It's no secret to say character-driven dramas and family comedies have hit a rough patch on network television in recent years. From the rise of edgy cable alternatives to the continued dominance of procedurals in the ratings, making a drama series that's just about a character's life on network television is a tall order as of late. And for comedies it's even more challenging: the landscape for the format in general - on any outlet - continues to shrink. In a pair of luncheon conversations at NATPE's LATV Fest, two men who have firsthand knowledge of the aforementioned issues - "Brothers & Sisters" executive producer Greg Berlanti and "Modern Family" co-creator Steve Levitan - shared their thoughts on the challenges ahead for their respective genres.
"I will preface the whole thing by saying I'm just sort of one person with an opinion so I'd hate to sort of say network TV is this or that, it's just my impression but definitely writing character-driven shows on network TV has gotten a lot more difficult and challenging in the age of cable," Berlanti offered as his thesis. "And I say that even more as a viewer than somebody who creates or participates in the creation of network television because really what you're doing is, what you're dramatizing is a character's life... it's not a cop drama, it's not a legal drama, it's actually a drama or a dramedy about a character's life.
On cable you can get a lot more introspective, there's not as many commercial breaks, the script for an hour is often times longer and the kinds of things that they can do and say are a wider birth of what they can play with. Well the first shows [that are] really going to get hit, I think, are the 10 o'clock shows. Because 10 years ago without the number of cable shows that existed people could look to 10 o'clock for a slightly more adult programming. And now you get that from the number of cable shows... so what a 10 o'clock show is on a network becomes a lot more different. Then that [builds] the pressure of what are network shows in the age of cable."
So if given free reign in terms of content, would being able to say a few extra four-letter words or show some skin like its cable brethren really free producers up to tell more compelling stories? "For me it sort of starts with the commercial breaks," he admits. "The fact that you have, on ABC we do a six act structure, and again, we're not ending an act with somebody getting shot... there's not a crisis to create that break so suddenly every eight minutes, nine minutes you're having something happen to your characters.
That also affects I think a lot of times the need for sort of the desire on the part of the network to... take this thing, take this product and make it as easy to watch as possible so people don't change the dial. And again, I think the shows that it hits first, the kind of storytelling that really gets hurt is the character stuff. Because again, we don't have another engine to go to. 'Eli [Stone]' this last year was really the first show [where I was] servicing law stories a large percentage of the time. That's a different animal."
In terms of specifics, he recounted that "the other day [in the room] we were talking about one of the characters on "Brothers & Sisters" this year is going to go through emotional turmoil and we were just talking about prescription medications and does this character have bipolar disorder and the way you'll tell that story on a network television versus the way you'll tell that story on cable, it's not as revolutionary."
And while Berlanti and his company, Berlanti Television, have a project in development at Lifetime, he stops short of saying he'd retreat to cable exclusively: "Again this is just me personally... I always start from what is it about this that appeals to me personally that makes me want to work really hard on it and put everything else I'm doing in my life aside to fix this episode that day. I just listen for, when I hear stories or pitches, I initially just listen for is it something that I'm truly interested in. And then beyond that it becomes about knowing what is the network, where does the network feel their needs are, where do they feel like their own landscape is going. I do think there's a 'feature'-fication of network television that's happening so it would be irresponsible to not be mindful of that, to not think about it in those terms."
In terms of where that "feature"-fication comes from, Berlanti points to a previous development in the industry: "You hear a lot of people talk about how similar it is to sort of the advent of the studio system in features when the '80s and the blockbusters came along and suddenly independent film is where you would make a film like "Kramer vs. Kramer" whereas 10 years before they would have made that in the studio system... [because] the studios are more and more [about] tentpoles and franchises. My guess is that networks sort of talk about shows in the same way because the one thing they can do that cable can't do is spend a lot of money and pour in a lot of money so they can have a larger ensemble and they can really eventize these things, they can make it feel special."
Berlanti also offered up his own expectations moving forward: "They're getting more strategic about how and where they spend their money... I think you'll see more and more networks experimenting with how can we shoot a show that is as inexpensively shot as, but looks still as good as something [like] 'Laguna Beach.' You know what I mean? Like at the time when it premiered it had a look, it had a style on MTV that looked so expensive. Some of that is the advent of the technology of shooting stuff digitally. I think more than half the pilots this year are all being shot digitally. That brings costs way down. But there'll still be episodes where it's a 10 or an 11-day or a 12-day shoot. It's interesting [to hear] certain cable shows being shot that way but the budget for 'Sopranos' at its height was a lot larger than the budget for 'Dirty Sexy Money' or 'Brothers & Sisters' at its height... So it's true and it's not true. But I do think you'll see networks get more experimental and more cable-like in terms of, alright, maybe you'll just do a 12-episode series [that's] a special run or something like that and it's a limited cost, and let's break the model."
Click here to read Part 2 of this feature.