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January 15, 2014

Showrunners with an Eye for Drama

TCA: Showrunners of top CBS dramas The Good Wife, Person of Interest, Elementary and NCIS share a different perspectives about producing for broadcast versus cable – and how many episodes it really takes for a series order to induce a panic attack.

Amy Amatangelo
  • Showrunners (l. to r.) Rob Doherty, Gary Glasberg, Jonathan Nolan, Greg Plageman, Michelle King and Robert King talk production at winter press tour.

    Richard Shotwell
  • Behind the scenes with ‘The Good Wife’ guest star Carrie Preston (l.), series star Julianna Margulies (c.) and executive producer/director Brooke Kennedy.

    David M. Russell
  • Stars Taraji P. Henson (l.) and Michael Emerson (r.), known to ‘Person of Interest’ fans as Detective Carter and reclusive billionaire Harold Finch.

    John Paul Filo
  • Stars Lucy Liu (Dr. Joan Watson, l.) and Jonny Lee Miller (Sherlock Holmes,r.) at work on ’Elementary.’

    Mark Schafer
  • On set with ‘NCIS’ star Michael Weatherly (Senior Field Agent Anthony "Tony" D. DiNozzo, Jr).

    Ron P. Jaffe

A 24-episode order from a studio is meticulously calibrated – not to the length of any season or production schedule – but to the exact point at which a showrunner will have a nervous breakdown, Person of Interest exec producer Jonathan Nolan joked.

“It’s a great thing that the audience wants more of what you're making,” he told journalists during a special CBS drama showrunners panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, “but it is very difficult.”

Alongside Nolan were NCIS’s Gary Glasberg, The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King and Elementary‘s Rob Doherty. All agree producing 22-24 good episodes a season is challenging.

“I think part of it is not looking too far ahead and not panicking if production is about to start up and you only have three solid stories,” Doherty advised.

“We'd all love to have 10,” he continued, “but you just have to set them up and knock them down one at a time.”

A lot of chatter this press tour has centered around the benefits of creating a show for cable – producers have highlighted longer development times and shorter episode orders as distinct advantages.

But even with those benefits, the showrunners of CBS’s 4 biggest dramas see great value in being on network television.

Nolan appreciates what he called the “glorious” immediacy that network TV provides: “We get to write a scene, and we'll get to see it up in two weeks – and that's a rare and incredible experience.”

Robert King agrees. He cites the drama’s decision to extend its current voter fraud story line because of its similarities with the recent Governor Chris Christie scandal.

“We’re only a month and a half behind what’s going on with the Chris Christie stuff so you’re able to satirize it and touch upon it even in the plotting,” he said.

For Glasberg, who runs the network’s biggest hit NCIS, it’s the magnitude of his show’s fanbase. “It's a privilege to reach an audience the size that we're able to reach in broadcast,” he said.

“You know, the fact that in our 11th season we have the viewership that we do, 18 million Facebook fans, that's crazy,” he observed.  “And that's because I'm on broadcast.”

All 4 dramas have experienced significant changes this season – from major character departures to plot twists that uprooted the show’s very premise.

Michelle King said CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler was excited when they told her their plan to have Alicia (Julianna Margulies) form a new firm this season on The Good Wife.  “We were across the table from her, and she says, ‘Oh, my God, that's brilliant.’”

Person of Interest killed off one of the show’s original lead characters, Det. Joss Carter, played by Oscar nominated film/TV actress Taraji P. Henson.

Though this plot point had been part of Person’s story from the beginning, Nolan said he knew relations could get tricky with CBS and Warner Bros., the studio behind the series, once show had arrived at that moment. “But, no, they were incredibly supportive,” he recalled. “There was that enthusiasm that made us feel like this is the way we should be making the show.”

From his vantage point, his production has all the “dynamism that you find in cable” and enjoys the freedom to try to new things.

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