Iconic producer Gail Berman talks making history

Written by Staff Writer

CNN

“The cast and crew was just completely brilliant.”

Yes, that’s an eye-catching comment from Gail Berman, the executive producer of “Whitney,” the hugely successful CBS sitcom that starred the brilliant comedian Whitney Cummings, that ran from 2011 to 2014.

The New York Times

And it might be, if people in the comedy world had spent less time obsessing over the minutiae of the celebrity gossip headlines that were filling the tabloids in 2012, or maybe even 2013.

“Who wrote that article about our cousin?” Patton Oswalt tweeted at the time. “Also, apparently.”

So perhaps one can be forgiven for forgetting for just a second, or for questioning just how many “can’t-miss” shows there are on broadcast TV.

But to Berman, the distinguished television producer, writer and director best known for producing such icons as “Roseanne,” “Family Ties” and “The Wonder Years,” there are always hit shows.

“And we did all right for ourselves,” she told CNN during a visit to her Los Angeles office earlier this week.

Good works

Berman makes money producing television shows and is profiting from writing and producing “How to Get Away With Murder,” a successful USA Network show about law students and teachers.

Berman may be busy with that series and “Alex Inc.,” a new series for ABC about a woman who finds a way to help the world, but Berman is still holding down a position on the board of Thinkfactory Media, which has become “the big agency for historical drama,” she said.

Aware of the shift in audience tastes from scripted TV to reality and network movies and miniseries, Berman is always on the lookout for the next potential hit.

Berman thinks the pop culture obsession with Meghan Markle’s and Prince Harry’s relationship might be a harbinger of a shift in the popularity of scripted shows too.

That’s why Thinkfactory is about to debut another historical drama, “Victoria,” about Queen Victoria, as its first series in the United States, and Berman is hoping there’s a season beyond that.

Berman acknowledged there’s a risk in taking on the subject of historical figures and culture, as well as that most relatable of subjects: love.

‘The heart of it is an exploration of a single human being and the impact of that impact on generations of people who come after her,’ she said.

‘Queens’

So what makes the upcoming ABC drama about 15-year-old Toni Braxton rise to fame as a singing sensation, “Queens”?

Berman revealed to CNN the show will have an empowered character at its center.

“She’s the only one who’s taking on these challenges to be the one that can tell this tale, so that’s good,” she said.

Television history-maker

Berman’s big historical successes have also included her ’80s series, “Roseanne,” “Family Ties” and “The Wonder Years,” but she is credited with breaking new ground on ABC during the heady late 1980s and early 1990s by bringing a diverse range of characters to the screen.

A community of writers and showrunners who grew up with “The Cosby Show” and “Home Improvement” saw an opportunity to do something innovative, new and different and built a new ecosystem, she said.

She acknowledged the success was hardly a surprise but also credited her team, the other network, ABC Studios, and the audiences for enabling the approach.

“It was just a matter of taking chances,” she said.

When she went into an upfront meeting in 1984, most of her colleagues thought she was crazy because the networks weren’t edging away from the more ethnic-focused reality shows, she said.

But ratings for “Roseanne” went up from 12% when she initially pitched the show to the 22% when it launched.

Nearly two decades later, when “The Cosby Show” was going off the air, ABC pushed the envelope further by not only examining a family during economic crises but also by putting a black actress and comedian at the center of it, she said.

“We were still outside the mainstream,” she said. “We were daring to be different.

“The more we did that, the more people bought into that vision.”

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