With the launch of the Rotten Tomatoes TV Zone comes a celebration of the people in charge of bringing a television show to your screen: the showrunner. This series will highlight the particular challenges of being in charge of a medium that is affected by the ever-changing landscape of entertainment and technology.
Although there’s something to be said for tradition, shows no longer have to follow the familiar network path in order to gain an audience. This is certainly the case with a program like Betas, currently premiering on Amazon Instant. Showrunner Alan Freedland (Guys With Kids, American Dad!) discusses his latest effort that, from his perspective, has little to no difference from the CBS show shooting on the stage next door. He’ll also confess whether or not he can program his own DVR.
RT: Since this is our inaugural piece on showrunners, I’d like to give you the honor of explaining what that actually is.
Alan Freedland: A showrunner is the one in charge of the whole thing, the president of the show, in charge of the writing, the casting, budgets, and everything creative. The showrunner is in charge of all those decisions.
RT: It’s credited as executive producer sometimes too, right?
RT: Hopefully we can talk about your show Kid Notorious at some point, because Robert Evans is amazing. How did you first come across the material for Betas, because you aren’t listed as one of the creators.
AF: There’s a writing team of Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard who were newer to the TV business and had written a great script. I have a writing partner Alan Cohen — we’re the Alans — and Amazon approached us through our agents to say “Here’s the script; what do you think of it?” We thought it was really good, and they said, “If you guys do a rewrite and make some changes as you see fit, if we like it, we’ll pick up the pilot.” [The script] was really good to start with, so we added some character stuff, and changed some of the plot, and here we are. They picked up the pilot, and we cast it and shot it, and put it up. Next thing you know we’re doing the series.
RT: It launches Friday. Give everyone a quick log line.
AF: It’s about this group of 5 young people trying to start an app in Silicon Valley — a social app. It’s about them following their dreams and making it in that world. It’s all about the characters — their friendships and relationships and what experiences they go through.
RT: I enjoyed seeing the shared workspace scenario that opens the show. What caught your eye about the script? Does anything hit close to home?
AF: I related to — and audiences can relate to — following their dream and following what they’re passionate about, and personally I like shows that are more grounded in reality. This had a blending of comedy and drama, which makes things more realistic so people can grasp onto it more and feel the emotions that we’re going for, and experience the comedy, so it feels like, “I know these people, or people like these people — a Mitch or Mikki — and I want to see what happens with them.”
RT: It’s about app developers, so how good are you with technology?
AF: I’m not an expert in technology, but I can use it, especially with smart phones. They’re at, what, 60 percent usage in the US and growing, so it’s a world that everybody certainly has a toe in at this point.
RT: Can you program your DVR?
AF: I think I can do that, but I don’t know how much further beyond that; I go through the guide and select programming, and I can find shows like Betas on Amazon Instant.
RT: When you were crafting this pilot, how much did you think about shows that deal with so-called “nerdy” characters that have gotten feedback from fans that they’re too much of a caricature?
AF: It didn’t really come into play. We were going for something more grounded and real to this world, and we didn’t specifically pay attention to any other show. We’re a single camera show trying to be more character-based and focused on the blending of the comedy and drama, and relationships that people go through in the world, as well as the serialized nature of the show as we move forward in the season.
RT: So you weren’t really concerned with other shows.
AF: No, we were just concerned about doing [our show] in the tone we wanted it to be.
RT: For you, is there a difference in producing a show for streaming television versus broadcast television?
AF: At this point there really isn’t. Amazon said they want to be a premium cable show, and taking the budgets and things that are in line with shows that are on HBO, Showtime, and AMC — high quality shows. You would have no idea if you just dropped in [to a studio] — these guys are producing a high-quality TV show and the lines are blurring between Amazon, Netflix, Showtime, or HBO.
RT: Is there any kind of difference in terms of producing?
AF: Not really. Timing-wise, we were going through pilots the same time as networks, which might not be ideal because we were all casting from the same talent pool. But we were doing all that, producing the show, budgets, and table readings just like you would expect in a high-level network cable show. One thing is that when it’s released, [people will need to know] where [they] can find it, because we’re paving the way in the new world. In terms of getting writing talent, actors, and other people behind the camera — when we were first hiring everybody, we were starting this new thing with Amazon and people were excited to be in this new creative venture in this new path, and some people said, “I want to be part of that,” and others said, “I’m from the network world and will come over in a little bit.” But if you dropped in, we’re doing our show, and on the other half of the floor is the new CBS Halle Berry one hour drama.
RT: How does a streaming series get picked up for an entire season?
AF: The one advantage we have in the pilot process, is when we normally shoot pilots for a network, they would test it with a small audience in the valley and rate it, but the beauty of Amazon was they shot eight live action pilots, and put them all up online for everyone to see. As a creator and showrunner, it was great to see your pilot reach out to the world right away, because normally on broadcast television, unless it gets picked up, no one will ever see it. Here, it was an opportunity for people across the US to look at it and comment on it. Amazon didn’t necessarily say they were taking feedback from people who watched the pilot, but it was one more piece of information for them to see how people watched it, who recommended it, and what they said.
RT: Even if it doesn’t necessarily make or break the show as to what viewers say, is there a way for them to give effective feedback?
AF: Yes. Watch the show, tune in, recommend it to your friends, and review it on the show page, good or bad. It’s easier to do that with a streaming show. We’ll get much more creative feedback that way, and I’m confident that people will like the show.
RT: You can leave a customer review like you would for a product.
RT: So what is it that you program on your DVR?
AF: I watch a variety of shows–Mad Men, Modern Family, Veep. I like Alpha House, the other new Amazon show. I think that the shows I am drawn to seem grounded, are realistic, and they blend comedy and drama together.
To take a look, go to Betas, on Amazon.com.