Sunday, March 18, 2012

Another thing about CHEERS you didn't know

CHEERS IS FILMED IN FRONT OF A LIVE STUDIO AUDIENCE

You hear that at the top of every show. But most people don’t know that after six or seven episodes that almost changed. That disclaimer almost became:

CHEERS IS TAPED IN FRONT OF A LIVE STUDIO AUDIENCE

As has been chronicled almost to death, CHEERS got off to a slow start (if you believe “dead last” is considered slow). And it was an expensive show to produce. All those lemons that Teddy cut each week alone! But one of the big ticket items was that the show was filmed rather than videotaped (like ALL IN THE FAMILY or the more highly regarded SILVER SPOONS). Tape is cheaper than film, it requires one operator per camera not three, is edited primarily during the show not after, easier to light, post production is less complicated, and the turnaround time is less.

Paramount and NBC were losing tons of money on CHEERS and it was on the brink of cancellation. So the studio felt if it could be produced cheaper NBC might have more incentive to pick CHEERS up for a back nine.

They went to Glen & Les Charles and Jimmy Burrows and asked if they’d consider flipping from film to tape. They agreed to at least make a test scene.

A first rate tape crew was enlisted to light the set. Video cameras were wheeled in, and Jimmy directed a scene. It featured everyone from the cast, and there was a lot of movement so we could view every angle of the set. It went through post-production, was color-corrected, and made broadcast-ready.

The Charles Brothers, Jimmy, my partner and I, and our line producer Tim Berry sat down and watched the test.

GAAAAA!

It was horrifying. All the warmth and depth of the set was completely obliterated. The rich colors became day-glo. And this dark, rich bar setting suddenly looked like a police station.

It was like those photos of Britney Spears without make up.

To Charles-Burrows-Charles’ credit the experiment ended right there. I don’t know if a copy of that test still exists. My guess is Glen Charles backed over the tape with his car in much the same way Tony Soprano had Phil Leotardo whacked in the SOPRANOS finale.

Ironically, if they had agreed to switch to the tape format I think it would have caused the show’s cancellation, not prevented it.

Ah, the little decisions producers have to make every day.

32 comments:

Bob Gassel said...

I guess it's all what you're used to...if Barney Miller had been done on film we would think there's no way it would have worked on tape.

LouOCNY said...

I believe Danny Arnold WANTED to do BM on film, but ABC said they couldn't afford it. So Arnold did the net best thing, by lighting and shooting it as if it were a film shoot.

The irony is that it might have cheaper in the long run if ABC has said yes to film. Barney's taping days were/are notorious for being the longest one day shoots ever.

Also, IIRC, Bochco's premise line for Hill St Blues was: "Barney Miller outdoors and on film"

Johnny Walker said...

I'll never forget the story you told as to WHY that disclaimer was added in the first place. Great stuff, Ken.

Phillip B said...

Monty Python was famous, or course, for following BBC standards - shooting tape in the studio and film outdoors.

The one show I'd suggest would have been vastly improved by film was the John Larroquette Show. Giving more detail to a run down bus station would have added nicely to sense of desperation...

Mike Barer said...

I remember that Cheers lost "coach" at the same time that "Hill Street Blue" lost it's main star and Night Court's Selma Diamond passed on. It had to have been a dark time for the network.

Johnny Walker said...

I guess they couldn't get those huge studio cameras outdoors!

You know, hearing Ken's description of the look of Cheers makes me want to watch it again, and in hi-def. And be VERY glad it was switched to tape!

Johnny Walker said...

*wasn't switched to tape. Damn phone!

Great Big Radio Guy said...

I was always amazed at the number of people I knew who couldn't tell the difference between tape and film back then. Today with digital, the difference is almost imperceptible.

Also legendary is how MTM went to tape for WKRP to help defray the cost of licensing the music. Today, the DVDs have both low-res tape AND all the "real" music was removed. Classic lose-lose on a show that definitely deserved better treatment.

Klee said...

I remember when "Newhart" went from VT to film; it made me such a big difference--maybe because they got rid of the first Vandekellen girl and replaced her with Stephanie...who knows?

Kirk said...

Film is generally better, more richer, than tape, and if I were a producer and had a choice, I'd definately choose the former. However, tape does have something--I'm not sure I'd call it a virtue--film doesn't. More of a sense of immediacy. Compare the filmed MARY TYLER MOORE to the taped ALL IN THE FAMILY. When I watch MTM nowadays, I'm somewhat more aware I'm watching a 40-year old show than I am with AITF. Topical references notwithstanding, ALL IN THE FAMILY looks like it was taped yesterday.

One thing about ALL IN THE FAMILY, though, that I've always found a bit odd is the opening credits. You start with a taped Archie and Edith in their living room playing a piano and singing, then it segues to a filmed overview of Manhattan, then to a filmed overview of Queens, then the street the Bunkers live on, closes in on the Bunker house, before switching back to the videotaped living room again as Archie and Edith finish their song. I've often wondered why they just didn't either film or tape the whole opening sequence, instead of breaking it up like that. If money was the issue, wouldn't it have been cheaper to tape the exteriors?

Johnny Walker said...

I'm guessing the studio cameras were too big to take outside, or the filmed footage was stock. The other option would be to film the whole thing, but I guess the concern would then be that the characters wouldn't look the same as on the show.

Or maybe they just thought nobody would notice!

pumpkinhead said...

My memory on this is fuzzy... I remember another 80s or 90s sitcom switched from tape to film (or vice versa) for one episode that actually aired and the difference was jarring. Growing Pains maybe...? (yeah, I watched Growing Pains... what of it?)

RCP said...

You know - you could have just suggested imagining Britney Spears without makeup and left it at that...I wasn't prepared.

pumpkinhead said...

...Growing Pains maybe...? (yeah, I watched Growing Pains... what of it?)

Well.....................never mind.

John said...

Tape as it was in the 1970s though the 90s had a tendency to make the actors and actresses appear more live, and their surroundings appear more fake -- it was closer in feeling to that of showing a live performance, where you know everything's a prop and it takes you out of the believability of reality, even if (as noted above) a taped show from 40 years ago can still come across as 'plausibly live', as long as you're not watching it on an HDTV channel.

You could believe there was a back room, or a Melville's, or a stairs up to the street on the filmed version of "Cheers" because there is (was) more subtlety possible on film than there was on videotape. "Cheers" on tape, circa 1983, would have given the set the same air of believability as your average set on any current Disney Channel 'tweener' show.

Swarley said...

I started following the blog relatively recently. Are reruns normal? This is the same post as http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2008/09/another-thing-about-cheers-you-didnt.html

You'd think a writer would at least put together a clip show instead of a complete rerun. :)

Johnny Walker said...

Swarley, the blog has a new post every day. And most readers haven't read the archive, and those that have can't remember a post four years ago.

I know you were trying to be smart and funny, but it seemed a bit rude (to me, at least).

It's not like you've stumbled on a secret.

DyHrdMET said...

was most of the late '60s, 1970s, and early '80s recorded on tape instead of film? I've always wondered why most video (not movies though and not some TV shows) from that era looks like crap.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

Bosom Buddies' pilot was shot on film then went to VTR for the rest of the run. I'm sure there were others.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

I know what you mean, Dy. it seems like much of the output from ABC's Prospect studio was washed out and/or fuzzy (Soap, Barney Miller, etc.) even when it was new.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ROB in Toronto said...

Another great thing about film is that it offers much higher resolution than the old standard-definition tv specs. An ancient show like I Love Lucy will live on in high-definition looking significantly better than All In The Family or anything else from the tape era.

Film has all tape and digital formats beat as a preservation format as well.

YEKIMI said...

I've watched a lot of those Brit coms and noticed the striking difference between the use of tape indoors and film outdoors. And low and behold, on a DVD extra for one show it was explained that the reason it was done that way for almost all shows of that period is because at that point in time that compared to film equipment the videotape equipment was so big and bulky and hard to transport outdoors that it made it cost prohibitive.

Pat Reeder said...

Speaking of the shoddy way "WKRP in Cincinnati" was treated (reason #10,943 to hate the music industry, and yes, I can list the other 10,942 if you like), it's finally about to start being rerun starting April 8 on the Antenna TV nostalgia channel.

I'm very anxious to see if they'll be able to air the original shows because it's on a broadcast medium, or if they have to use the ones that have been bowdlerized for DVD, thanks to the greed of the music licensers. If they're actually the original episodes with the original music, I'll be firing up the recorder.

Gazzoo said...

From above...

"I believe Danny Arnold WANTED to do BM on film"

Reader comment line of the year!

chuckcd said...

Better than a "dead studio audience"

chuckcd said...

Northern Exposure also lost the original music when it came out on dvd. A big loss, since a lot of those songs commented directly on the episode.

jbryant said...

As far as I can tell, the reason Britney Spears looks less than desirable in that photo is because she's crying and has her hair up in messy 'do. I don't see any wrinkles, blemishes, blotches or other damage that's screaming for makeup. Maybe the resolution on my computer needs boosting?

Mike said...

at least they didn't switch to filming in front of a dead studio audience.

Stephen Robb said...

Newhart (the '80s series) was video for the first season and film for the rest, and it was an improvement. Everything looked better.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I cannot stand tape footage. It instantly reminds me of cheesy soap operas, and it screams 1980's.

To me, it's either film or nothing (or at least digital video that replicates the look of film).

John said...

A lot of those Norman Lear produced shows look so dated today. Especially the actbreaks with the dramatic closeups. And many of the series did use the filmed/stock footage for a videotaped show. Good Times had the Chicago stuff, then a videotaped shot of that painting at end.

I think there was a Chico and the Man (post-Prinze) that was filmed. Family Ties and Facts of Life both had TV movies (or 2-parters) that were filmed.

Someone mentioned the John Larroquette Show. That looked like a film/tape hybrid of some sort, very different.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Night Court, the show would have looked a lot better on film. Most of the screen captures I've made of the DVDs have been putrid looking. There was way too much green and yellow coming from the light sources but I guess those filters were supposed to make up for the grunge look the courtroom was supposed to have.