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, 2014


                                The ax man cometh…

After all the hard, bruising work of getting a television show up and running, the production has generally settled into a solid groove by November. With eight to ten shows in the can, the crew has bonded, the kinks that inevitably crop up early on have been smoothed out, and the day-to-day operations are rolling along like a well-oiled machine. But just as it starts to feel like a real show, when -- if there was any justice in this cruel, cruel world -- everybody should be able to relax just a bit, a dark shadow falls over everyone from the executive producers all the way down to the Production Assistants.  

Turkeys aren’t the only ones with good reason to worry as Thanksgiving approaches, because this is the time of year shows get cancelled.

Cable networks long ago broke with the traditional Fall season kickoff out of necessity.  Unable to compete head-to-head with the much bigger broadcast networks, they adopted the classic hit-'em-where-they-ain't strategy employed by underdogs since the beginning of time, launching their new shows whenever opportunity arose -- winter, spring, or summer.  Although the media has been blathering about the "year around schedule" for a while now, the mainstream broadcast networks still debut most of their new shows in the Fall, typically with an order of 12 episodes.  A new show able to draw decent ratings has a good chance of landing the “back nine,” adding up to a full season of 22 episodes.  But television has always been a business without mercy, and shows that can’t attract a large enough viewing audience don't get picked up.  

“Not getting picked up” might sound better than “cancelled,” but it means the same thing and hurts just as much. That's one big, cold lump of coal in your Christmas stocking.   

Occasionally a new show is such a bomb -- delivering horrendously bad numbers -- that the plug is pulled after only one or two episodes air, putting the entire crew out of work with the season well underway and every other show fully crewed-up. All they can do is file for unemployment, then scramble for whatever day-playing gigs might pop up until another show comes along.*  

It's brutal.

At the other end of the spectrum is a show that immediately catches fire as the season’s first big hit -- something like “Desperate Housewives” or “Glee.” The fortunate crew of such a show is guaranteed the back nine, and if ratings hold up through their sophomore season, maybe a nice five-to-eight year run.  But while the bombs and breakout hits get all the press, most new shows fall somewhere in the middle, with many hovering “on the bubble,” delivering viewer numbers that are neither terrible nor great. For them, the weeks leading up to the holidays are a slow ride up the escalator of anxiety.  

I have no idea what the internal machinations are like in the executive suites during this crucial period, but having been on the receiving end of the bad news more than a few times, I know what a blow it is to those who work below decks. That the call typically comes with the holiday season looming is particularly awkward.  It's hard to be thankful or feel the glow of Christmas cheer when your show just got cancelled and you'll be facing the New Year unemployed.

Still, the funding for those twelve episodes has usually been committed, so even if the dreaded thumbs-down call comes a week before Thanksgiving, there's another three or four episodes to shoot before Christmas. That means three or four more paychecks, plus the wrap week. It's not aways easy to bring a good attitude to the set every day once you learn the show is doomed, but that’s where you have to be a professional. You do your job the best you can until the gig is over because that's what you're paid to do. Besides, how you perform under such depressing circumstances will be noticed, so it's important to finish strong every time, no matter what.  

The ax has been falling all over Hollywood the past few weeks, and it dropped hard at my home lot, where a big broadcast network sit-com midway through its second season was abruptly cancelled shortly before what would be their final shoot night. Despite being directed by the legendary Jim Burrows (a man who usually gets whatever he wants**), The Millers won't even receive a goodbye kiss in the form of those last few episodes before the Christmas break -- that show is just gone. I imagine the lead actors will get paid off for the entire season thanks to their iron-clad SAG contracts, but the grip, electric, props and set dressing crews got hosed into the gutter and onto unemployment like yesterday’s garbage. Camera and sound crews only work two days per week on most multi-cam shows, and thus need a second show to make a decent income. Losing this show won’t leave those people totally unemployed, but most will be living on a very tight budget until the pilot season arrives late next winter. 

In essence, what they got from the network was a "Merry Christmas and fuck you very much" worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge himself. 
But while most shows end with a resigned sigh, at least this crew got to exit with a bang. From what I hear, the cast went all out that night doing their final show in front of the live audience, cutting loose with some very blue, decidedly unscripted, and extremely funny ad-libs that had everyone on that sound stage howling -- a show the audience will never forget and the viewing public will never see. I'm sure the experience was cathartic for everyone involved and helped ease the sting at the moment, but as good as that must have felt, they still had to wake up the next morning knowing their show was dead and gone.  

I know some of that crew -- they're good people who are very good at their jobs -- and I hate to see this happen.  All is not all doom and gloom, however, and if the Gods of Hollywood taketh, so do they givith.  Many of the new shows did manage to land their back-nine pick-up, including this one -- which was welcome news for some good friends of mine.***  

My show is in no danger of getting the ax.  With only another seven or eight episodes needed to carry us over the finish line into syndication, there’s no way the cable network (tightwad, low-rent, cheap-ass mother-f******s that they are) is going to kill off the golden goose.  Besides, they don’t have to.  Having fulfilled its purpose in finally achieving syndication, our show will almost certainly expire of natural causes at the end of this season.

After that, who knows?  I still need to catch one more decent wave (or several smaller ones)  to surf my way out of Hollywood onto the sunny beach of retirement.  But juicers my age aren’t exactly in high demand -- or any demand, actually -- so there’s no guarantee of another wave rolling my way.  

Whatever. I'll drive off that bridge when I come to it.

Television remains an unstable business in the best of times, and for those of us who toil deep in the belly of the beast, life is akin to that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, constantly hunting for the next woolly mammoth to kill and eat paying gig. After several lean years wandering through the day-playing wilderness, I was fortunate to get a cable show that kept chugging along over four seasons despite less-than-stellar numbers -- but that’s one of the few advantages working in cable has over the big-bucks, high-pressure world of broadcast television. Our viewer numbers would have gotten us the hook a week into Season One on a broadcast network, but cable shows don’t need eight million pairs of eyeballs per week just to survive. They can get by on less -- a lot less -- so although working lower down the food chain of television has some serious drawbacks, it isn’t all bad.  

As it turns out, the sharp blade of the Hollywood ax cuts both ways -- and during this Thanksgiving week, that’s what I’m thankful for. 

* Generally a mid-season replacement that will shoot from ten to twelve episodes, or a lower-paying cable show with the same basic schedule.

** Here's a little story about how that works

*** Congratulations, Bryan, Kevin and the boyz -- you earned it!

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