Glad You Asked Dept. 3/3/14
Today’s question is from Keiti P, who gets right to the practical nitty gritty of television production. Whatever happened to idealism? Kidding, kidding, never mind. Anyway:
I’ve always wanted to know more about the actual production of TV shows. How do they work out the shooting schedules? It seems crazy debilitating to me to shoot a whole season at once, but at the same time I can appreciate the desire to have everything in the can and ready to air.
Is that how they do it, the whole season shot at once and then the episodes released later? Or do they break it up into smaller groups of episodes, take a rest, then get back to work, that kind of thing?
Loved all your shows!
Wow, now this is a woman a TV writer-producer can appreciate. Using the L word about what counts to me – my work. To show how much this means to me, here’s my obviously amazingly wise and well-informed answer:
Dear Keiti P,
I’ve never worked on a half-hour sitcom, so I’ll throw that one out to any readers who have. (In other words, funny folks, your comments at the bottom of this page are most welcome.) But after putting out hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours of one-hour TV I feel fairly confident that I can fill you in on how they work.
Until the mid-1990s or so, shows were staffed in May. The producers and writers went to work as soon as their deals were made. Not all that much later – mid-to-end of June, with maybe two or three scripts “banked,” as in network approved and ready to go, the shows started shooting.
Back then each shoot of an hour-long show took 7 working days, during which the next show was being prepped. (Or, all too often, being written while being prepped. Yep, I’m talking simultaneously.) On most series, this schedule was immutable. No deviation allowed. No going over on days, although we were allowed to work very long days and go into overtime if we were using a location or set that we wouldn’t be able to go back to. No stopping to give a script that extra something. No more than 3 or 4 takes on any shot. No retakes if we looked at the dailies and thought that some of yesterday’s work sucked.
Time meant money, and that meant speed. It was grueling, almost hellish. Writers mostly worked 7 day weeks, which at least gave us a chance to save our money because we had no time to spend it on anything fun. Inevitably, we did fall behind from time to time and fail to shoot a necessary scene. When that happened the usual solution was to write some voiceover dialog that could be inserted to cover our failure. Sometimes this totally changed the storyline, which may explain some of the weird plots you saw back in those days.
Under that schedule, shows with 12 or 13 episode orders finished production in December. Shows with longer orders kept on rolling through March. I worked on one series where we were cancelled after the third episode aired but had to keep going at the usual pace because the European buy was huge and we had to deliver the remaining episodes across the pond. And as I think about, it I can recall 3 or 4 times over the course of my career when we were so late, so bogged down, that literally the final print wasn’t ready until less than half an hour before airtime.
But that was then and this is now. Now, not every show is slated to go on-air in the Fall. There are Spring seasons and Summer seasons too. And half-seasons. A series can start in the Fall, take a break between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and finish up after that, regardless of how many episodes the muckymucks have called for.
This means that instead of coming together in May, staffs can be assembled at just about any time, with shooting starting about 6 weeks afterward. And those half-season breaks are commonly used to fix scripts, reshoot some stuff that is so blatantly bad that even the network suits are embarrassed by it, and, of course, to accommodate the needs of stars (many of whom now are credited as producers, which means that their complaints have to be considered on a quasi-legal basis as well as a personal, pragmatic one), who are demanding more and more personal time to keep from burning out creatively and physically.
This sounds like a significant improvement, doesn’t it? But in the world television no positive goes without its negative balance. On network shows, the suits meddle more than ever before, which translates into even more rewriting than ever before, which in turn translates into shows that are more watered down than before (less adventurous in concept/production “challenges” dropped/dialog bled into drivel, that kind of thing). It also means that writers are still working 7 day weeks because there are even more masters to please.
The good news is that cable networks usually exercise less oversight than broadcast networks, especially the cable nets that are new to scripted (or “overtly” scripted) productions, so the edginess/ambition quotient can actually amp up. Don’t worry, though. There’s a downside to that too: Cable shows have smaller budgets, which means smaller paychecks than those for broadcast – often as much as 50% less.
Well, Keiti, that’s about it. If you were thinking of television shows as efficient production machines with lots of lead time and stockpiles of perfected scripts, you’re probably a bit disappointed right now. But look at it this way: All of us who make, or used to make, your favorite shows, are way disappointed as well. (But still hopeful cuz…idealists, you know?)
That’s it for now, gang. If you have any questions, remember: I love addressing these issues, but I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!