Chuck Lorre Shares His Views On Network Programming

Chuck Lorre

Executive producer/writer Chuck Lorre — the creative force behind the Warner Bros. Television hit broadcast comedies “The Big Bang Theory,” “Mom,” “Mike & Molly” and “Two and a Half Men” for CBS — will be inducted into the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame at today’s NAB Show Television Luncheon. The NAB Show Daily News recently talked with Lorre about technology and creativity in today’s television environment.

DAILY: How have you seen the TV industry evolve since you started, in terms of programming and technology?

LORRE: There have been huge improvements in the speed and efficiency of editing. Blue screen has also helped us keep costs down and stay on the stage, where we do our best work. I’ve often said we are an “indoor cat.” The intimacy and rhythm of our kind of verbal comedy is easily lost when you go outdoors and shoot single-camera style.

Programming’s not really my bailiwick (God, I love that word). If I were to guess, I’d say that the economic fragility of network television has driven all the networks into wanting to own all — or a piece of — each show they broadcast. When I started, the only criterion for getting a show on, and getting a good time slot, was the quality of the show. It’s inevitable that would change when the financial incentive of ownership came into play.

DAILY: How has storytelling evolved since you first started?

LORRE: When I began there seemed to be a network mandate to wrap up each episode with a bow. That’s thankfully faded in recent years, allowing a little more complexity in storytelling. Beyond that, storytelling itself hasn’t really changed much since it was done around a campfire. Although the snacks are probably better now.

DAILY: With so much competition from cable and OTT, what do you think is the biggest challenge for network programming today?

LORRE: I think there are two issues here. First, there’s an enormous difference in the amount of creative freedom allowed on cable, premium and OTT services vs. network. Commercial TV will always be hampered by advertisers’ deep-seated fear of offending anyone and the FCC’s need to meddle in what’s still ludicrously considered “public” airwaves.

Add to that the time difference; network comedies run roughly twenty-two minutes — that’s it. There’s very little wiggle room with that number. On Netflix or HBO there is, I believe, almost no time requirement. I can’t count the number of times over the years I’ve had to cut good material because an episode was running long.

Secondly, when a network, cable or OTT service puts on high-quality shows — actually just one or two is enough — then those shows immediately become a sort of “brand” for that platform; they set the tone for the entire environment. As a viewer, I’ve noticed I’m more inclined to sample a new show on a network, cable channel or premium service that’s already shown me it recognizes good writing, acting, directing and production values.

Unfortunately, the ability to recognize such things gets conflicted by what I mentioned earlier — the profit motive, i.e. program ownership. The challenge, I suppose, is to try and avoid that conflict when deciding to put on, or keep on, shows.

DAILY: What is it about the four-camera genre that appeals to you? And why do you think it appeals to the audience? And to the actors?

LORRE: Four-camera is essentially theater. It’s a stage play — with do-overs. When a mistake is made, or the writing isn’t where it should be, we do the scene, or part of it, again, making changes on the fly. It’s exciting and it brings an unmistakable energy to the performances.

The laughter — on my shows anyway — is real people laughing. Cheating with canned laughter, I’ve always felt, was a recipe for failure. If the studio audience does not respond to a live performance, then it certainly won’t work in someone’s living room.

And it’s intimate. There’s no music score or editing tricks to hide the material. It’s all happening right in front of the audience. Usually two people sitting and talking. You either care about them, and laugh with them or at them, or you don’t. There’s a wonderful vulnerability to that which I think people respond to.

DAILY: What is your favorite part of the production process: writing, producing or directing?

LORRE: Hearing a live audience explode with laughter because we did our job right.

DAILY: Tell us about your work with the Venice Family Clinic in California.

LORRE: I guess that relationship began about 22 years ago. Having been very broke and very ill when I was younger made a lasting impression on me — traumatic is not overstating it. Helping the clinic help people in that same awful predicament felt meaningful to me, and the folks who work there are deeply committed and just plain wonderful.