William Goldman's famous adage about Hollywood, "nobody knows anything," could have been an unofficial theme of the series creators and network executives who participated in the Banff World Television Festival. War stories about getting shows on the air, and finding enough of an audience to keep them on, were as common as comments about the spectacular Rocky Mountain setting.
Paul Haggis – EZ Streets vs. Walker, Texas Ranger
Paul Haggis is now more famous for the Oscar-winning movies Crash and Million Dollar Baby, but his NBC series The Black Donnellys is bringing him back to television in January. At his festival session, he claimed to have "failed his way to the top." He initially worked on sitcoms he couldn't relate to, and was demoted from his brief position as executive producer of The Facts of Life after suggesting an innovation: "Let's try making it funny."
After moderate success creating the shows Due South and Family Law, he saw his critically acclaimed pet project EZ Streets swiftly cancelled. That ambitious and morally ambiguous show is credited with paving the way for The Sopranos, a show Haggis hasn't watched out of pettiness, he declared with a laugh.
Proving that success can come at the expense of pride, Haggis worked for eight days rewriting the first installment of the less-than-acclaimed Walker, Texas Ranger, and had his co-creator credit flash on viewers' screens for 10 years. "The gods of television are cruel motherfuckers," said the London, Ontario-born writer when accepting the NBC Universal Canada Award of Distinction at the festival.
David Shore – House
House creator David Shore was also honoured in Banff, with an Award of Excellence. "Growing up in London, Ontario, it just didn't even register, the idea of going into the entertainment industry or being successful or coming back here to receive an award. Or of being the second most successful writer from London, Ontario. That guy's annoying," Shore jokingly grumbled during his acceptance speech, though he later sincerely thanked Haggis for giving him his first staff writing job (on Due South) and his first executive producing job (on Family Law).
With House, executive producer Shore was the naysayer, not the network or studio. "The typical story of getting something on the air is painful, painful, painful and this just wasn't. It was painful for me because I really was scared of this idea," he said at his Master Class session.
He had been teamed with executive producer Paul Attanasio, who knew the networks were looking for fresh medical shows. Shore tried to dissuade him from pitching an idea based on the Diagnosis column of the New York Times Magazine, of a procedural with germs instead of criminals. "What makes Law & Order interesting is why people do it. Germs don't have any whys. They just do it," protested Shore, whose credits include Law & Order and NYPD Blue. "No germ kills another germ because the other germ is having an affair with the first germ's wife, then hides the knife under the liver. I thought it was a terrible idea."
Attanasio pitched it to ABC anyway, starting a bidding war between networks which was eventually won by FOX. "I wasn't there telling them germs don't have motives," Shore shrugged. "I could either get on the phone with ABC and talk them out of it, or go along for the ride."
Out of his own disinterest in the premise, he was forced to create what would ultimately prove to be the key to House's success – the central character who battles his own demons along with his patients' germs. "Had it been what I considered a better idea, Dr. House likely wouldn't have existed. I would have been much lazier about the concept," Shore admitted, saying he procrastinated for months in writing the script. "I just kept thinking, how can I make this interesting? Then the character developed and grew and I became interested in it at that point."
Though he felt his tastes are common enough that people might respond to what he liked – and he finally did write a show he liked out of the premise he doubted – the enormous success came as a surprise. "I always felt there was an audience for it if they gave it a chance. I never expected this kind of audience."
Ali LeRoi – Everybody Hates Chris
Ali LeRoi, co-creator with Chris Rock of Everybody Hates Chris, explained the success of any show as quality meeting good fortune. "You can't write a hit show, but you can write a good show." The rest, he said, relies on a convergence of events to allow a series to succeed.
Dawn Ostroff, president of UPN, thought LeRoi's show was good enough to spend the budget of two pilots on one for Chris. Her confidence was rewarded with critical buzz and solid enough ratings in its first season for it to easily make the transition to the new CW network next season.
LeRoi credits Everybody Hates Chris's success partly to the attention gained by its unexpectedness – an actual funny, heartwarming comedy arriving in the midst of the "sitcoms are dead" hysteria, and on a network not known for its stellar fare. "We were the unusual suspects, so it was really exciting to see this thing come from that place." He also thinks audiences were starved for an African-American centered show that wasn't "all loud and crazy and talking about ass."
Paul Scheuring – Prison Break
Paul Scheuring of Prison Break found his show languishing after Steven Spielberg had to pull out of the project, and the nervous studio wanted to find someone with the same cache to replace him as executive producer. "As Steven Spielberg. I'm thinking … David Hasselhoff?" Scheuring mocked. When Lost became a huge hit, demonstrating that audiences could follow a heavily serialized, high-concept story, his series was finally put into production. "It just goes to show the creativity at the network level," he sighed.
Scott Peters – The 4400
The 4400, one of basic cable's biggest successes, had a rough ride before landing on the USA network. Creator Scott Peters recounted the easy sell to enthusiastic FOX executives, after rejections from other networks. One network had objected that he wasn't sure how the show could sustain itself as a multi-year series. "It's right there in the title: we have 4400 stories," Peters pointed out to no avail. But then the project stalled when one vocal FOX exec was unsupportive. "He quit a year later. Why couldn't he have quit sooner?" Peters lamented.
Fortunately, he was able to retain the rights and shop it around again, but the project shifted from the initial concept of a 22 episode a year network series to a 6-hour mini-series followed by seasons of 13 episodes each, the second of which is now underway.
Bill Carter – Desperate Networks
Bill Carter, author of the recent book Desperate Networks, was the closing speaker for the Banff World Television Festival, and recounted anecdotes about misses and near-misses that seem glaringly stupid with hindsight: the networks that passed on American Idol and Survivor, for example, or the serendipitous events that saw CSI narrowly find funding in the first place, then manage to barely scrape onto CBS's schedule to become a franchise-spawning, top-rated show.
Carter's message is that projects need a champion at the network in order to get on the air, even if it's not the top executive. But the odds are still stacked against everyone – creators, producers, studios, networks – when no one can detect in advance what later seems like a sure thing. "They go into huge deficits to fund shows, and only if they are hits do you make any money," he said. "So studios have to invest in failure in order to succeed."
Touchstone Television executive Howard Davine also touched on some of Carter's tales of network bungling. Davine admitted that while rival studio Warner Brothers' decision to walk away from Desperate Housewives over a dispute of $30,000 was obviously wrong in retrospect, his own studio's rejection of CSI was probably worse. With Lost, Touchstone did take a huge gamble in financing the $12 million pilot episode, but Davine said the challenge is "how do you be fiscally responsible and not miss out on a Lost or Desperate Housewives?"
"Nobody Knows Anything"
A running theme in the industry seems to be the futility of recognizing what's going to be a Lost or Desperate Housewives or House or Prison Break.
NBC passed on Paul Haggis's The Black Donnellys 10 years ago, but a post-Sopranos, post-Paul-Haggis-is-now-famous world has them finally giving it a shot at success. Even with its criminal underworld subject and impressive pedigree, which includes co-writer Bobby Moresco of Crash, is it a sure thing? Haggis himself claimed that given his track record with quality television projects, it will likely "fail brilliantly."
But then, nobody knows anything in Hollywood, not even a two-time Oscar winner.