Veteran TV producer John Wells says the major broadcast networks would be too timid to buy some of his previous hits if they were shopped around today — including his former Emmy-winning NBC drama The West Wing.
“It took us a long time so sell West Wing at the time, and I think it would be completely impossible to sell it now to network television,” Wells told TV critics while promoting his Showtime series Shameless. ” You would take that show to cable. Now, that being said, I think there is an increased ‑‑ over the last year or so, I’ve noticed an increased willingness to take risks at the networks and try different things … The network numbers have come down and the cable numbers have come up and the audience is now looking for their shows wherever they can be found. But we would never be able to sell China Beach to a network now. I would never be able to sell ER, actually, which was hard to sell to a network at the time.”
That said, Wells added that broadcast networks were even more reluctant to take chances five years ago. The rising competition from cable, he suggested, has caused the major networks to realize that have to get more creative.
Possible evidence for Wells’ proclamation: The West Wing showrunner Aaron Sorkin’s latest politically tinged drama, The Newsroom, is at HBO. But given premium cable’s deep pockets, reputation for creative freedom and tendency to renew acclaimed shows with very modest ratings (See: Treme), there’s plenty of other reasons a writer might readily prefer cable over broadcast.
Wells was also asked about a press tour panel yesterday where a comedy showrunner said that crude jokes are justifiable as long as they’re funny. The question was apparently a reference to the heavy fireworks during the 2 Broke Girls panel and Wells has experience with boundary-pushing comedy of a different sort on Shameless.
Noting he does not know which show the critic was referring to, Wells said, “It’s about character. [If] we’re doing something that illuminates the character or allows us to satirize or to poke at social norms that we should be talking … those I’m willing to do. Things that are simply done for a laugh but don’t have anything of that underneath it — I don’t want to do anything that damages the character.”