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INTX 2016: Programmers See No Secret Sauce For Making Hit Shows

'It's not a beauty pageant' 5/20/2016 1:45 PM Eastern
Bill Hader (left) and Fred Armisen in IFC's 'Documentary Now!'
Rhys Thomas

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BOSTON -- While some might think it's easy to create a hit television series, programming executives say the process is anything but a simple and painless process.

 

Executives speaking at the INTX show Tuesday said that there’s no fast and specific formula to creating a popular and top-rated show, but rather a series of difficult and often gut-wrenching decisions that more often than not lead to a successful program.

 

“It’s more than just looking at a show -- it's not a beauty pageant,” Gary Levine, Showtime Networks president of programming, said during the afternoon Super Session moderated by Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable editorial director Mark Robichaux. “It’s never an instantaneous process.”

 

Added FX Networks president of original programming Eric Schrier: “It would make our jobs a lot easer to plug in a show into a formula, but at the end of the day you have to have professional courage and fight for it to be the best it can be.”

 

The criteria for what constitutes a potential hit show varies from network to network as each looks to serve a particular segment of an audience. Then, from first script reads to shooting the first scene, executives say a lot of risk evaluation, development strategy and in some cases, a gut feeling can make or break a particular project.

 

“The development process often takes a while, but there’s a little intuition involved as well,” IFC and president and general manager Jennifer Caserta said, explaining at one point how the IFC documentary parody series Documentary Now! developed from a four-and-a-half-minute Saturday Night Live bit in 2013 -- "Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros: History of Punk" -- featuring Fred Armisen and Bill Hader as punk rockers with a surprisingly positive outlook. It took quite a bit of time to mold the idea into a full-fledged series lovingly sending up a variety of classic documentaries in a range of styles: it debuted in August 2015. While any network's preference would be to rush the series onto the air, Caserta said patience was required in that situation. 

 

Once a project is greenlit for air, then decisions have to be made as to whether the show is a success, including ratings and viewer response. “Also we often take something off the air and we don’t give them a chance to find its audience,” TV One president Brad Siegel said. 

 

Levine said that with the proliferation of content distribution platforms, more writers are pitching shows for television, making the decision process even more difficult.

 

Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik added that show pitches are at an unprecedented level, but that the increase in projects is beginning to thin out the talent pool both in front of an behind the camera.

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