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Hit makers of basic cable

Love 'The Closer' and 'Nip/Tuck'? Thank Michael Robin and Greer Shephard.

September 10, 2007|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

On a recent morning at Hollywood's Raleigh Studios, veteran producers Greer Shephard and Michael Robin appeared bright and energetic despite record August heat and even though they had been up past 3:30 a.m. wrapping the Christmas special of "The Closer." They weren't even considering a hiatus. After nine years, Shephard/Robin Co. is just too busy.

"We're keenly aware of the vicissitudes of the business," said Shephard, a former ABC executive, who paired up with Robin, a former director on "NYPD Blue," 10 years ago when they formed a mutual admiration society based on complementary skills, a shared offbeat sense of humor and a passion for original work.

"If you're fortunate enough to have a period in your life when your tastes seem to be in sync with the cultural tastes of the country, it's best to maximize that," she said.

The partners, whose shows are frequently described as quirky, have struck gold with basic cable's most viewed original series (TNT's "The Closer" which ends Season 3 tonight), basic cable's top moneymaker (FX's "Nip/Tuck") and a new basic cable show (Lifetime's "State of Mind").

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
'Gossip Girl': An article in Monday's Calendar section about TV producers Michael Robin and Greer Shephard said the CW show "Gossip Girl" was about students in a boarding school. The characters attend a prep school.

Last week, they began preparation for a pilot for TNT tentatively called "Truth in Advertising," written by two "Closer" writers, Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny.

Part of their success can be attributed to the rise of original programming on basic cable. "We were some of the first people involved in it," Robin said. "When you're first in on something, you get a lot more love. And the networks really have a need for these shows to succeed. The marketing efforts that have been put forth on these shows have been stunning."

One reason they've stuck with basic cable, Shephard said, is that while the broadcast networks' philosophy tends to be that ultimately, "failure is inevitable," for basic cable networks, the philosophy is "success is the only option. That slight difference in attitude makes all the difference in the world in terms of your success rate."

By all accounts, however, the pair also have a special talent for finding and nurturing young, passionate, innovative newcomers -- a difficult but necessary ingredient for making programming that works for cable's niche audiences. "Some of the best ideas will come from people you've never heard of before," said John Landgraf, president of entertainment for FX Networks. "The Shephard/Robins make it possible to take that vision and get it through the very challenging development process. They're extremely generous and really cool under pressure."

As veterans in both the art and business of making television, the partners know that success can be a double-edged sword.

"The development process can be a bruising, debilitating, demoralizing experience," said Shephard, 40, sitting next to Robin, 45, facing the desk of Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson on "The Closer's" now dark, cool, empty set. "If you actually make it through the gantlet, you're so jaded and cynical that the type of sensitivity that you need to bring to work everyday to write the kind of scripts we're interested in doing is impossible. You're too guarded, you're too shut down."

"The idea is that Mike and I would serve as the buffer states. It can be difficult for a director or for a writer to be both artist and defense attorney. We thought, we'll do that for you," Shephard said. "Our hope was that we could create a type of sanctuary for both fields of artists to basically have a risk-free experience." They helped Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck") change fields from journalism and Amy Bloom ("State of Mind") switch from fiction writing.

"We like things that have a really profound theme to them, where there's not an easy answer to the question, or an observation about the way the world works," Shephard said. "It's a trait of some of the best literature." "Nip/Tuck," for instance, was based on the observation that there's an epidemic of self-hatred in the country and that we live in a "quick fix" culture. "Truth in Advertising" is based on the idea that the advertising industry feeds on the knowledge that the culture revolves on fear and envy.

The two also keep an eye on what's simmering in the zeitgeist by watching what's not on television. "The Closer" grew not only from Shephard's love of "Prime Suspect" and the film "Fargo," but also from noticing a lack of female protagonists and character-based procedurals in the television lineup.

After an idea is established, the two pitch a network they think will provide a good home. "It's more about the voices and what they want to say," Shephard said.

Shephard and Robin have an unusually long-lasting partnership for Hollywood. They have separate households; Robin and his wife are expecting twins next month; Shephard lives with a partner. But to outsiders -- and even themselves -- their professional partnership resembles a successful marriage.

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