Save the Drama for Your Momma and Them

Television dramas rule the day but are changing with the times

Mark Johnson, Bryan Seabury, and Kyle Killen
Mark Johnson, Bryan Seabury, and Kyle Killen (by Rod Machen)

Is the television drama our country’s greatest narrative art form? The present-day Golden Age of Television is concerned mainly with the dramatic rather than the comedic. On Saturday, the ATX Television Festival delved deeper into the present situation and the future to come.

The elephant in the room was the ever-changing ways in which television is consumed in our culture. Cable, streaming, and the DVR have all contributed to a new era of TV viewership and creation.

It is the cable networks that have been most fruitful in this modern age. Series like HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire and AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad are among the most lauded shows of our time.

Writer and producer Liz Tigelaar of Life Unexpected, Nashville, and most recently Bates Motel, acknowledged the freedom that comes with cable distribution. “It feels enticing,” she said. No longer do audiences have to identify with the people on the screen. “Characters don't have to be likeable all the time,” she said. “You don't have to feel good about your hero.”

It’s the antihero trope (best exemplified by Tony Soprano and Walter White) that has become cable’s calling card, but even as that changes, the relationship between audiences and their favorite shows has changed dramatically.

Kyle Killen, Austin resident and force behind such shows as Awake and Lone Star, said networks have changed their expectations for what makes a show a success. “The Holy Grail was to make 100 episodes and sell it into syndication,” he said. Now there are ways of monetizing a property beyond the traditional models.

One of these ways is through streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. A short series, even one that wasn’t renewed, can find a binge-watching home with streaming. Dave Madden, president of Fox TV Studios (not to be confused with Fox Television), used the example of AMC’s The Killing to exemplify how Netflix has gotten involved in current series. After two lackluster seasons and a cancellation, Netflix provided life support to the show by subsidizing Season 3 in exchange for earlier access. After another cancellation, they stepped in and decided to air it themselves, keeping alive a series that had died under the traditional model. “Thank God for Netflix for allowing us to finish the show the way we thought it should,” Madden said.

The other change in the way people are consuming television these days has to do with the regularity of their viewing. In a time when almost every dramatic series has at least some serialized element, nobody wants to miss an episode.

Mark Johnson, who along with Vince Gilligan executive-produced Breaking Bad, loves this aspect of modern viewership. “One of the great things with cable is viewer loyalty.” he said. They keep coming back every week, and the show promises to deliver. “It's a compact we have made with the audience."

Can something like pilot season survive these changes? Killen hopes it dies a not-so-slow death, but Bryan Seabury, vice president of drama development at CBS, looks at it differently.

“The dates force decisions,” he said, referring to the pilot-season calendar. He sees the good in a system that allows one network to get 50 scripts written, 10 pilot episodes made, and several of those picked up for broadcast. Without deadlines, he foresees a world more like that of feature films wherein projects can linger in an endless “development hell,” never seeing the the light of day.

The panel ended on an emotional note as Killen talked about why he is still at it, despite several shows that have been canceled in their first year. He choked up when he said he wanted to “pay back” those people that had given him his first shot, expressing gratitude for the chances he had been given.

Seabury was optimistic about Killen’s future and said his network would continue to pursue Killen’s projects, calling him the “George Clooney of writers,” referring to the patron saint of slow starts. E/R and Facts of Life spawned ER and Gravity, and if Killen achieves anywhere close to that same of level of late-career success, he’ll have won and won big. And so will his audience.

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ATX Television Festival, Kyle Kilen, Liz Tigelaar, cable television networks, Dave Madden, Mark Johnson, Bryan Seabury, ATX TV Fest 2014

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