Five New Rules Of Production

Industry panel offers guidelines for navigating TV's troubled waters
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WEBCAST: New Rules of Production
Click here to listen to an archived webcast of this panel discussion.

The harsh reality of television production today—no matter the genre, daypart or mode of delivery—is that it's scattered with land mines for producers and production companies.

The 2007-08 WGA strike left lasting bruises on relationships throughout the TV community, and the cratered economy has only exacerbated executives' and producers' struggles with financial models. Budgets and license fees continue to tighten, viewers' expectations and habits are morphing, and basic rules of engagement evolve on a daily basis.

But TV people are “a resilient bunch,” said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler during a panel discussion of industry experts who participated in Broadcasting & Cable's live, free Webinar, “New Rules of Production,” held on Oct. 6. “We've all seen our industry face many challenges over time.

“What you're seeing is people really stepping up and embracing those challenges and committing to great storytelling, creating great content and dealing with the challenges that we've dealt with since the beginning of our industry,” she added.

Tassler was joined on the panel by Linda Finnell, senior VP of programming and development at NBC Universal Domestic TV Distribution; Heidi McLean, founder and president of PayReel; and Duke Hartman, COO of High Noon Entertainment. B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego moderated the Webinar, which was planned and produced by B&C and Multichannel News and sponsored by PayReel.

Here are highlights of the panel's guidelines for navigating today's TV production landscape:

1. Be flexible. Trends can change and opportunities can evaporate as suddenly as they appear. So producers must be prepared to adapt in an instant.

Tassler says one thing that gives creator-producers an edge is a willingness to shift their approach to fit with what's working for the buyer. For example, while primetime has seen a trend in recent years toward the expensively filmed single-camera comedy form, CBS has enjoyed standout success with comedy series shot in the multi-camera format, meaning the show is taped at a studio set with several cameras and fixed costs. Smart producers are recognizing that.

As Tassler explains: “We are beginning to see more and more comedy writers come in to pitch to us and say, 'It could be a film show, but you know what? You guys do multi-cam very well; you know how to build an asset and so we were thinking of coming in as a film show, but now we've made the adjustment to multi-cam or a hybrid.”

CBS' How I Met Your Mother started as a film comedy in script and then shifted to a hybrid, according to Tassler. In the current crop of development at CBS, a number of comedy projects were filmed comedies in script or pitch form but have since made the switch, she says.

Finnell also says producers should avoid limiting where or how their show could be shot. If they're pitching her, they may want to think about whether their show could set up at the facilities that NBC Universal Domestic TV just erected in Connecticut. NBCU Domestic TV moved four shows to Connecticut for the 2009-10 TV season. Three talk shows—Jerry Springer, The Steve Wilkos Show and Maury—are taped at a studio in Stamford. Deal or No Deal is shot in Waterford.

The Stamford studio was built in only 4½ months out of a Broadway-style theater. The company got keys to it April 1 and started shooting Aug. 15.

“I hear a pitch today and the first thing I think about is, 'Is there a closet that we're not using in Stamford that we could do another show in?'” Finnell says. “I would never have thought that a year ago, but those are the kinds of questions you begin [to ponder].”

Finnell adds that just because things have been done one way only for so long doesn't mean you can't do it differently and still deliver quality: “We've done a lot of asking ourselves, 'Well, why not? Why can't we do this? What if we did this?' and questioning ourselves internally as to how we can make something work and build a different model. Using that questioning and that kind of thinking got four shows to Connecticut. So for us it's always been, just because we've done it one way doesn't mean that's the only way.”

2. Do not cheat the screen. Budgets are always tight, but taking unauthorized shortcuts is the quickest route to cancellation. And someone else is always around the corner willing to do it right.

“The expectation from the clients, which are the networks for us, is that you don't cheat the screen, that the dollars that are in the budget for the screen go to the screen,” Hartman says. “You don't cheat shoot days, you don't cheat on the creative side. To get renewals, to get ratings, as much of that budget as you can direct to the screen needs to go to the screen.”

That goes for pretty much everything—including locations, post-production, the writing, the revisions, “all of what you need to work through the process to get it to be a hit show,” Hartman says.

3. Hire with caution—and an eye on changing regulations. Revenue shortfalls at state and federal levels have led to new rules, regulations and enforcement of existing laws to crack down on companies that owe taxes. Particularly vulnerable are businesses that avoid payroll taxes by hiring people as independent contractors rather than staff.

McLean implores producers to hire deliberately. “Looking at your workers, your contractors, hire and manage them thoughtfully and with attention to current rules and regulations, and don't just hire your contractor but actually think of doing business with them,” she says.

In Colorado, where McLean is based, a new law can lead to significant misclassification penalties. According to McLean, a business can be fined up to $5,000 for each misclassified employee for the first offense, and up to $25,000 for subsequent violations. This adds to the other penalties for back taxes. A number of other states, including New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois, have legislation to this effect underway.

“The message here is that the authorities are going after those who intentionally misclassify independent contractors,” she says. “A lot of small businesses, including small and large production companies and producers, are using independent contractors, and for those of us who do use independent contractors properly, we should be fine. The key here is 'properly.'”

McLean suggests hiring contractors project-by-project. Also, if you're hiring someone as a contractor rather than a staffer, hire contractors who have their own established business, she says: “Make sure your contractors carry good insurance. Have evidence of their business presence—invoices, certificates of insurance, tax ID numbers, W-9s. Have a contract with them that specifies these key things.”

4. Know your buyer. Networks' needs, strategies and competitive positions constantly shift. Keeping tabs on this is important to crafting a project that can stand out as a unique solution for the client.

“If you're going to come in to pitch an idea, know what is currently on the air. Have a sense of recent television history,” Tassler says. “You don't have to be an expert, but certainly have an informed level of awareness of what the previous season looked like and what is currently on [that] network as well as other networks. If your idea is really fresh and different, having that knowledge of what is currently on-air is going to help enormously.”

And while “it's who you know” is not exactly a new adage, as the business evolves it's as relevant as ever. The production and creation of television shows is “kind of the fun part,” Hartman says. “It's the business side and developing and nurturing and maintaining those relationships that is the hard part.”

Hartman and Tassler both advise to always keep a lookout for opportunities to get in to visit people and pitch people, as well as attending industry conferences and seminars—anywhere networking is possible.

“Being around the people who are working will at least expose you to names, positions and places,” Tassler says. “But certainly getting that pitch heard, getting that sample read is the first step—putting yourself physically in proximity of that person who is either going to pass your material along, or get it read. As Duke mentioned, it's being in the right place at the right time, but [also] creating opportunities to meet and speak to people who can give you good advice.”

5. Have a great idea. No amount of innovation or cost efficiency is going to make a clunker concept sing, so don't get so distracted by the latest bells and whistles that they wind up driving the show.

“When I'm sitting listening to somebody, I've got two halves of my brain going at the same time,” Finnell says. “The first half is always, 'Do I like this talent? Do I like the show? Is the concept good? Is it a good format? Do I think it can work? Will viewers want to watch this show?' The other half of my brain is also going, 'Can this show be produced? Is there a different model that we can use to produce this show? Can this show be delivered?'”

“It always starts with the quality of the idea,” Tassler says. “We're not going to make a purchase based on a potential asset-building property of the piece. We're going to start with, 'Is it going to work on broadcast? Can this be a hit show for CBS? Does it have elements that are going to appeal to our audience? Is it going to fit on our schedule?' We're not necessarily going to broker something based on, 'It could have a life online' or 'It's got great marketing upside.' All of those are tangential to the actual viability of the idea itself.”

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