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Sunday, April 5, 2009
Winds of Change: Pilot Season
The Labors of Sisyphus
It’s April now, with the rugby-scrum frenzy of pilot season in full swing – and for those of us who have chosen sit-coms as our preferred mode of employment, this is the best pilot season in the past five years. At long last, there are significant numbers of sit-com pilots filming or in pre-production. Whether all this will prove a good thing for the viewing audience as well remains to be seen, since as usual, the vast majority of pilots will go no further than this one roll-of-the-dice show – but these days, it’s all about the here and now. The future can wait.
For a while there, the rampaging beast of Reality Television pretty much drove sit-coms into the weeds, and although “reality” is here to stay, it’s no longer an all-conquering presence on the airwaves. As it turned out, the public has a limited appetite for watching ordinary people eat worms, lie down in a Plexiglas coffin with several thousand cockroaches, or trade spouses for a month. Once the novelty wore off, Reality Television retreated to what it does best – the bloated bread-and-circuses idiocy of crap like “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars.”
I’ll never understand the popularity of these shows, but the older I get, the less I understand about modern life in general.*
Pilots come as a mixed blessing, though. Work is work, and most sit-com pilots provide nearly three weeks of steady work for the grip and set lighting crews -- but it's heavy lifting every day, pushing the big rock up the steep hill all the way to the summit. There isn't much chance to catch your breath until the show is in the can, and once the final shot is done, we start taking all those hundreds of lamps and tons of cable right back down again. If you're lucky enough to land a second pilot, the whole process starts all over again, putting your shoulder to another big rock at the bottom of yet another steep and rocky hill.
The way things are these days, only a fool would complain about having work – any work – but being halfway through one pilot with another dead ahead, I can look you right in the metaphorical eyes when I tell you pilots are a bitch. Such is the price of investment, though, since mighty oaks from tiny acorns sometimes grow – and every big, long-running hit sit-com started out as a lowly pilot.
Still, things have changed a lot in the Television Industry over the past fifty years, and the changes keep coming. The Industry will always be a work in progress, constantly evolving to meet the ever-shifting realities of the time. In talking with a few old-timers (real old-timers, not fifty-something geezers-to-be like me), I was surprised to learn that back in the day, television series filmed a lot more episodes every year than is the current practice. Although there has never been a divinely-mandated number of episodes in any given television season, every era seems to find its own “sweet spot.” “Gunsmoke” (1955 – 1975), filmed 39 episodes for each of its first five seasons before gradually slimming down to 24 over the final five years. “Bonanza” (1959 – 1973) averaged 34 episodes/year for nine seasons, then gradually eased off the throttle. Contrast this to “CSI” (2000 -- ?), which has been clocking in at 23 to 24 episodes per season thus far, or “Law and Order” (1990 – 2009), which was comfortable shooting 22 episodes/season for the first several years, then ramped up to 24 as it became a major money-making machine.
A similar shift happened in the sit-com world, starting with the Ground Zero Godmother of all sit-coms, “I Love Lucy” (1951 -- 1957), which averaged 32 episodes/season over the first four years. By the time “All in the Family” (1971--1979) rolled around, 24 episodes per season had become the de facto Industry standard. “Cheers” (1982 --1993), “Frazier” (1993 -- 2004), “Friends” (1994 -- 2004), “Seinfeld” (1989 – 1998), and “Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996 – 2005) followed suit. Some of these shows would occasionally do 25 or 26 episodes in a given season, then drop back to 22, but the average was usually right around 24.
All of these shows began during the era of major network domination in episodics and sit-coms. The recent rise of cable has shifted the ground once again, with shows like HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” (along with AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”) favoring a 12 episode season. TBS and Lifetime are now dipping their toes into the sit-com pond following a similar pattern, shooting ten episodes over their Spring-into-Summer season while reserving the option to add two or three more as the season grinds on. Cable doesn’t attract the massive audience the networks enjoyed for so long, and doubtless this influences their decision-making process, but whatever the rationale, the overall trend is unmistakable: shorter television seasons.
Whether this works for the viewing public remains unclear. I get the feeling fans are disappointed to have their new favorite program – be it the polar opposites of “The Bill Engvall Show” or “Breaking Bad” – end after only three months of weekly broadcasts, but it's a lot easier to produce 12 quality episodes than a full 24. At a certain point, quality is bound to suffer during the month-after-month siege of a 24 episode season. In the case of one hour dramas, less probably does end up being more for the audience.
For those of us who make a living working these shows, however, a 10 to 12 episode season is a huge step backward, offering only four months of work including the the rig and wrap. During the recent good-old-days, a full 24 episode sit-com meant 8 months of work over the usual late-July-through-early-March television season. Picking up a pilot or two during March and April would bring that up to 9 ½ months of full employment, at which point many TV people were content to sit by the pool until the new season rolled around, while the rest of us picked up whatever work we could day-playing on movies or commercials until the season geared up again. Increasingly, though, this once-comfortable routine is vanishing into the smog along with the rest of the middle class, as the networks stumble around trying to find a new and viable economic model. Meanwhile, the more agile and less risk-averse cable outfits burrow ever-deeper into the foundation, eating the network’s creative lunch and making them look hopelessly stodgy in comparison. It’s this sort of thing, plus an appalling lack of imagination on the part of NBC’s leadership, that led the Peacock Network to trade five hours of dramatic programming every week for the nightly safe-and-sane jokes of Jay Leno. Following a "cheaper is always better" philosophy, Jeff Zucker has already managed to drive NBC into a ditch, and now this grinning, goggle-eyed little homunculus seems determined to turn the once-proud king of prime time into the talk radio of television.
If NBC had an honest bone in their corporate body, they'd re-brand the network “Who Cares? TV."
The overall trend here isn't good -- not that I'm eager to go back to a 39 episode season, mind you (that sounds entirely too much like a full time job, and I have no desire to bolt my nose to the grindstone 24/7) -- but a 10 episode season means we all have to scramble more than ever before. Increasingly, I'm reminded of another recession we suffered through back in the early 90’s, when I was working as a commercial gaffer. One of my main clients was an Austrian shooter/director who ran a non-union operation, which meant working for 12 hour rates rather than the then-standard 10 hour days. This represented a significant income cut, but then as now, times were tough and the outlook uncertain, so I took what I could get. On an all-day location scout for a beer commercial, we stopped at a Thai restaurant for lunch, where our director held forth on the stark new reality. He looked around the table, and in an accent that reminded me way too much of Colonel Klink, declared: “Zuh vey sings are, vee all must verk harder and faster for less money.”
This is not the sort of thing a guy about to work two weeks of ball-busting 12 hour+ days really wants to hear, but that’s the way it was, and is again today. Hollywood has always lived on the not-so-tender mercies of a boom-and-bust economy, and with hard times upon us once again, the Industry will do whatever it takes to survive. In turn, we who grease the wheels of The Machine with our own sweat will have to adapt to the evolving reality, or else we too will disappear. In the long run, such change is all for the greater good, since any industry that attempts to stand against the tide of time is doomed to sink beneath those cold waters. But in the short run, big changes inevitably create a considerable amount of friction -- and since friction begets heat, a lot of us are bound to get burned.
*IMHO, the only redeeming virtue of “American Idol” is Ken Levine’s wonderful post-show wrap ups, like this.