Any network executive knows that engaging viewers beyond the television is an integral part of launching a series. Carlton Cuse knew it years ago, when he was at the forefront of “transmedia”—extending a story onto multiple platforms—with ABC’s Lost.
Lost, with its myriad unanswered questions, earned a fervent fandom unlike any other. To feed the audience’s hunger, Cuse and fellow executive producer Damon Lindelof developed an alternate reality game (ARG) that wove its narration into the network show; its “Dharma Wants You” website earned a 2009 Emmy for creative achievement in interactive media.
Now partnered with Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), Cuse embarks on the same multiplatform storytelling model for the Psycho-inspired Bates Motel, which premiered March 18 on A&E. In the works is a transmedia project centered on a book whose meaning will play a large part in the series’ first season. Cuse also held a contest for viewers to create the show’s opening title sequence; although they ultimately opted for a professionally made one, it allowed the audience to “participate in the creative process,” Cuse says. The contest drew much attention, but the viewers did not yet know the show.
Cuse, however, they do know. Showrunners are often unknown, but Cuse says the story of Lost “was as much a star as any of the actors on the show,” and it secured him and Lindelof seats on late-night talk shows.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be on Letterman reading the top 10 list, sitting on the couch with Jimmy Kimmel or being interviewed by Diane Sawyer,” he says.
That fame is a far cry from when Cuse, fresh out of Harvard, worked as an assistant to a studio executive. At one point, he found himself in a bathroom showroom in the San Fernando Valley, where he was tasked with hunting down a replacement green toilet seat. That’s when he wasn’t busy buying organic dog food.
“I had an epiphany where I thought, ‘Wow, this is what I’m doing,’” Cuse recalls. “But I recognize that it was part of the journey.”
Through honing his writing at night, Cuse got a job on Michael Mann’s Crime Story and later, though he set out to become a writer, became showrunner of Fox’s short-lived Adventures of Brisco County Jr. in 1993.
“I liken [being a showrunner] to the decathlon, which is, I think, the ultimate Olympic sport,” Cuse says. “To be a champion…you have to be good at 10 different things. I think it’s true of showrunning.”
Cuse landed his first big hit in 1996 with Nash Bridges, the first series Leslie Moonves greenlit as head of CBS’ primetime. The show, which ran six seasons and continues to air abroad, had a now-familiar writer on staff in 2000-01—Lindelof.
More recently, with the inimitable Lost attached to his name, many speculated on Cuse’s move after that monster hit ended; he even penned a piece in The New York Times about it. Cuse put the speculation to rest after meeting with Universal Television’s Bela Bajaria and Russell Rothberg, who were interested in rebooting the Psycho franchise—with him at the helm.
“Carlton was the first person I went to because he’s such a fantastic showrunner,” Bajaria says. “He has this gift of being able to create and invent a mythology. He’s a terrific writer, but he has that other extra piece.”
Up until Bates, Cuse had worked exclusively with broadcast networks and their larger episode orders; it’s a reality of broadcast television Cuse says many showrunners find overwhelming.
“I think that’s one reason cable has become the place where the shows are that win awards,” Cuse says.
Though the schedule of any showrunner is strenuous, Cuse makes time for his passion for baseball, which is “bordering on obsessive,” the Boston native (and Red Sox fan) says. Not only does his son play baseball, Cuse is good friends with C.J. Wilson, All-Star pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels.
“If I could come back in another life, my dream job would be to own a Major League team,” Cuse says.
For someone who went from picking the right toilet seat to picking what to wear on Letterman, Cuse’s dream doesn’t sound too far-fetched.
E-mail comments to email@example.com and follow her on Twitter: @LindsayRubino
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