Saturday, April 02, 2022

Weekend Post


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:


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.


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.



Sean from Liverpool said...

I've noticed the odd establishing shot on Cheers is taped rather than filmed (or at least that's what it looks like). In the UK it was always the opposite: videotape inside and film outside.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Always wondered what the story was behind "Newhart" going from tape to film in its second season. Whatever the case, I'm glad it did.

Tape seemed appropriate for "WKRP in Cincinnati," though. The show was such a gritty departure from the usual MTM comedy fare, I can't imagine it being on film.

Leighton said...

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


Leighton said...

@ Kevin...

Also wondered about "Newhart." The first season was different in many ways.

I don't think "The Golden Girls" would have worked as well, on film. It has always felt like a comedy stage play - quite effectively.

Tim G said...

The MTM "The Betty White Show" from 1977 was taped instead of filmed, which was unusual. I think this predates WKRP by about a year. I liked the show (Sue Ann Nivens 2.0) but seems hardly anyone else did. Wonder if the cheap look was a factor in its quick demise.

Mike Barer said...

What a great post! I remember when I started watching "All In The Family" (it was already a half season old), it had a different look that I couldn't quite describe. I think that it was the first sitcom to be taped rather than filmed.

Mike Barer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AlaskaRay said...

I think you should have held out for Panavision or even Cinerama.

D. McEwan said...

Then we have those BBC shows from the 1970s,like Doctor Who or most anything on Masterpiece Theatre in that decade, where the exteriors were always shot on film and the interiors were always shot on tape, and the constant visual quality-shifts drives the eyes nuts. Man, the taped scenes look like crap.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Film was unfortunately one of the first casualty of Sid & Marty Krofft budget cuts . . . H.R. PUFNSTUF was, surprisingly, very expensive to produce: they had a budget of $54,000 per episode, and all of those elaborate puppets, costumes, and sets ended up costing about a million. But, it wasn't just that; the show was shot single-camera on film at Paramount Studios, so it wasn't just the artistry that contributed to their constant budget problems, it was also the technical aspect behind-the-scenes as well. After PUFNSTUF, all of their ensuing shows were shot multi-camera on videotape, and it's quite sad to see. These fantastic worlds the Kroffts conceived were always so bright, vivid, and colorful, that the best way they could be captured was on film: H.R. PUFNSTUF just screams technicolor; the worlds they created for all of their ensuing shows, like THE BUGALOOS, LIDSVILLE, SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS, etc., they look so pitiful on video tape: muted colors, inadequate lighting, a fuzzy quality . . . just imagine is Bob Ross' show had been shot on 35mm film, instead of videotape; we could really appreciate the beauty of his paintings then.

But, I understand about lighting on taped shows; SANFORD AND SON was pretty bad about this, particular in their later seasons: the lighting is so bright and intense, not only does the overall atmosphere of the show look almost like a nuclear winter, but all of the white people aren't just white, they're what Sweet Daddy Dee would call neon white.

Videotape took a long time, but it does seem like that finally, by the mid-to-late 80s or so, it started to improve to the point that it could actually be compariable to film . . . at the very least, that was when SESAME STREET finally started to look a lot better on camera than years before in terms of lighting, color, and clarity.

Stu Shostak said...

Re: That "Silver Spoons" comment...are you checking to see that I still you read you daily, Ken? Well, I do.

Tony Collett said...

The way I understand it, WKRP was taped instead of filmed because the music rights were 50% cheaper on tape than film. Then they changed the rules. Then home video came into play.

Fred said...

Video always is less visually appealing to me than film, but why do —
to my eye — so many filmed shows now look so much worse
than I remember them having appeared when first aired?
My imagination? Some technical reason?

A few 1950s series — often syndicated westerns, with location scenes — shot
on color film. Once reruns — almost unthinkable in the radio era— proved profitable
by mid-decade, why didn’t networks spring for the extra cost?

It’s a shame so many non-scripted shows switched from
filmed, and/or live filmed via ,
to video. Video tape often seemed harder to preserve, store, and restore,
and its reusability led to many programs being wiped and recorded over.

Doug in Dallas said...

I would have liked to have seen Barney Miller on film.

Philly Cinephile said...

This would make an interesting blog post -- the decision to film vs. the decision to videotape, and the various factors that go into that decision.

Regarding NEWHART, I recall reading somewhere that it was videotaped and then transferred to film. I don't know if that's true, or even possible, but it always seemed a bit grainy/fuzzy to me, like a kinescope, and lacking the visual richness of other filmed sitcoms.

On a related note, a handful of TWILIGHT ZONE episodes were produced on videotape as a way of recovering from budget overages.

Dennis said...

My thoughts exactly. Talk about tone deaf.

maxdebryn said...

Looks like you broke a woke commandment, Ken.

RobW said...

Film is also a much more stable preservation medium for the show and has allowed it to be upgraded to the high-definition era compared to the watery, fuzzy look you get from low-resolution taped material on new HD and 4K televisions.

Darwin's Ghost said...

The early seasons of Frasier aren't great visually because they're pre-HD video. Film never ages, so all the seasons of Cheers look terrific. Same with the contrast in Columbo from the 70s and the 90s. The 70s episodes are feature film quality productions. The 90s episodes look ugly and cheap.

I see that that tiresome godboy Denzel Washington has been going round defending Will Smith and saying prayer is the only answer and that the devil wanted to ruin Smith's night. Yeah, let's remove all agency from people and just blame their actions on fictional characters from fairytales.

Given the number of stories over the years about Washington's "close" friendships with women not his wife, someone should ask him about his religion's stance on extramarital affairs, or alternatively he can just shut the fuck up.

I know he has his fans but ever since Washington said atheists have no morality, he can kiss my ass. Hey, Denzel, let's talk about the morality of people who believe in a god, people such as Khomeini, Hitler, Bin Laden and Jerry Falwell.

Overrated actor too. He has three facial expressions and is the same in every role.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Sean from Liverpool: When I first started seeing British TV I found the indoor/outdoor switch really startling. Especially on 1970s shows, where the outdoor film tended to be very grainy.


Mike Chimeri said...

Sean, even the establishing shot was filmed.

Wendy, you reminded me of how Monty Python's Flying Circus did that. Anything shot at the BBC was on tape, but everything else was on film.

Mike Chimeri said...

Oh, and I forgot how taped sitcoms initially shot the main and end titles on film. That mostly went away by the time WKRP started, but Full House and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air still filmed the title sequence. Full House had filmed end titles until adopting freeze frames to match the other Miller-Boyett shows (and Fresh Prince).

Mike Bloodworth said...

Ironically if "Cheers" was being made today it may very well be shot digitally. The quality has improved so much that sometimes it almost impossible to tell if something was shot on film or video.

One of the things that harmed the Kroft legacy was that they were trying to find a more permanent way to archive their shows. Before digital storage there was a process where they tried transferring video tapes to film. It didn't turn out well. The brightness of the video was gone and it became a muddy mess. "Momma's Family" has the same problem. The transfer process ruined the picture quality. Although, I don't think too many people are shedding a tear over "M.F."

New topic: Since yesterday's F.Q.'s were mostly jokes, I saved mine for today.
FRIDAY QUESTION: Who was your first TV crush?
We all know how you feel about Natalie Wood, but she's a movie star.
Mine was Angela Cartwright, "Penny" on "Lost in Space." To a kid in elementary school, she was hot.


Jeff Boice said...

Did the video look anything the brief shots at the beginning of this ET clip?

Mark said...

This raises a potential Friday question.

Did the decision to go with tape rather than film hurt shows like Barney Miller in syndication? Filmed shows seem to do better. Given the hundreds of millions (possibly billions) of dollars shows like I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, Andy Griffith, and MASH have brought in after they went off the air, the savings of tape look questionable.

Even with b&w shows, the difference is striking. The Twilight Zone tried tape for a few episodes and the results were terrible. Even though people fondly remember "Night of the Meek" there's no question it would look and probably work better on film. I doubt TZ would have had the same longevity and impact if all of the episodes had been that ugly.

zapatty said...

@Mark - I totally forgot that the 1985 CBS version of The Twilight Zone remade "Night of the Meek". I am going to see if I can find it online.

Steve Lanzi f/k/a qdpsteve said...

Ken, thanks for bringing up this topic again. I wasn't 100% certain what you had said in the past re the difference for Cheers' overall look between tape vs film.

It's weird how different they can obviously appear, yet it's difficult to describe in words. It's more like a feeling.

Also, if you look at footage of shows or news taken with new 4k cameras, it seems a bite strange sometimes, because the images are now recorded directly to digital; no tape or film is ever involved. The result is something that looks somewhere between film and tape.

Mark said...

After All in the Family - the first sitcom to be videotaped - took off, it kicked off a period in the 70s when a great deal of the sitcoms were taped. By the time we got to the 80s, it seemed like most of the prestige, sophisticated, adult-oriented sitcoms like “Cheers” were filmed, while family shows and more gag-oriented shows like “Golden Girls” and “Night Court” were taped. A significant exception: most of the Miller Boyett family shows in the late 80s and early 90s were filmed with the notable exception of Full House.

I’d also love to know what went into the decision of tape vs film beyond just budget.

Brian said...

@Sean from Liverpool, what you’re seeing is that some shots from the Cheers film negatives are missing for whatever reason, so have been replaced by backup tape transfers. This is very prevalent in later seasons especially, and not just with establishing shots - sometimes certain camera angles within the episodes have obviously been substituted with tape backups. Not sure if this had to do with syndication editing or what. Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate.

As for the early Frasier episodes someone mentioned, it was common practice at one time to shoot on film then transfer and edit on tape. Whether those early episodes will get a remaster from the original elements the way shows like Seinfeld and Friends have remains to be seen.

benson said...

Maybe you folks in the TV business can comment, but isn't everything now shot in digital and then made to look like film when they want it to? (faux richness?)

The what-if of Barney Miller on film is interesting. Same with its heir Night Court. Videotape does give it a more real feel. At the same time, Taxi was set in a gritty atmosphere and I can't imagine it on tape. And John Larroquette's bus station series I think was filmed and it didn't help its rating.

I don't know if film would've helped the Betty White series. I liked it, but she had yet to become a national treasure.

Darwin's Ghost said...

OK, now I'm confused, because according to both imdb and Wikipedia, Frasier was shot on 35mm film.

I googled as to why the early seasons look the way they do and found this comment on a message board from ten years ago which provides an explanation.

"I believe all post-production/edits were produced to video in the early seasons (hence how fuzzy they look on dvd and various upscaling/HD displays nowadays), while the later seasons are a straight high definition transfer/edit and wider aspect ratio."

Ken, a follow-up post on why the early seasons of Frasier were edited and finished on tape as opposed to film would be really appreciated.

Astroboy said...

Cheers looks great on film, only thing that would have made it better is if it had been filmed in black & white. To me everything looks better in black & white.

-bee said...

The technology of analog TVs is pretty different than digital TVs (much brighter and more vibrant but much lower resolution) - I think some of the taped shows like All in the Family looked good on the technology they were originally made for and would not have been the 'same' on film (not saying all films should be shot on film or tape, but it was a case by case situation)

On current TVs, these old taped shows look fuzzy and muddy. For a while, there was a TV station in my area that showed Japanese mini-series in the 1980s, these were almost completely taped and looked GORGEOUS - they really had analog video down to an art. Tracked down one of them online and it looks like crap now. It's all kind of sad but what can one do?

One thing about some shows like Monty Python that had filmed segments....I think those were shot on 16mm film (cheaper and more portable than 35mm at the time), cause I felt like even back in the day those filmed segments looked a big dingy.

I belive a lot of shows (and movies) nowadays are shot on digital video because it is virtually indistinguishable from film at this point. The question is if in the future this medium will have issues too and people in retrospect will wish they were shot on film.

Brian Phillips said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: There are shows that I can watch several episodes in a sitting (Dick Van Dyke, Frasier). There are other shows that I like that I can only watch one episode per day at most (New Girl or Portlandia).

What are shows that you like that you cannot binge-watch?

- Brian Phillips

JessyS said...

I believe All in the Family was taped because CBS didn't believe in the series and thought it would suffer a quick cancellation. Besides, there is no need to spend heavy money on a show that most people would hate. If CBS had more faith in the series, who knows how Archie Bunker's home would look on film.

Steve Lanzi f/k/a qdpsteve said...

Astroboy, re 'everything looks better in black and white,' Paul Simon would disagree with you... :-)

And to -bee, you're correct that in the hands of careful videographers and cinematographers, digital can be made to look/behave almost exactly like film does with light and the overall look of a production. In fact, as far as I can tell, that's the philosophy behind 4k (and coming soon supposedly, 8k) cameras, TVs, et al.

I only wonder how far the technology will be pushed. Blackmagic Design, for instance, already has a 12k camera available:

DyHrdMET said...

I watched your movie VOLUNTEERS over the weekend and I have two different FQs.
1) Do you have any good John Candy stories?
2) When you're a writer for a film, do you have much control over actors you know getting small roles? For instance, I saw Allan Arbus had a small part in this movie, and you had worked with him on M*A*S*H. I'm pretty sure you've said how you liked working with him. I'm not necessarily asking if you got him that specific role, but does a writer have any type of justification in suggesting a name to the director for small roles like that in films?

Aaron Sheckley said...

I actually like Barney Miller on video. Watching it always seemed like watching a play. The first criminal investigation office I worked out of looked so much like the Barney Miller set (minus the holding cell) that watching it kind of makes me nostalgic for the job. I may be in the minority here, but I think the videotape actually made the show look more gritty and realistic, rather than less.

Gary Crant said...

I'm on the line about videotape vs. film, and live audience or single camera. They both work well in some shows. I agree however, that CHEERS would have been a disaster on video.

I must add that I think Britney Spears looks kind of hot with no makeup. I prefer the natural look.

Liggie said...

I've noticed that taped 1970s sitcoms look bad on my flat screen TV, but not so much on my iPad. It must be that the bigger surface area on the TV shows off the blurring and softness more. It takes me a while to get past that before I can fully concentrate on "Soap" and "Maude" on MeTV, Antenna and the like.

Interestingly, the videotaped segments of "The Benny Hill Show" I watch on the TV don't show those flaws.

Re: what Mark said about joke-based sitcoms being taped instead of filmed, I'm interested to see how they record the "Night Court" revival. All signs point to it keeping the original's joke-based approach, so will it use videotape as a homage, or will it use film as seems de rigueur now? Today's laugh-based three-camera sitcoms, Chuck Lorre's or otherwise, are filmed, and the only taped comedy productions I notice nowadays are SNL and the late-night talk shows.

Sean from Liverpool said...

Ah that's really interesting, thanks. In the season 3 finale of Cheers, when Sam is fantasising about stopping the wedding, it goes really grainy -(like Fawlty Towers-outside-scenes cheap film) - I'm guessing this is a similar mishap when converting the show for DVD or something.

Honest Ed said...

Setting aside the aesthetics of film vs video, and that something shot on film will visually date a lot better than something shot on 70s/80s tape, did the decision impact on the economics of making the show in ways other than the budget - did shooting it on film make it a lot easier to sell Cheers internationally?

RE UK TV shows splitting between film and tape, in almost every instance the film sections were shot on 16mm, not 35mm.

Peter Aparicio said...


Jon said...

NEWHART switched to film in its second season because Bob Newhart hated how the show looked on tape and had the clout to get his way.

Grant Tinker (who ran MTM) had announced in 1976 that all MTM comedies from that point on would be shot on tape rather than on film. (MTM shows already in production would continue to be shot on film.) That's why WKRP was on tape. It was just cheaper to produce a sitcom that way. It had nothing to do with music rights or anybody's lack of faith in the series.

Putting ALL IN THE FAMILY (and his other sitcoms) on tape was a decision Norman Lear made, not CBS. He wanted AITF to have the look and feel of live television. He wanted the show to have an immediacy and a spontaneous feel that he believed he couldn't have gotten if the series had been carefully shot and edited on 35mm film.

For the networks, though, the big push away from film to videotape had nothing whatsoever do to with artistic considerations. It was cheaper to shoot on tape, and that's all they cared about. That most shows looked like crap on crap on tape didn't matter. The networks have always been concerned with here and now, not five years from now. By the early '60s, the networks all knew they would, within a very few years, be broadcasting in full color. Nevertheless, they continued to produce most of their shows in black and white as long as they possibly could. Black and white was cheaper. When Lucille Ball wanted to start putting her series THE LUCY SHOW on color film in its second season, she had to foot the bill for color herself. CBS wouldn't pay for it. Ball believed having the show filmed in color would give it more marketability in the future, even though CBS continued to broadcast the show in black and white until its fourth season. CBS's position was that RIGHT NOW they were running the show in black and white, so why should we pay for color? Who cares about five or ten years from now?

Saburo said...

I would LOVE to see "Cheers on videotape." It MUST exist someplace.

BTW a good many people I know don't really know/care about the difference between video and film. It's a frustrating thing to explain, particularly since almost all video these days looks the same on computer monitors, mobile devices, etc.

thirteen said...

IIRC the Newhart series (the one set in New England) started on tape but was filmed from s2 onward. it was all about the look.

Russ DiBello said...

Probably the best example of that same tape vs. film debate, but in the opposite direction, was the 1980s' "Newhart".

The show debuted on videotape. Looked okay, I guess. But Bob Newhart had asked that they go for the "film" look for season two, and the powers that be accommodated him. The remaining 7 years were on film, as the show became a minor TV legend.