As Genre Shows Go Mainstream, TV Execs Look to Novelists for the Next Hit

Seeking another Game of Thrones

TV network options on books have exploded. Publishers Lunch, a trade that tracks book industry deals, lists an ever-increasing number of television options over the last few years, with 2013 setting the record and this year looking good. And with massive success stories like Game of Thrones ruling the roost on cable, a disproportionate number of those books are genre fiction.

Bill McGoldrick, head of programming for NBCUniversal’s Syfy network, says part of the appeal is the charge a reader gets from a good book with a thoroughly thought-out world. It captures your imagination, even if you’re using that imagination to figure out what your programming slate is going to look like. “The imagination behind the intellectual property, when you’re a producer or a writer or somebody sitting in my chair, fills out the world for you in a way that the script can’t,” he said. “You get behind the curtain in a way the script doesn’t allow you to do.”

McGoldrick is overseeing his network’s adaptation of The Magicians trilogy, a fantasy cycle by Time book critic and tech writer Lev Grossman that reads a little like Bright Lights, Big City meets The Chronicles of Narnia. Everybody’s looking for “the next Game of Thrones,” as you’ll hear often from execs.

An accounting of books in development for television these days reads like a laundry list of fan requests from Comic-Con. Diana Gabaldon’s Scottish time-travel series Outlander is getting the royal treatment on Starz (Neil Gaiman’s critically acclaimed American Gods is in the works there, too), CBS has Michael Ledwidge and James Patterson’s sci-fi novel Zoo, and BBC America will televise Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Sometimes, too, the right greenlight allows crossover associated not just with the author’s readership, but with other projects bearing his or her name. “We wanted to be with Stephen King,” said Tanya Lopez, svp, original movies at Lifetime. “Most of his books are put into 10-hour seasons, or miniseries, and we didn’t want to do something on that big a platform.” So the network is amping things up, budgetarily speaking, for Big Driver, its Maria Bello-starring adaptation of the gut-wrenching short story from King’s collection Full Dark, No Stars about a woman who turns the tables on a man who attacks her.

But a problem with the market is that much of the necessary work involves lurking like vultures over options about to expire. Everything gets snapped up quick. “It’s almost defensive buying, because they don’t want to be the ones who didn’t buy it,” Lopez said.

And McGoldrick says the reasons for attention to genre fic aren’t just trendy. “If you look at Lev Grossman or George R.R. Martin,” he said, “they’re writing literature in a genre space. The level of writing is very high today.”