Confessions Of A Longtime TV Executive: Susanne Daniels On How The Development Process Should Change – Guest Column

Editors note: Susanne Daniels is the former Global Head of Original Content at YouTube and onetime president of MTV Networks, Lifetime Television Networks and The WB Network (now The CW). She is currently an adjunct professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

With the writers’ strike finally coming to an end, it strikes me that this may be a good opportunity to consider adjusting the process by which “Hollywood” evaluates what new films and TV shows should get the greenlight. Somehow in the ever-evolving pitch process, we seem to have replaced curiosity, collaboration and civility with a cool “show me what you got” attitude. It’s worth rethinking how to approach working with the creative community moving forward.

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For over 30 years I have worked as a media executive. Recently I’ve been teaching a course at the UCLA Anderson school about the streaming business. During the strike, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect and listen carefully to many friends and past colleagues talking about their experiences as writer-producers. They share a common story of industry buyers pressing their singular point of view in the process, effectively diluting the writers’ original voice and vision. Remember when one of the advantages of working at a streamer was “less interference?” Streamers, networks and studios alike seem to be inappropriately overstepping and in turn demoralizing the creative partners they work with, even those they have identified as potential or returning hit-makers.

I was lucky enough to start my career as an assistant to Lorne Michaels. In addition to watching Lorne break new characters each week on SNL, I got a front-row seat to the development of an unconventional sketch show called The Kids in the Hall. Lorne is a producer who earned the ability to gamble every week on unusual ideas. Without network interference, he fearlessly promotes unexpected points of view. At the time, I didn’t know just how rare that scenario was.

After my first week as a junior development executive at ABC, the head of the scripted division, a talented, smart guy named Stu Bloomberg, stuck his head into my windowless closet of an office to kindly welcome me to ABC. At that point in his career he had been responsible for launching countless hits on the network such as Moonlighting and The Wonder Years. He asked me if I had any questions for him. “Just one,” I naively responded. “How do you know if a show is going to be a hit?” Stu smiled and casually explained that no one ever knows and he had his share of hits and misses. He was right. At Lifetime, I would not have predicted that Army Wives would connect with audiences the way that it did. Later when I was at MTV, I was quite confident in a drama series called Finding Carter which never realized the potential I believed it had.

As executives search for that elusive next big hit, they steer creators through the development process with feedback in the form of the infamous network and studio notes. I’m not saying all notes are bad. Most notes are given with the best of intentions. And I am certainly guilty of imposing heavy-handed interference in my various jobs as a content buyer. I’ve argued about show titles with George Clooney and Joss Whedon. I pushed the team at Big Breakfast so ridiculously hard to cut a scene with an owl in The Middle of the Night Show on MTV that the producers felt compelled to send me a toy owl for my office. Just ask the patient producers behind Are You The One? if I’m shy about expressing my point of view.

This trend of interference may partially explain the exploding popularity of international content in that it is not subject to as many biased and limiting filters. Netflix recently announced a $2 billion-plus commitment to Korean content. My experience at YouTube was that our executives in international territories – particularly Korea and Japan – often took a strongly supportive approach with their creators. Fauda, Slow Horses, Squid Game … there’s an unadulterated sensibility to these shows which is admirable. Too many notes translates to diminished variety and impact among the final products which are offered to the viewers.

There are certainly some seasoned executives working today who recognize and appreciate the complex dynamics of this process and there is a reason they are successful. Yet writers often tell me that some buyers can be rude, dismissive and seemingly arrogant. When I was (briefly) an independent producer, I’ll never forget pitching a drama to a broadcast network and in the middle of the writer’s pitch – a well crafted, suspenseful thriller – one of the executives asked us to pause so she could tell her assistant she wanted him to order her a Chinese chicken salad for lunch.

In order to best summarize a strategy for moving forward post-strike, I’ve made a list of three guidelines that I offer to content buyers to review as they ready for a slew of writers who are eager to get back to work.

Writers and producers (and often agents) are not necessarily privy to what is going on internally and all the strategic pivots that your company may have recently considered. They work hard to prepare a pitch and it’s the job of the buyer to thoughtfully respond. Try not to look at your phone during pitches. Start meetings on time. Make a decision to pass or buy the pitch within 10 business days of hearing it. Have a general sense of what is being pitched in advance; be aware of the experience level of the producers. Share with the group that has come to pitch you exactly how much time you have so they don’t waste too much of the meeting on upfront “chit-chat” and can pace their pitch accordingly. Stay open-minded. When Peter Roth was running Warner Bros, he called me to “preview” the Smallville pitch. I remember telling him something along the churlish lines of “Superman didn’t feel exciting and fresh to me.” Later that week, I bought the show halfway through Gough & Millar’s remarkable pitch.

Ask yourself how you can best promote the writer’s unique vision and voice. Try to present your notes in the context of a maximum of five key issues and keep in mind that a creator may correct a problem you identify in the second act by making an adjustment in the first act – in other words leave it to them to figure out how to best address your concerns. Appreciate their efforts. As the development lead on a project, you also need to convene and rally your company’s internal team – marketing, production, casting, business affairs, etc. – and get everyone on the same page, contributing to bringing the project to life in the best light. If I learned anything from working with successful YouTubers, it is that once you get into business with people whom you believe have the ability to execute their creative ideas, it’s critical to give them space to explore and flourish.

Yes, the Netflix algorithm has correctly identified that the world does not have enough Adam Sandler movies. And yes, when I was at YouTube and heard the original Cobra Kai pitch, the platform’s stats supported my hunch that fans of the Karate Kid franchise were eager for the next chapter. But the algorithm is also a dangerous excuse to chase what’s worked in the past, rather than taking a leap of faith with something new. In some ways it reminds me of all those unremarkable copycat ensemble shows that debuted post NBC’s success with Friends (Caroline in the City and Boston Common to name a few). The streamers position themselves as having a superior process to legacy media companies, yet now that they have to pay the Wall Street piper, they have already begun to adopt more traditional strategies (i.e., less binging and more weekly episodic releases). In order to watch their bottom line, will the streamers take less risk and pursue broader-appeal content like the networks before them? We all know the story of the overwhelmingly negative testing results of Seinfeld and the unimpressive debut of Breaking Bad. There are countless examples of successful shows that had a rocky start. Making good TV isn’t easy. Instead of seeking the solution solely via technological disruptors, I encourage executives to take a leap and allow writer-producers to be frighteningly inventive. Lastly, move quickly to give promising shows a second season to come into their own.

The writers deserved changes in their deal; and while they did not ask for any of these types of accommodations as part of the strike negotiations, improving the development process will lead to more original, breakthrough content from partners who feel valued. In the words of the soulful Ava DuVernay, “Creativity is an energy. It’s a precious energy, and it’s something to be protected.”

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