Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Questions

Some Friday Questions coming attcha. What’s yours?

Anonymous starts us off. (Please leave a name. Thank you.)

I've always wondered about the scenes filmed to be part of a musical montage. Knowing the dialogue will never be heard, are the actors actually speaking scripted lines, or are they just improvising? Or are all the scenes shot with dialogue, and the scenes for the montage chosen later?

Sometimes scenes with dialogue will be compressed into a montage for time purposes, but if a montage was the original objective then no, specific dialogue is not written. Actors are asked to improvise or just move their lips (which in some cases is the same thing).

There’s a great Hollywood story (which of course may be apocryphal) about the filming of the movie HEAVEN CAN WAIT in the late ‘70s. It starred Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. Apparently he had a brief fling with her during filming which ended badly. They then had to do this scene where they walked together in one longshot. In the scene they’re starting to falling in love so the body language is romantic and intimate. You figure they’re cooing sweet nothings to each other. But no dialogue was to be heard – just walking arm-in-arm with music over.

So the cooing that you didn’t hear was Julie Christie ripping him a new asshole, MF’ing him up one side and down the other.

After one take Beatty said to co-director, Buck Henry that was enough. He wasn’t going to re-shoot it.


GM has a question, which relates the post I did earlier in the week about network presidents bemoaning the state of the industry.

Do the British have it right? Lots of 3, 6 and 13-episode seasons where the writers get their best out and then have nine months to think up new episodes. I'm really enjoying the shorter season series on a lot of cable networks more than the often padded attempts at 22 on the traditional networks.

That model doesn’t work over here. U.S. audiences are used to more than six episodes. (At one time series churned out 39 episodes every year.  I'm exhausted just writing that.)

As for the networks, it’s hard enough for them to get people to tune in to shows now, much less asking viewers to try something else every two months.

The truth is it’s hard to build a following when you only have a limited number of episodes. The audience sometimes needs time to find certain shows (they’ve heard good things, etc.). For someone to discover s show and then it’s gone two weeks later defeats the purpose.

Also, the real payoff for American sitcoms is syndication sales. And for that to be meaningful, they need at least 100 episodes. It would take an English hit comedy a dozen years or so to accumulate that.


Harkaway has a question about what happens after a U.S. broadcast network cancels a show that is still in production?

These days in the UK we sometimes see series with episodes that never aired before due to cancellation in the US. Those episodes may also be used on a DVD, or now, streaming.

How do you maintain morale then?

Once a show is canceled in the US production generally stops. If they’re in the middle of filming an episode they will usually complete production of that show, but then that’s it.

Morale is usually horrible. Either everyone is in tears or they can’t wait for the damn week to be over. I myself, have directed several last episodes of series and it’s an ordeal. Try staging a comedy when everyone is crying.

And finally, this from birdie:

Why would a show like THE ODD COUPLE that not do well in the ratings when on the air, do huge business in syndication? Where were all of those viewers during the original run?

That’s what the producers want to know. Some series benefit greatly from syndication and airing every day instead of just once a week. WINGS and BECKER are two other great examples. Maybe in primetime they were up against real popular shows so didn’t get the sampling they deserved. Or the network moved them so often no one even knew they were on.

All three of those shows deserved better recognition during their first-run years. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say how much they love BECKER. They discovered it only recently. And they’re floored when I tell them it was originally on CBS for five whole years.

So going back to an earlier question, if a series can’t make an impression with a hundred episodes, how do you expect one to do it in six?

37 comments:

Blaze said...

What you say is sage and wise. How can anyone "find" or judge a show in a measly six episodes?

BUT, that's the way it is done in the UK and everything works fine.

BUT, to use a recent arbitrary example, "Free Agents" was cancelled after four episodes. The slow, measured system of 22 episodes in order to "find" a show didn't seem to apply...

Personally, I find shows in hindsight. In syndication or DVD. I steer clear of the whims of voodoo seers cancelling shows by reading Starbuck coffee stains.

Mac said...

I've never seen WINGS but BECKER is definitely the one that got away. That was a razor-sharp show that was totally accessible, in the Cheers/Frasier mould.

SkippyMom said...

I love Becker too and my husband is one of those people that was shocked to learn it was on for five seasons. It was a shame they cancelled it after only 5. Love syndication!

januaryfire said...

Ken, I agree with you for sitcoms and probably procedurals that are episodic, that a longer season of 22 episodes works. But for a continuing drama, sometimes 13 is a lucky number. Serialized shows that can stick to a tighter story arc are more satisfying for the viewer and will likely keep the viewer as long as the plot and characters are accessible. If it's too serialized, that's hard to pick up after a couple eps have aired. But I have seen serialized dramas of 22+ episodes that lose their way for a few or more shows and it affects the whole season arc. I think there's room for more than one model. I think that 6 episode seasons are too short for American audiences unless it is marketed as a limited mini-series, not a regularly programmed show that will be back. The key to shorter seasons is to then bring them back sooer, not wait a year. That time frame is for blockbuster movie sequels.

april said...

I was a big fan of Wings.

When Friends was on, I drifted away from the show towards the end, but I recently started watching the later seasons in syndication. I think that a lot of expectations are lowered when you're catching a quick half hour at 11PM. It's just quick, easy entertainment captured on the fly. It's not a half hour put aside as appointment television or space on the VCR/DVR. I think my standards, right or wrong, are higher when a show airs originally.

LouOCNY said...

The US 'system' works - at at least USED to work.

There were a few posts a while back on how so many of the venerable classics took a few shows....half a season...a full season or even two to really settle in.

MASH's first season is definitely odder then the rest of the series.

Lucy's first season was really rough at first due to getting used to the brand new format.

Barney Miller's first season and a half doesn't match the rest of the series. There, it got better when they got rid of their studio audience, and the legendary marathon taping sessions began.

MTM, both of the Newhart shows - especially NEWHART, required 'settling in'. And on adn on.

We all know that CHEERS, FRASIER and WINGS were all good from the get go, but we all know why thats true - right Ken?

Since the cast had been doing it since the Dumont days, it should be no surprise that HONEYMOONERS was good. So that really does not count in my book....

Jen said...

I feel like networks moving shows around is one main reason why I don't tune in to shows until they're really established, and even then the shows end up moving a lot. I like knowing what day and time something is on, so when it bounces all over the schedule, I stop watching.

Anonymous said...

"That model doesn’t work over here."


The model doesn't work over there, either, at least economically. That's why pretty much every British TV star takes any opportunity they can to move their career across the pond. Ricky Gervais has probably made more off whatever creator residual he gets for the U.S. Office than he made creating, writing, directing and starring in the British original.

Mike

Ray Barrington said...

I agree that being an "everyday" show rather than a weekly one can help. My mother never liked "Barney Miller" when it was on ABC, but when she started watching on a daily basis, she started to understand the characters, and it became one of her faves.

John said...

In the case of The Odd Couple, pretty much everyone agrees it's weakest season was the one-camera formatted first-season, which may explain why it never caught on in first-run. A lot of times it's just tough to get people to take a second look at the show once they've made up their minds, and as a result, the series didn't score until people caught up with it again outside of the prime-time block (and I've always thought that even in syndication, stations should start airing TOC with Season 2, Episode 1 instead of S 1, E 1, because its the Season 2-5 shows viewers really want to see).

Wings was hurt by basically being in Cheers shadow. It wasn't a ground-breaking show for NBC, but played off an already successful formula (and did it well for the most part), so as a result, it didn't stick out as well in people's minds.

Becker's first-run problem may also have related to Cheers, because people had this set idea of how they wanted to see Ted Danson in a sitcom -- Becker may not have been at the Dabney Coleman/Buffalo Bill level of cantankerousness, but he wasn't a character you could immediately warm up to in the same way you could the humanized-by-his-own-flaws Sam Malone (and for the people who turned into Becker on CBS in expecting Sam Malone-in-a-diner). Five-night-a-week syndication makes it easier for the audience to catch on to where the series is trying to go, since month-long plot arcs or character development play out in less than a week.

emily said...

I think Ted Danson is about to save CSI...

Jack said...

When M*A*S*H was originially aired they always showed the title of the episode. As someone interested in the writing and producing process, I was always interested in those details. I was probably the only 10 year old who knew directors and writers names. When the show went into syndication these titles were cut off. I am assuming this was done for time considerations; to squeeze in a few more seconds of commercial time. How do you feel about this, as a writer? I further assume that the WGA is OK with the practice.

forg/jecoup said...

My Name and Kids and George Lopez are mediocre rated when they aired on ABC but seeing the syndicated shows ratings those two shows are doing great

Question for next Friday:

In the final season of Frasier, Laura Linney's character initially said she lived with her mother but in her next appearance, she was apparently living alone. Did you guys decide to drop the mother character? If yes, why?

RockGolf said...

@Jack: I don't ever remember episode titles appearing in M*A*S*H. Writers & directors, definitely, but never episode titles.

Kirk said...

I remember titles airing for MASH two-parters, but never for stories that began and end within a single episode, the vast majority. A lot of shows do that with two parters. Unless Ken wants to contradict me, I imagine they do that not so much because they want viewers to know the title as to get across that it IS a two-parter.

Stephen said...

It is also worth noting that in the UK, there is not a slew of new shows premiering every few months. This is because soap operas have somehow become the staple of our primetime schedule, so networks can just supersize a soap to cover holes left by a previous show which has ended its run. So while we can play the "quality" card with regards to our 6-13 episode seasons, our trade-off is night after night of crappy, recycled melodrama that makes Grey's Anatomy feel like inspired television.

gottacook said...

I don't recall any on-screen MASH episode title other than for the 2.5-hour finale.

Johnny Walker said...

TV on DVD/demand seems to be where it's at these days. And for non-sitcoms, it seems from people I've spoken to that more and more aren't interested in new shows... at least until they're not new any more. Most would rather see where the shows got to, and if they had a satisfying ending, before investing time into it.

For example a friend of recently mine asked me about Buffy and The X-Files... He wanted to know if they ended well, because he was thinking about watching them.

Pretty late into the game, but I can understand where he's coming from: What's so great about a show being "new"? A good show is a good show. And if something has stood the test of time, and you missed it the first time around, it's probably going to offer you more enjoyment than a brand new show that's finding its feet, and is on the brink of being cancelled every other episode.

I don't know how this shift is going to change TV, but I think it will eventually.

Johnny Walker said...

Friday question, Ken: I've often wondered where people who are essentially writers learn the "business" side of show-business.

For example, Joss Whedon went from writing a few scripts on Roseanne to co-running his own show (Buffy). Working with actors, other writers, directors, and a million other people who must answer to you when you're running a show, sounds like a talent in itself. And then there's the network, and the money side of things, which probably require yet another different set of skills.

Where is someone expected to learn how to deal with such things? It amazes me when someone like Whedon can apparently show such a talent in so many areas, so quickly.

KG said...

I don't know....

I really like the short seasons because every episode is awesome. Just look at Breaking Bad for example. On the other hand, I would HATE it if this would become the standard. I just want a whole a season, at least 20 episodes.

So yeah, exceptions are okay. But short seasons shouldn't become the standard.

And when it comes to comedy shows, I really tend to suck everything out of it. I would have watched the 15th season of Frasier even if the episodes would have been only half as good as the early ones.

Gary Mugford said...

Okay, because I'm a glutton for being told how wrong I am [G] ...

How about the revival of the Mystery Wheel. Two or three weeks to bang out the best show you can. And if you fail, something can slot it without killing the other two. You have to use done-in-one shows.

Leaving THAT idea behind, let me turn to The Afternoon Mystery Hour (or conversely the Early Evening Mystery Hour or the Late Night Mystery Hour ... a CBS idea at one time). A series of five episode series. Serii? Whatever. The idea is to produce what we old fogies used to call Mini-series and make them compelling in first run rotation. Then keep replaying them in syndication as part of a 'brand.' Would five episodes work? Torchwood Children of Earth would be a top-line example on both sides of the pond. I still think TV with a beginning, a middle and an end has a place in our infinite video universe.

cb said...

small correction...Becker ran 6 seasons. The sixth was only 13, but still...

Roger Owen Green said...

LouOCNY - Cheers was a failure, by commercial standards, that first year. If NBC had any better options, they'd have canceled it in 13 weeks, which would have been a shame.

Jim S said...

Friday question.

How did the guest celebrity callers to Fraiser's show do their bits? Did they record them, do them live, some combination of both?

How did you choose them? Were they favors, a cool inside baseball thing to do?

Just curious.

Harkaway said...

I'm sure this will run on and on, but there are a couple of other differences between the UK and US systems. One is that the business models emerge out of two different traditions. In the US the long seasons provide the commodity which will return a profit in syndication. The money from the network license doesn't begin to cover the cost of producing most series.

Pilots are made as prototypes and if they get bought then a great deal of capital gets invested in a product which only begins to pay off years later.

In the UK, pilots are rarely made. Instead maybe six episodes of a comedy are commissioned and there is more time for making sure all the elements are in place. If it does well, perhaps more series will be done. There is one comedy series in the UK, Last of the Summer Wine, that began in 1973 as a one-off. Written by one man, Roy Clarke, it ended only last year after 32 series of between six and ten episodes(294 in all). It sold in some overseas markets, even, evidently showing on some PBS. It was not cutting edge comedy, but it retained the affection of viewers for years. But no one would suggest that it had as much capital invested as, say, any US comedy, and it won't have returned much profit. All profit would have gone back to the BBC to be used for making more programmes.

That traditional model has changed in the past twenty years with outside production companies now making more shows. However, the production values now have to be very high, so while comedy commissioning hasn't changed too much, drama commissioning either needs a partner to inject capital in hopes of a healthy profit (which is how Downton Abbey got made for ITV) or fewer episodes are commissioned to test the international waters (three episodes ordered last year for both Sherlock and the Upstairs Downstairs reboot).

My point is that it isn't just about the creative side, which is what we mostly discuss here, and what Ken so generously exposes us to. Other factors are also in play. These are financial, cultural, political, sociological and sometimes rely on dumb luck. I'm just thankful that there are multiple models and occasionally someone makes me laugh.

Jeff said...

Thanks for the mention of "Heaven Can Wait." One of my favorites. Will have to watch for that scene next time, now that I know that tidbit.

Michael in Vancouver said...

Friday Question:

Was it my imagination or was there a point in the late 80s when sitcoms got ridiculously loud? I think Night Court started the trend. I recall watching the first episode and wondered why all the jokes were being shouted, and everyone was running around like chickens with the proverbial heads cut off. Seemed like every sitcom that followed required lots of shouting and slapstick. I hated hearing the comparisons between Murphy Brown and Mary Tyler Moore. MTM, Taxi, Cheers, et al, didn't have characters yelling jokes with their arms flailing. I think everything toned down again around Frasier, Rosanne, Mad About You. So, was there an actual intent to crank up the sitcom volume around that time? Did producers require writers and actors to amplify everything into madness?

jbryant said...

Gary: What you're suggesting sounds a bit like BBC America's "Dramaville," which shows various British mini-series (sequentially, however, NOT in rotation). They recently had "The Hour," are now showing series 2 of "Luther" and have "Whitechapel" coming up. But yeah, I think the return of the Mystery wheel concept would be aces.

Ken, my brother just texted me last week that he's been enjoying "Becker" since recently "discovering" it on the Reelz channel.

Brian Doan said...

@Johnny-- In Joss Whedon's case, he spent several years between his early 90s stint on ROSEANNE and the late-nineties beginnings of the BUFFY show working in films-- first the (for him, anyway) disappointing experience of the original BUFFY movie (an experience which he said taught him a lot), then as a writer and/or script doctor on films like SPEED, TITAN A.E., the fourth ALIENS film, and TOY STORY. It was this final movie that scored him an Oscar nomination, and that gave him the opportunity to redo the BUFFY idea as a TV show.

He's also talked about being "third-generation TV": his father Tom worked on CAPTAIN KANGAROO, SESAME STREET, ELECTRIC COMPANY and GOLDEN GIRLS, among many other shows, and his grandfather John wrote for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, ANDY GRIFFITH, and other sitcoms in the 50s and 60s. In particular, he's talked a lot about what his father taught him, and I assume observing all those experiences growing up gave him a stronger idea of the ins and outs of the business than other writers who have success at his relatively young age.

Finally, he's on record about how uncomfortable his experience writing for Roseanne was, and how, again, it was learning from a negative example, and deciding to do things differently when he got the chance (particularly, he said, with regards to running the writing room).

Brian Doan said...

Er, in the comment above about Whedon's film writing, I should have said "credited writer and/or script doctor"-- I was trying to distinguish between the work where his name appeared and that where it didn't (but where he's been acknowledged as playing a major role), but didn't mean to suggest that script doctoring wasn't a form of writing, of course.

iain said...

Michael In Vancouver:

I remember in the '70's, it was Norman Lear who got the blame for the "loudening" of tv programs especially with "All In The Family" & "Maude"

Barbara C. said...

Brian Doan, you said what I was going to explain about Joss.

But someone else touched on something else that I think affected Joss's Firefly series: sometimes people have trouble adjusting to a familiar artist going in another direction. This may have been true for Danson going from Cheers to Becker.

I know personally that when I tried Firefly on the heels of Buffy its totally different feel turned me off. When I watched it a few years later, though, I totally fell in love with it and I think its cancellation was a miscarriage of justice. Of course, it might have made a difference that I got to watch it the second time as Whedon intended it to be rather than with all of the network tinkering that it originally aired with.

A lot of what we consider "great shows" would never have made it today if you look back at their first season ratings. The networks would have dumped them before they had a chance to get their groove and pick up viewers. It's all part of our "instant gratification" culture.

Barbara C. said...

The biggest difference I see with the British system is that they seem more willing to give new ideas a chance. In the U.S. the networks seem to want the same formulaic crap.

john brown said...

Anyone who complains about how loud sitcoms are must never have watched an episode of I Love Lucy.

Stephen said...

I have a question about Cheer's slow-burning success in the ratings, and I guess this can be applied to all slow-burning hits. Cheers is known for keeping audiences hooked in its early years with the Sam/Diane dynamic. But Cheers didn't start attracting massive ratings until its third season (so I'm told) by which point Sam and Diane had already flirted, dated and broken up. So when a show takes a while to catch on and a lot has already happened story-wise, are viewers left feeling left-out? Would have been as easy in 1985 as it is today for a new fan to get caught up on several seasons and see the storyline play out in its entirety?

Michael in Vancouver said...

Hi Iain, thanks for your comment about Norman Lear. I know what you mean, his shows had characters who were more brassy and in-your face. But the time period I'm referring to, I think it became worse. It wasn't just bold characters, but an overall "madcap" quality with lots of running, slamming doors, broad physical comedy where it didn't need to be.

Brian Wolman said...

I have a friend who won't invest watching The X-Files because he heard the finale sucked....His loss, I say...