Lives in Television
As president of programming for MTV, Susanne Daniels ’87 has to be sharp and quick-witted—skills she learned very early in her career as an assistant for Saturday Night Live (SNL) creator Lorne Michaels. When a certain very famous SNL host was on set, Daniels confided yesterday to a room full of students, faculty, and staff at the Barker Center, Michaels asked Daniels “to please keep this person away from him”—for the entire week.
“I was at the 30 Rock building, so I called upstairs to Tom Brokaw and said, ‘So-and-so is a big fan of yours and would really love to meet you for a tour,’ and he said, ‘Oh really? Fantastic!’ Then I went to the host and said, ‘Oh, Tom Brokaw called, loves you, and wants to show you around the newsroom,’” Daniels recounted, to much laughter from the audience. “I kept coming up with things like that the entire week to keep him away.”
Daniels—the former president of the Lifetime and WB networks, who has launched a range of iconic shows that include Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—was joined by her friend and colleague Amy Lippman ’85, the current executive producer for Showtime’s hit series Masters of Sex.
As part of Harvard JAMS (January Arts and Media Seminars), a three-day program of the Office for the Arts, with the support of the Harvard Alumni Association, in which alumni return to campus to discuss media and the arts with students, Daniels and Lippman asked each other questions for about an hour, touching on topics such as their career paths, what it’s like to be in a TV show’s writers’ room, their feelings about actors, directing, being a woman in the television business, and making it in Hollywood.
Lippman—the co-creator and showrunner (responsible for the day-to-day operation of a television series) on the long-running Fox drama Party of Five, and executive producer of many other series, including HBO’s In Treatment and NBC’s Sisters—said she has learned that one important part of writing is “being willing to be rewritten.” Joking that being a Harvard graduate came with “a particular sense of entitlement,” she confessed that early in her career, she became enraged when her scripts for certain shows were harshly edited. But the key to being a truly successful television writer, she pointed out, is the ability to write one very compelling scene, rather than an entire script.
“I’m interested in trying to reduce components of a scene down to their primary requirements and to analyze what makes it good,” Lippman said. “In everyone I’ve discovered, it was never that I thought the script worked from beginning to end…in almost every instance there was a single scene that told me, ‘You know how to write.’”
Daniels, whose husband was executive producer of the NBC comedy The Office, told how each of her four children had made cameo appearances on the show and finally urged her to do the same. When she reluctantly took part in the series finale (playing the host of a panel discussion), she gained, she said, a new respect for actors and their craft.
“I said, just give me one line—one line is all I can handle, because I actually have a fear of acting,” she explained. “By the end of that day, I tipped my hat to actors in a way I had not foreseen. The idea that they [the crew] are constantly resetting [the] lighting, and you have to constantly bring the energy; that people are talking and you have to pretend you are interested over and over again for different takes…I actually found it very difficult.”
Both Daniels and Lippman said that they specifically seek to hire women, especially as showrunners and directors—two positions in particular with a clear gender imbalance in Hollywood. “If you don’t make a concerted effort to hire female directors, you will not have female directors for your series,” Daniels said. “Female directors still struggle today to get jobs in a way they shouldn’t [have to]. The statistics are dismal.”