Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Basics: Making A TV Series...

The networks are picking up pilots all over the place for the next TV season, and since I explained the Basics of TV Pilots a while back, I'll take a moment to hop us to the next level.

Let's put on our imagination hats and imagine that you just sold a pilot to a major network, and now have the greenlight to take it to series.

What next?

That's a pretty big question, and the short answer is "a hell of a lot!" but I'll go into a little more detail here, so let's get started in no particular order...

1. CASTING: Most of the casting of the series regulars is done during the making of the pilot. However, when you're going to series, you have to make any changes that are necessary, and lock down the ones you want to keep with standard seven season network TV contracts.

2. STAFFING: It literally takes an army to put together a television series. In the technical department it's usually the department heads that hire their own crews, but when you're the executive producer/show-runner you have to hire the writers.

TV is a writer-dominant medium. In television directors are more or less disposable, since they usually have to imitate the visual and dramatic style established in the pilot*. However, it's the writers who give the show its voice, and narrative style. Since the show-runner also acts as the show's head-writer this part has to be very carefully done to get the best people for the type and style of show they're working on.

3. PLOTTING: While most new shows fail, some do succeed, and the networks fully expect your show to last at least seven years whether it does or not.

That means you need to know what the hell will be happening so that you don't fire all your best shots in season one. Having a great first season, followed by a formless, aimless, second season that drives viewers away. Remember, the key to success in television is to get enough seasons under your belt to have residuals coming in from the reruns into infinity.

This also goes hand in hand with a lot of...

4. PLANNING: As I've explained before being a producer is essentially a job planning and coordinating dozens, if not hundreds of factors. Budgets need to be  calculated, schedules worked out, actors, extras, facilities and equipment all have to be booked. Of course, all the planning in the world won't save you from lots of...

5. FIGHTING: Networks are large, bureaucratic institutions where there are only a handful of real decision makers, but dozens of people who think they know your vision better than you do, and they can make your life a living hell.

You have to do battle with them, or watch your hard-boiled procedural detective series get reworked into a sitcom about a sass talking robot living in suburbia. However, you need some strategy. You need to know who not only pulls the strings at the network, but who can cut them as well. You need to make allies in positions of influence, and you need the knowledge to pick your battles.

Not even success can protect you, just ask the show-runners for The Walking Dead.

You see, television is inherently risky. Every year the networks spend hundreds of millions of dollars on pilots, the bulk of which go nowhere. That means they need the shows that do make it to air, to really connect with an audience, and even that's a crap-shoot. Gold can sink, and shit can float, despite what the marketing people say.

And that optimistic note ends the basics of starting a TV series.

*If you direct the pilot of a successful & long running show, you get royalties & residuals from that show for as long as it's on the air somewhere.

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