Tuned In: It's a writers' world

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- At the risk of getting too inside baseball, this week we'll look at two behind-the-scenes phenomena about the way entertainment production is changing.

These may not be aspects of entertainment culture that viewers have noticed or given much thought to, but the ways viewers receive content have changed.

Writers medium

As television has become the preferred medium for viewers interested in sophisticated storytelling, the role of the writer has become more celebrated.

Once upon a time, TV writers were anonymous; now Aaron Sorkin ("The Newsroom"), Kurt Sutter ("Sons of Anarchy") and Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") are almost as famous as the stars of their shows.

A show's head writer is usually considered the showrunner, the top, behind-the-scenes creative producer. The buck stops with the showrunner.

Once a writer advances to the level of showrunner, ego often demands he/she maintain that status, even after the show is canceled. Writers will develop new shows with an eye toward re-establishing their showrunner status.

What's curious is that Showtime has persuaded several former showrunners to come aboard its series as writers willing to serve the vision of another showrunner. It started with "Homeland," which was staffed by a raft of writers who had previously run their own series, including Meredith Stiehm ("Cold Case") and the late Henry Bromell ("Rubicon").

That staffing scheme continued on "Ray Donovan," where "The Guardian" creator/showrunner and Mt. Lebanon native David Hollander came aboard as a writer tasked with serving the vision of series creator Ann Biderman.

"It's a new skill set to learn," Mr. Hollander said earlier this summer. "You learn very quickly your job is to support someone else's vision. You can lend an opinion but don't attach too deeply to it. ... I think I learned an enormous amount about being a showrunner by not being a showrunner."

He said that included learning to not acquiesce and "hang in for the things you love in a way I've never seen before." Mr. Hollander credited the "Homeland" model with what has followed on other Showtime series.

" 'Homeland' was a watershed. I don't think there was a lot of asking high-level people who come work together in a room beforehand," he said. "[Showtime Entertainment president] David Nevins must have a lot to say about creating an environment where he's asking people who create to be brave enough to bring in opinions that may be a little harder to ignore, and I think the result is certainly more experienced-looking and feeling shows."

It's also a chance to put writing skills to work in a writers' room rather than spending a year developing a new series alone.

At a late July Showtime party, Mr. Nevins said the appeal of premium cable series to high-level writers is similar to the appeal of such 13-episode programs to acclaimed actors: It's less time-consuming than a 22-episode broadcast network show, allowing for the writers to do other work, too.

"'Homeland' has made it OK for people who maybe five years ago would say, 'I'm only going to do my own thing, I'm not gonna write on somebody else's show,' " Mr. Nevins said. "Good actors want to work for good writers and good writers want to work for good actors."

These writers won't make as much money as they would as a showrunner but premium cable shows have the allure of prestige. And these writers are not committed to a show for as long as they would be if they were a showrunner, offering more flexibility to the writer and the opportunity to refresh a show's writing staff.

"These are people who are not necessarily going to be around for five years but you take the approach that change is always good for a show," Mr. Nevins said, pointing out that as some of the original "Homeland" writers have left they've been replaced by other TV vets, including Barbara Hall ("Joan of Arcadia") and Jim Yoshimura ("Homicide: Life on the Street"). "These people are arguably at the same level and you get new brains coming in. ... I don't think it's necessarily the best thing to have the same five people writing for five years on shows as demanding as ours."

Film vs. digital

It's not just the approach to writing that's changing in Hollywood. Advancing technology has an impact, too.

Tonight at 9 on WQED, PBS presents: "Side by Side: The Science, Art and Impact of Digital Cinema," a one-hour documentary hosted and produced by Keanu Reeves.

Previously released theatrically, the film has been trimmed for TV as it explores how different filmmakers feel about shooting their projects on film or shooting them digitally.

James Cameron, David Fincher, George Lucas, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Robert Rodriguez, Lana and Andy Wachowski and Steven Soderbergh are among the directors interviewed by Mr. Reeves.

"The two things that struck me was just the love of movies, the love of storytelling, and the interest in how we make our stories. And the other thing that came across to me really strongly was the debate," Mr. Reeves said at a press conference earlier this month. "Is it an evolution or revolution, this moment in time between this new [digital] technology coming up and this gold standard technology [of film]? With everyone involved with stories and storytelling, it's our lives. I think it comes across in the documentary, the personal passion for this idea for what's happening and how we're telling our stories."

Mr. Reeves said as digital technology continues to improve it finds new recruits willing to switch from film.

During a visit earlier this month to the set of TNT's new mobster drama "Mob City" (Dec. 4), director Frank Darabont revealed his own turnabout on the issue.

"We shot the pilot on Super 16 as I did on 'Walking Dead.' Every time I do approach something I would test the digital world again, and this is going to turn into a plug for the Red camera. This time when I tested it, I realized that all my arguments against it were going away," Mr. Darabont said. "And I realized that there was nothing left but advantages for it. We've gone from Super 16 film [on the pilot] to digital [on subsequent episodes]. So I'm one of the last holdouts, but I've made the switch over and it's been a fantastic thing."

MDA Telethon plans

In the past, the "MDA Telethon" was always a semi-syndicated event with local TV stations airing it and producing their own local cut-ins.

But this year, everything has changed. The "MDA Show of Strength" telethon will air for just two hours Sunday at 9 p.m., and it will air exclusively on ABC without any local cut-ins.

Celebrities expected to participate include Ryan Seacrest, Luke Bryan, the Backstreet Boys, Paula Abdul, Enrique Iglesias, Matthew Morrison and Austin Mahone.

'Millionaire' moves, news expands

The daytime syndicated game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" moves from WPXI to WPCW in September. Episodes with new host Cedric the Entertainer will air on WPCW at 1:30 and 3 p.m. weekdays beginning Monday.

On Monday WPXI will expand its noon news to one hour and will realign its lineup. "The Doctors" will air at 1 p.m. and the fourth hour of "Today" will move to 2 p.m.

Channel surfing

Jon Stewart will return from his summer hiatus from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" at 11 p.m. Tuesday following the second-season premiere of "Brickleberry" at 10:30 p.m. ... TV Land has canceled its sitcom "Happily Divorced," according to Deadline.com. ... Bravo renewed "Below Deck" for a second season; a reunion special is to air 10 p.m. Monday with "lost footage" from the first season at 10 p.m. Sept. 9. ... Former CNNer Howard Kurtz's new Fox News Channel media show, "MediaBuzz," will debut at 11 a.m. Sept. 8. ... Writer Gene Hong ("Community," "Allen Gregory"), a 1995 graduate of North Allegheny High School and a 1999 graduate of Allegheny College who also happens to be "The Voice" star Adam Levine's roommate, will write a new NBC pilot for Mr. Levine's production company. ... Actor George Eads is on leave from CBS's "CSI" for an unannounced duration after a heated exchange with one of the show's writers over his character's storyline. His character, Nick Stokes, will be MIA after the fourth episode of the new season. ... Actress Lisa Kudrow ("Friends," "Web Therapy") will have a recurring role on ABC's "Scandal" as a politician this fall. ... FX's "American Horror Story" returns for its third season at 10 p.m. Oct. 9. ... The series finale of Comedy Central's "Futurama" will air at 10 p.m. Wednesday with pre-show and postshow chats with cast and producers at 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. Wednesday at www.comedycentral.com/shows/futurama.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Person of Interest," "NOVA" and Betty White. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Grey's Anatomy" star Patrick Dempsey, actress Charisma Carpenter, Ricky Gervais' new series "Derek" and "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "Breaking Bad," the VMAs and fall TV nostalgia. Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.


TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.


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