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‘Under the Dome’ Showrunner Neal Baer on Why Broadcast TV Is Just As Daring as Cable

'Under the Dome' Showrunner Neal Baer on Why Broadcast TV Is Just As Daring as Cable

After 25 years of writing and eventually showrunning some of television’s most popular shows, “Under the Dome” executive producer Neal Baer has a pretty unique spin on the industry — especially since his entire career has been focused on broadcast television, which many consider inferior to the programming found on basic or premium cable.

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While Baer disagrees, he does agree that things have changed since he first began writing for shows like “China Beach” and “ER. For one thing, compared to today’s standards, they were able to get away with a lot. What’s behind that change, and why does Baer think that “Under the Dome,” the sci-fi thriller currently airing its third season on CBS, wouldn’t really be any different if were on a cable network? Indiewire spoke with him to find out.

Congrats on “Under the Dome” Season 3 launching. I wanted to start by getting the story of how you got originally involved with the show.

I got involved because I left “Law and Order: SVU” after running it for 11 years because [CBS president] Nina Tassler had been asking me for quite a while to come over. She hired me originally on “ER” in 1994. Her whole team was all at Warner Bros. when “ER” started. They were the force behind bringing “ER” on in television. So I knew them all, and she reached out to me over the years. After 11 years at “SVU”, I knew Chris Maloney was leaving, and I felt like I had told 239 stories, and that it was time to do something new and fresh. So I said okay.

And I came to CBS and they offered me “Under the Dome,” which had been in development at Showtime for two years and then Showtime passed, and Nina picked it up as a summer series thinking, “Wow, no one’s doing summer series, let’s try it.” Do two years ago it just blasted on with the highest rated new series in the summer in 21 years. And really garnered this huge audience. and led the way for what is now, dozens of series in the summer. So our competition has really increased. It premiered last week, on a new night, we were the number one show of the night. So, we were really thrilled that we still have a connection with the audience in year three. There were so many scripted series on between 9 and 11 last Thursday night. The fact that we can still break through and hold on, it’s really incredibly gratifying, because there’s so much competition this summer, which there wasn’t just a few years ago.

“Under the Dome” is anchoring this whole lineup on CBS, which falls into the same kind of genre.

Yes, CBS has three different shows on. I know “Zoo” premiered last night. I know “Under the Dome’s” demos were higher than “Zoo’s.” So it’s a very tough world out there now. In the summer as well, and the fall, winter and spring.

So when you first got approached with “Under the Dome,” what interested you? What grabbed you about the concept?

Well, first of all, of course Stephen King, because I’m such a huge fan of his work, and Brian K. Vaughan developed the show at Showtime — I’m such a huge fan of his graphic novels. And so I wanted to work with them, and so then, I read the book and I thought, “Wow, this is really interesting because it’s satirical. It’s satirical about modern day life. We’re all under a dome, so to speak, facing issues of sustainability, declining resources, climate change and political upheaval. Often based on these problems that we’re facing. That really intrigued me, because I was a poly-sci major in college and I was really interested in how people get along and how policy gets initiated. I do that still at UCLA, at the LA School of Health, where I have an academic appointment. So I thought, “Ah! This will be a really interesting show to grapple with.” I’ve never done a sci-fi show before, and I really wanted to expand. I’d done medical, I’d done legal and crime. But I hand’t done sci-fi genre. So I was very excited about all the possibilities.

What’s been different about working in sci-fi for you?

It’s not really that different. It’s always about storytelling through your characters. It’s always about: “Can you tell a strong story and engage the audience in characters?” Because when it comes down to it, the audience looks back to the characters they grow to love. I saw that certainly on “ER” with all of the characters [like] George Clooney, and Anthony Edwards, Julianna Margulies. And after that, I saw it on “SVU” with Mariska Hartigay [and Christopher] Maloney. Everybody was really invested in those characters.

So I wanted people to be invested in Julia, Barbie, Big Jim, Junior, Joe. And I think they have. It’s really not different at all. It’s always about the storytelling.

Well, except in this case, the storytelling involves people getting covered by butterflies and locked in cocoons.

Yeah, but that’s still telling the story. I have an obsession with butterflies, and that’s why I tell that story. Seriously, I was always touching butterflies and caterpillars when I was a kid. So that’s why we have butterflies and caterpillars on “Under the Dome.”

I’m really interested in dialectical behavioral therapy. So that’s why we’re doing the show is really focusing on emotion. Anger, fear, grief, sadness and joy and love. an be suppressed, could they be suppressed for the greater good? We get into all those questions. I love the playground that I frolic in, because it really is about what interests me. And just like “SVU” was about all the social, political issues that interested me. Gun violence, health issues, teen access to abortions, HIV, transgender issues, homeschooling, vaccinations. I did it all on “SVU.”

So it’s not like these stories just kind of popped. Any writer who denies this is not being honest with him or herself. It all comes out of what drives us. And so, thats what’s really fun, for me, about being a television writer. I get to explore what fascinates me, what worries me, what troubles me, and what I’m clear about. I get to do that with “Under The Dome.” You may not see that on the surface, but that’s why I’m telling you how some of these things come about. You’ll see in this season as it unfold, it’s all about the pressing basic human emotions. And aren’t we always dealing with that in everyday life? How do we suppress our own individual desires and wants so that we can accomplish things that need to be done, like [dealing with] global warming. How do we suppress our own individual desires, and how do we deal with economic issues involved? I can explore those themes on my show, believe it or not. Because that’s what the show’s about.

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It’s interesting. There’s a lot of things I really liked about the Season 3 premiere, like how far you could take the question of what reality is. Was that always something you really wanted to explore from the beginning?

We felt that we told all the stories we could tell in the dome, in terms of running out of food, running out of water, climate change people not getting along, people destroying each other. And we needed to move on. As Marg Helgenberger’s character says in the next episode, “It’s time to move on, we have to move on.” And that’s kind of the mantra. We wanted to figure out a way to explore character relationships in a fresh way, and we came up with this idea of cocooning, there we go with butterflies again, but people said, “Well, butterflies attacking isn’t very scary.” But I thought that the cocoons were kind of scary. Inside the cocoon is really scary. So it was our way of getting at our character’s deepest desires. So in other words, their Achilles’ heel.

What’s really interesting, you have all these grand themes, metaphors and abstract concepts, but what we’re talking about is a television show on a broadcast network. I know you’ve done broadcast your entire career, but I’m curious: Are you surprised by what CBS has allowed you to do?

No, I think they have been extremely supportive and lovely about letting us really explore some human emotion. Really, broadcast television network is about human emotion. It’s always been about love and hate, sex, envy, desire, sadness, grief. So we’re just laying it out there. We’re doing it in maybe an unconventional way. But that’s what’s really fun and exciting for us. And CBS— Glenn Gellar, who’s the head of current, has been extraordinarily supportive, and wants us to find new ways to tell stories, and captivate the audience and not run out of gas. It’s been really great working with him.

How would the show be different if it were on FX or HBO, where things could get even weirder?

It would be different. Because we have nudity. We have max nudity. We have more sex [this season] than we have had in the past because we’re exploring relationships more. And of course Marg Helgenberger is bringing some really interesting sexuality to the show. But we cannot show the sides of breasts or any butt crack. So I imagine if it were on cable, it would have sides of breasts and butt crack in it. But is that necessary for the show? No. I think it’s sexy as it is.

I can’t imagine how I would do this differently on cable. Besides saying “shit” and “fuck” and showing full nudity. We don’t really need to do that, so that would be the one difference. If we did have that complete freedom we would probably have a few more expletives and have full nudity. But it really isn’t necessary for this job.

It’s so interesting what you said about how broadcast television is about emotion. Is that an attitude you had from the very beginning? Or is that something that’s evolved since, especially with the rise of cable as a major source of content?

In terms of the kinds of things you can do, being on “SVU,” we did the issue of adolescent hormones for transgenders before “Transparent” was on. We did rape in the military before “The Killing Grounds” was on. We did rape on college campuses before “Hunting Grounds,” the documentary, came out. So, I think that there’s a misconception about broadcast television. It’s been in the forefront, always has been, on social and political issues and exploring them.

It wasn’t cable that did the first HIV-positive sex character, it was “ER.” And not until “Looking,” a cable show 20 years later, is there a lead character who’s HIV-positive. This is all broadcast television, not cable. Cable has not been in the forefront of really telling the tough stories, stories about guns, abortion, HIV deniers. We did it all on “SVU.” That’s still not really done on cable. There’s this notion that cable is where you get to really play. It’s a great place for certainly more niche-focused shows, but cable is not the side of the industry that has full benefit of controversial stories.

But I think it’s undeniable that, especially these days, broadcast has a much harder time getting those sorts of stories on air.

Yes, yes. I would agree with that, unfortunately. But, my argument is that you don’t start with cable. It’s not like cable came around and suddenly you could tell very adult-themed shows. That’s not true. And in terms of emotion, “ER” was an extraordinarily emotional show. The medicine was used as a framework for examining, really, what made our doctors tick. And that’s exactly what “Under the Dome” is. And even “SVU,” we always had in mind, how does this affect sensitive characters? It’s always about accruing to the character. Revealing character, without being so obvious about it. That’s the challenge with “Under the Dome” and evolving it. It started out a little more procedurally, and now it’s a lot more character-driven, and I think that’s a good thing.

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Going back a little bit, what do you see as the reason for this kind of shift, in terms of what you can do on broadcast now versus what you could do in the past?

Smaller audiences. And a fear of possibly alienating that smaller piece of the pie. When you have 40 million viewers on “ER,” you’ve got everybody. So you can do shows about HIV and Gloria Reuben’s character being the first prime-time ongoing character over many years, and explore these very controversial issues. Which I think was really wonderful.

I remember when “SVU” got a 7.2 rating share for 18-to-49 viewers. If a drama today got a 7.2, it would be like on the front pages of the New York Times. Like this would be the phenomenon. And that wasn’t even the highest rated show. But, the way the audience views TV is so different now, that I think there’s much more attention to keeping the audience happy in some ways. Also, everyone can comment. Stuff goes onto Twitter and Facebook, and all the social media, that works in a way that we weren’t pressured before. Because there’s instant feedback, and there wasn’t that before. People would need a writing campaign, and that takes time. But now its just like, “Boom. Here we go.” So, I think these new pressures are really tough on the network, and I think you see it translated possibly into safer storytelling.

With “Under The Dome” Season 3, is there anything about that you feel is particularly unsafe?

No, I mean what is safe or unsafe? It’s a good question. I think this season of “Under the Dome” is really psychologically arresting because it really goes in the fundamental question of the individual vs. the group. So I don’t think that’s very controversial. We’re not doing stories about guns or abortions, but that’s not what this show is.

I don’t know because we’re not “SVU.” I don’t know if “SVU” could do that now. I don’t know if the new medical shows that are coming out could do a show like we did on “ER,” where a woman who is of the Mormon faith comes in, who’s had so many kids, and she wants an abortion and she doesn’t want her husband to know. Can you imagine that being on now?

Wow, not really.

I look back on that, and I go, “Oh my gosh, that’s incredible to do that!” Truly, I mean really incredible to do that episode. To raise these issues, and that was in the ’90s. It’s pretty interesting how things progress, or don’t. But that’s a show we did.

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