Berlanti Unlocks Secrets of How to Produce TV Hits

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It’s nifty, as a TV producer, to have your show on a major network. Even one.

What’s the word for when you have three at once – on three networks?  You can ask Greg Berlanti, producer for past hits such as “Everwood,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Arrow,” because that’s what he has done. This season, he’s the man behind these shows:

  • “SUPERGIRL” (CBS)| It’s the story of Supergirl (Melissa Benoist), who happens to be Superman’s cousin. Berlanti considered Claire Holt, Gemma Atkinson and Elizabeth Lail for the starring role.
  • “BLINDSPOT” (NBC) | An epidemic hits Atlanta, leading to quarantine in the city. A mysterious woman (Jaimie Alexander) emerges with amnesia and a body covered in tattoos.
  • “DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW” (CW) | Time-traveler Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) assembles a team of heroes and villains. Together, they’ll combat a looming apocalypse.

That’s not all. Berlanti, working with a tight-knit, hand-picked crew, has six shows in production.

  • “MYSTERIES OF LAURA” (NBC) | Debra Messing plays an NYPD homicide detective. She juggles single motherhood while working with her ex, a police detective.
  • “ARROW” (CW) | Millionaire brat Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) sets out to clean up Starling City. He’s a hooded vigilante armed with a bow and arrow.
  • “THE FLASH” (CW) | Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) fights crime in Central City. His super power: Super speed, thanks to a lightning strike he incurred nine months ago.

Oh, and there’s also a feature, “Pan,” due out in October.

Berlanti’s just 42 years old. He first rose to success with “Dawson’s Creek” (WB) and credits his experience there with teaching him to rely on his strengths. He learned that he could break stories; but he struggled to write them. He surrounded himself with people who could instead.

“There are a lot of things that I may never be as good at as some of the other people I hired,” he told Variety magazine.

Berlanti points out he’s had plenty of shows cancelled, too.

What’s the makeup of a TV hit?

Stars must align – even if your cast isn’t loaded with them. From “60 Minutes” to “The Simpsons,” long-running hit shows share certain DNA:

SUPERLATIVE STAFF | It’s the amalgamation of sharp writing, savvy producers and the right actors. Back in the 70s, the BBC series “Fawlty Towers” wove 30-minute farces with a beautiful buildup. John Cleese’s star power – fresh off “Monty Python” fame – added punch.

Comedy stars such as Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey and Al Franken have succeeded as both actors and producers. Ashton Kutcher and Mark Harmon can bring star appeal to a TV show, but a show can also create stars. Who knew the stars of “Friends” before it aired?

SOLID CONCEPT | Sometimes the outlandish shines. Despite being bashed by critics at the time, “The Patty Duke Show” (ABC, 1963-66) carried out the biologically impossible story of identical cousins to millions of fans. But outlandish ideas can flop just as frequently. For instance, “My Mother the Car” (NBC, 1965-66) lasted just one season. The idea of a talking car (as a mom!) just didn’t fly with audiences.

Unconventional concepts work, too. A sci-fi western (“Firefly”) lasted just a season, but develop a huge cult following and a vampire-crushing cheerleader (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) went seven seasons strong. “Lost,” which began with a jet crash on an island, averaged 13.5 million viewers.

ROOM TO GROW | Shows that stick around have it. It’s a simple, yet elusive feat: feature characters viewers can’t wait to invite into their living rooms every week – or every night.

“M*A*S*H*” (11 seasons) brought us Hawkeye Pierce and Radar O’Reilly. ER (15 seasons) delivered doctors Doug Ross and Carol Hathaway. Brennan and Booth have engaged in an unorthodox love story on “Bones” for nine seasons. They’re amped for season 10, with no signs of letting up.

The landscape differs for reality TV. Yet, TV execs recognize that engaging characters with room to grow work for all genres.

How Berlanti works his magic

Berlanti shared with Variety Magazine aspects of his process.

BE AVAILABLE | Berlanti doesn’t micromanage, and he stays in touch. “I need everybody to know – whether it’s a junior executive at a network, an actor, a production person or a department head on one of the shows – that they can always reach me,” he told Variety.

DREAM BIG | This works with wins and losses. After “The Flash” succeeded, Berlanti considered the potential of “Supergirl.” “If we do that on an even larger scale, on a bigger network, what would that look like?” he told Variety.

DON’T SETTLE | The pilot – a debut episode, designed to hook the buyer – can launch or sink a show. Berlanti won’t move ahead if the director and actors aren’t just right. “Supergirl” wouldn’t have happened without Benoist, he said. “I don’t want to make this” without her, he told Variety.


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Eli

Eli studied English and Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte. A former sportswriter, he writes a blog about coaching his daughters in soccer and once was mistaken for racecar driver Juan Pablo Montoya. He writes on the Internet and other technology. He’s a native of Greeley, Colo., an avid NPR listener and average disc golfer.

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