Hirschorn Aims for Highbrow-Brilliant With ‘Approval Matrix’

The Approval Matrix first appeared on the back page of New York magazine a decade ago. A pure print product, the matrix appears there every week still, plotting pop-culture highlights along an x-y axis featuring two sets of poles—highbrow-lowbrow and brilliant-despicable.

The television version of the The Approval Matrix, hosted by comedian and Chappele’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan, premieres Monday night on Sundance. It features comedians and other talking heads debating pop culture and placing items representing people, television shows, and other discussion topics on a table featuring the magazine’s grid. The show is executive produced by Michael Hirschorn, a former executive VP of programing and production for VH1, whose first attempt at developing an Approval Matrix series, for Bravo in 2011, didn’t take. Hirschorn spoke with B&C about his second swing the matrix and how talk-show formats are like ciabatta.

How did the current version originate and how did it come to Sundance?
Sundace had had success with The Writer’s Room and I think at the time they were looking for a project to pair up with it. They were in the market for a new, smart pop-culture show, so they called us and said, “Hey, we’re talking to a couple producers. What do you have?” And I started telling her about the pilot we had at Bravo a few years earlier. Ultimately the show we did on Sundance is much different than the Bravo show, but I think the learning we had from that experience and the fact that there was a format idea in place gave them the confidence to move forward.

What are the steps you go through when you are turning the back page of a magazine into a television show?
There’s a long history of magazines or magazine projects moving to television and probably a handful of success stories. The first step was really to win the confidence of the people at New York magazine so that we could take liberties with the TV show and it didn’t need to exactly mimic the back page. I used to be an editor at New York magazine early in my career, and a lot of the people there are friends of mine or people I have relationships with. So I think there was a trust level, given my magazine background, that I wouldn’t defame the brand. But I think what’s appealing is the concept and that it actually translates rather neatly into a television format.

But how do you get to from piece of paper to five chairs with a table in the middle?
I think it’s a lot of trial and error. The magazine is static. TV is obviously dynamic. So what we keyed on was that when you look at the matrix, you’re always saying, “Well, that doesn’t belong there. That should go somewhere else.” The debate over whether something is brilliant or despicable is the debate that people have over pop culture. That idea, of instead of having a show where you’re literally just presented with a grid and a bunch of stuff on it, you make a show about the creation of the grid—so at the end of the show you have a completed matrix.

When you’re building a talk format, how do avoid copying what’s been done before?
I think that Neil’s involvement meant that it was unlikely to be like one of those other shows. He has a very distinctive voice. To me, the biggest danger was not that we would have a copycat show. Any kind of variety show or talk show, you can write a lot of stuff on paper, but it only comes together if a certain kind of something happens in the room. So they’re notoriously hard to develop. To me, that was my biggest fear, not would we get the format right. Formats are like sandwich breads. You can have a wrap, you can have pita, you can have ciabatta, but what really counts is the meat. To me, it was making sure we had an actually interesting conversation, and that’s something you don’t know until you get in the room.

Why are they notoriously hard to develop?
For example, right now we’re developing a dating show. If you’re doing a dating show, you can get 70% of the way there on paper, because you can map out everything that will happen. Then you can have a reasonable level of confidence that what you write down you can actually make happen on screen. In a talk show, you can put a bunch of people in a room and they can freeze. You’re far more dependent on people and their moods and their ability to be interesting when the lights are on then you are in a reality format, where if it doesn’t work you just reshoot it.

There’s no shortage of talk shows in late night, in daytime, in primetime. Why does the format endure?
I think a few years ago you could have said that the form is kind of over. But if you look at the renaissance that’s happening in late night, people are reinventing it. Just as scripted TV shows have become more interesting, I think talk shows are becoming smarter and a little bit more daring. So I think it’s created a new opening.