Part three in my interview with Tom Fontana, creator or co-creator of OZ, THE JURY, TATTINGER'S, THE BEAT, and THE BEDFORD DIARIES...
CRAFTY TV: Is this the best of all possible ways to develop television shows? Or is there a better way?
TF: There has to be a better way, because this is the worst way. The reason this system exists, like all things connected with TV, it's about the money. Some point about 40 years ago, I don't know when, somebody said that in March, all the advertisers are going to decide what shows they're going to advertise on and how much it's going to cost them. Working backwards from that event created pilot season which, in my mind, is the way to - you can almost guarantee - create shit. What you have is all these pilots - apples, oranges, bananas and mangoes - and they're competing against each other. You have a small pool of directors who can actually direct a pilot who are all working - if you don't get one of those A-listers, you're screwed - the same with those actors. There are the ones everybody wants and then there's whoever you can actually get. And what happens is the network is going to say, we really wanted Jack Nicholson and all you've got is Murray Schwartz. You're taking an energy pool and a talent pool and stretching it to the max in one brief amount of time and then wondering why they throw 98% of the pilots it away. There could not be a worse system.
Having said that, both NBC and Fox seem committed to off-cycle development. They now develop twice a year. That is a breakthrough of enormous magnitude, because two of the shows that NBC did on the off cycle are now on the schedule - KIDNAPPED and THE BLACK DONNELLYS. There is something to be said for spreading out development all year round. The only ones who suffer are the agents because they can't screw everybody over on the deals.
CRAFTY TV: Is there a problem with the networks being too quick to jettison shows that they think aren't working?
TF: Shows are definitely not given enough time, but that has more to do with the individual in charge of the network. Each of these men and women who run networks has his or her own personality. Some cancel a show prematurely and some have the balls to wait. The two greatest network execs were Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff. They were both willing to give shows the time to grow. CHEERS being the prime example of that. In its first season, it was lowest rated of any show on TV. Something like 99th out of 99 shows. Tinker and Tartikoff didn't care. They loved the writing. They loved the direction, the cast. Ultimately CHEERS ran, what, 12 seasons? And spun off FRAISER. That's more to do with the courage or lack thereof of the individual network executive. What is he or she willing to suffer from his or her bosses and subordinates?
CRAFTY TV: Is there something structural that discourages executives from being courageous?
TF: Definitely, the system discourages execs from being brave. There is a level of fear that seeps through the floors of every network and studio office. It's always easier to imitate what has been successful than to be original.