- Terence Gray
- 35 years old
- Grew-up Garden City, Long Island; now lives Upper West Side
- Executive Director and founder, New York Television Festival (9/28-10/3); TV writer and producer
The obvious questions first: What made you think there needed to be this kind of festival? Did you model it after film festivals? And what makes it different?
Essentially I've been working on this project and getting it off the ground for like eight years. I had seen the impact that independent films through Sundance and Tribeca have had on the film industry, and I felt like the same goals could be achieved for television. At a time when Hollywood had sort of a bloated landscape, independent films brought back compelling storytelling, dialogue and original ideas. I felt like TV could use that same infusion of creativity.
The timing of it is great for two reasons. One, you see the proliferation of cable stations and these emerging separate technology platforms that continue to increase the demand for original content, and I don't think there's any sign of that reversing. And secondarily, I think that technology has caught up with inspiration. In other words, someone can go out right now, use a DV camera, and edit online. The cost of making a 22-minute pilot has gone considerably down due to the fact that it's probably more cost-effective to make a pilot than it is to make a film.
Yet there are differences between the film and television industries. In a way the film industry is more open in the sense that you can make a one-off film and have some small distributor put it out there or you can even book it yourself in some theaters. Meanwhile the majority of television stations are big organizations run or owned by large corporations.
But it always comes down to the idea, the writing and the characters anytime you have a successful show. And if you look at the sponsors of the festival [which includes major broadcast and cable networks], there are a lot of major networks that are constantly looking for the next big hit. History has shown that if you give American artists the opportunity and the platform to show their talent, they are going to succeed; they are going to show-up. I think history has shown that whether it's in music, whether it's in film, that these new artists are going to come forth -- and the pilots are absolutely terrific. When a network comes in, considering the amount of money involved with making a show, yes, more seasoned professionals will probably come in as show-runners. But the idea is that you have these new writers and new actors and new directors who are going to bring a freshness and a new creativity to the television platform.
Film is often considered a director's medium but TV seems to have more in common with theater in that it's really a writer's medium. Especially coming from the perspective of a festival that celebrates the artistry of television, why do you think TV always gets the reputation of red-headed stepchild?
I think it's hard to answer that question. I think part of it is that TV is not easy. It's week-in and week-out creating these episodes that are a tremendous challenge. And there's also a much larger landscape on television of content that has to be filled, so that at the end of the day, not everything is going to be done at the same level. Because TV is such a part of all of our lives and because of the expansion of cable, to catch-up with all of that real estate, artistically, is something that is going to take a bit of time. Hopefully some new voices can come in and fill that gap and hopefully make it strong. I don't know that I would necessarily give it the tag of the red-headed stepchild, but I think because we are all so familiar with and TV is such a part of our lives, and because there's so much of it, that de facto some of that is not going to be fantastic.
Were you surprised that a TV festival hadn’t been developed before?
We had been contacted by people who had tried to start it over the last couple of years, and I think that we were fortunate in the fact that we had the help of William Morris [Agency], and the City, and the networks coming in, but it certainly wasn't an easy thing. I think it's something where we just had to stick with it for a while. But from all the development executives, they're ecstatic because of the difference between just listening to a pitch or reading through a script and the ability to go down to a really cool venue like the SoHo House and actually watch a pilot that they didn't put any development money into at all. They can see the reaction of the other executives and the general public and know whether or not they have a hit without spending a dime … that's something that's very appealing.
Across the spectrum of the submissions you received, what kind of experience did you find from those people who submitted shows – were most newbies or …
It was mixed and from all over the country. There were students. There were people who were professional producers who worked in television before. There were amateurs that came out. This is sort of the first opportunity to get your pilot out in front of an aggregate number of development executives from the different networks. I think that that was something that spoke to a number of people around the country on all different levels. Yes, there are shows from New York and LA and Chicago, but throughout the country, when people thought about it, they saw this opportunity; that it is a new movement and that they wanted to be a part of it.
Why New York instead of LA?
There's a great energy about the city, and I've been here my entire life. The mayor's office -- Kathryn Oliver, the mayor's commissioner for film and television – has been absolutely amazing in helping with the growth of the festival. The William Morris Agency has been absolutely fantastic in supporting and being a part of the festival. And New York is my home, it's the original home of television, and there's a lot of good TV that's done here.
Is this an idea that you see potentially expanding to other cities - and if so would it fly elsewhere?
The first thought is to do it here and do it well, and this will always be our home. In years to come we'll be able to travel and do screenings in other cities or overseas, but for right now it's about executing the festival to the best of our ability and doing so in New York.
How many people were involved in actually selecting the pilots for competition, and did you have some specific criteria you were looking for as to what you selected?
We were looking for the best quality product – the best comedies, the best dramas – with an eye towards, “Is this a series?” In other words, was it a pilot that would lead to a series. A committee of producers and writers in New York of our peers helped the programming department with those selections.
How many submissions were there?
We got over 230 submissions, and there are 25 official selections. We split them into five categories – comedy, drama, reality, documentary and animation.
You're also feting Arrested Development. How do you reconcile the fact that this show is so beloved critically, but it still hasn't found an audience. And, they've moved it around, but you can't really fault Fox so much anymore when they've renewed it twice.
No, they should be applauded, and it is one of the best shows on TV. The fact that they brought it back, I think, is solace to a lot of people, especially in the independent television world. I don't have an answer in terms of the ratings, but I think if you look back in history and you look back at a show like Cheers, when it first premiered -- in its first couple of years -- it didn't have strong ratings, and then it became a massive hit. The hope is doing something like that with Arrested -- that over time the ratings will grow. And I guess that's a trend that today isn't really followed as much. Shows don't have as much time to prove themselves, but I think Fox has to be applauded for staying with the show.
How much harder do you think it is for people to create shows now when you kind of have a split between what's a hit on cable and what's a hit on network. On cable, Arrested Development would be considered a hit – it would probably hold most of its audience, and those numbers (an estimated 4.5 million) on FX or certainly HBO would be a big hit. Does that combined with the controversy over skipping commercials and product placement and new business models – does any of that make it harder for people, especially those not yet established, who want to create a series?
For an independent artist to take an eye toward branded entertainment within their pilot as a part of their overall production that they're doing, to have that weigh in, I don't know that that's directly akin with independent television. In other words, it's about the artistry of the show, and I think if the show is good enough and it gets bought, then those sort of concerns can be addressed at the network level.
The focus of the festival is the pilot competition, but can you talk a bit about the panel series as well?
We have a terrific panel series. With something like "The TV Land Producers Panel," we do like to celebrate the past, and I think the participation of a panel of great producers like Mike Scully, Phil Rosenthal, Diane English, Stan Lathan and Bill Persky is just fantastic. Those are some of the biggest producers over the last 20 or 30 years in television, and in terms of a pilot competition, to be able to share with artists their war stories, I think it can be really inspirational.
We're also doing a breaking-into-the-business day where we have "Landing an Agent" with agents from William Morris, Paradigm, Endeavor and CAA, and we have The New York Comedy Scene" with people like Andy Borowitz and (CBS VP of Program Development) Lisa Leingang.
This has been a long-time project and dream of yours. Now it's coming to fruition, and hopefully it will come out well enough that you'll be able to do it again next year. How are you trying to balance with the rest of your career as a producer?
This is my career right now. I'm not producing or creating any other shows. For a long time I was pitching and producing, and I probably will go back to that, but not for a while. My goal is to grow the festival and get out there. We're talking about doing a college tour in year two, and getting overseas and getting more international pilots in competition, and that's it. It's something we're all very proud of and something that we'd like to see grow.
Growing up, were there favorite shows that influenced your career?
I think like most people who grew-up with "Must See TV," you know, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers had a big influence, because those shows were done so well. They were just something that you looked forward to every week, and I think it was because those shows were just so fantastic that I knew I wanted to be involved with TV.
in your own career as a writer/producer, you've done some reality based television. What do you think is the primary appeal of reality, and where do you think it's heading?
From a viewer's point-of-view, obviously it's something that has really resonated with the American public and the public around the world. I think it's just a voyeuristic look into average people's lives and how they perform under the gun, and I think it has just struck a nerve. Maybe people were getting tired of some of the formulaic stuff in terms of the sitcoms or comedy in general on television, and with great shows like Survivor and The Apprentice, it became a phenomenon. It probably started with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and people weren't used to a primetime game show. Once that began to snowball, primetime was sort of going into a different direction. When you have a great producer like Mark Burnett who comes in with Survivor and with The Apprentice, it's just good TV, and people get drawn in.
And the latest trend now, at least on a couple cable stations, seems to be reality shows starring former reality stars participating in new reality shows. Is that going last?
You know what? You just don't know. At some point I have to imagine there has to be an endgame, but who knows?
The New York Television Festival begins tonight and runs through October 3rd in the Meatpacking District. In addition to screenings of pilots and the panel discussion series, there are also special events scheduled featuring Arrested Development, The Office, and I Love the'80s: 3D. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the festival website at www.newyorktelevisionfestival.com or call 1-866-NYTVF-TX (1-866-698-8398).
www.newyorktelevisionfestival.com or call 1-866-NYTVF-TX (1-866-698-8389).
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei