wondered how we could make that into a show. What was great about Private Practice was it was very different to Grey’s. Grey’s was about these surgeons and how they felt about their patients. Private Practice was about the moral and ethical dilemmas of medicine, which is very different.

Rhimes initially didn’t want to take the meeting that led to Scandal…
When Scandal came about, I had two shows going at the time. I was exhausted and [Shondaland exec producer] Betsy Beers kept saying there was this woman I should meet – Washington fixer Judy Smith. I kept saying I’m not writing any more shows but that I would see her for 15 minutes. So Judy came in. She’d done everything from representing Monica Lewinsky to getting [Associate Justice of the Supreme Court] Clarence Thomas through his [confirmation] hearings. We sat down and started to talk. About four hours later, I looked up and thought, ‘I’m hungry.’ That’s the only reason I looked up. And I realised there was a show in there – there were hundreds of episodes in what this woman did for a living. It was fascinating. I was stuck because suddenly I had all these stories in my head and that was a show. It took about a year for me to write it and then I went away for four or five days and wrote the script, came back and turned it in. It’s been a lot of fun.

Scandal emerged from Rhimes’ conversation with Washington fixer Judy Smith

She has a particular role on Shondaland series that aren’t her own…
On How to Get Away With Murder and The Catch, when we’re not in the first season of a show, I haven’t created it and I’m not running it, my job is really just ‘dragon in a cage.’ I’m the dragon that Pete [Nowalk, showrunner] can release on HTGAWM when he feels like he needs some extra power behind him to talk to the studio or the network about something. In the first season of Grey’s, I used to call Mark Gordon, who is our non-writing exec producer, my dragon because he was the most powerful person on our show. So I say to Pete, ‘I’m your dragon.’ It’s the same thing for Allan Heinberg on The Catch, I try to do that for him as well. Creatively I’m there if he needs me but generally these are people who really know what they’re doing.

There’s a contract between Rhimes and her actors…
My contract with all the actors is that they have to say the words as they are written. We’re not going to discuss the text or the words, that’s just the way they are. However, while I’m not going to change the words, I’m also not going to go down to the stage to tell the actors how to say them or interpret them. What I love about that is you then get these performances back that inform whatever’s going to happen next.

The best part about Shondaland is finding new talent…
Stacey McKee, who was an assistant on the Grey’s pilot, is now the head writer. It’s wonderful to have people who you can bring up and give these opportunities to learn how to tell story the way Shondaland tells story, which is really through character and about character. I always say story is best told by determining the worst possible thing that could happen in this moment to the character, then making that happen and getting them out of it. That sort of storytelling you learn really well while working in Shondaland, so we hire our assistants and we know they have the potential to be writers and from there on up. That’s how we promote our writers, that’s how we train them.

Rhimes acts as the ‘dragon in the cage’ for How to Get Away With Murder

Rhimes has trained herself to write anywhere…
I can write anywhere and I trained myself that way, simply because when you have small children and when you travel and when there are so many shows in so many different lots and locations, you really have to figure out a way to write anywhere. So basically my Pavlovian reflex is as long as I have headphones on and music in my ears, I can write wherever I am. I don’t have to be in a specific place, the headphones are what transport me.

But she often acts out her characters as she does so…
There was a time when I didn’t enjoy writing but I really enjoy the process now. I enjoy getting to go sit in the world of the hospital, I enjoy getting to be Meredith Grey for a while. I enjoy getting to be Fitz or Liv or any of those characters. It’s fun. My assistants will tell you I say all the dialogue aloud while I’m writing, very passionately, and I act it all out. I don’t hear it because I’m wearing headphones and there’s music playing, but I do it and Betsy [Beers] makes fun of me. It’s very important to me to make sure it feels alright and acts out well, and I think it’s a little bit of playacting. It’s a lot of fun for me.

tagged in: , , , , , ,

The politics of TV writing

To mark Donald Trump’s shock victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election, we look at the writers behind some of the country’s political TV drama series.

westwingThe West Wing: NBC’s inside view of the White House ran from 1999 to 2006, crossing over with the tail end of Bill Clinton’s time in office and most of George W Bush’s two terms. The show starred Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet and was created by Aaron Sorkin. It won three Golden Globes, 26 Emmys and was ranked at number 10 in The Writers Guild Of America’s 101 Best-Written Series list. Sorkin wrote or co-wrote 85 of the first 88 episodes and then side-shifted into movies, with films including Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network and Moneyball. He came back to TV with The Newsroom and then wrote the movie screenplay for Steve Jobs.

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes.”
-Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe)

veepVeep: The Boston Globe calls HBO’s Veep “a show for our time, a portrait of the narcissism, malignant self-interest, banality, media self-pleasuring and congressional paralysis that seem to afflict American politics more than ever.” The show was brilliantly created by Armando Iannucci, who also blessed the world with British political satire The Thick of It. It is set in the office of Selina Meyer, a fictional VP who subsequently becomes president, played superbly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The show has been nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards every year, winning a number of them in high-profile categories. The fifth season of Veep ended in June 2016 and a sixth has been ordered.

“If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.”
-Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)

kevin-spacey-house-of-cards-netflixHouse of Cards: This acclaimed Netflix series is a US reimagining of a British series of the same name, which was written by Andrew Davies and Michael Dobbs (the author of the novel on which both are based). The first four seasons of the US version were written by Beau Willimon, who then handed over the reins to Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese (who are writing season five). Originally a theatre writer, Willimon’s crossover into screenwriting came with the George Clooney movie Ides of March in 2011. There’s no news yet on Willimon’s plans after House of Cards.

“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.”
-Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)

scandalScandal: This ABC drama, which debuted in 2012, sees Kerry Washington star as press aide Olivia Pope, a character reported to be based on George W Bush’s aide Judy Smith. Created by Shonda Rhimes, the show focuses on Pope’s crisis-management firm. A sixth season launches on January 19, 2017. Rhimes, of course, is a powerhouse who continues to enjoy success with series such as How To Get Away With Murder.

“You can’t change the choice you made. All you can do is not let it ruin you.”
-Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)

madamsecretaryMadam Secretary: This CBS series sees Tea Leoni play Dr Elizabeth McCord, a secretary of state trying to balance her job with her family life. Launched in 2014, it is now up to three seasons and is rating fairly well (eight to nine million per episode). The show was created by Barbara Hall, whose previous credits include Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia and Homeland (which she co-executive produced). She has also written a bunch of novels over the years. Apparently, Hillary Clinton is a fan and binge-watches with hubby Bill.

“I’m fully prepared to live with the consequences of my actions. What I couldn’t live with were the consequences of my inactions.”
-Dr Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni)

commander-in-chief-geena-davis-32520947-2291-1527Commander In Chief: This ABC show didn’t really take off but is worthy of a mention because it saw Geena Davis cast as the first female president of the US. Launched in 2005, it was created by Rod Lurie. However, he was replaced mid-run by Steven Bochco of NYPD Blue fame. This also didn’t work out, with Bochco replaced by Dee Johnson. Johnson wasn’t able to turn things round either – but it’s interesting to note she popped up as executive producer on The Good Wife and Boss, both of which feature below.

“So I say to the people of this nation: I am humbled by your greatness. I am humbled by the history being made here today, humbled by the notion that I am the first woman to hold this office. I’m humbled by the responsibilities that rest with me.”
-Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis).

desingatedDesignated Survivor: Kiefer Sutherland (24) stars as a low-ranking cabinet member who unexpectedly becomes US president after an attack wipes out the administration. The show is currently in season one and, after a strong start, is slipping in the ratings for ABC. Episode five attracted 5.9 million, compared to the 10 million who tuned in for launch. Distributed globally by Entertainment One International, the show was created by David Guggenheim (Safe House) and hails from The Mark Gordon Company (Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, Quantico, Criminal Minds).

“Capitol’s been attacked. Congress, cabinet… Eagle is gone. Sir, you are now the president of the United States. “
-Mike Ritter (LaMonica Garrett)

cbs_good_wife_702_clean_image_thumb_masterThe Good Wife: CBS’s hit show was a legal/political drama about a woman who returns to a career in law after her husband is involved in a political corruption scandal. Created by Robert and Michelle King, the show was a big awards winner, securing five Emmys during its run. The Kings also made political satire Braindead for CBS but the show was cancelled after one season.

“When the door you’ve been knocking at finally swings open, you don’t ask why. You run through.”
-Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)

jack-bobbyJack & Bobby: This was a WB Network series that ran for one season in 2004/2005. The show’s interesting premise centred on two brothers – one of whom would grow up to be president from 2041 to 2049. So it was a way of looking at their formative years, encouraging the audience to guess which one would turn out to have presidential credentials. The show was created by Greg Berlanti, Vanessa Taylor, Stecen Cohen and Brad Metzler. Berlanti, of course, has gone on to have a number of DC Comics-based superhero hits with The CW network.

“Grace used to say Jack and Bobby were like two sides of a coin. Without Bobby, Jack might never have learned compassion. Without Jack, Bobby might never have gained strength.”
-Future Courtney McCallister (Brenda Wehle)

boss-kelsey-grammerBoss: This Starz series starred Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago mayor struggling with dementia. Although it generated a good response from critics, low ratings meant it only lasted two seasons. Starz chief Chris Albrecht told The Hollywood Reporter that Boss “didn’t resonate enough with the two constituents that are important to us: our subscribers and our distributors.” The show was created by Farhad Safinia, an Iranian-American screenwriter whose other credits include the movie Apocalyto (written with Mel Gibson).

“Spectators stand on the sidelines shaking their heads, lacking the balls. You know what I mean? When Truman nuked Japan, when Lincoln sent boys out to kill their cousins… you think they gave a shit about their approval ratings? Fuck the spectators.”
-Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer)

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Black writing talent thriving in US

Black screenwriters are rarer than unicorns in European TV drama, but there is a growing number of talented black writers making their mark in US broadcasting and streaming. This week, we look at some of the best-known names and rising stars in the hope it might inspire the European business to embrace ethnic diversity. Take note of how many of this clever bunch also happen to be women – and how many black writers are involved in hits.

latoya-morganLaToya Morgan is in the news this week after signing a two-year deal with cable network AMC. Morgan has recently finished writing for the Revolutionary War drama Turn: Washington’s Spies and will now join the team on AMC’s Into the Badlands. She will also be given the chance to develop new TV projects. She also previously worked on the Shameless writing team at Showtime.

Courtney-Kemp-Agboh[2]Courtney Kemp Agboh recently told DQ that she started her career as a comedy writer and “sucked.” Fortunately, she reinvented herself as a drama writer and has gone on to have great success with Starz series Power, which tells the story of a club owner who also runs a huge drug network. Prior to her success with Power, Kemp Agboh worked on The Good Wife.

tylerperryTyler Perry is good at most things in the media business. As a TV writer, he is best known as the creator of The Haves and the Have Nots, one of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)’s top-performing dramas. Perry has an ongoing deal with OWN that has seen him produce a number of scripted series include If Loving You Is Wrong and Love Thy Neighbour.

kenyabarrisKenya Barris is best known as the creator of ABC’s acclaimed comedy Black-ish, which includes Michelle Obama among its fans. This funny series focuses on the challenges faced by a successful black ad agency exec as he tries to keep hold of his heritage while assimilating with the bourgeois, mainly white community he now lives in. A third season was ordered by ABC on March 3 this year.

Lee_Daniels_2013Lee Daniels shot to the front rank of screenwriters thanks to Fox hit Empire, co-created with Danny Strong. After the success of Empire, Daniels started working on another music-based scripted show with Tom Donaghy. Called Star, the series is about three girls who form a band, and charts their rise to the top. Like Empire, Star is for Fox, with which Daniels has an overall deal.

aishamuharrarAisha Muharrar, a Harvard graduate, made a name for herself as part of the team on NBC’s Parks & Recreation, having previously worked on comedy series Sit Down Shut Up. Muharrar is now reported to be working with Parks & Rec star Amy Poehler on a new comedy for NBC about a young agnostic woman who inherits a church and its strong-willed community.

john-ridleyJohn Ridley is best-known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, but he is now having a big impact in TV. Having set up the successful ABC series American Crime, he is in the process of bringing crime series Presence to the screen for ABC. He is also working on Guerrilla, a six-part limited series for Showtime and Sky Atlantic that stars Idris Elba and Freida Pinto.

Janine-Sherman-BarroisJanine Sherman Barrois was a key member of the team on CBS’s long-running crime drama Criminal Minds until she signed a deal with Warner Bros Television to create and develop new drama series. Prior to all this, she worked on The Jamie Foxx Show, The PJs and Third Watch. Sherman Barrois is also active advocate of increased industry diversity.

MishaGreenMisha Green has previously worked on Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy for FX, Syfy thriller Helix (cancelled last year after two seasons) and popular NBC drama Heroes. But her big breakthrough has come as creator (with Joe Pokaski) and executive producer of WGN’s Civil War drama Underground – which tells the story of slaves escaping to freedom via the underground railroad.

shondarhimesShonda Rhimes is one of the top drama showrunners in the business, but as well as being an amazing talent in her own right, she’s also bringing through new black talent such as Zoanne Clack (see below), Raamla Mohamed and Zahir McGhee. In terms of her own credentials, Rhimes has created or overseen several hits for ABC including Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.

zoanneclackZoanne Clack was a doctor before she got into the TV business. Her medical background helped her secure a role working on Grey’s Anatomy, though now she has more than demonstrated her creative skills as a writer and story editor. The most recent news about Clack was that she is working on a new series for ABC about a US Army Medevac team based in the Iraqi city of Baghdad.

justinsimien_1331505284_46Justin Simien is a rising star who made the acclaimed film Dear White People. Netflix recently ordered a 10-part adaptation of the film, to be produced by Lionsgate. Due to land on Netflix in 2017, the series version of Dear White People tells the story of a group of students of colour at a fictional Ivy League university dominated by white students.

ClementVirgoClement Virgo is actually Canadian, but gets in here because of his impact on the North American TV business. Following his adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, he is currently working with Hill again on The Illegal. This is the story of Keita Ali, a young marathon runner who flees his repressive native home and finds himself in a community of undocumented refugees living in a wealthy country. Virgo is also exec producing OWN’s Greenleaf.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Screenwriters lay down the law

Perry Mason, Petrocelli, JAG, LA Law, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, The Practice, Damages – no one does legal drama quite like the US. Here are 10 current and upcoming law-based series.

Suits focuses on slick New York City lawyers
Suits focuses on slick New York City lawyers

Suits Season six of Suits will launch in July. Created by Aaron Korsh, it focuses on slick city lawyer Harvey Specter and his talented protégé Mike Ross. Now up to 76 episodes, it’s a big hit for USA Network and gets an impressive 8.7 rating on IMDb. Part of the appeal of this New York-set show is its fast-paced humour, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given Korsh’s background on successful comedies such as Everybody Loves Raymond.

The Good Wife This show, created by Robert and Michelle King, has just come to an end after seven seasons on CBS. It tells the story of Alicia Florrick, who returns to work as a Chicago-based litigator after 13 years as a stay-at-home mother. There is still a lot of affection for the show, which explains why CBS is planning a spin-off that will only be available via subscription. The Kings are expected to co-write the first episode but will not run it.

Law & Order: SVU, is still going after 17 seasons
Law & Order: SVU, is still going after 17 seasons

Law & Order Created by Dick Wolf, this procedural juggernaut ran for 20 seasons until 2010 on NBC. The first half of every show focused on the investigation of a crime and the second half was the prosecution of the defendant in the New York courts. The show spawned four spin-offs including one set in LA. Another of these, Law & Order: SVU, is still running after 17 seasons. With more than 1,000 episodes in the archive, it’s no surprise that the franchise has also been a big seller in distribution and has been the basis of several adaptations in markets like the UK, France and Russia.

Chicago Justice Also from NBC and Dick Wolf, this show is the latest in a run of Chicago-based procedurals. It was soft launched during Chicago PD this month and is now being prepared for next season’s schedule. It’s early days but the basic line is that it will focus on lawyers in the Chicago area. The story for the Chicago PD launch of the show was created by Wolf but the teleplay was written by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Matt Olmstead, all of whom are exec producing the new show.

How-To-Get-Away-With-Murder-s2-ep13-1
How To Get Away With Murder is unusual in that it’s set in a university

How To Get Away With Murder An interesting take on the genre, this ABC show focuses on a law professor at Philadelphia University (played by Viola Davis) who gets caught up in a murder plot along with five of her students. Davis has received a lot of plaudits, as has series creator Peter Nowalk, part of the team at Shondaland. Nowalk learned his trade on other Shondaland series (Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) before taking the lead. The show has just completed season two and will be back next year.

Doubt Starring Katherine Heigl, this new CBS show will tell the story of a successful defence lawyer who starts to fall for her charismatic client, who may or may not be guilty of a brutal crime. The idea was actually developed for the season just gone but wasn’t picked up as a series. However, it has now been reworked and will feature in the network’s 2016/17 season. Tony Phelan, Joan Rater, Carl Beverly, Sarah Timberman and Adam Bernstein will serve as executive producers with the husband-and-wife team of Phelan and Rater sharing writing duties. Their credits include Madam Secretary, Grey’s Anatomy and Law & Order: Trial By Jury.

Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul offers insights into the US legal system

Better Call Saul It’s easy to forget this AMC series is a legal drama because of its quirky characterisation and links to Breaking Bad. It may not be a procedural in the Law & Order vein but it is a great insight into the machinations of US lawyers. Created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the New Mexico-set show is a strong performer and was recently renewed for a third season.

Conviction This new drama for ABC from the Mark Gordon Company (Quantico) will debut in 2016/17. The pilot was written by Liz Friedman, who has made a name for herself with Jessica Jones and Elementary. The show tells the story of Carter Morrison, the brilliant but rebellious daughter of a former president who is blackmailed into taking a job as the head of Los Angeles’ newly created Conviction Integrity Unit. She examines cases where there’s suspicion that the wrong person may have been convicted of a crime.

The Grinder was cancelled just a week ago
The Grinder was cancelled just a week ago

The Grinder This Fox show makes our list though it was actually cancelled last week after one season. Created by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, it’s a comedy drama about an actor (played by Rob Lowe) who returns to his home town in Idaho after his TV series (The Grinder) ends. Having played a lawyer on TV he thinks he is equipped to work with his family law firm – cue comedy. Unfortunately, the ratings for the show were low.

Shots Fired Fox hasn’t given up on the law after the failure of The Grinder, but it has gone for something more serious. For next season it has lined up Shots Fired, an event series that follows the aftermath of a racially charged shooting in a fictional town in North Carolina. Sanaa Lathan, Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss star. Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood are the series creators on this one. Their writing credits, respectively, include Before I Fall and Gun Hill. There are echoes in this project of the recent FX hit The People vs OJ Simpson, written by a team of six headed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

CBS in transgender breakthrough

Katherine Heigl, pictured in State of Affairs
Katherine Heigl, pictured in State of Affairs

CBS’s new legal drama Doubt will star Katherine Heigl. But it is the casting of transgender actress Laverne Cox in the show that is capturing the headlines.

US network CBS has given a series order to Doubt, a legal drama starring Katherine Heigl as a smart and successful defence lawyer who begins to get romantically involved with her client, who may or may not be guilty of a brutal murder.

The show is significant because it also includes transgender actress Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) in the cast. Assuming Cox’s role is one that doesn’t propagate the usual stereotypes that surround transgender acting talent, it will be a major breakthrough for the community, which usually finds it difficult to get meaningful roles outside niche cable channels and streaming services.

Doubt’s selection seems to have killed off another show’s chances of progressing to a full series – at least for now. Drew, which is a contemporary take on the Nancy Drew books, was in the running for a series commission from CBS until Doubt was chosen ahead of it. There is a chance it will pop up at another network, though, as CBS Studios is still shopping it around.

ABC's The Catch
The Catch has been given a second chance by ABC

Another interesting CBS story, as predicted by the US press, is that superhero series Supergirl is moving to The CW for its second season. In doing so, production will relocate to Vancouver from LA.

The move makes a lot of sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly, despite a very promising pilot episode, the show wasn’t really hitting the mark in the very exposed world of frontline network TV. Secondly, The CW (a 50/50 joint venture from CBS and Time Warner) already has a strong slate of superhero shows including Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, so it will be right at home.

The CBS announcements are part of a busy time of year for the US networks, which generally announce new series for their 2016/17 season in May. Another title in the news this week, for example, is NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption, a spin-off from the well-established James Spader series The Blacklist.

NBC is a big fan of brand extensions, having also recently announced the launch of legal series Chicago Justice to go alongside scheduling stalwarts Chicago Fire, Chicago Med and Chicago PD.

Castle has reached it final season
Castle has reached it final season

A bolder move by NBC is the decision to take Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan’s time travel series Timeless from pilot to series. Bizarrely, that means there are now three time travel shows coming through the US networks system, with ABC’s Time After Time and Fox’s Making History also greenlit as series (and remember, we’ve also just seen Hulu’s 11.22.63 air in the US).

Of course, for every new show there’s usually a cancellation to free up space in the schedule. This week’s unlucky victim on NBC is The Mysteries of Laura, axed after two moderate seasons. Other cancellations include ABC’s Castle, which is coming to an end after eight seasons on air. Create by Andrew W Marlowe, the show focused on a best-selling mystery novelist and an NYPD homicide detective who solved crimes together. When it started it secured an audience of nine to 10 million an episode, but as it comes to a close it is in the five to six million range.

Supergirl is moving from CBS to The CW
Supergirl is moving from CBS to The CW

ABC has also cancelled Nashville, Agent Carter and The Muppets. One other show it might have cancelled on the basis of its season one ratings was Shonda Rhimes’ The Catch, but instead it has decided to give the show a second chance in 2016/17.

This isn’t a massive surprise given Rhimes’ fabulous contribution to the network – but it has to go down as a bit of a risk. ABC’s faith in Rhimes has, however, been further underlined with the decision to order another new series called Still Star-Crossed, described as a sequel to Romeo & Juliet. Interestingly, ABC also had the option of going forward with a Shondaland comedy called Toast, but decided to call it quits on that one after a pilot.

Another project in the news this week is Paradime. This one is interesting because it has been optioned from a novel that hasn’t even got to publication yet, showing just how competitive the market for book rights has become. The novel, by Alan Glynn, is a psychological thriller about a man who returns to New York after a spell in Afghanistan and becomes obsessed with a businessman.

French thriller The Disappearance (Disparue)
French thriller The Disappearance (Disparue)

The show is being developed by ITV and One-Two Punch Productions, with Glenn Gordon Caron (Medium) onboard to write and direct the series. The appeal of the project is partly down to Glynn’s track record. His previous novel, The Dark Fields, was turned into the movie Limitless in 2011 and then a TV series.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the latest French thriller to be causing a stir is The Disappearance (Disparue), which has been compared to UK hits like Broadchurch and The Missing.

The show has been rating well on France 2, with an audience in excess of five million, and has now been picked up for broadcast by BBC4 in the UK. The Disappearance, written by Marie Deshaires and Catherine Touzet, is set in Lyon and tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who goes missing. As the police investigate the disappearance, a number of people close to the girl’s family are discovered to have secrets of their own that they wish to keep concealed.

Newen's Candice Renoir went to NPO2 in the Netherlands
Newen’s Candice Renoir went to NPO2 in the Netherlands

Although Disparue is a French scripted series, it actually owes a fair amount to other parts of Europe. It is, for example, based on a Spanish series called Desaparecida that first aired in 2007/08. And it was directed by Franco-Swedish filmmaker Charlotte Brändström, who has worked on Scandinavian crime series like Wallander, thus adding a bit of Nordic Noir to the show’s DNA.

Still in France, Newen Distribution has sold its detective series Candice Renoir to Dutch public broadcaster NPO2. The show, which is one of the top-rated dramas on France 2, has previously been sold to ZDFneo in Germany, CBC in Canada, RTP2 in Portugal, Kanal 11 in Estonia and Fox Crime Italy, among other broadcasters.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

End of season report card

How To Get Away With Murder has finished its second run but lost a lot of viewers
How To Get Away With Murder has finished its second run but lost a lot of viewers

At ABC, the story of 2015/16 is that established titles continued to thrive but new ones didn’t really catch on. The highest rating shows (in this order, based on 18-49 viewing) were Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, The Goldbergs, The Middle and How To Get Away With Murder. Of these, the newest is HTGAWM, which has just ended its second season. Grey’s Anatomy, by contrast, has just completed its 12th season.

This year’s figures show the importance of producer Shonda Rhimes to the network, since three of these titles come from her stable. But they also suggest that ABC cannot be complacent on this front.

HTGAWM has seen its audience fall from around 14 million when it launched two years ago to five million at the end of the current run. That suggests it will need to start turning things around to survive beyond season three. Similarly, Rhimes’ latest show The Catch has failed to deliver for ABC, ranking 17th among all scripted titles at time of writing, but ABC saw enough promise to renew it for a second season nonetheless.

Quantico did enough to secure a renewal but has seen its audience decline
Quantico did enough to secure a renewal but has seen its audience decline

Of the new shows that came into the ABC schedule last autumn, the one that made the most noise was Quantico. The show started well and secured a renewal but has seen its audience slide across the season. Most worryingly for ABC there was no last-episode uplift – a common trait with dramas as audiences tune in to see how things resolve. This doesn’t augur well for the second season, which will kick off without much momentum. The biggest flops of the year were Wicked City and Of Kings & Prophets (which should make networks shy of biblical stories for a while).

Over at NBC, the top six (18-49s) were Blindspot, Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago PD and Superstore. Four of these are from Dick Wolf, NBC’s equivalent of ABC’s Rhimes.

Wolf’s success aside, Blindspot is undoubtedly NBC’s big success story this year. While it didn’t achieve the highest absolute ratings on the channel, it did come out number one among 18-49s. True, ratings for the back half of the series are some way down on the show’s strong debut — but they have stayed pretty consistent.

The Blacklist looks set to put in a strong fourth season
The Blacklist looks set for a strong fourth season

The Blacklist didn’t make the top six but it would have been if we were looking at total viewers. The show, starring James Spader, is now a scheduling stalwart having finished three seasons and can be relied on to have a solid fourth season too. Grimm only ranked as the 14th best show but still secured a sixth-season renewal.

Of the network’s other new shows, Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shades of Blue had a decent first year, with its audience stabilising and starting to rise in the second half of the season. Disappointments included Game of Silence, The Player and Truth Be Told.

The ratings on CBS are significantly higher than those on ABC and NBC, when viewed in totality. The top six in the 2015/16 season were The Big Bang Theory, NCIS (both juggernauts), Life in Pieces, Criminal Minds, Scorpion and NCIS: New Orleans, although it’s worth noting that numbers seven to 10 (Mom, Supergirl, 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly) would have fared well on the other networks.

Stability has been key to CBS’s success, with The Big Bang Theory, NCIS and Criminal Minds all extremely long-running series. The latter two have also spawned successful spin-offs in the shape of NCIS: New Orleans, NCIS: LA and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.

Criminal Minds remains one of CBS's leading shows
Criminal Minds remains one of CBS’s leading shows

In terms of new shows, the big success of the year has been the new comedy Life in Pieces. It benefited from being scheduled after The Big Bang Theory — but even so its performance has been excellent. So it’s no surprising that, at time of writing, it has just been renewed for a second season by CBS.

Another show that tends to go under the radar internationally but is doing a great job for CBS is Scorpion, which just completed season two. The show, which is about a group of computer experts who tackle high-tech threats to the US, hasn’t received especially good reviews. But its ratings are as good as most dramas on the US networks, which explains why it has also been renewed.

CBS’s new dramas have been more problematic. Limitless started off well but has drifted badly in the second half of its first season. Within the next few days it could find itself axed, a situation that would have been unthinkable back in the autumn. Also struggling is another movie spin-off, Rush Hour, which is right at the bottom end of the CBS ratings this season.

Limitless was unable to maintain its momentum on CBS
Limitless was unable to maintain its momentum

Supergirl also ran out of steam in the second half of its debut run, but has been renewed for a second season as part of a deal that sees the show move to The CW, where it will probably fit in nicely alongside top-rating shows like The Flash and Arrow.

And then there is Fox, whose top six scripted shows in terms of 18-49s are Empire, The X-Files, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Lucifer and Gotham. The success of Empire has been well documented while the revival of The X-Files proved to be a good idea. Lucifer is one one of the top performing new series although, like many of its contemporaries, it saw a significant decline in its later episodes. However, it still managed to secure itself a renewal from Fox.

Also worth mentioning is Rosewood. Although the show doesn’t make the top six in terms of 18-49 ratings, its headline audience of 4.88 million means it is actually the third highest show in terms of total viewers. Echoing Life in Pieces, the show was boosted by airing after Empire but it has held up pretty well. After a mid-season slump it is bouncing back and has secured a renewal.

Empire has remained an established hit for Fox
Empire has remained an established hit for Fox

So now we move into Upfronts season, the time of the year when the networks announce new programmes.

The volume of renewals means there aren’t many berths available for new shows. But the networks should keep one thing in mind: with series like Empire, Rosewood, Lucifer, Blindspot, The Goldbergs, Life in Pieces and Scorpion doing well, maybe they should focus more on original ideas than movie-to-TV extensions, which aren’t doing especially well.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Anthologies continue Amazing advance

The original Amazing Stories series was created by Steven Spielberg
The original Amazing Stories series was created by Steven Spielberg

In DQ’s recent look at the growing number of drama anthology series being launched, we observed how most of these shows are season-to-season anthologies like True Detective, American Horror Story and Fargo.

This contrasts with the classic series of the 1950s to 1980s, which were episode-to-episode anthologies, such as The Twilight Zone.

However, it now seems there is a mini-revival in the latter group. After Netflix’s decision to support Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller is planning a reboot of Amazing Stories, an episodic anthology that ran from 1985 to 1987 on NBC in the US.

In fact, Fuller’s plan to resurrect Amazing Stories sits at the confluence of three trends. Not only is it an anthology, but it is a reboot of a 1980s TV series – another big development in 2015 (see Fantasy Island, MacGyver and more). And indirectly it is also a comic book-based series, because the original 1980s series was based on iconic science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories.

Limitless has been given a full season order
Limitless has been given a full season order

Fuller will executive produce and write a pilot script for the show, which will tell fantastic, strange and supernatural stories. Universal Television will produce, with Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank serving as executive producers alongside Fuller.

The original version of Amazing Stories was created and executive produced by Steven Spielberg for NBC. It earned 12 Emmy nominations and received five awards, but clearly didn’t rate well enough for NBC. It was based around a 30-minute format, so it will be fascinating to see if Fuller sticks to this or, more likely, creates hour-long stories. It will also be interesting to see how the tone of the series compares to another sci-fi anthology coming down the pipe: Syfy’s Channel Zero.

The benefits of episodic anthology dramas are pretty clear. They allow broadcasters to present a recognisable brand while giving creatives the opportunity to conjure up an array of distinct stories. Audiences can tune in to any episode without having to worry about what happened the previous week, while high-profile actors can get involved without worrying about having to make heavy filming commitments.

The latter point is also true for actors who guest star in crime procedurals, of course, but the problem with these is that procedural guest stars are invariably villains.

There’s one other benefit worth noting about episodic anthologies that is actually an advantage over season-to-season anthologies. This is the possibility of using episodes of the show as pilots for longer projects.

Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar in the Cruel Intentions film
Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar in the Cruel Intentions film

The original Amazing Stories, for example, gave birth to Family Dog, an idea that was converted into a series for CBS six years later. Although Family Dog only ran for 10 episodes, it’s an example of how the main broadcast networks might beat subscription VoD platform Amazon, which orders batches of pilots at once before putting them online, at its own game.

Still in the US, this is the time of year when the big four broadcast networks start to get a clear idea of which new shows are working and which aren’t. They then act in one of two ways. More episodes of the successful shows are usually ordered, while unsuccessful series are either axed immediately or see their initial episode order reduced (a delayed death).

This week, CBS’s Limitless was awarded an additional nine episodes, meaning it has now been given what is called ‘full season order’ of 22 episodes. Other new shows that have been rewarded with a full season order include NBC’s Blindspot, Fox’s Rosewood and ABC’s Quantico and Dr Ken.

Heading the other way, however, are NBC’s The Player and ABC’s Blood & Oil, both of which have seen their original 13-episode runs cut. Previously, Fox’s Minority Report was also cut back from 13.

Belgian series The Divine Monster is being adapted for the US
Belgian series The Divine Monster is being adapted for the US

The quest for ideas with some kind of track record remains the dominant theme in the US TV drama business. For example, NBC is planning a small-screen version of Cruel Intentions, the 1999 movie starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Philippe and Reese Witherspoon. The film itself was a modern retelling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, an 18th century French novel about amorality among the French aristocracy. The novel has repeatedly been adapted for cinema and TV – usually as a true-to-period drama.

The best-known movie version saw John Malkovich play opposite Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer, though British actor Rupert Everett appeared in a French miniseries version for TF1 that transported the story into a 1960s setting.

Elsewhere, Ugly Betty creator Silvio Horta has joined forces with Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Prison Break, Red Dragon, Horrible Bosses) to adapt Belgian series The Divine Monster for the US. Based on the trilogy of novels by Tom Lanoye, the Eyeworks-produced original (aka Het Goddelijke Monster) aired on VRT’s flagship channel Een in 2011.

Shondaland is making Still Star-Crossed into a TV series
Shondaland is making Still Star-Crossed into a TV series

In its original form, the show was a 10-part series about the downfall of a powerful family of European entrepreneurs and politicians at the end of the 20th century. In Horta’s version the action transfers to Miami and explores the collapse of a corrupt real-estate empire.

Also in the news this week is Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland, which is working on an adaptation of the romantic novel Still Star-Crossed by Melinda Taub. The story picks up immediately after the death of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and involves another love story played out against the backdrop of Capulet/Montague feuding.

Destined for ABC, the young-adult show represents a new direction for Shondaland, which is best known for more mature dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. The new series will be written by Heather Mitchell, who has worked on both of the aforementioned programmes.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A journey through ShondaLand

How to Get Away with Murder star Viola Davis
How to Get Away with Murder star Viola Davis, who spoke on the panel in Cannes

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is something of a surprise package. While it’s aimed primarily at executives in the advertising business, its conference programme attracts some of the biggest names in film, TV and music.

This year, for example, it managed to reel in the likes of Pharrell Williams, David Guetta, Marilyn Manson, Richard Curtis, Kenneth Branagh, Freida Pinto, Norman Reedus and Chiwetel Ejiofor, to name just a few.

From a Writers Room perspective, one of the most interesting conference sessions was hosted by McCann Worldgroup and the Paley Centre for Media. Under the heading ‘Is creativity the only way to survive and thrive today?’ they brought together three top talents closely associated with ShondaLand, the Shonda Rhimes-led production company that makes hit shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) – all for US network ABC.

It was also behind Private Practice, a Grey’s spin-off that ran for six years.

One of the three contributors was producer Betsy Beers, who has been on board the ShondaLand express train since its early days. Beers, who has exec produced all of the above shows, recalled how, back in the middle of the last decade, both she and Rhimes were in the movie business.

“When we met, we had never made TV,” she said. “Shonda was a successful movie writer but I sucked at making movies. Everything I did bombed. So when we started talking about making TV, I was really excited. I’d always been a closet TV fan, which was not something you could admit around movie people.”

Grey's Anatomy is poised for a 12th season
Grey’s Anatomy is poised for a 12th season

Finding they shared a similar sensibility, Rhimes and Beers decided to make a show about female war correspondents. “We created a pilot, but were thinking in movie budget terms,” said Beers. “So we came up with something that would have had a US$30m budget. Of course, that didn’t work out. But we still wanted to work together so we hit on the idea of a medical drama.”

‘Medical drama’ hardly sounds like the most original of premises, but in the hands of creative powerhouse Rhimes it became Grey’s Anatomy, one of the most travelled shows in the world.

Beers continued: “Back then, a lot of the female characters on TV didn’t look or sound like us. So what we set out to do was make a show about messy, confused, twisty women. In its first year it was the last show to get picked up as a pilot. And then it was the last show to go to series. But the audience liked the show so we survived.”

Beers said ABC became increasingly supportive of the show, which has now run for 11 seasons (with a 12th on the way). She admitted there were some people in the business that found it sexually aggressive and, therefore, offensive “but our response was ‘this is what the show is, so live with it.’”

ShondaLand’s shows all have the ballsy quality displayed by Grey’s Anatomy. Pete Nowalk, the creator of HTGAWM, came into the company as a writer on Grey’s Anatomy. Also at the Cannes Lions session with Beers, he said: “You can’t be generic anymore. There are so many TV shows out there that you have to really raise your game. With my work, I’m always looking at how to put ordinary people in extreme situations.”

Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice
Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Private Practice

While this approach has built a big fanbase, it inevitably exposes ShondaLand shows to the risk of criticism. Nowalk, who has grown up in ShondaLand, working on Grey’s, Scandal and HTGAWM, said his way of dealing with this is to write “in a bubble. Constructive criticism makes you better and smarter, I think. But when I’m writing new episodes I keep it small — just me and my computer.”

Beers said her ability to cope with adverse criticism is helped by the fact “that I border on being a luddite. But we’ve also created a safe environment at work, where we can express our fears and passions. I also think you need to really love what you are doing (to deal with criticism). We really love the shows we make.”

One of the big successes of HTGAWM (which debuted in 2014 to strong audiences and positive reviews) was the casting of actress Viola Davis in the lead role as Annalise Keating. Nowalk recalled applauding Davis at the first read-through of his script “because Viola really brought my words to life.”

Davis, who was the third participant in the Cannes Lions session, talked about the importance of authenticity in the way she handles the part. She said: “The role called for a messy, mysterious, sexy woman. I said ‘yes,’ then thought to myself, ‘I don’t look like that.’ But I had an ‘a-ha’ moment. So what if I didn’t fit the mould? I just dared to be a woman who fit those adjectives and in doing so was able to release my creativity. Typecasting is kryptonite to actors, so all I want to do is offer my interpretation of a real woman.”

Davis’s approach has helped make HTGAWM stand out. There was one particularly iconic scene in the fourth episode of season one where it was revealed that her character Annalise was wearing a wig and eyelash extensions.

Scandal is among the shows Pete Nowalk has worked on for ShondaLand
Scandal is among the shows Pete Nowalk has worked on for ShondaLand

By removing them on screen, Davis made a statement about how women are represented on TV. She said: “I’ve never seen a woman like me on TV. It’s important to bring that up. You have to give yourself permission to have a voice.”

Beers said this gradual revelation of the vulnerabilitiesand contradictions of character is one of the beauties of working in serialised TV: “You have time to roll a character out.”

To take advantage, however, you need to keep pushing at the uncomfortable boundaries of the character, added Davis. “For actors, TV’s trap is that you can create a personality, not a person. The pursuit of likeability can be dangerous because you end up looking for gimmicks. You need to keep characters complex.”

Nowalk said this is what he tries to do from a writing perspective, by making sure characters don’t always follow the expected path, because it is the contradictions that come closest to truth.

All three panellists were asked what they feared most. Davis admitted to being “terrified not to have the courage to be authentic,” while Nowalk said: “I’m always terrified by the next episode – right now, the debut episode of season two.”

As for Beers, it was “the fear that I will stop growing, that I will start repeating myself. You have to learn, listen and be curious if you want to keep growing.”

Right now, it seems the ShondaLand team is doing a good job of staying curious.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,

The main event

ABC came out top in the US freshman drama stakes last year thanks to a single showrunner and some clever marketing. Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group executive VP of drama development, explains how the network is ‘eventizing’ its schedule.

To have three shows on air on a major US broadcaster is rare. To have them all on simultaneously, filling primetime back to back on one night of the week, is unprecedented.

This was the accolade ABC handed showrunner Shonda Rhimes for its latest fall season, scheduling Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and freshman legal drama How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM) one after the other on Thursday nights at 20.00, 21.00 and 22.00 respectively.

Grey's Anatomy
Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s, on its eleventh season, and Scandal, moving into its fourth, had already proven their credentials and so HTGAWM – starring Viola Davis as a maverick law professor who, together with her students, becomes embroiled in a murder plot – was a fairly solid bet. Creator Peter Nowalk was a Rhimes protégé who cut his teeth as a scribe on Grey’s and Scandal, but with ABC trailing in the network stakes it couldn’t count on pedigree alone.

“There’s no more exciting time than now to be in television, particularly in drama, because there are so many different places to explore that content,” says Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group’s executive VP of drama development, movies and miniseries.

“The flip side, as a broadcaster, is it’s an incredibly challenging time. It used to be the case that all we had to do was look over our shoulder at basic cable, then premium cable. But now there’s everything else – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon – the whole nine yards.

“For us, as an ad-supported broadcast network, it is still so much about that linear same-day rating. So the question is always how do we get people in their seats, how do we get them watching, how do we make it feel like a priority?”

The solution was #TGIT – Thank God It’s Thursday – a scheduling strategy and marketing campaign based on the pioneering TGIF comedy block ABC introduced on Fridays in 1989, brought up to date with a Twitter hashtag.

Rhimes’ significant social media following and use of it to engage with her own fans, as well as active encouragement of the cast to do the same, was a significant part of the equation.

“Shonda Rhimes was one of the people who early on was very good about connecting with the fans, relating to them, and giving them the feeling that they were getting to peak behind the curtain,” Dungey says.

“We’ve done a lot of research, particularly into Millennials and the way they consume TV and watch content, and usually they’re working two or more screens at the same time. The idea of live-tweeting, which is something Shonda started doing with the Scandal cast and has now spun over to both Grey’s and HTGAWM, is that they will be tweeting at the same time that the show is airing. It makes the audience feel like they’re in dialogue with the cast.”

The success of what Rhimes had been doing with Twitter for Scandal was a contributing factor in ABC’s decision to contrive #TGIT. “As we were investigating what Scandal’s impact had been on the social media scene over the past couple of seasons, we had a real feeling we would be able to make this night feel like an event of television that couldn’t be missed,” Dungey says. “And we were right.”

How To Get Away With Murder
How To Get Away With Murder

HTGAWM delivered ABC its greatest drama success story of the 2014 US fall season. Indeed, it helped the network win the primetime ratings battle against its rivals in the 18-49 demographic every Thursday night in November – the first time it’s achieved such a feat in the 23 years since Nielsen records began.

The debut episode on September 25 proved the biggest hit of the US freshman drama crop, with 14.3 million viewers and a 3.9 rating, adding a record six million viewers on DVR playback in the subsequent three days, lifting it to a 5.8 rating.

These numbers pushed ABC towards its best Thursday night in five years, and the first nine episodes that comprised the fall instalment concluded on November 20 with another winner – 9.8 million viewers and a 3.1 rating, a 0.2 lift on the prior episode.

Tweets regarding the three shows numbered 5.3 million during the fall – more than those relating to NBC, Fox and CBS programmes combined – Dungey claims.

“It’s amazing how people are invested in those programmes and want to watch them live because they want to discuss them with their friends and be part of the conversation,” Dungey says. “Shonda has a way of telling stories where she likes to ‘turn over cards’ really quickly and you don’t want to miss any of those cards being turned over.”

Such storytelling has clearly been a gift to ABC, and the Rhimes triumvirate provided the perfect vehicle for the network to try out a wider initiative designed to pull in viewers. “We came up with a little word we like to call ‘eventize,’” Dungey explains. “That’s our in-house coin for making our show feel like a priority, a destination, trying to encourage the audience to watch live and same day.”

#TGIF was all about ‘eventizing’ through branding and social media, but ABC employs a three-pronged approach to the idea.

“Eventizing with talent” is about finding a calibre of artist, writer or director who wouldn’t usually get involved in the broadcast space, Dungey says. For example, Viola Davis, whose movie credits include Traffic, Solaris and Doubt, would only agree to be part of HTGAWM if the season went on for no more than 15 episodes per year, rather than the 22 or more episodes a network would hope for from a successful title.

The series that will replace HTGAWM in March this year is American Crime, created by John Ridley, who penned 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar-winning screenplay. It’s his first work in television. An anthology “trial of the century show” in which one case unfolds over the course of one season, “it felt for him like he could take that concept and unspool it over a certain number of episodes.”

Ridley wrote and directed the pilot as well as three other episodes of ABC’s planned 11 instalments –and with such a hot name on board, it was possible to assemble a cast including Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton.

As well as increasingly employing the split-season model that has proven so successful in cable (ABC saved the last six episodes of HTGAWM for a January 29 return through to a two-hour finale on February 26), the network is doing shorter runs. It calls this “eventizing with concept.”

“What we’re doing here is sort of the same thing HBO has done with True Detective,” says Dungey, citing Nic Pizzolatto’s critically acclaimed eight-episode crime drama, the first season of which aired a year ago starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and had some of Hollywood’s biggest names clambering for leads in the second.

Secrets and Lies
Secrets and Lies

ABC is billing Secrets & Lies, its other new crime drama debuting in March, as a single-season, 10-episode show, throughout the course of which the crime will be solved. “The idea is to market it in such a way that you can’t miss a single episode because you want to be there for the big reveal,” says the ABC exec.

It’s an adaptation of an Australian series of the same name that comprised only six instalments but was “a little short” for the US network’s purposes.

“The other thing that enabled us to do, again like what HBO did with True Detective, was to get a cast who would not normally sign on to an American broadcast show because they don’t want to be tied down to the long contracts we usually ask of actors,” says Dungey, returning to the idea of eventizing talent.

Ryan Phillippe (Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, Damages) signed on to play the lead male role – a man accused of a killing a boy – and Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia) joined as the detective. “She did sign a long contract, so if the show succeeds we’ll be able to have her return and investigate a new case over 10 episodes for a following season,” Dungey says of Lewis.

Are such series set to become a more regular feature of the ABC schedule moving forwards? “It’s challenging because we’re so used to being on a 22-episode cycle and it is much more common in cable to have a shorter-run, close-ended type of show. But in terms of trying to lure the appropriate calibre of talent, we feel we have to be competitive in that way and a lot of the actors and actresses you really want to help drive your content will only sign on for 10 or 13,” Dungey explains.

While it’s a welcome development that so much movie talent is now prepared to work in TV, she concedes that the newer, more buzz-worthy distribution outlets are often where they wish to be seen. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ll be going through casting or calling an agent about an actor and they say, ‘No, they’re Netflix only.’”

Dungey says ABC’s calling card is that it is prepared to do many more shows – but surely its biggest calling card right now is Shonda Rhimes, who is clearly able to turn the cards more effectively than anyone.

tagged in: , , , , , ,