Murphy Brown Creator Diane English on Donald Trump, Les Moonves and Reviving Her Show

‘There’s no reason to come back if you’re going to do the same exact show the same way’

Diane English (center, with stars Candice Bergen and Faith Ford) wants to continue the show beyond this 13-episode season. Francis Specker/CBS
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Twenty years after it signed off, CBS is bringing Murphy Brown back tonight, and hopes it will become the latest successful revival. In the new iteration, Candice Bergen’s TV journalist and her team have moved from their 60 Minutes-esque news magazine, FYI, to the morning show for a 24-hour cable news network. Meanwhile, Murphy’s now-adult son, Avery, works for a rival cable news channel, which is patterned after Fox News.

Ahead of tonight’s premiere, creator Diane English spoke with Adweek about bringing the show back after two decades, dangling “red meat” for Donald Trump and the recent exit of CBS Corp. CEO and chairman Les Moonves:

Adweek: You said last month that you first had an inkling to revisit Murphy Brown when Sarah Palin was running for vice president in 2008. When did this idea become more real?
Diane English: Toward the beginning of 2017. I was doing another pilot with Warner Bros. and they said, “Would you consider bringing Murphy Brown back?” And I said, “Well, Candice and I have talked about it, but we dismissed it. We have a legacy and maybe we shouldn’t mess with it.” But they kept at it. And then finally, they said, “If you’re unsure, why don’t we just pay you to write a script and you and Candy can see how you feel about it,” which I thought was a fair idea. Obviously they were very serious about it, because they paid me everything in advance, which never happens! [laughs]

It took you nine months to write that script. What happened?
I worked on the other pilot and then I tried to start it, but I had a bit of writer’s block. Because it’s scary to go back and revisit something that you did 20 years earlier. For me it was longer, because I left the show at 101 episodes, which was [in] 1992. So finally, Warner Bros., who were very nice, said, “Uh, where is it?” [laughs] So right before Thanksgiving of last year, I sat down to actually write it and then it came very easily, much to my relief. I turned it in right before Christmas, and by the first week of January, we had that straight-to-series deal at CBS.

With the new season, how do you balance giving fans some of the touchstones they love while also making the show resonant today?
There’s no reason to come back if you’re going to do the same exact show the same way. With all the time that’s passed, these characters would have evolved. Where were they for the last 20 years, what were they doing? For me, it was very important for the audience to recognize some touchstones. Which would be Phil’s Bar, which remains completely unchanged; those kinds of places don’t ever change. And her townhouse, where she lives. The production designer asked me if she would have repainted or recovered furniture. I said, no.

"We threw a little red meat out there in the first episode, so we’ll see what happens."
Diane English, on President Trump's potential reaction to the new season

And then the big change is that she’s now on a 24-7 cable news network, which is very different than the 60 Minutes-style show that she did. They’re coming into the office at 4 in the morning, they’re on every day and they’re older. So we have a lot of fun with that.

We’ve added new characters, too, who are younger, so that we can get perspectives from millennials and the baby boomers. So that’s new and fresh for us in our writing. And then, of course, coming back at a time when our country has never been more divided, and it seems like all the leadership is in chaos, it just felt like the right time to bring a show back about the press.

Back when Dan Quayle talked about Murphy Brown, it was a shocking moment that someone in his position would be commenting on pop culture. But now, with Trump as president, it would almost seem like a disappointment if he doesn’t tweet about the show.
[laughs] Yeah. Well, we’re prepared. We threw a little red meat out there in the first episode, so we’ll see what happens.

We haven’t seen any new footage from the new episodes in the marketing campaign. Why did you decide to hold that back?
They asked in marketing to have clips from the first episode that they could start running promos around. And I just felt like, that’s something you do from episode 2 on. But there might be a more creative, interesting, classic, elegant way to tease the show. So they put together some things that I think are just wonderful. And I think it’s a better way to build anticipation. Those promos often have your best jokes in them, and then you don’t really need to see the show after that. So that was an unusual way of approaching promotion. They’ve done an amazing job over there at CBS, regarding that.

At press tour, you talked about Les Moonves and the #MeToo episode you’re doing in the fourth episode. Did you change that episode at all as a result of the additional New Yorker allegations, and his exit from CBS earlier this month?

No, not at all. It was a brilliant script, we kept it as is. It’s very personal to Murphy. We didn’t want to blur the line between what’s happening on our network and what’s happening on our show, to our characters. So no, we didn’t touch it at all.

There was a lot of industry talk about Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth Thomason’s Hollywood Reporter column on working for Moonves. Was there anything in there that reflected your own experience at the network?
No, he wasn’t really at the network while I was there. I left in 1992; he came in 1995, just in terms of the show. No, I never got bullied by him. We did have to sue him for breach of contract, and it’s like, why would you sue somebody who runs a network? Well, I was on my way out anyway, so in that regard, where she describes him trying to do undo some[thing] contractual … the same thing happened to us. But other than that, it didn’t seem like there was any kind of concerted effort. And there was no sexual harassment. In all my days at CBS, I never experienced anything other than just really good support.

CBS All Access recently started streaming 18 episodes of Murphy Brown. This is above your pay grade obviously, but has it been frustrating that this show hasn’t been available to stream for new audiences to discover, because of music rights issues?
Yes, it’s been very frustrating. We used so much original music that can’t be lifted out of the show in most cases. And the cost to have music repurchased for 247 episodes is astronomical. The 18 episodes they chose for streaming either have no Motown music in them, or have music from the Warner/Chappell [music] catalog. So there was a better deal to be had there. The selection of those episodes felt random to me, until I realized that’s how they were picking them.

Will we see more cameos from real-life TV journalists on the show this season, like you had during the original run?
Yes. The first six don’t have that, but from seven on, we do. Deals aren’t closed, so I can’t really say names. But in episode 7, we definitely have somebody.

Would you like this to be an ongoing series, or are you saying everything you want to in these 13 episodes?
We wouldn’t mind taking this to 2020, so that would mean [at least] another season. And I would except that after a couple of airings, we’ll know whether we’re being offered that opportunity or not. But certainly, these 13 stand alone, and I have to say, they are really wonderful episodes, because we have so much to draw on.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.