Seven Weeks

UK-based Writer/producer Stephen Gallagher takes you step-by-step through the seven weeks between the initial conception of an ELEVENTH HOUR episode idea and the start of filming. His experience is typical of American episodic television production…and very, very different from the way things are done in the UK…where the same process can take months, if not longer.

Here’s the nub of it. It looks fast and scary. But for the writer, the actual amount of work in turning out an hour-long script for American TV barely differs from that involved in creating script for a UK hour. The difference is that the US system edits out the soul-destroying longueurs between stages, while your script sits on someone’s desk or some executive disappears on holiday. It’s the same act of writing, but you get to do it in real time; and because of that, you don’t run the risk of anyone – you included – falling out of love with what you’re doing.

Cool Desperation

I read two interesting takes on the new fall TV season. TV Writer Kay Rendl sees more vertical integration on the business side and the continued pursuit of cool on the creative side. 

Think about it — what drama do you watch on network TeeVee that features uncool lead characters? Even my favorite network shows featured cool people. The Gilmore girls were cool. The politicians on the West Wing were cool, even when they were policy wonks because they would still sleep with prostitutes. And even Buffy, with her outcast-ness, slayed vampires. Willow became a cool lesbian witch. Xander married an ex-demon and lived in a weird 80s condo.

There are two ways to be an outcast: You either hide your weird qualities (Buffy), or you showcase them (Glee). It wasn't until I watched the Glee pilot that I realized what had been bothering me about the pilots, and it's that cool factor. Even when a pilot tries to make a character less cool, they invariably balance that quality out with a cool element: Mary Sue's a mousy librarian, but she's also a witch who looks GREAT with her hair down and her boobs pushed up. Cool is the safe zone for networks.

Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazines sat through the network upfront presentations and saw something else — fear and desperation.

With buyers still shaken by the economy, this is the first upfront season in which it’s become impossible to ignore the troubles that riddle the television industry—financial, technological, creative. Automobile ads have dissolved. Cable is ascendant. And none of the default settings are holding: NBC—which skipped the upfronts, giving “infronts” two weeks earlier—has gone rogue, scheduling an hour of Leno every weeknight at ten, touting an “all-year” schedule.

[…]CBS’s “we’re No. 1!” sell is compelling, if in a depressing way: People love our dullest shows! They cheer their purchase of Medium, which NBC dumped. The reality pilot Undercover Boss strikes a chord with this audience of people terrified of being fired.

The after-party—at Terminal 5 instead of CBS’s old venue, Tavern on the Green—is sweaty and miserable, with chocolate fortune cookies containing the unsettlingly fascist message “Only CBS.” It occurs to me that all this branding is itself oddly dated, to viewers if not to marketers—how many television viewers are loyal to one network anymore, now that the very concept of a time slot has nearly dissolved?

The sad truth behind the hype, the booze, and the chilled shrimp fed to the advertising reps who attend these things is that 90% or more of the new fall shows will fail. Miserably. And everybody knows that…but deny it to themselves, something Jimmy Kimmel's comedy schtick at the ABC upfront presentation made perfectly clear. 

"Everything you’ve heard today, everything you’re going to hear this week, is bullshit. […] Every year we lie to you, and every year you come back for more … You don’t need an upfront, you need therapy. We lied to you, and then you passed those lies along to your clients! Everyone in this room is completely full of shit.” 

Everybody laughed. They should have cried.

Always Change the Names

All writers take some inspiration from their own lives for the stories they tell in their books and screenplays. But it looks like CSI writer/producer Sarah Goldfinger may have gone too far (or, at the very least, was sloppy about it). The Los Angeles Times reports:

When married real estate agents Scott and Melinda Tamkin read about an episode of the hit crime drama "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" that featured dirty-dealing, S&M-loving real estate agents named Scott and Melinda Tamkin, they didn't need to consult a forensic expert for an explanation.
A house sale involving the Tamkins and a "CSI" producer had fallen apart four years before, and the producer was listed, in the same online description, as the co-writer of the episode. On Friday the Tamkins filed a $6-million defamation and invasion of privacy suit against the producer, Sarah Goldfinger, saying she humiliated them and cost them potential business…

I don't fault Goldfinger for using the couple as a jumping-off point for her story. There's nothing wrong with that. Series often use real-life events and people as inspiration (that's why they run a legal disclaimer on certain episodes of LAW & ORDER that are obviously "ripped from the headlines"). Goldfinger's mistake was actually using their real names in the script. Although the names of the characters were changed before the script was shot (undoubtedly after the standard legal script clearance process uncovered that there were actually real estate agents with the same name as those in the teleplay), the damage was done. The early draft was used for casting and initial network publicity. 

It's a surprising mistake for someone of Goldfinger's experience to make.  Every TV writer knows better…and probably cringed when they read about this. Look for this lawsuit to be quietly settled before it goes to court.

International TV Buyers Want WalMart Prices

This week is the LA Screenings, when buyers from networks worldwide come to Los Angeles to see pilots and buy the broadcast rights to new series for their countries. These sales are important to the U.S. studios. They help the studios recoup the difference between the network license fees (what CBS, ABC, etc. pay to air the shows) and the actual production costs (which are considerably more). The problem is, networks worldwide are in deep financial trouble. Although it's usually cheaper for foreign networks to buy U.S. stuff rather than produce their own, home-grown fare, they still don't have the cash to spend on a shopping spree. Variety reports:

Twentieth global TV head Marion Edwards said she's concerned that the U.K. market, after years of high spending and bidding wars, is scaling back in a big way, especially after a weak 2008 Screenings.

"Sky buys a lot of shows, as do Channel 4 and Five, but not last year. ITV is the wildcard," she explained. "They've all announced they'll slash programming budgets and won't buy U.S. programming. We'll have to take the temperatures. The market has gotten very tough."

The Los Angeles Times reports that 1400 buyers came this year…one hundred less than last year. And those who've shown up have a lot less money to spend.

Asked where the most challenging markets will be, Jeffrey R. Schlesinger, who oversees international television for the studio, didn't even need a pause. "Unfortunately, the answer is everywhere." The Canadian buyers had already passed through the lot Sunday with much smaller wallets than usual. "Prices were not at the level of the past two years," Schlesinger observed. The United Kingdom and Australia are also challenged. While lots of new buyers have emerged recently most don't have the deep pockets of the entrenched networks.

This is My Life

Getting fired, in the form of a series cancellation, is a fact of life for people working in the TV industry. As an example, The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday on what it's like for the crew of the CBS series THE UNIT to be waiting, and wondering, whether their show is coming back.

If drama is life heightened, then Hollywood's bubble shows mirror much of America right now, where the specter of pay reductions, freezes and immediate unemployment is writ large. In the television industry, the phenomenon is an annual rite as network executives decide which series will be ditched to make room for new projects.

"What the country in general is going through, if you choose to work in Hollywood, you've accepted a life that is constantly like that," said executive producerShawn Ryan, who runs "The Unit" and created the FX cable channel's cop drama "The Shield." 

[…]Executive producer Vahan Moosekian is as familiar with these employment ups and downs as anyone. His four years on "The Unit" is his longest stint on any show during his 33 years in the industry, stability he knows could easily be followed by years of unemployment. With the rise of reality TV and NBC's new 10 p.m. Jay Leno comedy show, there are fewer jobs in scripted television.

I know how Moosekian feels. For years, I used to dream about what it would be like to actually be on a show that came back for a second season. It seems like every show I was on would be canceled during it's first season, or if it came back, I would leave for one reason or another before it happened. It wasn't until DIAGNOSIS MURDER that I discovered what it felt like to be on a show for several years…though we were on the bubble for renewal, not just every season, but every mid-season as well.  

I have never seen things as tough for TV writers as they are now. There are fewer scripted dramas and fewer writer/producer slots on them. Even if you are lucky enough to be on a show that gets renewed, you might not come back with it — every show is trimming expenses and writers are the first to go when networks and studios look to cut costs. 

Then again, it's tough for everybody in every industry right now.

The Price isn’t Right

Lots of scripted shows in recent years have moved their production from Los Angeles to New Mexico, North Carolina, New York, Toronto, Vancouver and even Bogota, Colombia . But you know things are really getting bad when even the cheap, non-scripted shows are fleeing the state. The LA Times reports today that the gameshow "Deal or No Deal" is saying "no deal" to California and high-tailing it to Connecticut.

The syndicated game show, hosted by comedian Howie Mandel, has been based out of the Culver Studios in Culver City for the last 3 1/2 years. But the show, which is produced by Endemol USA and distributed by NBC Universal, will shift production this summer to a studio in Waterford, Conn., to take advantage of that state's film and TV production tax breaks. Most of the 250 people who now work on "Deal or No Deal" will lose their jobs.

Connecticut offers a 30% production tax credit for films and digital media productions. NBC Universal, whose corporate parent General Electric Co. is based in Fairfield, Conn., already has announced plans to move three of its talk shows into a new production facility in Stamford, Conn.: "The Jerry Springer Show," "The Steve Wilkos Show," both from Chicago, and "Maury," from New York.

What's next to go — "The Price is Right?" "Ellen?" "The Tonight Show?" This is very bad news for all sectors of the entertainment industry in Southern California.

People Don’t Watch Shows That Suck

You'd think that would be common sense but, apparently it's not. Case in point — today an Entertainment Weekly article questioned why so many science fiction shows this season are tanking while audiences are still flocking to science fiction movies:

Two weeks ago, Fox aired what was probably the final episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a pretty solid sci-fi show which nevertheless suffered from guttery ratings. Two weeks from now, Terminator Salvation will premiere in theaters — where it will likely make somewhere in the vicinity of $90 million in its first weekend, regardless of how "good" it is. Two separate extentions of the same franchise: one will be labeled a failure, the other a ginormous hit. Why?
Why don't we want science fiction on television anymore?

I think that the EW article is based on a faulty premise. People do watch science fiction TV shows…when they don't suck (good stuff like THE X-FILES, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, the first season of HEROES, etc). 

Unfortunately, most of them suck. 

People didn't reject TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES because it was science fiction…they stopped watching because it was lousy (and I say that as a guy who, inexplicably, didn't miss an episode). People turned away from HEROES for the same reason. The bottom line for science fiction shows is the same as it is for all shows in any genre:  they gotta be good or they'll die. 

That said, science fiction is a niche genre that has always appealed to a limited number of viewers…perhaps enough eyeballs to make a movie a hit but not enough to sustain a weekly TV show (which is why the SciFi network is so eager to broaden their brand and shed the "scifi" label). 

The other reason that science fiction TV shows haven't worked is that they are inordinately expensive to produce…which means they need to quickly and consistently draw a large audience to justify the expense/continued production. Most shows, sci-fi or not, have a hard time drawing viewers. But the networks understandably don't have the same patience with an expensive show as they do with inexpensive one.
So no, it's not science fiction shows that audiences are rejecting…it's poor writing, or a lousy premise/franchise, or bad acting, or the promotion was so weak, nobody ever noticed the show was on the air…or it's a lethal combination of all those elements.

As far as movies go, there is also the event/spectacle factor. A 100-minute movie like TERMINATOR: SALVATION costs as much to produce as 44 episodes of TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. Of course the movie is going to be more awesome. Plus, you're only asking the viewer to make a two-hour committment rather than a 44-hour one.  It has nothing to do with science fiction as a genre and everything to do with a dozen other factors. 

In other words, EW was asking the wrong question. What they should have been asking is "Why is science fiction TV so bad lately?"

That would be a better question, but not a fair one, because I think science fiction is thriving on TV as never before. STARGATE  just ended it's eight (or was it nine?) year run. It's spin-off ATLANTIS is also ending a long run (five years?). BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which only ended a few weeks ago, may have been one of the best, and most-acclaimed science fiction TV series ever on television…and it gave SciFi Channel the respect it has sought for so long (which is ironic, considering they are changing their name with the premiere of the BSG spin-off CAPRICA). FRINGE is doing great.  And if you throw fantasy/horror into the mix, it looks even better (SUPERNATURAL, MEDIUM, TRUE BLOOD, GHOST WHISPERER, etc). 

So no, this is not a bad time for science fiction. It's a bad time for shows that suck…or that were once good and have slipped…or ill-conceived shows that take too much time finding their creative footing.


Fox is yanking DOLLHOUSE after episode 12 and will not air the 13th episode. Now, on the surface, that would scream "The Show is Cancelled." But the folks at DOLLHOUSE are spinning this news in a very odd way. See if you can follow this explanation from producer Tim Minnear:

Okay. So maybe I can help clarify this somewhat. Because we scrapped the original pilot — and in fact cannibalized some of its parts for other eps — we really ended up with 12 episodes. But the studio makes DVD and other deals based on the original 13 number. So we created a standalone kind of coda episode. Which is the mythical new episode 13. The network had already paid for 13 episodes, and this included the one they agreed to let us scrap for parts. It does not include the one we made to bring the number back up to 13 for the studio side and its obligations. We always knew it would be for the DVD for sure, but we also think Fox should air it because it's awesome.

If I understand this correctly, and I'm not entirely sure that I do, he's saying that the Fox Network ordered 13 episodes, which included the pilot, which was scrapped and cannibalized in subsequent epoisodes. But the Fox Studios made commitments to networks overseas and to a DVD distributor for thirteen episodes. So, since they were one episode short after dumping the pilot, the studio alone bore the cost of shooting an extra episode that the network doesn't feel like airing.

Finaldh_13grouppool_1179_ly3bKeep in mind that the studio and the network are owned by the same people…Fox. They are simply moving cash from one pocket to another.

So here's the bottom line: Fox Studios paid to produce an episode that The Fox Network doesn't want to air (in other words, they don't want to pay a $3 million license fee for a show that's delivering terrible ratings). What does that tell you about the network's confidence in the show?
A lot.

The Canadian Invasion

The attitudes of the major U.S. networks towards Canadian programming has changed dramatically since the success of the CBS import FLASHPOINT and the global economic crisis. Canadian TV distribution exec Noreen Halperin told The Globe & Mail:

"It's an extraordinary change in the lay of the land from even a year ago[…] The shift with some of the network presidents has been exceptional."

Last year's strike by the Writers Guild of America, she says, "paved the way, and allowed a show like Flashpoint to be sold. Once it aired and was a success, it made people take notice. That, coupled with the economic downturn, means all broadcasters are looking for interesting alternatives. The Canadian way is one of these," adds the TV veteran, who says Americans can save up to 50 per cent by splitting costs.

She brought Canadian showrunners Tassie Cameron and Ilana Frank to L.A. to meet with network chiefs to pitch their pilot script COPPER in hope of finding a U.S. home…and co-financing.

A year ago, Halpern adds, it would have been ludicrous to assume that Cameron and Frank – both highly respected on their home turf – would get easy face time with big U.S. players. But times have changed. CBS will make six fewer pilot episodes this year than in 2008, when 15 were produced. And everyone's feeling the pinch from the freefall in advertising.

"The U.S. networks, like the ones in Canada, are clamping down in an enormous way to find cost savings," says one veteran Toronto producer, who asked not to be named. "They're all pulling back on the kinds of salaries that actors, directors and writers are being paid. They're taking a week-by-week approach to green-lighting new shows or renewing old ones.

Canadian shows are continuing to find homes on cable networks like Lifetime, Ion and Oxygen, for whom shopping up north for cheap content is nothing new. But whether the high interest in Canadian programming at the Big Networks will continue probably depends more on economics than content, and whether CBS's second Canadian series, THE BRIDGE, and NBC's midseason pickup THE LISTENER (already an international success) can perform as well as FLASHPOINT. 

(Thanks to Denis McGrath for the tip)

Lazy Days and Beloved Characters

I finished writing my latest MONK novel the other day and I felt like lazing around. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately and after writing a book I didn’t feel much like reading one. So I vegged out on television…some new, some old.

The BATTLESTAR episode was, astonishingly, one hour of pure exposition…mightily well-written, grandiose and flowery exposition, but exposition all the same….the dreaded “Irving the Explainer” taken to new, galactic heights by three Cylon-the-Explainers. Only a serialized series on it’s last episode or two that doesn’t give a damn anymore about drawing new viewers would dare film an episode like that and call it entertainment (though Marc Bernardin at Entertainment Weekly thought it was so “revelatory” that it “melted my Goddamn face off.”)
The TERMINATOR episode was merely dull and totally uninvolving, relying heavily on the over-used trick of having the hero (or in this case, heroine) talk to an imaginary character. Alan Ball should be shot for doing it so effectively on SIX FEET UNDER because now every TV series has to do it. Nobody seems to have noticed that it became a cliche three years ago and is now slipping into unintentional parody. At least the folks on GREY’S ANATOMY have raised the stakes by having the heroine fuck the character who isn’t there…oh, wait, I take it back, GALACTICA did that two seasons ago when it still had a sense of humor to go along with all of its dread and misery. The folks at TERMINATOR have forgotten what made the TERMINATOR movies so much fun…and have gotten mired in dreary angst…probably because angst is cheaper to shoot than Terminators destroying things. The John Connor character has become a morose, whiny, Excedrin headache come-to-life…but the two lady Terminators? They’re great.
The “old”  TV that I watched was a private eye marathon that I staged for myself with episodes of HARRY O starring David Janssen, THE OUTSIDER starring Darren McGavin and THE ROCKFORD FILES starring James Garner.HarryO
THE OUTSIDER and ROCKFORD were, essentially, the same show, about a down-and-out ex-con turned private eye in L.A. Roy Huggins created THE OUTSIDER and co-created ROCKFORD with Steve Cannell, who brought more humor to the concept.  I liked all three of them very much ..not so much for the plotting, which was often weak and predictable, but for the mood and the terrific anti-private eyes at the heart of those series (and the brilliant lead actors who played them). Nobody did world-weary heroes and lovable losers like McGavin, Janssen and Garner.  It’s hard to pick a favorite among these three great series, but if I had to, I guess it would be HARRY O.
Janssen is a pleasure to watch as beach-bum Harry Orwell, riding around San Diego on the bus, tie loose around his collar, a permanently pained expression on his tan, lined face. What a terrific character. Both Rockford and Ross were tougher than they looked, but not Harry. He wasn’t tough at all. Just bone-tired and lonely…and too caring for his own good. He couldn’t even run after a bad guy or a damsel in distress, not with that damn bullet permanently stuck in his aching back. What other private eye but Harry would turn down a willing Linda Evans by saying “I can’t make love unless I’m in love…just a little.” Ross and Rockford would have bedded her in a second…out of desperation and opportunity if nothing else. Not Harry.
Sure, the plotting in HARRY O was often lousy, but the show captured, better than any other before or since, the pure pleasure of reading a great PI novel. The show wasn’t as complex as a Ross MacDonald or even John D. MacDonald novel, but it aimed for that kind of emotional and psychological complexity…even when it pandered with a drooling psychokiller plot (starting with it’s pilot, “Smile Jenny, You’re Dead”).
Watching HARRY O, ROCKFORD and THE OUTSIDER, I realized what those old shows had over those two, recent episodes of GALACTICA and TERMINATOR. Character. Keep in mind, GALACTICA and TERMINATOR are two of my favorite shows (well, they were). But, at the risk of sounding like an old coot blogging from his bungalow at the Motion Picture Home, I think that too often shows today confuse angst with character, dread with depth, misery with complexity. A character doesn’t have to be in endless spasms of self-loathing, denial, heart-break and agony to be someone worth watching or caring about. That’s cheap and easy “complexity” for a writer, it’s writing a character rather than creating one…and it’s a beating for the audience. Characters are more than the sum of their pain, anguish and loss…and their capacity for cruelty to themselves and others.  It’s not superficial or weak writing to explore more subtle conflicts…and to season them with humor, compassion, vulnerability, and some joy. There are people I love very much who are going through very hard times…and yet they haven’t lost their sense of humor or their ability to find joy in their lives, even in their darkest moments. If anything, it’s that capacity for humor and joy that is seeing them through it.
I love (or, I should say, loved) GALACTICA and TERMINATOR…but Captain Adama and Starbuck, Sarah Connor and John Connor….in the end, they aren’t memorable characters. They feel like writerly constructs. Pain masquerading as character. They don’t live and breath the way Lt. Columbo, Tony Soprano, Archie Bunker, Adrian Monk, Al Swearingen, Mr. Spock, Mary Richards, Matt Dillon, George Costanza, or even Dexter Morgan do, to name a few. Because despite all of the dark, angst-ridden conflicts that the writers have created for them, the characters on GALACTICA and TERMINATOR are incessantly one-note: Miserable. And too often than not, they leave the viewer feeling the same way.