Showrunners talk TV
Playback magazine rounds up some of the country's top drama showrunners to find out how they are navigating turbulent times in Canadian TV.
When it comes to building out a successful Canadian drama, an increasing amount of pressure is being placed on the showrunner. While always a critical position, the showrunner has morphed from being a series’ beating heart – and whip-cracking circus master – to being a bona-fide star, thanks in no small part to social media. But behind the scenes, a showrunner’s job has never been more complex. Here, five of Canada’s top voices share their challenges, victories and behind-the-scenes stories behind the production of X Company, 19-2, Bitten and Houdini & Doyle.
Canada is becoming known for its showrunning talent: what factors have influenced this?
Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern (X Company): The growing prominence of the Canadian showrunner coincides with the export of our shows globally, and our collaboration with international broadcasters. We grew into showrunners through collaboration with our producers on Flashpoint. But there was always an expectation from the U.S. broadcasters that they would engage in creative conversation with the show’s writers and creators – that’s how it works in the States. CAA and UTA became very aggressive in courting top Canadian writers and pitching them internationally. Creators are expected to run their own shows. And most Canadian producers and broadcasters now buy into the need for a writer-showrunner.
Bruce Smith (19-2): When I look at the Canadian industry, there’s a real value placed on experience and there’s a lot less fear of being too old. A lot of it is because we just don’t have a margin for error. We can’t burn a bad script; we have to rewrite it. We can’t go out and do massive reshoots and fix things that are wrong. So the showrunner really has to deliver on very, very tight margins, in time and in money. That sets you up really well to then go to the States because you’ve really learned how to maximize the process.
David Hoselton (Houdini and Doyle): “Juggler” needs to be added to the resume. We have three studios and three networks from three different countries. So we get a lot of notes. The vast majority are easy to address but every now and then we get contradictory notes; sometimes a product of differing tastes, but sometimes a product of differing national requirements or sensibilities. Those can be tough to implement, thus the juggling requirement.
Daegan Fryklind (Bitten): The ideal is always still balancing the universal goal of [delivering] shootable scripts on time, regardless of the number of voices weighing in. For us, we’re an acquisition but Syfy gets a slightly different cut of the show, which we do in-house so we can choose what we lose.
As TV viewership changes, have you found that working with the nets has too?
DF: With binge watching and online sources, the network focus on ratings has smartly adjusted to an understanding of this new landscape. While it’s still exciting to see how we do with our live numbers, the pressure cooker of live is less important.
DH: The proliferation of media outlets has created huge demand for original content and consequently, has reduced the significance of the traditional broadcasters; the networks are no longer the only game in town. But it’s been a great development for them. As the conventional program model has changed, the networks have much more latitude for creativity and innovation.
ME & SM: In the past, Canadians have traditionally been reluctant to watch their own shows – though this tradition may have been in a chicken-and-egg relationship with the networks’ reluctance to promote [Canadian shows] and give them steady and accessible time slots. That’s changing on both fronts. Broadcasters are beginning to recognize there’s a part of the audience that will follow a star – and maybe even a showrunner. Napkin ideas from non-writing producers are not enough. Broadcasters want to meet directly with creators, and they like it when pilots written by emerging writers have senior mentors and showrunners attached.
Where do you wish you had more budget?
ME & SM: We’d always love more time to shoot each episode – eight days would be great, and if we could dream, nine. Even with the outstanding crews we’ve worked with in Canada and Hungary, we’re hard pressed to achieve what we want with the budgets we have.
We’re discovering the impact VFX can have on a show, how liberating it can be to dream big and actually achieve the effect you visualized because the software has grown so sophisticated. The more we see its potential the more we’d love to grow in that area.
DF: Number of shooting days. I don’t want to go crazy, maybe 10 more a season, and I’d probably only use four in the end.
The second area would be promotion – being able to travel the cast to various comicons and television festivals to help spread the word about the show.
BS: Time. And it comes from growing up with a father and stepmother who were directors. I’d have a lot more shooting days. That’s the best bang for your buck you can get.
And then for a show like 19-2, it’s lovely to be able to bring cast in. And then of course the big police events that are expensive – we have to be fairly focused about how and when we do them.
But my one thing would absolutely be time first. Time to write, time to shoot.
DH: Given that we’re a period show, we require a lot of VFX. Could definitely use a few more bucks there.
How does the increasingly international nature of drama series influence your job?
DF: Online access has shifted everything. It influences what I do only in terms of being aware of some of the differing content regulations between broadcasters [Canadian v.s. U.S.], and being aware of what is being produced internationally and where we fit in the TV universe. But when we’re breaking a season, we’re not thinking about “how will this play in Munich,” but “how will this play.” That’s the only way to stack up against shows with bigger cachet, by making a show with an honest heart and a universal base.
ME & SM: The international market is something we are always aware of…but its presence isn’t what shapes our job as showrunners. With Flashpoint we actually wanted to heighten the difference between the Canadian and American attitude to criminals.
One CBS executive confided in us that this is what set the show apart from a lot of other SWAT team shows they’d been approached with, the more empathetic, human side of policing.
And with X Company, World War Two already is an international backdrop for a drama… we wanted to focus in on the untold stories of the Canadian contribution to the birth of spycraft.
Are tried and true genres still the best bet for gaining the mass viewership needed to fuel conventional dramas?
DF: The Walking Dead’s ratings prove otherwise. But the episodic procedurals [medical and criminal] are a safer, more consistent bet. They have the high stakes that audiences want without feeling like they need to marry the show.
DH: It’s a great delivery system for what the audience really wants to see: character. But any format that can deliver that effectively can be successful.
ME & SM: Tried and true procedurals may still be the best bet for achieving big overnight numbers, but the measurement of success is evolving. Series television has exploded in a very short time, within a single generation of writers. We do write for our overnight audience, but we also write for DVR and repeat viewers, our Netflix and online audience and our international broadcasters.
Anything we need to be doing better? Or are doing really well?
ME & SM: We need to make sure our emerging writers stay in this country and don’t bleed away to the U.S. We can do that by mentoring more, by incentivizing showrunners, and by keeping on top of the way we regulate Canadian content.
And we need to cover Canadian TV better. Right now our most extensive, committed, in-depth coverage comes from independent web writers. We wish our mainstream media would do the same. We get that it’s impossible to cover every episode out there, but it does feel like they could sample Canadian TV more than they do.
DF: We’re doing limited series very well. We do exceptional genre that is smart and widely respected. And we have a lot of story tricks to make a show seem more expensive than it is. It’s great the networks have opened sites like Crave and Shomi to stream our shows far past when the episodes are taken off their websites because it allows new fans to come to and catch up on a series before the new season airs. But look at [Canadian stories] like Argo or [Canadian-shot] Fargo, we can we can make those kinds of projects here. We have those stories to tell too.
Overall, how would you say Canadian TV is changing?
ME & SM: Change isn’t happening on a straight line. We do grow in some areas, but in others it feels like we’re trying to repeat the recipes of past successes, or foreign successes.
We don’t really have a culture of risk-taking in television. It’s true we don’t have the same startup networks and streaming services in Canada that are looking to brand themselves with buzz-worthy drama as the U.S., but our production companies might not be pushing as hard as they could either.
We’d love to see all broadcasters take some ownership and risks in the programs they create. Or use their digital platforms to experiment with truly innovative shows.
Not every experiment is going to work. But if we’re to continue to change and evolve Canadian drama we’re going to need to roll the dice from time to time.
BS: We’re doing more shows, we’re doing much braver shows. And yet at the same time the whole broadcast industry is changing so there is tension in the air about the future.