Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Episodics: Tied to the Whipping Post

                                             So it goes in episodics...

I’ve done a fair amount of ragging on episodic television in this space, continually harping on the brutally long hours endured by production crews who make these one hour dramas. Industry veterans know exactly what I’m talking about, but I can understand why the handful of civilians and film students who occasionally drop in on this blog might assume I’m exaggerating. I mean really, who could possibly work 14 to 16 hour days, Monday through Friday, week after week, month after month, all the way to the bitter end of a 22 episode television season? Given that each episode usually takes eight days to film – typically four days on stage and four more on location – this adds up to a very long season indeed, dragging on for nearly ten months.

Who would subject themselves to such a sustained regimen of abuse?

Lots of people, as it turns out. Not including me, of course – I’ve already served my time on low-budget features and a thousand other death-march productions, thankyouverymuch. The taste of episodics I got later on was like the lash of a bullwhip on a not-yet-healed wound, and I’m no longer willing to “go there” for more than the odd day or two. At a certain point, enough really is enough.

So who are these martyrs willing to strap themselves to the blood-stained whipping post of episodic television? Young people, mostly, working their way up through the ranks of their chosen craft. Working episodics makes sense for the young, who have energy to burn and need a decent income to get started in life. Everything – cars, housing, food-- costs an arm and two legs these days. For most young people, working a 40 hour week simply won't cut it anymore. Episodics provide at least 20 to 30 hours per week beyond that, with every one of those additional hours fortified by overtime: and that’s where the money is.

You find an occasional graybeard working episodics as well, mostly department heads who no longer do any heavy lifting. I can only assume they too need the money – whether due to a divorce or two, a spouse with expensive tastes, or kids to put through college. Or in some sad cases, all three…

I will say this for episodics: working a 70 hour week at full scale does build a fat paycheck. It may be blood money, but at least there’s lots of if.

Other than the money, though (and the rapid accumulation of hours toward each individual's benefits/pension plan), I can’t think of anything good about these meat-grinder productions. It’s way beyond my comprehension that anyone past a certain age could truly enjoy working such an ugly, dehumanizing schedule – but I’ve met otherwise normal, pleasant people who actually like listening to Rush Limbaugh, so I suppose anything’s possible.

All that money comes at a steep price, though. One’s social life suffers working those hours, and for young people and families, that can be very rough. It’s no picnic for older people, either.

But if any non-industry readers of this blog won’t take my word for it, listen to Tom Harmon, star of “NCIS” – yet another police procedural I’ve never seen. According to the LA Times, the show underwent some key personnel changes after last season due to the “chaotic” working conditions. Here’s an excerpt from a recent column:

"Harmon sees that as a change for the better. 'If we're working 14-hour days now instead of the 17- or 18-hour days that we were doing, it doesn't mean we're working any less hard,' the actor said. 'We're just more organized. . . . This has become a very well-oiled machine."

There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth -- 14 hour days means a 70 hour week, while 17 hour days works out to an 85 hour week. I’ve never met Tom Harmon, but I do know people who have worked with him, and they tell me he’s a straight shooter. So now that his “well-oiled” episodic machine is back to working the crew a mere 70 hours per week, everybody’s happy.

Everybody except the co-creator/producer of “NCIS,” that is, who was fired.*

Anyway, that’s why you’ll find me shooting an occasional fire-arrow into the underbelly of episodic television. I’m glad somebody is doing all that work – but I’m really glad that someone isn’t me.

Just in case anybody was wondering...

The LA Times can be hard to access for non-subscribers, so if this link doesn’t work, and you really want to read the article, e-mail me and I’ll send it along.


Nathan said...

And one of the other joys of Episodic that shouldn't be ignored is that due to the long days (and the fact that they've got some night shots anyway), their call time gets pushed further back each successive day. By Friday, they're in deep nights. And Monday's call will be the absolute minimum that turnaround allows.

Thanks for that restful weekend.

D said...

Great post. I have, as you know, pretty much taken an episodic for next season and though I well know the dangers involved, it was a tradeoff. A guaranteed six months (barring a SAG strike) without worrying about the next feature will, for me, be a vacation. The series I started on in my twenties worked fourteen to eighteen hour days on six day weeks. Now, being older and a little more experienced (and having moved up in the chain a little) I hopefully won't have to work that hard.By the way, I've noticed that NCIS is a lot more high profile these days. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Not just episodics. In the early eighties I worked for Sandy Frank on a very bad remake of 'You Asked For It'. Was the Post Prod Sup for this daily 1/2 hour strip. It is said that Sandy had the same office at the old Goldwyn lot that Howard Hughes occupied when he ran RKO. Sandy went mad in the same way. What we didn't know is that he was using speed regularly, administered by his 24/7 personal psych. His 3 AM calls could drive Renfield nuts.

Upshot is that for the first two months, I worked 120 hour weeks, with no time off. When I finally got the gig down to a managable 80 hours per week, got fired.

Won't miss those times.

Andy said...

I absolutely love this show. It is the only T.V. show that I will never miss because I love it so much. I love all the characters and I love all of the humor used in the show. Abby is my favorite character, she's not your ordinary person you would expect to work for NCIS