showrunners – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Negotiating Authorship: Showrunners on Twitter VI Thu, 19 Dec 2013 15:00:25 +0000 SleepyHollowTwitterTo this point, my analysis of showrunners on Twitter has focused on exceptional circumstances defined by controversy or conflict. They have also focused on showrunners—Harmon, Sutter, Lawrence, Lindelof—who have translated their professional identities into tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, gaining fame—or infamy—for their social media presence.

However, while these showrunners and others like them have cultivated active and expansive social media profiles, the work of framing professional identity through Twitter is not reserved for the famous or infamous. While we can—and should—think of this in terms of below-the-line laborers, I also want to use this as an opportunity to explore the varied jobs under the “showrunner” umbrella. Although this title has become associated with those who create and subsequently shape the creative vision of a television series, showrunner also applies to the producers hired to “run” a show alongside its initial creator, laborers who are often less commonly associated with the rise of “showrunner” discourse within the industry.

Popular discourses on TV authorship have focused on figures like Matthew Weiner or Vince Gilligan who are decidedly “TV authors” in their control over the visions of their respective series. However, in the instance that the creator of a series lacks the experience, aptitude, or time necessary to fill the role of showrunner, more experienced writer/producers are brought in to shepherd the ship. While their labor is far from invisible, these showrunners are nonetheless unable to access certain authorship positions given that they are executing someone else’s vision, most often brought on after the pilot stage; similarly, those who created a series but are not serving the role of showrunner have limited access to discourses of authorship as the series moves forward. In the former case, although the rise of showrunner discourse has traditionally been associated with questions of authorship, here we see the day-to-day role of a showrunner imagined primarily through management, despite the fact that management involves considerable creative input; in the latter case, although creators maintain access to narratives of vision and creativity, they must also navigate the labor of those running the show day-to-day.

This reality reframes Twitter as a space where the respective roles of creators and “post-pilot showrunners” are negotiated. Fox’s Sleepy Hollow is the first credit for co-creator Phillip Iscove, who remains a supervising producer alongside showrunner Mark Goffman (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). Both are on Twitter, and both engage and interact with fans from a position of authorship by answering questions or offering teases of future episodes. However, both consistently avoid claiming sole authorship over the series: in these similar tweets sent to fans, they each emphasize the collaborative nature of the series’ development, with neither having full access to the sole-authored television ideal we imagine when evoking terms like creator or showrunner.

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Their careful deference to the other’s labor—and the labor of mega-producers Bob Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Len Weisman—is a necessary trait when working in a situation like this one. John Wirth has become known for playing a part in such situations, recently stepping in as the post-pilot showrunner for Fox’s Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles and NBC’s The Cape. In a recent conversation, Wirth spoke of his experience working alongside creator Josh Friedman on Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, and said “my job on that show was to help him make [his vision] happen, and fight all the studio battles and network battles on his behalf to promote his vision of the show.” At the same time, of course, Wirth was simultaneously contributing to his own professional identity, which this past year led AMC to hire Wirth to take over as showrunner on western Hell on Wheels for its third season.

Wirth’s experience on Hell on Wheels reinforces the need to consider the production culture surrounding showrunners on a case-by-case basis. While similar to Wirth’s past experience given that he is taking over a series created by someone else, the situation is unique in the complete absence of the original creators: Wirth is replacing the departing showrunner who previously worked alongside creators Joe and Tony Gayton, whose own contract on the series was not renewed after season two. As a result, although Wirth may not have created the series, he is not tied to someone else’s vision, and has access to sole authorship of its narrative direction moving forward in its recently completed third and upcoming fourth seasons.


An image Wirth shared from the set of Hell on Wheels, featuring series script supervisor Sabrina Paradis.

Wirth is not among the more active showrunners on Twitter, but it has nonetheless become a space—along with interviews like the one I conducted—where he can make these claims to authorship. He interacts with fans, tweets photos taken on the set in Calgary, Alberta, offers teases regarding his plans for the upcoming fourth season, and livetweeted Saturday night broadcasts of the series, all practices that are common among showrunners who have always been the sole creative vision behind a series. While these tweets serve a purpose as promotion for the series and as community-building exercises for the show’s fans, they also give Wirth to ability to separate his labor from discourses of management toward discourses of vision and creativity, a task that becomes easier without the need to defer to others’ labor.

As we head further into a period where showrunners engaging in self-disclosures through Twitter has become a common practice within the television industry, those self-disclosures are inevitably intersecting with parallel realities of the television industry. In the case of Iscove, Goffman, and Wirth, we are seeing existing, nuanced discourses of authorship functioning within the industry being reframed through social media practices not necessarily designed to communicate said nuance (unless we count the limited affordances of the biography section on Twitter, highlighted in the above image), requiring specific negotiation and investigation that will remain throughout the runs of their respective series.


The Personal Stakes of Social Media: Showrunners [Off] Twitter V Wed, 16 Oct 2013 20:09:44 +0000 LindelofTwitterIn considering Showrunners on Twitter over the past three years, my focus has been primarily on Twitter feeds as a space for professional identity and fan engagement. However, it is also important to acknowledge how Twitter feeds function as a liminal space in which creative industries workers not only define themselves as workers but also exercise their creativity. We can consider showrunners like Dan Harmon or Kurt Sutter not simply as showrunners who use Twitter as a form of engagement, but also individuals who use Twitter as an outlet for personal opinions and personal expression.

The deletion of Damon Lindelof’s Twitter account is similar to yet distinct from Sutter’s—ultimately temporary—hiatus from Twitter back in 2011. Both left Twitter after feeling their presence was becoming a drain on them both personally and professionally, but the difference is where that drain was coming from. While Sutter was largely dealing with the media reporting on his tweets as provocations and amplifying their inherent antagonism (often without proper context), Lindelof faced consistent and intensive criticism on Twitter for his role in divisive projects like Lost and Prometheus.

Rightfully, media reports on Lindelof’s departure foreground his engagement with his critics; Lindelof himself wrote a highly personal piece in The Hollywood Reporter about his experience responding to a new wave of criticism regarding Lost’s ending in the wake of Breaking Bad’s more linear—and some argued more satisfying—conclusion. In the piece, he frames himself as an addict, suggesting “alcoholics are smart enough to not walk into a bar. My bar is Twitter.” He used the piece to strike a deal with the “haters”: he will stop discussing the end of Lost, and they will stop badgering him about it. He acknowledges “there’s no way everyone is going to read, let alone agree with this deal,” while nonetheless promising to hold up his end of the bargain.

Sutter’s Twitter experience revealed how showrunners face a distinct level of scrutiny when sharing opinions on social media, but Sutter has rarely faced intense, highly public criticism from viewers of Sons of Anarchy or other series he has worked on like The Shield. Lindelof’s Twitter account, by comparison, became a lightning rod for spurned Lost fans or jilted Prometheus viewers who saw the service as a relatively anonymous—or at least consequence-free—space in which to air their frustrations directly to the creator. What he said on social media was on some level beside the point; what drove him off Twitter—at least based on the evidence available—was not a response to what he said, but rather a response to his Twitter feed existing as a rallying point for his critics.

Considered in terms of professional identity, Lindelof’s departure from Twitter removes a space where he could frame his professional identity and engage with fans, which may have been useful when expanding to his first post-Lost television project The Leftovers on HBO next year. In an age where a Twitter presence is expected, and where the value of Twitter has been capitalized on by showrunners like Scandal’s Shonda Rhimes, Lindelof’s choice is contrary to dominant industry logics.

However, I want to rearticulate showrunner Twitter accounts away from their professional use and toward their personal utility. Showrunners are often on Twitter for professional reasons, but these are more often than not combined with a personal interest in social media as a form of creative expression. Although all tweets function as a form of labor, which remains tied to and thus contributes to a professional identity, much of that labor is also understood as pleasure. When a showrunner chooses to remove themselves from Twitter, they are removing themselves from not only professional opportunity but also a space for self-expression.

d1772786e588dafb97c19b1f3b298e36Damon Lindelof was an active Twitter user in contexts beyond tweeting about his labor. In one of his most infamous runs in February of this year, he became obsessed with a studded yellow baseball hat worn by Justin Bieber. In a day-long riff, Lindelof told joke after joke, enraging fans in the middle of the “Lindelof-Bieber” venn diagram and drawing major media coverage; he even changed his Twitter profile photo to an image of him wearing the hat in question. Lindelof also sarcastically retweeted the official Twitter account for cat food brand Fancy Feast, obsessed with the idea someone was being paid to tweet about cat food, and livetweeted Syfy’s Sharknado.

Lindelof’s Twitter identity was that of the benevolent troll, a cultural commentator as much as a professional television writer; commenting on popular culture and issues pertaining to social media, Lindelof’s tweets were neither about nor tied to his labor directly, and instead offered a different form of expression than that offered through his day-to-day employment. Shawn Ryan, who like Lindelof is currently a showrunner without a show on the air, uses his Twitter account to engage with his sports fandom, even organizing a fantasy football league for followers with prizes from his shows. These uses of social media marry the professional with the personal, offering a space for not only the performance or management of distinctly professional identities but also the negotiation of those identities within a more casual, personalized space.

It remains possible that Lindelof—like Sutter—will return to social media, perhaps around the time when The Leftovers debuts on HBO and the channel pressures him to leverage his following to help launch the series. However, Lindelof’s case offers a distinct blending of the professional and personal, where his Twitter account became both a space of personal expression valuable to Lindelof and as a space in which audience frustration with his professional output could latch itself onto a specific person. In leaving Twitter, Lindelof sacrifices the—messy, perhaps unhealthy—personal value of Twitter in order to remove the personal from the criticism swirling outside of his control online, a sacrifice more meaningful to his identity as a showrunner than the inability to remind people Lost is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix.


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Report From the TV Academy Faculty Seminar (Part 1) Wed, 21 Nov 2012 16:55:43 +0000 Every fall, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation invites twenty Media Studies and Production faculty members out to Los Angeles for a week of panels and studio visits hosted by TV industry insiders with the intention of fostering ties between the industry and academia and offering professors relevant information to pass on to students who hope to build careers in the entertainment industry. Across two Antenna posts this week, six attendees share some impressions from this year’s seminar, which was held on November 5-9. Part One offers teaching takeaways from the week.

Matthew J. Smith, Wittenberg University:

Curatorial. It’s a curious word that I must admit I don’t recall having used myself to describe anything that I do as a teacher of media, but it’s one a number of the presenters involved in the Faculty Seminar used to describe their roles in selecting and presenting materials for and about television. I had never thought of the work of television producers as likened to the informed discretion of museum and art gallery directors, but the usage makes perfect sense now. Each selection in terms of what goes into a finished television production is borne of that curatorial sensibility, as producers make paradigmatic choices among a host of alternatives and exercise their insight to achieve a product that—when at its best—proves to help storytelling reach its ideal impact.

As I thought more about our week, curatorial also seems to be a perfect term to describe the avocations of many elements of the experience. When we arrived at the Academy headquarters at the start of the seminar, our first stop was the “Hall of Fame Plaza” where statues, busts, and reliefs of some of the most potent figures in television history were thoughtfully laid out over an acre of North Hollywood real estate. We also met employees of the Academy whose job it was to preserve the history of the medium. Karen Herman heads the Archive of American Television, a phenomenal oral history project whose fruits are online and available at the click of a mouse. There was John Leverence, Vice President of Awards, who has coordinated the primetime Emmys since the early 1980s. He introduced us to the history of the statuette and the awards program. And then there was our trip to Warner Bros. Studios, where our guide, production designer John Shaffner, gave us a tour of the historic studio. Outside each sound stage hangs a plaque commemorating the individual television series produced therein, including one where Shaffner had designed the sets for Friends.

Although much of our week was focused on how television is produced and where it might go next, I was gratified to encounter a good deal of the history of how we got to this point. I’m happy to curate such experiences into my own teaching of the medium and its history henceforth.


Todd Sodano, St. John Fisher College:

Over the last decade, storytellers have flocked to HBO, Showtime, Starz, and Cinemax, not merely because of premium cable networks’ inherent freedom to use strong language, sexual content, and brutal violence. Rather, their freedom to tell a compelling story on those platforms is paramount. Jenni Sherwood, senior vice president of development and production at HBO, said on a panel focusing on HBO’s Game Change that decisions at her network are made based on a script: “Where is the intelligence in this? [Where is] the creativity? How is it going to be received?” Neither she nor anybody else who works in cable and who spoke at the Faculty Seminar yearns to offer nudity, language, or violence simply because they can. Greg Yaitanes, showrunner of the forthcoming Cinemax series Banshee, said these elements “come from a place of character or story.” HBO painfully learned more than a decade ago (see The Mind of the Married Men – actually, don’t see it) that having four men speak candidly about sex and relationships wasn’t a recipe for instant success just because it mirrored the spirit of Sex and the City.

Variety’s Brian Lowry, who moderated the showrunner panel discussion with Yaitanes, Cynthia Cidre (TNT’s Dallas) and DeAnn Heline (ABC’s The Middle), acknowledged that writers boast how the best part of working in pay cable is not having act breaks. In advertiser-supported television, the tail (commercials) wags the dog (programming); conforming to this traditional structure can challenge and frustrate the writer. Yaitanes, who used to run Fox’s House, said that, as a writer, eventually “you start thinking you’re there to fill in the spaces between the ad breaks.” The ability to pursue narratives that avoid the six-act structure is strong incentive for storytellers. Starz CEO Chris Albrecht (formerly of HBO) told Lowry that the absence of the ad breaks was the most important freedom on his old network. Perhaps one of the most important lessons to pass along to our students who are pursuing careers in film and television is to understand storytelling and structures. Cidre declared, “Structure is key. Who wants what, and who’s keeping them from getting it? This is the basic structure of everything.”

Randy Caspersen, Northern Illinois University:

Each of my visits to Los Angeles becomes more bittersweet than the last. I lived there for nine years where I worked in television production. My best friends still live there. While I was making new friends and learning a ton about television biz at the Academy of Television Art & Sciences Foundations Faculty Seminar by day, I moonlit with friends at night. One, a big producer on the biggest new competition show on television, launched me into the audience of a live taping. Another friend, a make-up artist for the highest-rated show in syndication, recounted her recent staph infection from breast expanders after her double mastectomy. My oldest friend, a beloved roommate from college undergraduate days, told me about how he has been unemployed on and off and just borrowed $300 from his parents while standing in front of his bookcase which uses two of his three Emmys as bookends.

When I returned to Northern Illinois University, I prepared my lecture for my Introduction to Studio Production students with two slides. The first is a “Greetings from Los Angeles” postcard circa 1940’s which shows the city name in block letters with the city’s famous buildings illustrated inside each letter. The second slide, a modern re-imagining of the same, filled the letters in with cartoony portraits of a drug bust, police chase, an overdone plastic surgery victim, an overcrowded freeway and a prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard. I launched into my lecture about the great things I saw during the Academy’s seminar—the showrunners, the above- and below-the-line job panels, the tours of studios and special effects houses, the fever surrounding emerging technologies—along with the caveat that there is a dark side to this land of dreams.

We got a lot of advice to bring home to our students from the very talented industry professionals. Internships are a great start. You must start at the bottom, work your way up through the ranks and hold out for a decent job for at least a ten-year period. The key thread to everything—whether you are the production designer for The Big Bang Theory or the showrunner for Dallas or the DP for American Horror Story—was that everyone is storyteller at heart and that television is no longer cinema’s simpler, uglier sister.

My students still wonder: what is that “dark side of LA” and “how am I going to make it?” I wonder that question, too. I left the city because I never saw myself “making it” even though I was a producer on a hit show. Maybe the greatest lesson of the seminar came from Nashville executive producer R.J. Cutler who said, crude paraphrasing here, that the people who make it aren’t the geniuses but those who are willing to stick it out over time and work the connections they made when they first came to town. He said genuine curiosity into how human beings behave continues to drive him toward creating non-fiction and narrative media. Oh, yeah, and if you make it, there is big money in that creation. I guess the dark truth of LA is that it will always be looking for how it can monetize all creative media pursuits. And so it is nice to visit Los Angeles and also nice to leave.


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Promoting an Uncertain Future: Showrunners (on Hiatus) on Twitter IV Thu, 05 Jan 2012 14:38:39 +0000 Community and ABC's Cougar Town on hiatus, their respective showrunners' Twitter accounts become key outlets for implicitly or explicitly encouraging fan involvement and/or activism.]]> Although not every showrunner explicitly positions his or her tweets as promotional in nature, a showrunner’s Twitter account is nonetheless a way viewers gain information that might enhance their connection with that series. While many showrunners avoid appearing as outright shills, only selling their show in a self-aware manner which can be passed off as a public performance of sorts, there is nonetheless an implicit expectation that part of a showrunner’s Twitter mandate is to encourage people to watch his or her show (and thus support his or her livelihood).

In recent months, however, a number of showrunners have faced a new challenge, in that they suddenly (or still) don’t have a show on the air to promote. In November, NBC announced its midseason schedule and neglected to provide a place for Community (a show created by Dan Harmon, who I discussed in the second installment of this series), while ABC announced its midseason schedule and still had no official starting date for Cougar Town, which sat on the bench for the fall season as co-creators Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel kept tweeting. Neither show has been canceled, although the latter did suffer an episode reduction, but the spectre of the “h-word” – hiatus – nonetheless looms large.

Part of the value of Twitter during such a hiatus is that you have the ability to keep your show in the public eye. Immediately upon news of Community’s hiatus, a #SaveCommunity hashtag emerged (in addition to #sixseasonsandamovie, which directly references a joke from an episode of the show, among others), which continues to be used a few months later as users link to fan petitions, YouTube videos, and other forms of audience engagement with the series.

However, while Harmon has not been silent regarding the series’ hiatus, these efforts have been driven largely by fans themselves. Harmon has certainly engaged with the discussions, like responding to a fan suggestion that the show be funded through a model similar to Louis C.K.’s recent successful self-distribution experiment, but he has not taken an active role in getting #SaveCommunity trending and has not dramatically changed his Twitter behavior to reflect the show’s new position.

By comparison, Lawrence and Biegel have chosen a more proactive approach, taking promotion into their own hands. When ABC announced their schedule for midseason and neglected to find a place for Cougar Town, instead choosing to push critically reviled Work It onto the air earlier this week, Lawrence was – and remains – unflinching in his frustration with the situation, and together with Biegel organized a multi-city screening event in which select groups of fans (chosen through Twitter and other social networks) are invited to special screeenings where they can hang out with cast and crew and, perhaps more importantly, watch a collection of Cougar Town episodes that ABC is choosing to keep on the shelf until later in the Spring.

There is a longer post to be written about these viewing parties in and of themselves, including their geographic dispersion (driven at least initially by the location of cast and crew over the holidays as opposed to traditional metrics like population) and the kinds of spaces (including wine bars, fitting given the role of wine-drinking in the series) chosen, but I am primarily interested in the leveraging of Twitter as a promotional tool (and suggest anyone interested in these questions more generally check out Candace Moore’s essay on parties organized for The L Word in Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries). This is not the first such campaign the two have organized on Twitter, although it is unquestionably the most involved (including custom Cougar Town Tour 2012 t-shirts for the lucky winners who have been able to attend the screenings, intended as promotional tools for them to wear in the months ahead). They recently organized a campaign soliciting fan-made promos when they felt that ABC was under-promoting the return of their series last April, offering signed scripts and other rewards to those who made the best amateur promos and posted them to YouTube.

While this use of fan labor practices is not uncommon, it is important to note that this is the showrunners interacting directly with fans rather than an officially sanctioned network marketing campaign. While not quite as organized, Harmon and other showrunners equally support this kind of behavior by linking to mash-up videos and other fan-made material, thus contributing to their spreadability and supporting non-traditional modes of promotion.

While the future of both shows remains uncertain, and it’s possible both will be renewed despite their respective hiatuses, that uncertainty nonetheless pushes fans into an activist mode, especially after the recent success of campaigns both before (CBS’ Jericho) and after (NBC’s Chuck) Twitter became a prominent discourse. While Lawrence and Biegel may be playing a more active role in cultivating this activism through their interactions with fans (and critics, planning their own renegade event at the annual January Press Tour after ABC chose not to offer a panel), directly involving them in organized efforts to promote the series’ eventual (but unclear) return, Harmon’s previous interactions with fans nonetheless position him as a central figure in encouraging and facilitating the activism that fans hope will keep the show alive – many Twitter users will tag Harmon in their posts using the #SaveCommunity hashtag in the hopes that he will retweet them (or, less cynically, simply to let him know that they are supportive of his show).

Indeed, for a showrunner to be on Twitter at all creates a regular interaction between show and audience which lays the foundation for simple involvement to become full-blown activism in the unfortunate circumstance that the series finds itself on the brink of cancellation. While we have not yet seen a full-blown fan campaign emerge predominantly on Twitter – with Chuck spreading largely through blogs and other social networks – and I would personally hope (given my appreciation for these two shows) that we are not on the verge of two full-blown case studies, showrunners on Twitter have helped create the networks necessary for those campaigns to exist and, potentially, flourish.


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The Rise and Fall of @Sutterink: Showrunners [Off] Twitter III Sun, 14 Aug 2011 12:55:48 +0000 With Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter’s announcement on Saturday that he would be “pulling the plug” on his now deleted Twitter feed, it is the end of an era (albeit a short one).

When I looked at Sutter’s twitter feed in the first installment of this series last fall, I posited that there might come a time when Sutter’s brash online persona would overshadow his own show, and it seems that we have reached that point. However, while it was perhaps inevitable that Sutter’s lack of a filter would result in his Twitter account becoming a liability, I can’t shake this feeling that the rise and fall of “@sutterink” has more to do with public perceptions of Twitter than with his actual commentary.

In recent months, online media outlets have taken a sudden interest in Sutter’s Twitter feed, with sites ranging from The Hollywood Reporter to TMZ taking series of tweets and presenting them as news. It started in July when Sutter went on an extended rant regarding the Emmy nominations (where his show, including his wife Katey Sagal, was ignored), and it continued last week, when Sutter shared his opinion on the recent controversy surrounding AMC and The Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont. TMZ shared the former story with the headline “’Anarchy’ Creator PISSED Over Emmy Snub,” while pitched the latter tweets as “‘Sons of Anarchy’s’ Kurt Sutter Goes Off on Frank Darabont’s Firing,” and both stories were picked up by multiple outlets.

What’s interesting is that Sutter’s rants have not really become more prominent in the past year. As I noted in my initial post, Sutter has ranted about the Emmys before, just in the form of a blog post instead of a series of tweets. Sutter has even recently added outlets for his rants, including a YouTube series entitled “WTF Sutter” that features the same kind of profanity-laden honesty his fans have come to expect. However, Sutter’s blog has not been subject to the same media scrutiny, and these outlets have also ignored his YouTube videos.

In what Sutter has pitched as his final tweet, he suggests that Twitter is simply the wrong outlet for someone without a filter. He writes that “ultimately, me having an instantaneous outlet for my darker impulses is not a good thing. i’m a guy who needs filters. lots of them.” In his latest WTF Sutter video, where he foreshadowed his departure from Twitter, he expands on this logic before answering some fan questions:

Sutter’s departure from Twitter says less about Sutter and more about the ways in which Twitter is perceived by media outlets and by the public at large. Over the course of the past year, we’ve seen the media start to notice Twitter, and they’re starting to find ways to use it: the service has become a resource for cable news outlets (which Jon Stewart has criticized on The Daily Show), and I’d argue that the increased attention to Sutter’s tweets is a product of the media’s search for the best way to leverage this form of social media.

However, I’d also argue that the way Sutter’s tweets were presented is a reflection of a public understanding of Twitter as a soapbox. Sutter’s lament in his YouTube video is that he is no longer able to have a “conversation,” which might refer to the fact that the reports about his tweets rarely include any discussion of the context in which they appeared: TMZ wasn’t talking about the people on Twitter who were encouraging Sutter’s comments about the Emmys (including critics and other showrunners), and The Hollywood Reporter wasn’t interested in the fact that Sutter retweeted a number of critical responses to his AMC-related comments in the days following his initial statements.

I would not necessarily say that this has resulted in Sutter’s comments being taken “out of context,” because even he argues that he has not necessarily been misrepresented by these reports. What I would say is that Sutter’s comments have been filtered through a perception of Twitter as a place for rants and provocations, a place where a Twitter feed is a direct glimpse into the Id (as reflected by coverage of the Anthony Weiner scandal). The story isn’t the actual nature of Sutter’s comments or what they say about the Academy system and the situation at AMC: rather, the story is that someone famous has said something controversial in an outlet that has become known for its controversy, and that has now become publicized based on this perception.

As someone who has written about Sutter’s tweets in the past, I am not suggesting that his tweets should be beyond reproach: he is responsible for what he says within this online space, and I think holding him accountable for that is perfectly reasonable. However, these news reports aren’t interested in holding him accountable; they’re interested in exploiting his comments as gossip, turning them into news without exploring the context of the conversation or even considering their veracity.

Kurt Sutter hasn’t changed since his Twitter feed first appeared, or since my first Antenna piece about it was published. What has changed is the amount of attention paid to Twitter outside of Twitter – Sutter has four times as many followers now than he did then, but that doesn’t take into account (as Sean Duncan noted in the comments on the initial piece) the people who are made aware through outside sources reporting these tweets. And now that this includes major media outlets interested in tapping into the zeitgeist, public figures like television showrunners must reconcile their comments with a mass media that is still trying to figure out what Twitter is, what it’s used for, and how they can best exploit it.

And when you’re Kurt Sutter, that’s a situation in which pulling the plug might be the only viable option if you don’t want your Twitter feed to become a story in and of itself. While it’s possible that Sutter is simply posturing, and that this is a bluff designed to reframe the media narrative (and draw the sympathy of his followers who are pleading him to reconsider), it nonetheless reflects on the changing state of Twitter as discourse.

Addendum – September 7th, 2011

Today, after the ratings for the fourth season premiere of Sons of Anarchy showed a 20% increase, Sutter officially returned to Twitter – this was after an initial pledge to return at 250,000 followers and a subsequent pledge to return at 66,666 were both suggested and then altered.

On his blog, Sutter discussed his logic behind his early return before it happened, suggesting that “I’m…looking for a graceful re-entry into Twitter that doesn’t make me look like a complete f**king douchebag for pulling the plug, then a month later, coming back.  Truth is, I miss the fan interaction and since my Facebook hacking, unplugging from Twitter has been counter-intuitive to keeping an SOA presence in social media.”

While his return does reflect the performance elements of Sutter’s Twitter feed which led to the media attention and the earlier departure, and could be considered hypocritical by some, his justification focuses on the importance of social media in terms of communicating with fans and promoting the series to potential viewers within these social media spaces.


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A Showrunner Goes To War: Doctor Who and the Almost Fans? Mon, 06 Jun 2011 08:00:48 +0000 With episode 6.06 having transmitted in the US, and 6.07 – the ‘game-changing’ midseries finale – already broadcast in the UK, this week seems like a good time to ponder the issue of Doctor Who spoilers. Continuing my focus on authorship, I want to consider how the online fan culture of spoiler-hunting impacts on notions of authorial craft and control.

Showrunner Steven Moffat recently berated Doctor Who fans for posting full details of episodes one and two after the series six launch: “can you imagine how much I hate them? …It’s only fans who do this – or they call themselves fans – I wish they could go and be fans of something else!” Seemingly having a “Bastards” moment (Russell T. Davies’s infamous title for chapter three of The Writer’s Tale discussing Internet fandom), rebellious fans were once again the problem.

I’m not interested in whether Moffat was right or wrong, but rather in the performative nature of his statement – in what it does more than what it says. Back in Triumph of a Time Lord I identified the “info-war” that’s been symbolically fought between the fans and producers of NuWho. Sections of fandom have consistently sought spoilers ahead of broadcast, acting as pre-textual poachers by contesting the interests of brand guardians long before the TV text has unfolded. Already, following Moffat’s critique, Internet fandom has divided into collaborative and rebel camps: Doctor Who Online has declared itself “spoiler-free”, while Gallifrey Base continues to allow spoilers.

Readers may want to offer nuances here, but I’d hazard that US showrunners are rarely known for publicly criticising their shows’ fandoms, and are quick to apologise if “dipshits” hits the fans. Yet Doctor Who has form on this; Moffat is following in the footsteps of Davies. Online fans might regularly criticise production teams, but I’m not aware of Radio Five Live mounting a feature off the back of this, nor BBC Breakfast Time inviting Benjamin Cook in to discuss what (Moffat’s invented forum regular) Killdestroyer208 thought of last week’s ep. The showrunner’s cultural power extends beyond controlling what goes into the text, and into the terrain of the eminently newsworthy, especially when it’s a ‘showrunner hates fans’ riff on ‘man bites dog’.

What interests me is why Doctor Who seems especially prone to this, and from producers who are themselves life-long fans. Is it the perfectionism and the idealism of the fan – transposed into a production mentality – that gives rise to such ‘ranting’? It certainly shares the edge and the sting of habituated fan commentary. Is it the fans’ habitus, the critical voice of fan culture itself, that is on show (albeit professionally recoded) when Moffat and Davies chide sectors of fandom? To my ears, at least, they sound more than a touch like disgruntled fans unhappy at developments, assuming the freedom to say so very loudly as if posting to a forum rather than writing a book or speaking to a BBC reporter. Steven Moffat is Killdestroyer208… but what would have been forum grumblings now have a very different cultural reach.

Commentary has pondered the sense of entitlement felt by sectors of online fandom – but what of the entitled (fan-)showrunner? These privileged creatives seek to control a brand, but they can’t (yet) control how their shows are read, nor how audiences behave. Moffat’s stance implies that, for the show’s benefit, he should be given a degree of spoiler-impeding control over both fans and the press. And the press may well play ball; they are industrially dependent on good will in order to gain access to preview discs, interviews, launches and the like. Fans, however, are less malleable; in the digital age they inhabit an informational economy – seeking spoiler information; scouring agents’ pages for casting news; watching filming in public locations, and tweeting outsider info. And this is what Steven Moffat’s dismay flags up: industry outsiders can’t be silenced so readily.

There’s another important context here, though: the BBC as public service TV. US commercial television operates within a discursive context of ‘serving the consumer audience’. Even today, I’m less sure that BBC TV drama and its production cultures inhabit that same world, for good or ill. Moffat seems to work within a paternalistic value system where audiences don’t know what’s best for them, and where they need to be shown how to behave. This resolutely public service voice wants to set the rules of the narrative game in advance for citizen-fans. Not coincidentally, I think, Moffat’s initial complaint about these detailed spoilers – in his ‘Production Notes’ column for Doctor Who Magazine 434 – also seized upon the “bungling, ham-fisted English” (2011:6) used by fans to write up eps one and two. Moffat isn’t quite calling these ‘almost fans’ stupid, but their literacy is certainly called into question. This schoolteacher-showrunner isn’t just entertaining the audience, he’s educating and informing the naughty kids too. Properly disciplined, tutored and creative screenwriting calls for properly disciplined, tutored and creative audiences.

Well, you can send a love letter to the fans, e.g. ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ recently, but telling them how to express their love? “I order you to love the show in this way (spotting the in-jokes and intertextualities crafted for you) but not in this way (sharing detailed spoilers which have fan-cultural currency and status)”. Series five and six may be exploring the catchphrase “Silence will fall”, but where Doctor Who spoilers are concerned this remains wishful thinking. Perhaps contemporary TV authorship means losing definitive control over the parcelling out of narrative shocks and surprises, and accepting that sections of fandom will frequently pre-view beloved shows. Though these fans may, like gangers, become devalued replicas or simulacra of fandom in the eyes of production personnel, they’re not about to dissolve away. Producer-versus-fan tension rumbles on, when a showrunner goes to war.


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Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who: Fan Service Meets the Junkyard Look Mon, 16 May 2011 05:05:23 +0000

‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is a title that plays with fan knowledge. It cites a fake Doctor Who episode title from the show’s history, except this time it’s canon. With corridors. And roundels. As a mission statement for an episode by Neil Gaiman, the title itself proffers fan service. It promises consistency with Gaiman’s author-function, reperforming values linked to his ‘brand’. Writing in The Neil Gaiman Reader (2007:122), Jason Erik Lundberg argues that Gaiman’s work has been marked by “the old switcheroo” – an emphasis on character reversal. Though one might argue this is a convention of weird tales, what’s striking about ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is just how much its addition to the mythos of Who relies precisely on reversal. It’s even thematically signalled in the quarrel between the Doctor and Idris – while the TARDIS doors bear the legend ‘Pull To Open’, the Doctor is chided for doing the reverse, and pushing his way in. When push comes to shove, this episode also reverses the show’s foundational scenario: rather than the Doctor stealing the TARDIS to see the universe, it’s the other way round, with the sentient Ship stealing a Time Lord in order to go travelling.

There’s an illusion of transformative work here – although this seems to alter the rules of the Whoniverse, in fact it leaves all the game pieces in play as they were. As such, it feels like the perfect piece of media tie-in writing, illustrating what M. J. Clarke’s article on the subject calls a “paradoxical situation” whereby tie-in writers are called upon to add “elements to a series… [in an injunction that’s] fundamentally at odds with the… mandate of playing within the rules” (2009:447). ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ finds an inventive way of playing this game by giving the TARDIS a narrative voice – filling in blanks in the programme’s hyperdiegesis which have been previously hinted at (TARDIS sentience) yet never dwelt upon. While this supplements canonical knowledge of the Doctor’s departure from Gallifrey, it doesn’t actually change anything. The events of the Doctor’s back-story are affirmed yet re-inflected – recoded in line with established fan knowledge. Likewise, the bubble universe conceit narratively justifies a shifted, Gaimanesque tone while insulating the established Whoniverse from this authorial voice. The TARDIS is thrown into a human body; Gaiman’s world-building is thrown into a bubble outside usual storyscapes. And the episode’s special, Gaiman-y status is made visible on-screen via blatantly budget-saving reuse of the Ood and old control room: “look”, this announces, “I’ve written something so ambitious I’ve ripped out the show’s budget matrix”.

Again like the perfect tie-in writer, Gaiman blurs the line between fan and producer, not only in terms of his own Who fandom, but also via “using fan-created artifacts as short-cuts in… research processes” (Clarke 2009:444). Interviewed in SFX #209, Gaiman notes that he called upon the services of a Doctor Who expert, fan Steve Manfred, in order to incorporate TARDIS continuity (2011:82). Similarly, tie-in writers interviewed by Clarke attested to the need to create stories which meshed perfectly with continuity. These writers were often fans of the franchise they were contributing to (Clarke 2009:443), drawing on their knowledge and/or asking other fans for help with hyperdiegetic information. Clarke’s sociology of culture account accords perfectly with Gaiman’s working practices, suggesting the latter has internalised industry pressures.

But, I hear you cry, what about Gaiman as auteur? What of the fact that he’s writing for the Doctor himself, on telly and everything, rather than creating a tie-in? Well, Gaiman observed in 2003: “It’s probably a good thing that I’ve never actually got my hands on the Doctor. I would have unhappened so much” (in McAuley 2003:9). And here’s the thing: when he does get to write for TV Doctor Who, Gaiman doesn’t “unhappen” back-story at all. Rather, he rehappens it, giving a new perspective on established events and nesting an alternate story story (rather than an alternate history story) within ‘The Doctor’s Wife’. This is why Neil Gaiman’s Who is more akin to a tie-in than we might expect; Gaiman would certainly be licensed to “unhappen” stuff if he was the showrunner. This is exactly what Russell T. Davies did when he took over and promptly unhappened Gallifrey (whilst Moffat unhappened the entire universe in his first series). But as a contributor to a show run by others, Gaiman is structurally in the position of a tie-in writer despite creating a TV episode. He has to leave things as he found them: the TARDIS can acquire a human voice, but come episode end, everything’s put back in the (Police) box, bar one new mysterious line of dialogue: “the only water in the forest is the river”. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if, in an episode about the TARDIS’s voice, Rory misheard a word or two in this final message?).

Gaiman’s skill lies in how expertly he resolves the “paradox” faced by the tie-in writer, or the contributor to someone else’s show. Idris allows him to simultaneously “add value” (the TARDIS speaks) and honour minute details of TARDIS continuity. Myth has often been defined in media studies as a resolution of contradictions. And in this sense, Gaiman creates new myth in his franchise contributions – he finds surprising ways to resolve contradictions between continuity and “added value”. Here is an author-function premised, in part, on cleverly recoding franchise mythology.

Showrunners might encode meaning in formats and arcs, but the writer-as-hired-hand is called upon to analyse a different creative problem: how to patch something in which fits the current format and how to put a distinctive stamp or tattoo on that contribution. Recoding – pull not push; the TARDIS not the Doctor – is Gaiman’s mythic resolution to the tie-in paradox. In short, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is fan service as bricolage; shiny novelty assembled from the bits in continuity’s junkyard.


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Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who: Challenging the Format Theorem? Mon, 02 May 2011 05:31:15 +0000 Just so you know, and to avoid any ambiguity, today’s blog entry ends with this concluding sentence: “Yes, Steven Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is becoming ever more repetitive.” Jump ahead and check, if you like. There, see.

Because the opening two-parter of series six, ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ and ‘Day of the Moon’, has been accused in certain sectors of online fandom and in some newspaper reviews of rehashing past successes. The Doctor is killed, but time travel shenanigans mean that the show can go on (or has gone on); monsters have a sight-related gimmick; the Doctor is placed in something of a rom-com context; and River Song cautions against spoilers and appears with her customary introductory line, as well as (literally, this time) diving into the TARDIS. Non-linear storytelling, plot mechanics, and brisk dialogue all tussle for dominance. Now with added ‘perfect prison’ motif.

And as Moffat’s vision for Who moves further out of the long shadow cast by the Russell T. Davies era, contrasts between the two showrunners come into sharper focus. Davies’s authorship twisted industry common-sense into art; he turned down the sci-fi, upped emotional realism, and avoided scaring off the mass audience. He also coded his own voice into a range of tightly restricted formats; the light season-opening romp; the quirky, experimental story; the big, brash finale; the mid-series filler. But whereas Davies’s masterstroke was to write with the restrictions of industry common-sense, Moffat often writes against industrial norms for ‘mainstream’ TV. His authorship is more combative, more assertive, restlessly looking to think the unthinkable and so write what Doctor Who‘s format theorem tells him cannot be written.

To wit – kill the Doctor in the first ten minutes or so of the series, but structure narrative gaps into the event that can be revisited later (what do the astronaut and the Doctor discuss before his death?). Casually throw ontological puzzles into the mix: was it really pre-1967 at Graystark Hall Orphanage? What was the hatch all about? (There might almost have been a Lost reference or gag lurking there). Oh, and end episode one of a family show with the Doctor’s companion shooting a child asking for help. As Paul Kirkley has pointed out, this hardly presses the right demographic buttons or readily hails a target audience. Unlike Davies, who was the consummate integrationist, pulling together storytelling needs and industry contexts and pressures, Moffat pits his wordy cleverness and narrative complexity against forms of ‘mainstream’ industry wisdom. Not wholly, of course; the gambit of a series opener working like a finale does have a certain industrial logic to it, as well as creatively playing with established ways of doing Who. But Moffat challenges the TV industry establishment far more notably than did series one through four. He’s the Tom Baker to Russell T. Davies’s Jon Pertwee.

Just so you know, this blogged argument doesn’t really begin with the sentence “Just so you know” above. Its discussion has a prequel; a response to last year’s season finale for Antenna, where I argued that Moffat’s skill as a writer is to misdirect, and to separate moments of seeing and understanding such that the audience typically experiences a feeling of ‘ah! How could I not have spotted that!’ But the difficulty for fan audiences is that favoured tricks used by a writer can become familiar, anticipated, and rapidly recognised. Ironically, when the Silence are revealed here, after a season-long wait recapped in flashback, they represent the monster as ultimate anti-spoiler; nobody can remember them a moment after they’ve been seen. Though this feels vaguely reminiscent of the Weeping Angels, it is a repetition of authorial vision and distinction; authorship itself as a brand of the uncanny – indeed, as the ultimate anti-spoiler – where the longed-for “reveal” proves to be startling… yet in a somehow familiar, already-known guise.

For, NuWho has been distinguished from its classic predecessor, above all else, by virtue of becoming ‘authored’ television. And authored TV implies – in fact, requires – markers of its vision; iterations of its distinctiveness; variations on its authorial themes. Time travel is the perfect metaphor for auteurism; each involves going back over old ground and making it surprising, showing the work of the world in a new light. Equally, auteurism is the perfect metaphor for time travel, always starting with a new chance, a blank page, and yet finding that history can’t be entirely rewritten nor its patterns of meaning wholly resisted. Moffat, of course, exploits and mines the metaphor until it collapses altogether: this version of Doctor Who gives us time travel as auteurism. And a story arc that seems to be shaping up into a ‘story ellipse’, as Moffat’s nuWho explores new ground by doubling back over Freud’s “family romance”, as per pop time travel staples like Terminator, or Back to the Future. Author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger, even includes an intertextual shout out to Moffat’s ‘Girl in the Fireplace’ in Her Fearful Symmetry, acknowledging their twinned authorial territories.

Rather than indicating creative exhaustion, or narrative fixation, repetition has always been essential to NuWho, not just to convey its nature as genre TV, but more than that, as a sign of its ‘quality’, and its status as TV art, even. Impure repetition, like a subtly shifting time loop or a family resemblance, is the sine qua non of any identifiable authorial vision. Becoming repetitive means just this: articulating auteurism and creating ‘quality TV’ within and against the confines of a tightly-formatted, popular series.

Yes, Steven Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is becoming ever more repetitive.


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Lessons from Los Angeles: Top Takeaways from the TV Academy (Part Two) Tue, 23 Nov 2010 20:25:36 +0000

Below-the-Line Panel: Eileen Horta (Editor), Marty Layton (Director of Photography), Ed Ornelas (Editor), David Sibley (Music Supervisor)

Each year, the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences Foundation gathers twenty faculty from all over the U.S. and gives them incredible access to studio executives, writers, directors, editors, producers, attorneys, and SFX artists…with daily field trips to studio lots and live sets thrown in. We were fortunate enough to take part in this year’s Foundation Faculty Seminar, and wanted to share with Antenna readers some of what we gleaned during this whirlwind week:

7. The New Target Demographic to Reach is the Co-Viewing Audience.
Creators and network executives are looking out for shows that parents and kids can watch together. Game show guru Bob Boden of The Hub (a game show network that is a joint venture of Discovery and Hasbro) talked about how important it is to build contestants as characters, and establish a connection between them and the audience on newer game shows–lessons they learned from reality TV programming.

8. A 40-Person Conference Call Will Crash the Telephone System
If you want to see a showrunner get upset, bring up the topic of middle management. Taking notes from network executives is apparently one of the least enjoyable parts of a showrunner’s job. While sometimes a note is useful, writers usually experience notes as layers and layers of interference with their vision. One showrunner found himself on a 40-person conference call with MBA’s from both coasts who were suggesting changes in dialogue and reaction shots. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of money a showrunner makes for a network, and the amount of attention they pay to the notes.

9. Channel the Boss.
Everyone in the writers room has a job because they are a gifted mimic of the series creator and his/her vision. The job of the comedy writer is not to write what he or she thinks is funny, but what the other writers in the room think is funny. The idea is to channel the showrunner’s voice. You must also learn and then follow writers room etiquette–unless you are as gifted as, say, Matt Weiner, and then you can piss off everyone in The Sopranos writers room and somehow still keep your job.

10. If You Get Lost on the Backlot, You Might Just Meet Don Draper
Sometimes getting lost feels like being found. Yes, he’s even more attractive in person.

11. TV Keeps the Lights on at Every Talent Agency
Not a surprise, but even as television struggles, it is important to be reminded that it is still the agencies’ bread and butter.

12. The Terms “Single-Cam” and “Multi-Cam” are Often Misnomers
A “three camera” show is probably using four or five cameras. A single camera show often uses more than one camera to film. While the terms are becoming less specific, the differences between the two forms of television endure: in cadence, tone, and even personnel. For a multi-cam comedy, the script is punched-up with 3-4 jokes per page, whereas on a single-cam series, a comedy can have fewer and more subtle jokes. Above- and below-the-line laborers usually make their careers in one or the other; it is somewhat rare to move back and forth between the two modes of production.

Holt channeling Bradshaw on the Fox Sports Sunday set.

13. In Order to Make It in the TV Industry, Learn TV History and get an Internship.
The Television Academy Foundation has a lot to offer researchers, students, and faculty. There is the fabulous Archive of American Television, which has over 700 interviews with TV pioneers and 2,500 hours of free content available. Arguably one of the best summer internships to get is one though the Academy of Television Foundation. And the best awards to win if you want to make it in television are the College Television Awards. Students, you should consider applying. And faculty, apply for the Academy of Television Foundation Faculty Seminar. It is a fantastic experience, made even better by the incredible Foundation staff. We look forward to reading your top takeaways next fall.


Lessons from Los Angeles: Top Takeaways from the TV Academy (Part One) Mon, 22 Nov 2010 17:46:06 +0000 Each year, the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences Foundation gathers twenty faculty from all over the U.S. and gives them incredible access to studio executives, writers, directors, editors, producers, attorneys, and SFX artists…with daily field trips to studio lots and live sets thrown in. We were fortunate enough to take part in this year’s Foundation Faculty Seminar, and wanted to share with Antenna readers some of what we gleaned during this whirlwind week:

1. Most “Tribal Knowledge” About Rights is 100% Wrong
A few words on copyright and clearance rights: If you are a writer, don’t just register your script with the WGA West or East. The best way to legally protect your script and yourself is to buy a copyright. If production designer or set decorator, don’t think that because you bought a picture on the wall or a painting, or got permission from a home owner to shoot in their house, that you now have any right to show that picture or painting in your series. It’s a separate permission, and without it, you might end up spending thousands of dollars after the fact to get the rights or digitally erase it. If you are a prop master, make sure that a character doesn’t get killed with a Heinz 57 bottle. Bad things should never happen with commercial products. You’ll never get the rights. If you are a casting agent, make sure that the least ethical person in your docudrama is played by your most famous—and most attractive—actor.

2. Being a Showrunner is a Benevolent Dictatorship.
The appeal of being a showrunner is that you have an enormous amount of control over your project; you are the CEO of the show. The downside, is that that all of these other commitments take you away from what you love: the writing. That can be a blessing and a curse, since many writers agree that TV writing is the ideal job for people who hate being alone even more than they hate writing.

Showrunners Panel: Deb Curtis (Programming Exec/Moderator), James Duff (The Closer), Jenji Kohan (Weeds), Bill Lawrence (Cougar Town), Matt Weiner (Mad Men)

3. The Primetime Game Show Will Return
Two-and-a-half years ago there were seven game shows on primetime television. Now there are zero. We hear they will return! Fox’s Million Dollar Money Drop might just kick off the resurgence in December.

4. Barney McNulty Was the Creator of Cue Cards
Of course someone created them, but now we know who.

5. If You Know What You Are Doing, You Can Make $8 Million in Fifteen Minutes
When a championship game goes into overtime, the operations producer at the network gets on the phone and starts creating his own match-ups. As the clock wore down in a close football game last year, Fox Sports VP Jack Simmons got on the phone and built another series of commercial breaks, found new inventory, and made his network a ton of money. Just don’t ask him the score at the end of the game. He’ll watch it on the DVR when he gets home.

Jack Simmons, Senior VP Production, Fox Sports

6. The DVR Has Changed Everything and Nothing
The “Network called DVR” is contemporary TV’s frenemy. Writers now have to work in a four-act structure for a 30-minute show, thanks to TiVo. While Live Plus ratings have given networks some breathing room to still benefit from time-shifted viewing, when Hulu puts a show up within three days of it airing, the Live+3 numbers go down substantially. At the same time, overall ratings are 15% higher in DVR homes than in non-DVR homes. People with DVRs watch more TV. But DVRs are still the minority in most American homes, so today, successful shows still get 40%-50% of their audience from the lead-in. The bottom line, according to broadcast programming executives: flow and scheduling still matter.


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