Thursday, October 26, 2017

Too many cooks

Nowadays when someone goes to a major broadcast network he brings an army in with him. There is a non-writing “pod” producer attached and he generally has one or two execs, a studio involved so there are three more suits, an agent and possibly a manager. Also figure in the network exec you’re pitching to and three of his or her assistants and suddenly you have ten or so people in the room besides yourself. Wait. If the pod producer is part of an actor’s production company you might also get the actor, his development executive, his agent, and his manager. And if you have talent attached, tack on that person along with his posse. You need to rent out Radio City to pitch a pilot.

When David and I came up with the idea for BIG WAVE DAVE’S  in 1993 we didn’t have any development deal in place with a studio. This was before the era of the “pod” producer. We called CBS ourselves and said we wanted to pitch a show. An appointment date was set.

If CBS bought the pilot we would then shop for a studio to partner with. But even that wasn’t a requirement. If we were really industrious we could start our own independent company, get our own financing, and own the show outright, a la MTM, or Carsey/Werner Production. (But that wasn’t us. We were happy to use this pilot commitment to swing a development deal with some major studio.)

So it was just me and my partner, David Isaacs, and the VP of development for CBS. Three people.

He bought the pilot in the room; David and I went home and wrote the script. We didn’t have to run it by anyone at a studio, production company, TV star with a deal, focus group, etc. There weren’t seven drafts before it went to the network. There was one.

Now it was time to turn it in. It occurred to us that we had never directly turned in a script to a network. The studio always did that. So we had no idea who to submit to, how many to submit, etc. I called this VP’s office, found out the answers, went to Kinko’s, made the appropriate number of copies, and drove over to CBS myself to drop them on her desk. No fancy studio covers, nothing.

Once a script is turned in today, fifteen network department heads weigh-in with their thoughts and suggestions. A conference call is arranged and twenty people hop on as notes are given for a second draft. You don’t even know who is giving the notes. Voices just chime in with opinions. (This can be problematic because you need to determine whose notes are important and whose you can just ignore.)

Thus begins the second round of seven drafts before everyone on your "team" is on board. That script is turned in and you hold your breath for weeks to see whether you get the green light. Often networks will wait until everything is in to make a decision. Or your show is on the fence and they need several days of internal debate.

We turned in our first draft at 5:00 on Friday. At 10:30 the following Monday our agent called to say CBS was greenlighting the show. Just like that. I asked if this was contingent on a second draft and they said no. They had some minor notes and to call them at our convenience but get the ball rolling, hire a casting director, shop for a studio, etc. We were a go.

So when you have a process that three people can handle all by themselves and you have twenty other people involved who are superfluous – there’s something wrong with the system, wouldn’t you say?


Mitchell Hundred said...

For a moment there I hoped this post would be about the viral Youtube video of the same name as the post's title. Oh, well.

Honest Ed said...

I do a lot to writing for UK TV - the BBC in particular. What I've noticed over the last 20 or so years is a similar bloat. Partly down to the BBC - its effectively a branch of the civil service and once people are on staff, it's hard to get rid. I've seen new jobs created just to by pass people who are poor at their job and can't be moved. 20 years ago, I'd work on a script with just a script editor with procurers and execs coming in very late, really only when it went to production. Even 12 years ago, I was working on a show where, when I wrote a draft, it went to a script editor, series editor, a producer, a series producer and an exec. Now, on the same show, it goes to a script editor, a series editor, a story producer, a script producer, a producer, a series producer, an exec producer and an exec. Same number of eps, and they all still complain about their workload. And bear in mind, none of these people are writers.

It's got to the stage where its impossible to wield all this notes into anything approaching coherence, so now they pitch in at different stages of the process. The number of drafts is not determined by the needs of the script or the writer but is pre-determined before you start. First draft goes to the series editor, second to the produce, third to the series producer, fourth to the exec producer, etc, etc, etc. And there's no show runner.

blinky said...

Since most shows are failures, the more people involved in the decision means plenty of other people to blame when it fails.

Grant said...

The only thing wrong with the system is narrow minded old farts like yourself who stand in the way of progress.

ADmin said...

No question about it.

Mike said...

@Honest Ed: Brilliant. Very strong. Yes, exactly. Hurrah. Blimey. Cool. Lovely Ed. Bollocks. So that's all good then.

Who said you can't invent catchphrases?

Andy Rose said...

@Honest Ed: Some people have been able to use the eccentricities of the BBC to their advantage. I don't know how things work now, but in the 80s it was apparently just understood that once a program was greenlit, at least two series would be produced. So after the first series was over, money would automatically be allocated for the next cycle.

Paul Jackson had finished producing Series 1 of Happy Families in 1985 when he and Ben Elton decided they didn't want to do a second. But the money for Series 2 was already in the BBC budget. So Jackson just used the money to make Red Dwarf instead... a show that, after many starts and stops, is still in production three decades later. A big reason the first series of Red Dwarf looks so cheap is that they had to make an effects-heavy sci-fi program on Happy Families' budget.

Diane D. said...

I understand why government agencies (such as those that regulate Medicare operations) grow and grow and grow. I'm sure everyone does, but why do private businesses (such as entertainment) allow the same thing to happen? Where is the advantage; who benefits from it? Surely there must be some entity that benefits (other than more people to blame for failure).

I don't know which is worse---the scenario Ken describes, or a group of well-paid professionals sitting around a table and seriously discussing the dangers involved in having DENTED MUFFIN TINS in a health care facility!

YEKIMI said...

@ Grant: If Ken's narrow minded....I wish I had his mind!

@ Andy Rose. Never seen "Happy Families" but if it's as funny as Red Dwarf I'm going to make it my mission to find a way to see it.

For a while, radio seemed to be the same way. Either the MD or PD decided what songs to add to the rotation [also depending on how big the bribe was from the rep of the record label], then for a while it went to everyone in upper management and the DJs at a round-table choosing what songs to add by committee. Now it's basically down to a computer running it through an algorithm AND how much the music company is willing to pay the Evil Empires [radio broadcasting companies] to play their crap.