Carla was killing off her leading man. And it felt good—but not perfect.
She drummed her fingers on the editing desk and squinted at the monitors in front of her as she scrolled through footage from the season finale of Dope, her production company’s long-running drama series about DEA agents.
“What’s wrong?” asked Melanie, who had directed the episode.
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“In that last scene, we need quicker cuts between the fire at the lab and the flashbacks. And the song isn’t right. Viewers should be sad, yes, but mostly shocked. This is their hero dying—without any warning.”
Melanie looked upset, and Carla felt a pang of guilt. Dope was supposed to be Melanie’s now. Carla had handed over showrunner responsibilities to her protégé last year so that she’d have more time to spend on the other two series that C3 Productions had on the same network, RBN. But this scene—capping Dope’s 10th season with the surprise death of a main character—was too important to Carla. She’d pushed Melanie to go for a blockbuster finale and helped her write the script. She had to make sure the execution was right, too.
“The network wants a final cut by midnight,” Melanie said, tensely.
Carla looked at the time: 3 PM. She’d been on the set of 911, her police drama now in its second year, since early morning and was scheduled to do a script read-through with the cast of Forty Stories, her newest series about the residents of a Manhattan high-rise, from afternoon into evening. She’d intended to stop by the Dope set only briefly, to give Melanie’s work a final signoff. But now she’d have to come back, sacrificing the 9-PM-to-midnight window she’d hoped to spend working on a new idea: a sitcom-length “dramedy” about aging that would be something totally new—and exciting—for C3. She’d been trying to write the pilot for months, but working 13 hours or more a day, she just couldn’t find the time. Melanie wasn’t the only one feeling frustrated.
“I’ll come back tonight,” Carla said. “It’s almost there,” she added.
“Sure,” Melanie said, glumly. “But we still need ‘that Carla magic.’”
Carla gave a tight smile. Michael Love, RBN’s head of programming, had first used those words nine months before, at the annual “upfront” presentation when networks give ad buyers a preview of their new seasons and shows. Word had leaked that Melanie was taking over Dope, though Carla would stay on as co-executive producer. When people asked what that meant, Michael had assured them that every C3 show on RBN would still have “that Carla magic”—an emotional center, sharp dialogue, and surprising plot twists—that garnered high ratings, especially in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic.
Now the term had become something of a catchphrase with the network suits. When Carla nominated assistant producers to write scripts or direct, the concern was always “Do they have your magic?” When RBN sent notes on first cuts of shows, the feedback was often “needs more C.M.” Though Carla had initially been flattered by Michael’s endorsement, she’d come to resent it. Juggling three shows, all on demanding 24-episode schedules, she wasn’t sure she had enough magic to go around anymore.
As Carla headed to the Forty Stories set, her phone rang. It was Michael. “Did you see last night’s ratings?”
“Michael, you know I don’t check next-day numbers.”
“It wasn’t good.”
“It was a busy night with the NBA playoffs. People DVRed us. We’ll see pick-up over the weekend.”
“We didn’t last week—not enough. Look, Melanie’s a capable producer. But she still needs your oversight.”
“I know, and she has it,” Carla said.
“How’s the finale shaping up? I hope you’re taking the reins back for this one. It’s important.”
“I’m working on it with Melanie tonight. But Michael, I can’t manage three shows without delegating. I tried last season, and it’s just not sustainable. I barely slept. I need Melanie to run Dope, and I’m hoping that next year, on 911, Keston can do more directing and script-writing.”
“We can’t do that—it’s too soon. We were lucky to avoid a second-year slump. We need you to be completely hands-on.”
“Then we have to think about cutting episodes. We could move from 24 to 16, start later in September and take a longer winter hiatus. I’d have more time for all three shows if the schedule wasn’t so tight.”
“Carla, we—you—have three of the top 15 shows on television. The market is shrinking—and getting more fragmented—but the revenue for your shows is going up. Dope still pulls in $150 million a year in ads, and the others are close. That’s huge money—for us and for you. And you want to cut back? If I suggested that to Bill,” he added, referring to RBN’s president, “I’d be laughed out of the room.”
“If you want me to keep giving you good shows with high ratings, I need time to be creative,” she countered. “And I don’t have that right now.”
“You’ll have the summer.”
“To write scripts and plot story lines. It’s the same treadmill. I can’t work on anything new.”
“You know you’ll never fully give up control. These are C3 shows: Carla Tremont Productions. It’s your name. They’re your babies. And you’re a perfectionist. That’s why we love you.”
He was right; they were her babies, and she couldn’t imagine ever fully letting them go. But she had to do something to give herself more time to think. “Michael, I was due at a read-through 10 minutes ago.”
“Sure, I’ll let you go. But one more thing: Did you say you’re working on something new?”
“No,” she answered, with only a moment’s hesitation. It was technically the truth—but she still felt guilty. When she’d first conceived of 911 and Forty Stories, she’d floated them with RBN right away. C3 was under contract to give the network the right of first refusal to any new shows, and Michael had been a terrific, if tough, partner since the early days of Dope. But her new idea was edgier, more explicit—not at all right for RBN. She envisioned it airing on a cable network like AMC or HBO, or maybe Netflix, Amazon, or the new media upstart that was getting so much buzz, Cascade.
How could she explain to Michael that she wanted to scale back on her existing shows so that she could create a new one that she’d most likely pitch to a competitor? And what if the dramedy idea failed? She’d worked incredibly hard for her three hits, and knew the ride—an amazing and lucrative one—wouldn’t last forever. Maybe she should suck up the workload and enjoy her success while it lasted.
Heart to Heart
The Forty Stories read-through took longer than expected. The script, from another of Carla’s up-and-coming producers, needed tweaking, and she’d been too busy to eat dinner. She found a bag of almonds in her purse and ate them on her way back to C3.
Two hours later, a little before midnight, she and Melanie had nailed their scene. She was exhausted but exhilarated.
“Just in time,” Melanie said, yawning. “Thanks. I didn’t want to ask you for help, but I clearly needed it. I feel mostly on top of things, but it’s good to work together again.”
“Next year will be easier,” Carla said.
“Maybe,” Melanie said. “But I’ll never be you. I had a drink with Keston the other night, and he feels the same way. At the end of the day, these are your shows, not ours, and it’s hard to run them without you.”
“No one’s asking you to be me. What we need is more ‘Melanie magic.’”
Melanie brightened. “Hey, are we still going to that top-women-in-TV breakfast tomorrow?”
Carla groaned inwardly. “I’m not speaking, am I? Do we both need to go?”
“You’re not presenting, but it won’t be pretty if I show up without you.”
“OK, then. Let’s call it a night.”
Carla walked into the Beverly Hilton ballroom the next morning and ran into Dale Grossman, the new head of content at Cascade. She’d met him at the previous year’s Emmys, when he was still at HBO.
“Carla, great to see you again.”
“You, too, Dale. Congrats on the move to Cascade.”
“Thanks, I’m really fired up about it. Huge shows coming up—one from Tarantino, the other from Clooney, acting and directing. Limited series, of course. Can’t tie these big stars down. But top-notch production, filmed on location, amazing scripts and casts.”
“Expensive,” Carla replied.
“Well, our investors believe that content is still king. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that! You’re the queen of RBN.”
“You’re too kind.”
“Seriously, three shows—on that grueling network timetable. And you still find time for business breakfasts!”
“I try,” Carla said, drily.
“Would you have time for lunch at Cascade? I know our CEO would love to hear your perspective on the industry, what audiences really want, how our shows stack up. I know you’re locked in at RBN, but—”
“I’m not locked in,” she interrupted. “RBN gets a first look, but we’re not tied to them.”
“Of course. Well, if you’re ever ready to do something different, we’d love to discuss it.”
He handed her a card, and Carla took it, her expression neutral. But she wanted to leave right then and there, write the pilot, schedule the meeting, make the pitch. She couldn’t, though: She had to be on the Forty Stories set in an hour.
In the car afterward, she considered her situation. She had a lot more magic left in her. But she wasn’t sure she could sprinkle it across three shows and a new venture. She’d have to cede more control to Melanie and Keston and trust them to take her shows forward. Or she had to convince Michael that the three series would benefit from fewer episodes in the long run, even if it meant RBN and C3 taking a financial hit in the short term. The only other option was to convince herself that the dramedy idea wasn’t so urgent; she could set it aside and wait for things to slow down in a few years as they surely would.
That was all the thinking she had time for, however: Her casts and crews and viewers were waiting.
Question: Should Carla cede control of her hit series to focus on her new idea?
If you’d like your comment to be considered for publication in a forthcoming issue of HBR, please remember to include your full name, company or university affiliation, and e-mail address.