‘Resurrection’ Showrunner Aaron Zelman on How TV Ratings Impact the Writing Process
Last March, ABC’s drama Resurrection premiered to a huge 3.8 adults 18-49 rating, ranking as the highest rated mid-season broadcast premiere and tying NBC’s The Blacklist for the number two premiere of the 2013-14 television season. The show was the top broadcast program in its time period throughout its run and was renewed for a second season. For the show’s fans, that meant they could look forward to the season two premiere on September 28. For series creator Aaron Zelman, it meant that he, and the hundreds of people who work on the show, would continue to be employed. Zelman, whose extensive television writing resume includes stints on longrunning procedurals, prestige cable dramas, and two shows which switched networks partway through their runs, spoke candidly with tvbythenumbers about how Nielsen ratings impact the creative process. Read on for insight into the differences between working on a high-rated and low rated show, whether networks pay any attention to fan blogs and how it feels to create a hit show.
You worked on the first seasons of the longrunning, high-rated CBS procedural “Criminal Minds.” Did you think about the Nielsen ratings while you were writing and producing the show?
Certainly, Criminal Minds was a very hard show to launch. There was a lot of drama. It’s common knowledge that the creator ended up [leaving] before the show actually aired. There was a lot of disagreement about what the show should be. My episode, which was supposed to be the third episode, ended up being the second one because the network didn’t feel that the showrunner had quite figured out the show yet. So there was all kinds of drama going on and the last thing we expected was that it would be this giant hit right out of the gate like it was. Then, every week it was consistent and by the end of the first season, we knew that we were a really big hit. I think the biggest thing that happens when you’re a hit early on is that the network kind of trusts that you know what you’re doing and they back off a little and kind of think, “Well, if it’s not broke don’t fix it.”
You’ve also had the experience of writing for a low-rated critical darling, cable drama, Damages, which ended up moving from FX to DirecTV’s Channel 101.
Damages [was] a critical success from the beginning. However, the ratings were never great. That was before FX had Sons of Anarchy. It was before any of the hit shows that have really made their brand over the past five or six years. So there was a lot of nervousness about, “Well, it’s a critical success but it’s not really working necessarily on our network.” The feeling was it may not be the right place for it with two female leads. It was a very male skewing network. I think [FX CEO] John Landgraf was very smart about the direction he led the show which was more of a thriller as opposed to a drama which we agreed with in the end. But maybe it just wasn’t the right fit for the network. So there was always a tension. It was also early in the days of blogs and John Landgraf was very interested in what people had to say. He really read them. So what the fans have to say, for some people, it really makes a big difference. We got a lot of feedback from him about, “Well, the fans are not sure how they feel about Ellen. They’re not sure about this and that.” We really took that into account and we never really quite got the ratings we were hoping for on that network, but every weekend there was a write up in the New York Times.
After that, you became a co-executive producer on The Killing which has come back from the dead more than once.
Of course, with The Killing that was a whole other experience. I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life where we were doing okay in the ratings. We were kind of a critical darling and then, all of a sudden, we had everyone turn on us at the end of the first season, so it’s very interesting. I’ve had a lot of different experiences in that regard.
Now, you’ve created your own high-rated show. Did you ever think about the ratings while you were filming the first season?
Luckily, I think in some ways, for Resurrection, the first eight episodes were all in the can before it aired at all. So we were in a bubble and we just thought, well, let’s make this the best show that we can and hope that the audience finds it.
You couldn’t have asked for better promotion from ABC. There was a promo for Resurrection almost every commercial break during The Oscars. But that doesn’t always insure success. What was it like waiting for the premiere’s ratings to come in? How did it feel when you found out the show had surpassed everyone’s expectations?
I think there is a slight double edged sword to all this which is you promote the first episode a lot. There’s huge expectations. You can’t expect that all of those people are going to come back for the second episode. It’s almost like the phenomenon of a blockbuster hit summer movie. Yeah, you’re going to get a fifty million dollar weekend, but how many people are going to keep seeing it? So a little bit of a double edged sword in that we couldn’t hope to match that. But, on the other hand, of course it was incredibly thrilling. I had conversations with the network where they said, “Well, look we’d be really happy with something in the mid-twos,” and we got a 3.7 or something like that. [Editor’s note: 3.8!] In the morning [after an episode airs], the first thing you do is you call up [the network].The numbers came out and I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I was jumping, It was an incredible thing. Then, of course the next week comes and you’re like, “Oh, we dropped off a lot.” “Well, that’s expected, but it’s an expected drop off of this much.” Obviously, where we ended up it was still a very nice number and I’m still very glad and grateful for that. Probably, because the promotion was so high, there was almost a necessary drop off that was going to happen.
For the upcoming season, you have a much bigger episode order. Has that changed ABC’s ratings expectations, or the network’s level of involvement with the show?
Honestly, they haven’t. They haven’t said, “We expect this number.” They don’t like to talk numbers. It was only sort of in retrospect for that night that they said, “Oh, we’ll be happy with this.” But my sense is what they feel good about, or what they liked, was the fact that there was somewhat of a halo effect with our show because ABC won Sunday night with our show in that spot. I think that was a really great thing for ABC. I think they were very happy with that. They saw a bump with Once Upon A Time and Revenge and as long as that continues, then I think they’re satisfied. Obviously, who doesn’t want their numbers to grow? Scandal’s grown so much. Everyone would love that. But you can’t expect that. You can only hope.