How did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part One)

When was the last time anyone you know spoke of television as “a vast wasteland”? Certainly, television today is as vast as ever was, actually probably 100 times more so, but there more outstanding television series available to us each week can we possibly could watch.

Some are describing the current moment is the era of peak television or the age of too much great TV. A complex set of factors have contributed to wave after wave of creative experimentation, often involving idiosyncratic personalities, genre bending narrative strategies, and appeals to niche audiences. First premium cable and then streaming platforms challenged the dominance of broadcast and basic cable, pushing innovation outward even to the most conservative players. The challenge has become directing attention and ensuring access to all of the innovative new content. 

Neil Landau’s TV Outside the Box offers an essential guide to the opportunities and risks facing  the creative industry at the current moment. Longtime industry insider as well as a professor at the UCLA Cinema School, Landau seemingly had access to anyone and everyone he wanted to talk to. The book includes cogent, concise, lively and thoughtful interviews with network executives and show runners alike. Right now, the book provides the back story we need to understand what’s happening with this expansive medium and in the future, the book will be time capsule that preserves a transitional moment in television history. What I would give to have an equally vivid snapshot of television’s innovators in the 1950s or 1980s.

I was lucky enough to have lunch with Landau in the fall and was immediately taken by the depth of his knowledge and passion for television as a medium. We spent the entire meal tossing off one new title after another as if playing Stump the Band. This guy knows everyone, watches everything. He understands the contours of this changing landscape like no one else I have ever met. The interview that follows will give you some simple taste of his insights into contemporary television culture.

Landau is working with UCLA’s Denise man and I plan for the next Transforming Hollywood event, coming up in early May. Watch here for further details coming soon.

You seem to have been able to interview all of the key players reshaping television at the current moment. Can you provide us some sense of the scope of different players represented in the book? What can you share of the process of getting all of these folks to speak with you?

I began my research more than 3 years ago (in 2014).  I could see how the TV business was changing the way the music industry changed, first with Napster and then, of course, iTunes.  I also saw parallel “on demand” tracks in transportation (Uber) and accommodations (AirBNB) and a little voice in me said: jump on this and track where this is going to transform the TV landscape.  Honestly, I began my research with the naive idea that I was simply covering the new platinum age of great TV series.  I started out with “beginner’s mind” and decided not to draw any conclusions until I went out into the field to gather data and multiple perspectives.  I knew I wanted to interview not only trailblazing showrunners (Jenji Kohan, Beau Willimon, Jill Soloway), but also network/studio executives (Ted Sarandos, Roy Price, Andy Kaplan) and a few icons (Norman Lear, Tom Fontana, Elliot Webb) to give the whole thing a historical perspective.
What I quickly came to realize was that this project was going to be much bigger than what I’d originally pitched to my publisher.  I could foresee a Digitial Television Revolution.  Being that TV Outside the Box (TVOTB) was my 4th book, along with my pedigree as co-director of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting Program and the book’s sponsorship by NATPE (National Association of Television Programming Executives), these interviews were relatively easy for me to secure (despite the scheduling and resheduling of several incredibly busy people).
I’d first met one of my idols, Norman Lear, at the NATPE conference in Miami in 2014, and he immediately agreed to participate.  Beau Willimon was a friend of a friend, and we became fast friends. Beau strongly encouraged me to include the legacy perspective and introduced me to Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide Life on the Streets, Borgia); Oz was HBO’s very first scripted one-hour drama series. Tom Fontana’s influence over TV content cannot be overstated. He’s the original trailblazer (along with Steven Bochco and Norman Lear).
The toughest interview for me to secure was Jenji Kohan whose a total workhorse and would rather write than talk about her process; but after a cold start (and fighting exhaustion), she warmed up to me.  Dan Harmon (Community, Rick & Morty) was the most entertaining interview that took place in a seedy bar in Eaglerock and involved several cocktails.  Ricky Gervais (The Office, Derek) was the most surprising because he was so gracious and kind (and hilarious).  Charlie Brooker & Annabel Jones (Black Mirror) was the most fascinating and scary for me due to their prescient stories.

TV Outside the Box traces the contours of what you describe as “the revolution.” What characterizes the dramatic shifts in the nature of television, its content, its platforms, and its audiences your book seeks to document? What were some of the first signs that a revolution in television was taking place?

The on-demand nature and scope is what’s most revolutionary to me.  The audience is now in control and can dodge or completely avoid commercials.  The sheer volume of scripted TV content was and continues to exponentially rise.
When I was a kid, we had three TV networks and maybe 30-40 shows on the air, scheduled in time slots.  Now we have over 440 scripted series across too many platforms to mention here.  Are we currently in a “content bubble”?  Sure.  But I’m not sure that choice is ever a bad thing.  Is it sustainable for the studios and networks: probably not.  I see a natural form of attrition happening.
The bar keeps rising on high quality, engaging, fresh content, so the mediocre shows won’t last.  In the book I refer to this phenomenon as “digital Darwinism.”
Binge viewing is also a touchstone of the digital TV revolution.  Not only can we watch what we want, when we want, without commercial interruption, we can watch the whole season of series offered on Netflix and Amazon. I can foresee HBO, Showtime, and Hulu eventually following suit.
I also saw the decline of the TV industry’s reliance on the overnight Nielsen rating system — to the point where the overnight rating is virtually an irrelevant metric of a show’s success.  Most younger viewers don’t want TV content on televisions anymore, and they absolutely don’t watch anything in its prescribed time slot — unless it’s live sporting events.  To me, the only reason linear TV still exists is for live events.
We’re still in a TV ecosystem in which viewership is segmented by age and older viewers still tend to watch their favorite series in their time slot, for free, with commercials. But the younger generations are either agnostic (they find their favorite shows and don’t care what network it’s on) or they’re only watching highlights from shows on YouTube.
A summer TV landscape dominated by reruns is also going away.  Networks and platforms always need fresh, buzz worthy, exclusive, original content — or they’re toast.
The other enormous shift in the TV landscape has been its focus from broadest and safest shows to series that might appeal to a small, but fiercely loyal and dedicated audience; a subscription, on-demand streaming network needs lots of choice, not just a series that appeals to the widest possible audience, but multiple shows that may appeal to different slices of the audience.  One of the main theses of the book is: Niche Is the New Mainstream.

You characterize appointment television as an anachronism. I’ve argued that appointment television is giving way to engagement television, which places more emphasis on the choices that audiences make about when, where, and how they chose to watch television. Engagement has been a buzz word of the industry and crops up often across your interviews. What insights can you share about the ways television producers and executives are thinking about engagement?

Audience engagement is one of the programmers biggest challenges. With so many choices, how do you break through all the noise (the glut) and actually attract an audience?  If a show is great, it will generate buzz.  But what generates the buzz is a fresh, authentic experience, something new — and it’s going to have to be provocative and controversial (aka noisy) in order to get attention from the media (critics and social media influencers).
It used to be that the major networks could program a new series in the time slot immediately following one of their biggest hits. Now the platforms need to find different ways to engage the audience via new marketing trends and via transmedia.  Some great TV series take time and patience for the audience to connect.
Breaking Bad, for example, was only a modest performer when it premiered on AMC, but it turned into a cultural phenomenon when it premiered on Netflix.  Shorter episode orders and limited/anthology series (The Night Of, Fargo, True Detective, American Horror Story) have also made it possible for big movie starts to commit to doing a TV series.
Working in TV used to be considered a form of “slumming,” but that’s also changed.  Once David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and Martin Scorsese jumped into TV, it leveled the playing field.  Now everyone wants to work in TV — but the true icons mainly want to work on premium and high quality cable and streaming.  Showrunners now have a direct relationship with their show’s fan base.  Like our new president, they use Twitter and Facebook.  They live tweet during the episode.  What was once the office water cooler conversation the night after a show aired has transformed into the global water cooler via social media.

 

Neil Landau  teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT. His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle. Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release. In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy). From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.) Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).