Conversation: Peter Berg, Creator and Executive Producer of ‘Friday Night Lights’

BY Molly Finnegan  April 30, 2010 at 2:28 PM EDT

In Texas, like many other parts of the country, football is more than a sport; it’s a way of life. NBC’s television drama ‘Friday Night Lights,’ shows football as the raison d’etre for the small, fictional community of Dillon, Tx., but its residents also learn that life is about much more than touchdowns. The critically acclaimed series has touched (down) on off-the-field matters like Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, infidelity and sexual assault.

At the heart of all of these stories are relationships, and married couple Eric (Kyle Chandler) and Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) act as the show’s cornerstone. That relationship is likely to be tested more this season than at any point in the show’s past. At the end of last season, Eric discovered he had been fired from his position as coach of the Dillon Panthers’ football team. But in a twist of fate, the school district was split in two, and Eric is offered the head coaching job at financially-strapped East Dillon, while Tami is named principal at moneyed West Dillon.

“Friday Night Lights” — which returns for its fourth season beginning May 7 — is an adaptation of Buzz Bissinger’s 1990 non-fiction book of the same name, as well as the 2004 movie directed by Peter Berg, who is also the creator and executive producer of the series.

I talked to Berg by phone from Los Angeles about the new season:

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A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joining me now is Peter Berg, actor, director, producer and, in this case, executive producer of “Friday Night Lights.” Welcome to you.

PETER BERG: Well, thank you very much, a pleasure to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fans of the program know that you left off with Coach Taylor about to move to the other side of town, which I guess means the other side of the tracks to a poorer part of town. So does that open up some new avenues for the story, the economic downturn, etc.?

PETER BERG: I think so. I mean, I think we kind of took him from the wrong side of the tracks to the other wrong side of the tracks. It went from bad to worse financially and, certainly as far as the sports program, is still in his new school. There’s concern, there is really no comparison. This is school is kind of fiscally decimated and they have very few resources, so we really get to watch Coach Taylor and his family rebuild themselves and rebuild this football program at East Dillon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it a conscious choice of this program to take on a lot of things that often aren’t talked about on television? The Iraq war was another; you had that main character dealing with his father being away. How important are those kinds of things?

PETER BERG: Well, those are very important to us, and it wasn’t so much a conscious decision that we made, but it was a conscious decision that Buzz Bissinger made back in 1989 when he wrote the book “Friday Night Lights,” which was clearly received as a commentary on social America as much as it was a look at athletics in America. Or the athletics were just really one of many social issues that he dealt with in the book and one of the reasons that we wanted to do the TV show after the film was we thought there was so much that we hadn’t been able to explore in the movie that a TV format would give us the opportunity to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, one of the things that we’ve talked about here on our program lately was books and movies about war that critics love and that don’t get huge audiences, and I wonder if there is any analogy to “Friday Night Lights,” where you’ve had all this great critical success and you have a real core, strong audience but never a huge audience.

PETER BERG: I think it’s become pretty clear in the last couple of years — I don’t know, four, five years — that mainstream audiences are looking for escapism in their films and in their television programs. They’re not looking to and I certainly understand why, they’re not being asked to work a lot emotionally or often times I think intellectually. That’s not to say that we’re lazy emotionally and intellectually, it just says that when we watch TV or go to the movies as a culture, we generally want to have fun and escape. And for “Friday Night Lights,” for a variety reasons, is not always a lot of fun and it’s certainly not an escape. I think that’s a similar problem to films like “The Hurt Locker” have encountered when trying to find and connect to, you know, large mainstream audiences.

JEFFREY BROWN: That leads to the other thing I want to talk to you about, as interesting as the content of the show is, the business model that you’ve put together, there is partnership between NBC and Direct TV. It’s a great experiment for this industry that is in all kind of flux over trying to figure out business models. Has it worked for you, and if so why?

PETER BERG: It’s definitely worked. When Direct TV and NBC kind of bridged a deal to co-finance and share “Friday Night Lights,” that was the saving grace for our show. We would not be around if it wasn’t. In today’s bifurcated, 600-channel market, it’s very hard to get an audience to tune-in to anything. We have relatively small ratings; probably about 5 million people watch our show a week, maybe a little bit less than that actually — somewhere 4.5 to 5 million people, which is certainly not a big number by network comparisons to shows like NCIS or the CSI series, but it’s enough so that it makes sense when you look at a company Direct TV for their model. So to get those guys on board was critical for saving “Friday Night Lights”.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you see this as a potential model for other programs as the industry goes through these changes, the high production costs, the lower costs of distribution through the internet and so on? Everybody’s trying to figure out to how to make that work. So is there a model here for other programs?

PETER BERG: Well, definitely. You know, Chris Albrecht, the former head of HBO, is running Starz, a new cable service, which is starting to get into producing their own shows. We’re doing a show called “Jerusalem” with them. I think that the demand for content has never been stronger, it’s just a question now of figuring out who can pay for this all this demand, and you’re going to start seeing many more creative deals and television shows available to audiences in much less conventional ways. Certainly the days of the four networks controlling access to time and place to these shows is gone. And it’s a new game.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before I let you go, just back to this new season. You directed the original film, I know you’ve been involved — early on, heavily involved — but now you’re back, you directed the premier. You personally getting more into this or back into this? How is that working?

PETER BERG: Jason Katims is the show runner and executive producer — he’s really running the show. You know, I consult with Jeff, but he’s calling most of the shots at this point. I get involved with casting, I like to cast and help find new actors. And I had been away from the show for two seasons and I wanted to direct another episode. It’s a really fun show to direct and it’s a fun set and I’d missed that and had some time and so I directed the first show this coming season, yes. But I’m really no more less involved than I’ve ever been and Jason Katims is kind of running the show.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’ve seen some reports that the show has one more season after this one and then maybe done?

PETER BERG: I think so, yes. I think we could probably keep going, but it’s sort of reaching a point I think after two more seasons where I think we’re all in a place where we feel like we’ve done what we wanted to do and we’ve had a great time, made a lot of good friends and these young actors are going off to have new careers, which is exciting

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re going off to college, right?

PETER BERG: Right. Well, we’ve always known that we weren’t going to have 30-year-old kids shaving 15 times a day trying to play high school seniors. We’re not there yet, but we are not that far away from it. So it’s time to move on and it’s time for Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler to move on creatively also. So we’re very happy with where we are now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Peter Berg of “Friday Night Lights.” Thanks for talking with us.

PETER BERG: My pleasure, thanks for being interested in the show.