The Paley Center for Media is holding a series of “Paley Dialogues” that go in depth with the best in television. This past week, the dialogue included Peter Roth (President and Chief Content Officer for Warner Brothers Television Group) and Greg Berlanti (Executive Producer of the hit CW series “Arrow,” “The Flash” and CBS’s “Supergirl”). The snazzy event was moderated by Debra Birnbaum, Variety executive editor for television, in an event sponsored by Film LA.
Peter Roth and Greg Berlanti chatted about a variety of topics in television, which included Berlanti’s beginnings on “Dawson’s Creek” and “Everwood” to the malleability of television and audience viewership. Here are some of the highlights of their discussion.
Greg Berlanti’s Television Success with the Superhero Genre
Peter Roth credits Greg Berlanti for the success of comic book shows like “Arrow” and “The Flash,” and Berlanti’s ability in molding those stories to fit a modern setting, yet keeping in tact the spirit of the adapted material. “It started, honestly, with Greg,” Roth said. “It was his notion, his vision, his idea to take the existing DC properties and to really revitalize it, contemporize it, make it relatable to the audience.”
Roth lauded Berlanti for bringing great ideas to the table — some adapted from the comic book format that Berlanti knows well — that translate well on TV. One of them included making “Arrow” a platform to introduce spin-off characters like The Flash. Moreover, according to Berlanti, the freedom of episodic television has also allowed for an origin story to exist “concurrently with the rest of the show. In a film you would get the origin story done in 20 minutes.” Running parallel to the main story, the backstory is essential to the main action in “Arrow.”
The Role of Executives, According to Peter Roth
Peter Roth is an individual who is ready to hear out ideas and support them if he thinks they will work. As long as the artist knows what he wants, Roth is ready to support and play a role as a “downfield blocker,” as he put it, to help the creator to reach goal line success.
Roth believes in the power of a good executive as the “gatekeeper” to good programming with something that satisfies both the viewer and leaves the artist free from constriction. “A good executive’s most important responsibility is to identify the best talent and to platform that talent to do their absolute best work to create an environment where they feel supported, appreciated, loved,” he said. The goal is to keep “the vision as pure and as perfect as we possibly can.”
According to Roth, “Greg has the final say,” and although they don’t always agree, Roth’s job is to “support [Greg] — I am dependent on his success.” Roth offers unmitigated attention and support towards shows that have the potential to succeed, seeing himself more as a viewer, allowing him to remain objective as a lover of television, placing himself in the audience’s shoes and making decisions based on what he feels audiences will connect with.
The Biggest Challenge in Television is Fear
Roth’s take on how studios should meet audience demands in a constantly changing television environment is to be aware that audiences want “the best shows, which they can watch at their convenience, with greater control and have greater choice.”
Although there is a higher pressure from execs at the behest of these changes, it comes down to what the audience wants. Roth said, “audiences don’t really care about the corporate agenda.” The consumer’s role is to demand the best of television both in programming and the way it is consumed.
The new formats and ways of watching television and capturing ratings “evokes fear” from executives. However, no matter how much things change in the TV world whether it is streaming, time-shifting, or on demand, the ability to gauge great television doesn’t go away, the methods of consumption simply change. As Roth said, “In my 41 year history in television, the great television series always rises to the top, it always finds its audience.” Roth’s solution to the challenge of fear is to simply open people up to the idea of change — allowing “creators and producers to realize their vision.”
For Berlanti, the nature of television in the 21st century, and the amount of content available, is a challenge today as a producer. In the wake of changing audience behavior and high competitiveness, Berlanti believes that it is no longer about competing with shows on the same time slots, because viewership practices have changed to fit the consumer, you’re now “competing with all these possibilities.” The question becomes, how do we interest audiences when there is so much content out there, TV or otherwise? Competition is not limited to current shows, but the ease of access to past programs, which includes the entire history of television, binge-watching and movies, is the real challenge in television programming, according to Berlanti.
Furthermore, Berlanti talks about the vanishing dichotomy between television and movies, he believes that “people don’t really see television shows and movies as different anymore. They expect the same quality. We’re working on trying to give people that same feeling, so if they flip the channel to a movie channel they’re not going to see a big depreciation from the look and the feel of the thing.”
The Value of Independence.
By not being vertically integrated, Peter Roth is allowed a great amount of freedom to cultivate and prosper. “What’s critical about independence is that the creative community responds to it, no one wants to be dictated to. There is a tacit agreement, if you’re vertically aligned, that you’re going to bring that idea to the network with whom you’re affiliated. It’s not the way the process works best. Freedom is so important. We just say dream, what are you most passionate about, what’s the idea that’s burning?”
Furthermore, Roth feels that having a corporate agenda is not only “antithetical to the creative process,” but that it also hinders passion. Roth appreciates the passion in a work — if the creator is excited, then Roth is usually on board.
“I think of it as making TV from the inside out,” Berlanti added. “Focused on the idea, and the quality of the story, and then let the chips fall where they may about where it’s going to end up.”
Berlanti’s Take on Television Viewership
Finally, Berlanti recalled watching television with his family as a child, lamenting the era of watching television together. In a changing landscape with such options as on demand, these benefits have ultimately changed the way we consume television. With new technologies like smart devices, viewership has become a singular experience. Berlanti said, “It would stimulate conversation, it was a shared communal experience. Now, with everyone watching things in different devices, things are isolated.”
The Paley Center will host the next dialogue on December 17 with David Nivens, president of Showtime Networks.