Hollywood's Broke Part 6: Fixing Television

There are also methods of fixing the problems that currently exist with the scripted network television industry.

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The current process is enormously wasteful of both money and productivity. Writers spend months pitching ideas to executives, who in turn pitch them to superiors. Some two hundred scripts are commissioned and from those, a few dozen are produced as a pilot. From those, a select few are sent to series. Each year, the total amount spent is probably on the order of some $200 million. As mentioned in earlier articles, however, these pilots are more expensive than each individual series episode, and audiences are therefore sold a bill of goods that cannot be replicated. Each succeeding episode costs, on average, about $2.7 million for a one-hour drama on network television. Almost all of these shows fail, with the successful ones needing to last long enough to get sold into syndication, to foreign territories, and generate revenue from DVD.

And what of all those pilots? You could create an entire television network with months of content – if all it did was show pilots that never went to series. I’m not kidding. It’s all wasted money.

Why do so many shows fail? There is no firm answer, just as there is no answer for why most movies fail. So again, studios can only resort to the creation of good ideas that are well-executed. Beyond that, they can focus on three mandates:

1) Streamline the development process
2) Focus on branded properties with built-in audience awareness, where possible
3) Do not insist that a series last for several years.

Streamline the development process

Under this new television model, as it is with film, most of the executive ranks are gutted, saving millions in salary. Instead, highly-paid studio chiefs need just a few of the best executives to be given decision-making power. Instead of the current process, every studio takes about two weeks to hear pitches for series from whichever writers/showrunners they wish. They fill their days with pitches. Two weeks and they’re done. Pilot pitch season does not last for 3 months!

They select between ten and thirty of these ideas, and send the creator off to prepare 6 – 10 scripts. The creator hires a small staff of writers to assist in the conception and development of the show. They also write scripts. The writers are hired on WGA weekly salaries, probably at the 14-week rate.

Now television has something it does not have under the present system: TIME. The eternal problem with television is that scripts need to be produced at a rate faster than they can be written. When a new show hits the air, the creator barely has time to construct any kind of coherent vision, experiment with it, develop the characters, and spin it out the way it needs to be spun. In short, they don’t have time to find the show.

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With a 6 - 10 script arc, they can. At the same time, the writers are auditioned to see if they work cohesively, to see who works for the show and who doesn’t. With the removal of time pressure, it will remove a lot of the conflict that can infect a writing staff. Most importantly, the showrunner can concentrate on one thing only: the scripts.

Currently, a showrunner tends to all the details a show has when it’s in production. A staff left in the hands of a strong lieutenant will make progress, but more often than not, when the showrunner returns from his other duties, he often finds that the staff has come up with something he hates. He throws out all their work, the entire group is demoralized, and the production set back days. More productivity wasted with no gain at all!

And guess what? When you look at the shows that had the luxury of time to prepare scripts before production, they are almost always better. HBO’s boom years are testament to that process.

Now the studio can look at all the scripts they commissioned. They have a hefty group to choose from. The shows that demonstrate the best execution of premise, fit the studio’s desired creative approach, and fill any other desired criteria go to series. Not just a pilot. To series. This is how Canadian Television works. If they like the pilot script, it goes to series. No wasting of millions of dollars on producing a pilot.

Now you have a show that is already ahead of the game with 10 scripts, almost 40% of a season, done. By the time production gets hired, more scripts will be ready. The writers are not rushed, and neither is the showrunner. The work is better. The quality is better. Morale is better. Money is saved.

Most important, the studios have saved at least 60% of what they currently spend on pilots. At the series level, there’s no reason to pay each writer on a staff a producer’s fee for every episode produced. Just pay the writer of that episode a producing fee. More writers will be hired during the series development process and subsequent series process than are currently hired on the staffs of current TV shows (I’ll discuss the aggregate effect on Union hires in my last article). Okay, does it sound like a Socialist approach to employment? Yes, one could say we are redistributing wealth. But this is a union we’re talking about. Supposedly, that is what unions are all about. Furthermore, it isn’t redistribution of wealth as an end in itself. It involves increased efficiency for management, and more hires for the union. Partnership. Get it?

Also, above-the-line feature-film talent is expressly not hired for the series, with the exception of actors. Feature-film people have enormous talent, but just as you wouldn’t a dentist to operate on a broken leg, you don’t hire a film writer as a showrunner or a film director to helm a pilot. They are totally different media with different aesthetics and demands. Film writers can certainly create pilots, but they need to be paired with a strong Writer-Showrunner.

Focus on Branded Properties

Not much to say here beyond the obvious. Brands have built-in audience awareness. You don’t need to educate them, or advertise as heavily. Each studio has an enormous number of properties it already owns. Make some into TV series.

Limited Series Do Work

The BBC has had great success with limited series. Some ideas are just wonderful for television, but lack the franchise concept that could let it run for several years. The studios should find a few of these and air them as event programming. Budgets here can be a little higher, if the material calls for it. It helps diversify a network schedule. Instead of relying on series intended to last for years, while simultaneously knowing that most of them will die quick deaths, networks can constantly rotate new material into the mix.

Next time: Handling the Handlers: why agencies should be allowed to produce.

Please read Parts 1 – 5 of this series.

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