Thursday, January 21, 2016
As if TV pilots weren't hard enough...
Here’s another FQ that became a whole blogpost. I'm trying to get to as many of your questions as I can. I may even have some bonus days of FQ's in the weeks to come. You never know with me.
It was reported recently that CBS has asked the writers of several of their pilots to convert them from single-camera to multi-camera or a hybrid (a la HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER – multi-cam but with no studio audience.).
Jeff read that and asked:
This article from Deadline says that CBS has bought several new single-camera comedy projects, but asked for some of them to be reworked into a multi-camera format (or a hybrid of both styles). How hard is this to do? It seems like, after spending god knows how long creating a new project, changing something fundamental like this would be very frustrating and difficult. And since the project has been bought, can the creators push back, or refuse?
Well, it depends on the project obviously, but it’s generally very hard to convert one from the other.
Single-camera shows (shot like a movie) and multi-camera shows (four cameras and a studio audience) have very different tones. Multi-camera depends on bigger jokes (they require actual laughs). Single-camera shows are more realistic. They can be very funny (THE MIDDLE, MODERN FAMILY, 30 ROCK) but often times they’re not. They’re more… amusing in a wry way. But they don’t have to adhere as much to familiar rhythms as do multi-cams.
Having spent extensive time in both genres (MASH for single-cam, CHEERS and FRASIER for multi) I see value in both and believe you can create exceptional shows in either format.
So for me, it really boils down to the premise itself. Which format best allows you to tell your story and realize your vision?
Obviously, if you do a show set in a mobile army surgical hospital in Korea it’s probably best to do it single-camera (like a movie). Good luck getting a chopper pad on a soundstage for a studio audience.
But if your show centers on a family or a workplace office situation, a multi-camera format might better serve your needs. If most of the action takes place indoors in a house or office and is constructed more like a stage play, do it with an audience. The other advantage of multi-cam shows is that the live audience response can energize a cast and boost their performance.
So you sell your show, write a great single-camera pilot, and the network asks you to convert it to multi-cam. Can you? Well, remember, it has been done. Successfully.
Writer/producers are in a bind. If they don’t feel their show should be converted then they’re basically asked to jam a square peg into a round hole. They’re fixing something that isn’t broke.
But if they refuse, or even fight too vigorously, the network can kill the project altogether.
I don’t know any of the pilots CBS is asking to convert; I haven’t read any of them. So I have no way of knowing whether some or all or none would benefit from the change.
But the message it sends is that CBS still favors multi-camera comedies. And if I had an idea for a multi-camera show, which network do you think I’d run to first? And that’s a factor. When writers are devising these pilots, they usually get hooked up with non-writing producers. The producers, writers, studio, and everyone’s representatives strategize. Which network would be most receptive to this particular idea/tone/style? My guess is had these writers sold these pilots to one of the other networks they would not have been told to convert. They went to CBS. Maybe they had a deal there, or didn’t sell their single-camera idea elsewhere, or perhaps when they saw that they had picked up a single-camera comedy (LIFE IN PIECES) they figured CBS was finally open to that format. Oops.
In fairness, CBS is not the only network to do this. It happens all the time.
Look, writers focus on the creative end of pilots and networks focus on their programming needs. What shows would be compatible with other shows? What type of show would best fill this hole in the schedule? What show will likely attract Millennials?
And sometimes those needs change – mid-course.
Writers who’ve been in the business for any period of time (ten minutes) understand this. It’s the world we live in. But there are probably many inspired pilots that got crushed because networks decided they wanted to go in a different direction. And made those decisions on a whim.
The only time this practice worked out for me personally was one year we sold a single-camera family show to CBS. They ultimately passed (because it was the only single-camera comedy they bought and felt it was not compatible with anything else on their schedule). So we took it to ABC. They wanted to buy it but make it a multi-camera show. We said to do that would require a complete overhaul. Same characters but whole new story and tone. They said fine and paid us for an entire new script. So we had to convert it, but we got paid twice. (ABC ultimately passed because they had too many family multi-cams including one they were committed to make. But they told us, if it was any consolation, that ours was better.)
Like I said, you learn to live with it.