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

Your opening section pays attention to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle, and others who have produced television style content for the web. In what ways have these networks become game-changers in terms of what we think television is? In what ways are broadcast and cable networks responding to the alternative models they represent?

Serialized content used to scare the broadcast networks because if you missed an episode or two, they were afraid you’d never come back.  But in an on-demand landscape, no one misses anything; the modern scourge is the spoiler.
I love the paradox of today’s TV landscape in which people try to watch everything but it’s impossible due to the number of shows. So when you start to tell someone about a great new show that they haven’t seen, they usually stop you with: “I can’t wait to see it. Don’t tell me anything!”
Sony Crackle is advertiser supported, but they circumvent the pilot process and go straight to series (and then offering all episodes all at once for the binge viewing experience.  Hulu started as a second window platform, but soon realized they could only compete if they offered original series of their own.  Netflix and Amazon both complete for exclusivity and originality, but there’s a big difference between their business models; while Netflix is a media company, Amazon in a retail company.  They’re each making their own programs now and aiming to cut out the middle man studio.
But Amazon Studios exists as a magnet to their online shopping mall experience (with free shipping for Amazon Prime members).  Netflix needs to keep its subscriber base happy so they keep paying their monthly dues.  Streaming and premium cable depend on subscriptions and are considered utilities versus broadcasters, giving the subscription networks much more freedom from censorship.
The broadcast networks and basic cable networks still need to please advertisers, necessitating Standards and Practices (a form of censorship) to avoid any content that’s too edgy or morally objectionable and could taint an advertiser’s brand. The subscription networks are only beholden to their subscribers.  And so edgier, more provocative content on streaming and premium cable has pushed the broadcast networks to improve the quality of their shows; we now see riskier shows, niche shows, and bolder choices being made across all platforms.
Mr. Robot has helped redefine USA network.  It might not appeal to your typical zombie-loving fan base of The Walking Dead, but it’s certainly darker, edgier, and smarter than most basic cable shows.  Consequently, all networks are raising the bar: This Is Us (on NBC), Animal Kingdom (on TNT), UnREAL (on Lifetime?!), American Crime (on ABC) to name a few.
And with niche content attracting viewers on streaming and premium cable, we’re also seeing greater diversity and authenticity in casts, plot lines, and in writers’ rooms.  

Many of the storytellers you interviewed spoke of the differences in producing series which are meant to be binged watched. What are some of the core insights to emerge about this new form of media consumption?

When you circumvent the pilot process, you’re removing some of the fine tuning and audience testing checks and balances in the system. And when all or most of the episodes are written in advance of even starting production, the show runners have less opportunity to course correct.  Re-shoots are costly and time consuming.  To create a show that’s intended for the full episode drop for binge viewing requires a more visionary show runner than ever before.  They have to see the whole season in advance, as opposed to finding the show throughout the season and adjusting according to audience response, chemistry among actors, and latent discoveries made.

You map a complex media ecology throughout the book. How much movement is there between the different levels of media production? For example, many of us are watching Issa Rae, who you interviewed, bring Insecure onto HBO after years of being a web television producer. Are there things we can observe there which may help us anticipate further movements of this kind in the future?

The audience is in control in the on-demand world.  But the content creators are also much more in control of their destinies if they can think like creative entrepreneurs.  Issa Rae made Awkward Black Girl at her own expense; it’s funny, authentic, and she writes, directs, and stars in it.  Issa knew she had something to say and an audience who wanted to tune in. She spent her own money to make her web series, which served as proof of concept.  It wasn’t a huge leap of faith for HBO to green light Issa’s hilarious and superb series, Insecure; she already had a substantial fan base and three seasons of Awkward Black Girl under her belt.
Yes, it’s always a risk to produce and distribute a new show, but the smart money was on Issa: her authentic voice,  grace, style, and talent.
High Maintenance followed a similar trajectory (from self-financed web series on Vimeo and i.am.other to HBO series.  In the old days, you had to start off at the bottom of the food chain as a freelancer or staff writer and work your way up the ladder.  Now, first-time creators are rapidly becoming show runners.  Look at Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) and Zander Lehmann (Casual).  Unprecedented.

Throughout, you have much to say about struggles over diversity, inclusion, and representation in the contemporary television landscape. This is clearly a core issue at the moment — thus our recent Diversifying Entertainment conference. What did you hear from the industry insiders that might shed light on how they are thinking about this issue? In some ways, the question has to do with rapid expansion of minority-cast programming and its audience share over the past few seasons, but as you also note, some of the issue has to do with how under-represented minorities and women are both in front of and behind the camera. What factors are determining the speed with which these changes are taking place?

Before the recent Presidential election, I was getting optimistic on this subject.  Now… it’s anybody’s guess.
We could be entering a new era of ALT RIGHT, white-washed, unobjectionable and/or purely escapist shows.  I hope not.  I think we need a national catharsis, so I’m rooting for edgy, provocative shows that stir folks up — both audiences and content creators (aka writer/producers).  We’re not going to have a cultural revolution if everyone is sitting home watching Dancing with the Stars and Big Bang Theory.
Actually, the current political climate (it’s only Trump’s second week in office) could usher in a new creative Renaissance.  Only time will tell.  But I’m an optimist.  Shows like Atlanta and Mr. Robot give me hope.  It’s not that I believe all shows needs to address the ills of our society (racism, greed, climate change), but I want to be challenged to think about my place in the world when I watch a great TV series.
I don’t want to just be a complacent couch potato.  We don’t want our country to turn into WALL-E.  We must engage, question, and resist formulaic story tropes and stereotypes.  The first question I asked Norman Lear was “Does TV reflect our lives or do our lives reflect TV?”  His response was a little bit of both, but now more than ever there are shows that reflect myriad perspectives and lives.
And TV is a global business.  Netflix is now in every country except China and North Korea.  More and more shows are being distributed in their original language with subtitles.  This also gives me hope because when we are able to get a window on people in other parts of the world, it can engender compassion and empathy.  I like to believe that storytelling can not only inspire, entertain, and delight — but also it can change the world.

One of your section headings proclaims “niche is the new mainstream.” Is that true? How would you characterize the relationship today between niche and mainstream program? As the media market fragments, is there anything that can be characterized as mainstream programming?

I addressed this above, but Orange Is the New Black is a great example of a niche series (about women in prison) that has multiple entry points to attract a wider audience.  There’s Piper, the Caucasian blond protagonist, but then there are people of color, male guards, social worker, and wardens, and many ways to connect.  Theme is also a way for showrunners and creators to broader their niche appeal.
House of Cards is not a show about politics; it’s a show about powerTransparent is not a show solely about a transgender woman, it’s a show about identity.  Theme is universal and can take what might seem like a niche show and make it go mainstream.

 

 

Neil Landau (’85), 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).