How Greg Berlanti Produces 4 Interwoven DC Superhero Shows Simultaneously for The CW

He’s making it up on the fly—and making TV history

The superheroes at the center of The CW's four DC Comics-based shows—The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl and DC's Legends of Tomorrow—have pulled off some incredible feats, but there's some things that even they can't do. Like, run all four of their CW superhero shows simultaneously.

So it's a good thing that Greg Berlanti is here to save the day. Now that Supergirl has relocated from CBS to The CW for its second season, the executive producer/showrunner of all four shows and his team are doing something this season that has never been attempted before on television: breaking and juggling four shows airing simultaneously, with interwoven storylines and characters that regularly jump from series to series.

Yes, Marvel has six superhero shows in the works at Netflix, but those drop one season at a time, several months apart. Berlanti's DC Comics series, however, occupy 40 percent of The CW's schedule each week: The Flash premieres tonight, Arrow returns on Wednesday, DC's Legends of Tomorrow airs on Thursday and Supergirl makes its CW debut next Monday. Plus, he's an executive producer on NBC's Blindspot and The CW's midseason drama Riverdale.

"We didn't set out to do it," said Berlanti. "It came as a natural evolution to the shows individually. And certainly with something like Supergirl, we never in our wildest dreams would have thought we would have ended up at The CW."

Berlanti said his team approaches each show, which needs to stand both on its own and as part of the whole DC universe, in a similar fashion. "We start off the year the same way with each of them, where we all sit around talking about what we may have done well and what we didn't do as well [the previous season]. Then, what is the theme and the narrative for the year for the main characters? And we present them to the studio [Warner Bros.] and to DC and to the network, all as one thing," said Berlanti.

During that meeting, Berlanti explained his approach to the four shows. "I said, with Arrow and Flash and Legends, it was sort of like the three brothers of a family. The older brother [Arrow], who's out there first, and then the middle brother Flash, and the third brother [Legends], who's still trying to figure himself out. And then the sister [Supergirl] who is the apple of everyone's eye," said Berlanti.

While the shows' leads will team up for major events this season—like a four-show crossover in December and a Flash/Supergirl musical crossover in midseason—other characters are shuttling between the various series each week. Legends' Season 2 premiere on Thursday features Arrow himself, Stephen Amell, along with multiple characters from other shows in the Berlanti-verse.

Not only do all shows film in Vancouver, but they are also produced out of the same L.A. building. "Everyone's always communicating, and then with the studio and the network and DC. I think it's not dissimilar to the comic books in the way that we really are keeping track of all of those different characters co-relating. And the more and surprising ways that they can feed each other, the richer it can make each. It shouldn't detract from them," said Berlanti.

This season, Warner Bros. has taken the unusual step of signing several actors to overall series regular deals that allow them to bounce around between all four series, as opposed to being tied to a single show. John Barrowman (Arrow's Malcolm Merlyn), Wentworth Miller (The Flash's and Legends' Captain Cold) and Katie Cassidy (whose Laurel Lance was killed off on Arrow last season) all signed those deals, while other characters will also be popping up on multiple shows.

That's helped the studio solve some of the business concerns related to intertwining the four series. "Financially, the crossovers have been a burden. We've had to go back to the studio about a few times and go okay, we didn't calculate this right and this is going to cost us a lot of money. But now, we fold the crossovers into the contracts," said Berlanti. "For the ones that exist outside of any one of the shows, we stipulate the shows they might appear on at the beginning so that they know, this is how we're thinking of using the character."

The CW president Mark Pedowitz said he never sat down with Berlanti before deciding to air all four shows simultaneously in the fall. "We thought having four in a row, at 8 o'clock time slots helps us. They're more-than-solid 8 o'clock shows. And we believe Supergirl would really help Jane [the Virgin, airing Mondays at 9]. It was really more that than anything else," said Pedowitz.

The network also hopes the four superhero shows will drive viewers to its new CW app, given that its five-year partnership with Hulu has lapsed and the network now has exclusive in-season streaming rights to its shows. Last week, it released a promo that assembled all of its superhero characters, to drive awareness of the upcoming premieres and the CW app.

Super changes

None of this would have occurred, however, if The CW hadn't picked up Supergirl from CBS in May.

"That all happened so quickly," said Berlanti who recalled reading reports last spring that The CW might be interested in the show, as he was plotting out Supergirl's second season. "People kept telling me no, that's not happening. Then Mark Pedowitz called me and he's like, 'Are you reading what I'm reading?' I said yeah. And he said, 'Would you ever be interested in doing it for us?' 'Of course!' He said, 'Well, I'm going to ask for it.' Two weeks later, it happened."

Pedowitz told reporters in August that while he doesn't expect Supergirl to maintain its same audience from CBS, he does think it could become the network's No. 1 or No. 2 most-watched show. Currently, The Flash is The CW's most popular program.

Supergirl's CW move required cuts to the show's budget, so Berlanti relocated its production from Los Angeles to Vancouver, where the other three shows are filmed. That "equalized" the budget issues, said Berlanti. "We've got the same number of action [sequences], the same scope.  It's just in a different city."

Given the "shorthand" that he already had with The CW, "it's been the easiest transition for me to move to Vancouver and to move networks," said Berlanti. "I thought it was going to be so much more challenging than it's been. I don't know where I'm using this karma up from!"

Supergirl is changing tonally as well as geographically. Berlanti said he tried, and struggled, to add more procedural elements to Supergirl last year, to appeal to CBS' audience. "Then, by half the year, we relaxed and said, we know how to make the show and let's just focus on that. That was our pitch for the second season, which was to double down on what we thought worked about the show, which has more of a character-based mythology element."

In the Berlanti-verse, The Flash, Arrow and Legends exist on a different "earth" than Supergirl, which makes crossovers more challenging. But Berlanti said he wouldn't have changed that even if Supergirl had been on The CW from the start, explaining that if those shows existed in the same world, "our characters would be mentioning Superman all the time. That was why, more than anything else, it had to be in a different earth."

While the TV shows are interconnected, the DC TV and film universes are wholly separate entities, unlike Marvel's shared film and TV universe. Berlanti doesn't have much contact with DC's film division, other than complying with their request to add the Suicide Squad to Arrow's second season, to help lay the groundwork for August's Suicide Squad feature film. But he hasn't heard anything about Warners' standalone Flash movie, which will star Ezra Miller and premiere on March 16, 2018. "They haven't talked to us about it," said Berlanti, adding that he hasn't been told that any storylines are off-limits for the series because they'll be incorporated into the film.

Besides, he's too busy making TV history than to worry about what DC's Flash film will look like. While Dick Wolf will be attempting a similar feat at midseason, when he'll be coordinating Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med and new arrival Chicago Justice, for now, Berlanti is in unchartered territory.

"Joss [Whedon] did it a bit, between Buffy and Angel. But we are still making it up as we go along," he said. "That's probably why we make our share of mistakes, because we're figuring it out too. But the shows are learning a lot from each other."