Tom Fontana – A Conversation at ATX


Tom Fontana has had a storied career in television. From writing on groundbreaking series like St. Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street to recent hits like Copper and Oz, Fontana continues to be a driving force in the industry.

One show that Fontana created recently that went largely unnoticed – albeit critically praised – was The Philanthropist, a daring drama that aired on NBC in 2009 that starred an incredible cast that included James Purefoy, Jesse L. Martin and Neve Campbell.

“It’s the ones that sort of died prematurely like Philanthropist that really broke my heart. That was a show that had a very tough birth, and we were caught in the middle of a change of strategy at NBC. I thought the show had real possibilities. And every week we got better at it.”

Fontana stresses that ratings shouldn’t be the main indicator if a show should be renewed or not. It should be about more about if the program was good television and enjoyable.

“Neither St. Elsewhere nor Homicide would’ve lasted based on the ratings we had the first year. With St. Elsewhere, there were 100 shows on television, that’s how few there were. We were 99. [NBC brass] had the courage to renew shows that they actually liked and watched. We live in a time where everyone is a little afraid to say yes, so they say no and are afraid to lose their job.”

There has been a trend the past few years with movies being turned into television series. Fontana feels this could drastically hurt television in the near future.

“There are a whole slew of series this year based on movies and it’s unfortunate and it indicts us as an industry that we have no new ideas,” Fontana said, mentioning the Lethal Weapon screening that was happening later in the weekend. “We don’t have the courage to try something else.”

The trend could be in part because broadcast television has a drastically larger amount of hours they need to fill on their scheduling slots, while cable operates on a much smaller scale.

“The cable networks and the streaming networks can get away with it a little more, because they don’t put on as many shows.”

Throughout his years on Homicide, Fontana became friends with television producer Dick Wolf, who at the time created the powerhouse Law & Order series. Dick continues to be successful with the Chicago series that airs on NBC.

“Dick is brilliant. He and I don’t make the same kind of television shows. He’s a guy who knows the temperature of the broadcast audience. He can take it and he can satisfy it. He’s very smart in the way he takes one show and takes a cell and subdivides it. I don’t make those type of shows, but I admire those type of shows.”

Another trend that has become commonplace on cable today is movie stars coming to make television series with series like The Knick and Ballers continuing that practice. However, Fontana feels there could be some troubles with that too.

“A lot of movie stars want to work in cable because it’s less of a commitment. They can do True Detective and still make features. It’s not necessarily a healthy thing for cable either. They are under pressure to get a movie star who’s never done a TV show. We are down to Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, maybe.”

While the trend of movie stars to television continues to work, Fontana doesn’t seem like he’ll be making the phone calls to nab a big name star for any of his future series.

“The thing I always say when a network exec tells me we need to get a movie star, I say you know, James Gandolfini was a movie star before Sopranos, Jon Hamm, big movie star before Mad Men, Bryan Cranston, huge movie star before Breaking Bad. TV makes stars. TV doesn’t need movie stars.”

At the end of the day, Fontana believes it isn’t about the actor or actress on the screen, it is about who and what they portray and bring to life on-screen.

“We need to make really interesting television with television. Television compels you to watch really interesting characters living their lives. You look at Game of Thrones or House of Cards those are characters you go ‘What are they doing?’ and you keep watching.”

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