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Part Two Of My Conversation With Film & TV Producer Marshall Herskovitz

Features
by Jim Amos
May 26, 2014 9:51 PM
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Landry Major Photography


Last week In The Spotlight I interviewed legendary producer Marshall Herskovitz to discuss his amazing success with films such as "Traffic", "Blood Diamond" and "The Last Samurai".  This week we turn our attention to the TV side and talk about his accomplishments on the small screen with shows like "Thirtysomething" and "My So Called Life".

JIM AMOS, BOX OFFICE INSIDER
YOU'VE BEEN ONE OF THE MOST PROLIFIC PRODUCERS OF HIT TV SHOWS IN RECENT HISTORY, STARTING WITH "THIRTYSOMETHING".  HOW DO YOU SEE THE TV LANDSCAPE NOW AND HOW HAS IT CHANGED SINCE THEN?

"We are in an amazing moment for television and it's across the board cable"

MARSHALL HERSKOVITZ
Oh it's so different.  It's interesting, I went 25 years without watching a single television show.  I was one of those people, because I was so inside how a television show was made, if I would turn on somebody else's show I would sit there and analyze it like, "oh, so they had four hours in this location and had to get out and the number of set-ups, etc".  I would always see how it was pushed together and now I don't even want to count the number of series I watch that I love and that I wouldn't miss.  So we are in an amazing moment for television and it's across the board cable.  I don't think it's really on the networks right now but I think in cable, whether it's regular cable, premium cable or everything in between I think they're all doing interesting content.


JA
HOW MUCH OF THAT HAS TO DO WITH FCC REGULATIONS ON WHAT CAN BE SHOWN ON THE NETWORKS?

MH
I don't think that's it, actually.  I'll give you an example...when we did the show "Quarterlife", which started out as an online series, we made a deal with NBC and it was a remarkable deal.  They didn't even know what the scripts were.  We were delivering them six completed hours of programming that they were going to air.  Nevertheless, ten days before we were about to air on NBC I started having this really bad feeling that our show was really a niche show and that it wasn't going to deliver the number that NBC needed.  Now in those days that was between 8-9 million.  Now it's less.  So I called Ben Silverman, who was the guy who really championed our show and was really great about it, by the way, and I told him I wasn't going to deliver the audience he needed.  I told him we'd be in the 3-4 million range because we were not a show that hits all demographic points that NBC needs a show to hit to have it succeed.  Even though the numbers are less now, it's still the same problem.  it's not the fact that you can't say "shit" or show certain things, it's really that they need a bigger number and when you need a bigger number it influences what your program is going to be about.  But here's what's interesting to me, say there are 100 million people watching TV at any moment.  If I make a show that gets 8 million viewers versus a show that gets 2 million viewers they're both horrible failures if you think about the fact that the audience is 100 million people.  You're getting 8% of an audience or 2% of an audience.  How can you figure out what's the difference when it's such a tiny sliver of what people are watching.  That's what I find paradoxical about that but nevertheless there's a huge difference between the two and that influences their decisions and that's why you end up with the big police procedurals and the comedies and all that because they get more of a cross-section and therefore they get more people watching.

JA
YOU DON'T THINK A "TRUE DETECTIVE" WOULD HAVE WORKED ON NETWORK?

MH
Sure, some of those things would work and honestly, and I love "True Detective" by the way I think it's an amazing show, I think you could have done 97% of that show on network.  In other words, that was not a Standards and Practices problem it was just a programming decision.  If you do that on NBC it's a bigger risk for them.

JA
DO YOU THINK THERE'S A KNEE-JERK REACTION WHEN YOU SEE A SERIES BEING ANNOUNCED FOR AN HBO, SHOWTIME, FX, BBC AMERICA VERSUS WHEN A SHOW IS ANNOUNCED FOR A NETWORK?  IN OTHER WORDS, DO YOU THINK A SHOW LIKE NBC'S "BELIEVE" WOULD HAVE HAD MORE OF AN INTEREST OR WOULD HAVE HAD A BIT MORE BUZZ IF IT HAD BEEN ON ONE OF THOSE CABLE OUTLETS, JUST BECAUSE OF THE CACHE THAT THOSE CABLE STATIONS HAVE HISTORICALLY PRODUCED PROGRAMMING OF A HIGHER ORDER?

"When we did "Thirtysomething" basically each one of the networks saw themselves as department stores where you could find everything you needed for your home on our network...but that's not the way it is now. It's very specific."

MH
What I've found is there's a paradox in television.  The paradox is that there is so much more of an opportunity but each one of those opportunities are incredibly narrow in how it's defined.  Each one of those networks has a very specific set of brand requirements that will make it an FX show or an HBO show or a Showtime show and they're all different from each other but they're all specific.  So HBO would never do "Believe", it would never fit the mandate of what an HBO show should be like.  In other words, the question you're asking is a really good one but it's also a very complicated one too in that there are so many factors when a show like "Believe" ends up on a network like NBC and not HBO or FX that they're all fighting to have this definition so they know that people come to HBO for a particular feeling for what the show is going to be like.  When we did "Thirtysomething" basically each one of the networks saw themselves as department stores where you could find everything you needed for your home on our network so there was room for something like that but that's not the way it is now.  It's very specific.  That's a business plan they all share and there are a lot of very smart people making those decisions so I figure they think it works for them.

JA
THOUGHTS ON BINGE VIEWING, I.E. NETFLIX'S "HOUSE OF CARDS"?  DO YOU SEE THAT BECOME MORE PREVALENT IN THE FUTURE?

MH
It's a good question.  For me the jury is still out.  I love what Netflix has done.  Again, I think Netflix is going to do better things that are self-promoting and when it's David Fincher and all that and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright that's self-promoting.  That's going to be successful.  The more they do the harder it's going to be for people to watch those things.  The binge viewing thing doesn't mean that much to me.  From inside the business there's a frustration that people have because they feel that it's not talked about as much and they feel there's a value in build up, like with a "Scandal" or "Game of Thrones" where people are DYING to see what happens next and you miss that with binge viewing shows.  I think "Game of Thrones" has been helped immeasurably by the word of mouth that builds up over time, so I don't think the binge viewing model is going to take over.  

JA
I WANTED TO TOUCH UPON THE PREPONDERANCE OF SHOWS, ESPECIALLY FROM THE UK, WHICH RUN 6-8 EPISODES RATHER THAN A FULL RUN OF 20-25, SHOWS LIKE "SHERLOCK" AND "BROADCHURCH" FOR EXAMPLE.  DO YOU SEE THAT AS SOMETHING THAT THE MAJOR NETWORKS ARE GOING TO DO MORE OF?

MH
It's happening on cable.  Broadcast network is slower to it, although I've heard that they're starting to do a few 10-12 episode series which was previously unheard of.  So yes I think it's going to happen and I think people really like it.  Again, the good news is that you have so many creative forums.  I am thinking about producing a historical mini-series that I could never do as a regular series but also is too involved for a TV movie so a 4-6 episode run makes sense.  

JA
I ALSO THINK, AND LET ME KNOW IF YOU AGREE WITH THIS, THAT IT'S EASIER TO KEEP VIEWERS' ATTENTIONS OVER 6-8 EPISODES RATHER THAN 25.  LOOK, ALL 25 SHOWS AREN'T GOING TO BE WINNERS AND IF YOU STRING TOGETHER A COUPLE OF CLUNKERS IN A ROW THEN PEOPLE MIGHT LOSE INTEREST AND THINK "THIS USED TO BE MUST-SEE, BUT NOT NOW".

MH
Yes, I feel there is this movement toward the appreciation of the individual series.  In other words they are different lengths, they come in different packages, so people respond to them in totality so like with "True Detective" you knew it was just going to be these two guys, those number of episodes and you value that in a different way from the way you viewed "Breaking Bad" which was over 7 seasons but you value each of them in their own way.  

JA
AN INTERESTING EXAMPLE OF THAT IS "AMERICAN HORROR STORY" WHERE IT'S THE SAME CAST BUT IN COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SETTINGS AND STORIES EACH SEASON.

MH
Absolutely!  That's so freeing and that's why we're in a great moment of television.

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