The third instalment of TBI’s Showrunners Insight strand hears from Jeff Melvoin, the Emmy Award winning writer-producer who was most recently executive producing the third season of BBC America’s Killing Eve.
Melvoin has also worked on shows including Designated Survivor, Army Wives, Alias, Early Edition and Picket Fences, and was supervising producer on CBS series Northern Exposure, for which he won an Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards. He is also founder and chair of the Writers Guild of America’s Showrunner Training Program and the Writers Education Committee.
In two sentences, tell us how you became a showrunner/producer and why.
I’d just finished four years as a writer-producer on Northern Exposure when David E. Kelley offered me the chance to take over the fourth year of his series, Picket Fences. It was an outstanding opportunity, stepping onto a show with an outstanding cast and crew, allowing me to deal with the routine hysteria of showrunning, rather than the heightened frenzy of starting a show from scratch.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Time management. There’s never enough time in the day. As a showrunner, you don’t go home because the work is done; you go home because you choose to.
What’s the best part of being a showrunner/producer?
Harnessing the talents of talented people to create something greater than anyone could produce alone.
What single action most helped you to become a showrunner/producer?
Listening to my high school drama teacher, who taught me everything I know about writing, acting, collaborating, and respecting the audience.
What is the biggest single challenge facing the industry?
That’s too broad a subject for me to answer. As a showrunner and someone who’s devoted considerable time to mentoring showrunners, I’d say the biggest challenge in the US is the undermining of writers and showrunners by the increasing influence of movie production on television. There’s been a serious erosion of apprenticeship opportunities due to the use of “mini-rooms” (writers’ rooms that disband prior to production) on many streaming and premium cable platforms, which has led to executives and directors acquiring power at the expense of writer-producers. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, obviously – comparing broadcast to premium subscription platforms, for example, is increasingly a matter of apples and oranges, but I’m concerned that current practices are limiting the education of the next generation of writer-producers, a deficit that will become clear over time through a decline in the efficient production of quality creative content – and through widespread writer dissatisfaction.
How can the industry improve diversity off-screen?
It begins with awareness, proceeds with commitment, and only succeeds with consistent effort and resourcefulness on the part of all those hiring.
Name the favourite show of your lifetime?
Can’t name a single favourite – far too many have enriched my life from childhood on. Some are patently absurd, shows you wouldn’t think twice about today (Man From U.N.C.L.E., anyone?), others Emmy-award winning shows that hold up. If I had to point to the greatest achievement of any American television show, it’s hard to outclass The Wire. Television as literature. But, hey, what’s a television show? Do Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People qualify? The list is virtually endless…
Best show to be cancelled too soon?
I can think of plenty of shows that should have been cancelled earlier. I’ve worked on a few – good shows that outlived their prime. As for those that should have hung around, I know a lot of people would say Freaks And Geeks or My So-Called Life are prime examples, but I wasn’t watching enough at the time to enter this contest with conviction.
Which show nailed its finale and why?
I have to reach back and pick The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which set the gold standard for humour, emotional honesty, intelligence, and warmth. I think many excellent one-hour shows overshot the mark with their finales by trying too hard.
What has been your proudest moment in the industry?
Receiving the Morgan Cox Award from the Writers Guild of America, recognising “that member whose vital ideas, continuing efforts, and personal sacrifice best exemplify the ideal of service to the Guild.”
Jeff Melvoin recently spoke at MediaXchange’s virtual webinar series, Showrunners Breaking The Mould. MediaXchange’s next series, Make It In America, provides deep insights into the US scripted market by offering a first-of-its-kind, virtual programme of detailed informational sessions and tailored one-on-one meetings with key industry buyers and producers. Speakers include producer & analyst Evan Shapiro, Tehran’s Alon Aranya & Quan Phung, SVP of originals at Topic Studios. Click here for more info.