It started innocently enough, the Executive Producer position.
The EP at a network, distributor or investing company can be the bane of your professional life or the champion who makes things better, especially in documentaries and factual programming.
It can also be a meaningless title, a gift for reasons known and unknown.
It didn’t have to be that way though. At the risk of making this too personal, I think my story may shed light on how we got to where we are.
In the 1990s, the cable industry then was like streaming today. I supervised a bunch of documentaries and fact-based programs at A&E, which later spun off the History Channel. As an upstart, we siphoned audience from the broadcast networks by competing in the areas they often neglected — documentaries, factual series, and various other genres such as quality drama. Like many new businesses, we eschewed the old model — in this case, broadcasting — and gave producers a fair amount of freedom. We had little choice. Our staff was small and we thought of ourselves as publishers or gate-keepers, not authors. The situation, I’m told, was similar at other cable networks, including Discovery. Subject matter was everything. We were wedded to making facts as interesting as possible to a wide audience.
For producers, the pay was minimal, but they could share their passions with an eager audience. We contracted a wide range of companies. With big ones like the BBC, we tagged along on a coproduction and chimed in with guidance to make a topic work better for the U.S. audience. Some producers had professional training, so after we developed the programs with them, we watched rough cuts, gave a few comments, and their shows aired with a minimally disruptive process.
But not all the programs had pros at the helm. Lots of individual producers worked out of a basement or low-rent office with lots of passion at their disposal but lacking skills. At the time, there were few models of TV documentaries in the marketplace, apart from news-based shows like 20/20 or CBS Reports or classic, traditional doc-style films from legends like David Wolper. With few reality shows, the indie producers didn’t necessarily know the details of formatting, writing or structuring a factual or vérité program for a network. They often needed — and wanted — help on how best to translate their access or research into something watchable. They sought production assistance, and we gave it to them.
As a network executive, I got little or no on-screen credit in the early going. I didn’t do much to deserve it. Then, on those shows where I worked as both commissioner and script editor, my production assistant suggested I get an E.P. credit, separate from the production company. At first, it was added only to those programs where I had contributed something meaningful. Soon, it morphed into entitlement. We got successful, we got awards, we got full of ourselves.
Cut to today: It’s permanent. An EP for every show or film… or many EPs. It’s especially rampant in the scripted world — check out Grey’s Anatomy sometime. Credits for anyone and everyone who worked on it. There’s EP inflation everywhere. And the more exec producers there are, the less impact they can have.
At best, the position has become a conduit for reams of notes and changes, a gauntlet of production approvals. I’ve written about the scourge of “notes” before, and how they can be helpful but also ruin incentive. In a cluttered environment, one of my colleagues, a former network bigwig, characterizes the current EP role: “They’re just carrying the message.” Often there are additional notes from the SVP, EVP, CEO and anyone who ever looked at a rough cut. There are so many levels of approval, the EP has to justify the investment by covering all possible bases to show how “on top of things” they are.
I don’t think it was ever intended to be that way. Producers produce. Executives execute. But executive producers shouldn’t execute producers.
Instead, a true EP should nurture, guide and give plenty of room for creativity. It’s a lost art. Sometimes less is more.
Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.