Thursday, March 11, 2010

What do producers actually do?

Here are more Friday questions answered.

From rockfish:

Being in both writing and sports, do you know why sports has rarely translated into a successfully popular TV show?

TV tends to shy away from sports-themed shows because they can be way expensive. At some point you need to see the games and that requires crowds, a lot of production, and MONEY. There have been some attempts but they tend to be too costly to justify their ratings. The worse ever was a sitcom on CBS adapted from the Jim Bouton book BALL FOUR. They did it as a multi-camera taped show all set in the locker room. You never saw them play. It was insane… but cheap.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS proves you can make a great sports-themed show. I just wish more people watched it. And there have been others. THE WHITE SHADOW for one. I'm sure you can come up with two or three more.

M. Shawn wonders:

What exactly is the job of a Television Producer? I know what a Director & Writer does, but I'm ignorant to what a Producer does?

Unlike in features this is a hazy area. In features a producer puts together the whole package – finds or develops the material, champions the project until the studio greenlights it, hires the director, and cast, manages the budget, and in some cases raises the financing. In television the show runner acts as the overseer of the production and in most cases he is a writer.

But then there are the non-writing producers (or “pods”). Here’s where it gets real murky. These are generally former network or studio executives who are given sweet production deals. And studios are now forcing writer/producers to attach themselves to these pods because the studio is paying for these pods. So in many cases these “producers” merely add another level of interference and take part of your profits for the privilege. There’s nothing they do that the writer/producer couldn’t do without them, and has been doing without them very successfully for fifty years. Executive Producer: Tony Soprano.

And finally, from YEKIMI:

What teacher did you "love" the most...someone in grade school? high school? college? or someone in the industry who may have "taught" you some things you would have never learned anywhere else?

The best teacher I ever had was a high school history teacher named David Solkovits. He made the subject come alive and kindled an interest in history I have to this day.

Along the way I have been incredibly fortunate to learn the craft of comedy writing from Larry Gelbart (pictured), James L. Brooks, the Charles Brothers, Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, Gene Reynolds, and Jerry Belson. My directing gurus were James Burrows and David Lee.

There’s not a single English teacher I can point to in high school or college who really made a positive impact. But there was a radio newsman named Bruce Anson who taught me more about writing than anyone else. Here’s the post I once did about him.

What are you pondering these days?


Mike Barer said...

My wife loved to watch "Coach"

SimoSSimonhammon said...

Here's one I've been wanting to ask for awhile. We all know that you've had the good fortune to work on quite a few classic sitcoms, but I'm sure you've probably done or have known other talented writers who have worked on shows(and I won't ask you to name names) that didn't work, due to various reasons like badly thoughtout initial concept, incompetent or inexperienced producers, miscast actors, extremely intrusive and counterproductive network interference, or some combination therefore of. How, as a writer who knows they're good at their craft, do you or they deal with a situation where no matter how hard they work on it, what ends up on screen will ultimately be a flop?

Simon H. said...

Previous post was from the name I'm signing with now. My IPhone added that as I was saving the message. Damn you Steve Jobs *shakes fist*

Max Clarke said...

Thanks for the questions/answers, would be good to see more of this when the questions stack up.

Unrelated, a friend quoted a line from Arthur after I said something about having to go through the park, you know how I love the park. I pointed him to your post about Steve Gordon. This fellow hasn't seen Arthur in maybe 20 years, but good writing sticks around.

Mike said...

I've read one of Bea Arthur's beefs with the Golden Girls writers was that they'd put too many timely cultural references into the scripts, which would therefore hurt it in reruns (i.e., jokes about Miami Vice or Hunter or Ronald Reagan, etc). As a writer, how much did you think about things like that? In other words, would you think "yeah, this joke is topical, but it'll get a big laugh, and who's to say they'll be watching us in reruns 10 or 20 years from now anyway?" or would you say, "nah, let's go for something a little more timeless"? In all the years I've watched Cheers (which incidentally is a show I primarily discovered in reruns), I've rarely come across jokes that are simply unique to their time. One exception is a fairly early episode where Carla tells Sam he's got "Wessonality." Because I'm something of a pop culture dork, I understood what the line was referring to, but I'd imagine that, for the vast majority of the population, the line would go over like a lead balloon if someone came across the repeat today.

rockfish said...

I remember Ball Four -- and I have fond, 13-year-old memories of it, too (no doubt your recollections are more grounded in maturity). Sports seem to translate to comedy well, at least in my memory. Both Have Gun Will Travel and Little House did single episodes based on ball games and made them entertaining.
Thanks for answering.

Anonymous said...

What about the Line Producer? The person who actually makes the show happen. I can't begin to imagine a Show runner trying to put together a crew, do a budget, scout locations, work out the shooting schedule, deal with the day to day of the set, the prep and the post. As much as the writer creates the story, the true collaboration of actually bringing the story to life starts with the Line Producer (often now also an exec producer).

D. McEwan said...

I always thought of CHEERS as soemthing of a sports show. I mean it was a sports bar. The hero was a baseball player.

I do remember a show called BAY CITY BLUES about a baseball team from Stephen Bochco that had only a short run, but I remember liking it, which is unuusal, given how much I don't care for baseball.

YEKIMI said...

Thanks for answering my question.

Vermonter17032 said...

Spot-themed shows: Don't forget the great "Sports Night." While it wasn't about a specific sport, it was about a sports television show.

LouOCNY said...

BALL FOUR would have been/would be a great mini series for HBO or Showtime.

BTW, this year marks the 40th anniversary of BALL FOUR. It still should required reading for all of those wondering why baseball players go so 'uppity' in the 70s. Plus - it is damn funny, too! I personally blame it for corrupting me at the tender age of 11.

Paul Duca said...

Doug...BAY CITY BLUES was noteworthy for having the first shot of a man's bare backside on network broadcast television. the 80's HBO did run the football-themed FIRST & 10 for five seasons, and just last year aired EASTBOUND & DOWN, about a washed-up major league baseball player.

Mary Stella said...

Ken, have you caught any of The Marriage Ref? Three celebrity panelists watch video of a husband and wife arguing over some situation, or personal habit, or something in their marriage. The panelists discuss and then the host calls the couple and proclaims which one "wins".

Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Madonna, Ricky Gervais, Kelly Ripka, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and Eva Longoria have all been panelists.

I've seen two episodes that made me laugh long and out loud. Last night, not as much.

My question, on top of asking if you've watched, is whether it's really unscripted or whether the panelists are just good at making us think so.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

It's interesting to me, Ken, that you had a history teacher that made a difference for you. I had the exact same experience with a history teacher at Cleveland High School in Reseda. His name was Ford Atkinson. He was one of those teachers that made you WANT to learn. He turned history from black and white into color for me. He died very young. I still miss him.

Michael said...

Ken, I also remember you saying that you learned a lot about storytelling from someone who doesn't write comedy or drama or much else: Vin Scully. That struck me because I wanted to be a baseball broadcaster when I was a kid. Now I'm a college history professor, but when I am telling a story from history, I find myself unconsciously imitating Vin's cadence.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous about the importance and contribution of theTV "Line Producer" or a "Non Writing Producer". I think most Executive Producer/Show Runners would also.
I know you and David sure did.
Stepehen C. Grossman

A. Buck Short said...

Can Friday questions include Friday answers to Thursday questions?

Thanks, I knew you would never be that pedantic.

Yesterday Mike Barer said
Speaking of dickhead's posting--I can't believe the anti-semitism of some of the posters on "youtube". All anonymous of course. It's very disturbing.

Mike although you failed to follow the rules and post your declarative statement (with implied exclamation) in the form of a question -- feel free to check out:

C'mon, you knew somebody was gonna do it. I haven't spent any time there, because the concept alone is enough to keep me happy for the moment.

-bee said...

I quite liked the recent sports sitcom "The Game".

It's sad though - how shows with mostly black casts become so 'marginalized' by the 'mainstream'. Granted, some of them are lousy, but some like "The Game" and "Girlfriends" were really quite good.

Interestingly enough, Kelsey Grammer had a hand in those two shows.

Mike Schryver said...

About "Ball Four" and the necessity of showing the action - I've heard Gene Reynolds, I think it was, talk about the need to see the O.R. on MASH, in order to validate their actions outside the O.R. But there are examples of setbound shows that never showed us the off-screen action. Barney Miller comes to mind. Also, we rarely saw a moving taxi on Taxi. Could a setbound baseball show succeed if it were more like those shows - not really about what the characters did for a living?

Anonymous said...

just want to second (okay, third) what the other two anonymous posters were saying about line producers - if there is a feature style producer in television, it seems to me like the line producer is one. as a creative assistant at a tv studio, when my boss can't talk to the writing ep, he talks to the line producer. in that case it's not an extra level of interference so much as a more accessible person

By Ken Levine said...

Line Producers are different from other more amorphous producers. And their credit is even different. It will say "produced by".

To be honest, the line producer is the only producer who really DOES produce. He's in charge of putting the crew together, overseeing every aspect of production. If line producers like Stephen Grossman would like to email me and offer a brief description of what his job responsibilities are, I'd be happy to do a post on the subject.

Line Producers ROCK!!

Laurie A said...

Multi-part question: is it harder to write comedy for a cast containing a single child or is it harder to write for a cast containing multiple children (e.g., Full House)? Building on that, is it harder to write for a cast with any number of children versus writing for a cast entirely of adults?

In your opinion, who has been the greatest child actor (regardless of whether or not they've acted professionally as adults)?

I stumbled onto your blog and really enjoy reading it. Thanks so much for updating it daily - gives me something to look forward to once I get the kiddos to bed and before I pass out!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken - Long-time reader, intermittent commenter, first-ever Friday question: Just wondering if either of your kids ever visited on any of the sets of the shows with which you were associated in their younger days; if so, do either of them have any specific "stand-out" memories of those visits that they'd care to share? (Talk about a "Take Your Kid to Work Day" that would make the other kids green with envy!!) Did either of them ever make an appearance on any of your shows ... and, if not, would they have wanted to do so on any show in particular? Did you ever "consult" them if you were writing "kid-centric" dialogue, to get a reality check?

Not loving the influx of nastiness here from the anon poster(s) lately - what an ungracious, ungrateful, and sophomoric thing to do. But, if it matters, I agree with those who'd rather encounter the occasional shmuck versus kiboshing the comments
option altogether. I'm another one who really enjoys the comments and is a fan of many of the commenters.

Anonymous said...

Shoot - that anonymous post above is mine. For some reeason, I entered my user name, but it didn't "take". ~ Ruth/50 is the new 30

D. McEwan said...

"Paul Duca said...
Doug...BAY CITY BLUES was noteworthy for having the first shot of a man's bare backside on network broadcast television."

I know. Why do you think I was watching a TV series about baseball?

Speaking of Stephen Bochco's obsession with getting naked manbutt onto prime time TV, here's a thought that has always amused me: When Dennis Franz did his infamous naked butt shot on NYPD BLUE, the show where Bochco got his dream for a while, I always thought it was a good thing that Franz did the nude butt shot himself.

Because if he hadn't, imagine the poor casting director saddled with the horrifying task of finding a butt double for Dennis Franz.

The horror. The horror.

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Carson Clark said...

I've searched the internet looking for the answer to this question and have come up empty. I've always wondered what episode of Fraiser was in production when the September 11th attacks took place. Considering what had happened to their colleague and friend, it must have been difficult to go forward with that episode and the ones that followed in the weeks to come.

YEKIMI said...

That naked ass shot of Dennis Franz still gives me the willys. I wasn't expecting it, and even gouging my eyes out and soaking them in bleach will probably never remove the image from my mind. If it had been Kellan Lutz or Taylor Lautner, heck, even Barney Rubble it probably wouldn't have damaged my psyche.

Anonymous said...

Paul Duca said...
"...BAY CITY BLUES was noteworthy for having the first shot of a man's bare backside on network broadcast television."

I may be misremembering but wasn't there actually a shot of Radar's butt as he dashed into the shower during a sniper attack? That would have been in the MacLean Stevenson run of MASH. Admittedly probably not a planned shot and very brief, but still several years before Bay City Blues. Times do change though don't they? Now there's stuff on commercial TV that wouldn't have been on HBO in 1983.

gih said...

Darn! That series makes me sick. But my mama really love that. Well, that's her life :-)

Pseudonym said...

This is just a guess, but I'd wager that sports-themed shows have limited appeal in all of the other markets where US sitcoms are sold. Who in the UK or Australia will watch a show about gridiron?