Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Scripted Network TV: The Costs Are Too Damn High!

This post was originally going to be my response, in the comments section on facebook, to a question I was asked by my friend, Jessica E.  If you ever end up giving me an idea for a blog post, you will be mentioned, by name, in the post.  Sorry in advance if you didn't want to be mentioned.

The answer ended up being in depth enough that I felt it warranted a blog post, as the comment, as I was writing it, began to become soooo long in the comments section.  A lot of this may be inaccurate, since I'm just guessing, based on things I heard in the past, and the sorts of things I've been made aware of throughout my career.  The information I would need to write this properly is just not freely available on the Internet.  So, I apologize, in advance, if it's not accurate.  At the very least, the subject is somewhat interesting.

Here is Jessica's question:

I had a question about production costs, and what, besides the obvious like big explosions and big name stars, makes a show expensive?

Here's my possibly inaccurate answer:

I think the difficulty of shooting often also plays a big part.  If it's an action show, they take longer to shoot, due to the explosions and stuff.  Location can be an important factor, as well.  A show like LOLa (Law & Order: Los Angeles) is obviously shot on location in L.A., which you probably could easily tell, since you once lived there, and you can clearly see they aren't using Canada as a stand in, like so many other TV shows, today.  If it were cheap and easy to shoot in L.A., everyone would shoot there, due to the exceptional production value the city, alone, adds to a show.  It's not, and I think the cost of the location shooting played a HUGE role in LOLa getting canceled, in addition to it having weak ratings, and that it just wasn't a very good show.  Also, keep in mind that when you bring in out of state guest stars, and probably writers and crews, like the ones employed by LOLa, it's very expensive to house them temporarily.  Back in 1994, I believe the average hour long network TV drama took about 7-10 days to shoot one episode.  I would imagine the vast majority of dramas today, with the advent of HD video shooting (which should be significantly faster to shoot on than film, I think), take about 7 days or less to shoot.  Do not even remotely quote me on this, because I am just basing this on the multiple network shows' dailies that came through a facility I worked at a very long time ago.  All those shows were shot on film.

As for the actual guesses of the cost of making an hour long TV drama, when I was in college, I believe the average network primetime drama cost about $2 million per episode.  I seem to remember that being the number the Professor told us.  I just did a little quick research, and found this tidbit on videojug:

"How much does it cost to produce a drama?

It's not unusual to have a weekly TV drama in the $2-5 million range, for that single hour. Sometimes on smaller outlets, certainly on the internet but also smaller cable stations, you might be well below that. There are some shows that have extreme budgets and may be costing up to $12 million, or close to it, because the show's been on for a lot of years, all the prices have incrementally gone up through the years and you have very high paid staff. So you're getting single hours that are costing in some cases as much as feature films and if you put two of them together, you certainly get the cost of many feature films. These things aren't cheap."

I think when the person mentions feature film costs, they are referring to lower budget and independent feature films, because there is no way an average studio film costs only $24 million.  That doesn't even sound right to me, as most independent films are budgeted under $10 million.  That's not really any point worth splitting hairs over, though, so we will move on.  

By reading that small portion of that article, you can easily understand why there is so much pressure on dramas to be successful.  In the case of CHAOS or The Event, there weren't any big stars on the shows.  You could argue that Blair Underwood is the biggest star on The Event, and he's probably not a hugely paid star, by any means.  I think the lower cost of actor salaries, when they are unknown, or relatively unknown, makes it much easier to put production value on the screen.  If you have too many stars, or a big star, your production value is often going to suffer, because you are often just re-directing the costs of the actors off the screen.

As for cost, I believe that CHAOS, while having no stars, maintains what I think is a routinely high production value.  What I mean by that is that the shooting looks professional and thought out (it often includes set ups, and not that much run and gun), the sets look nice, it appears to go on location frequently, the scripts don't appear to be thrown together, and the special effects aren't cheesy (cheesy special effects are one of the most prevalent things on shows that have low budgets).  I don't know where it was shot, but it likely did a lot of nice trickery to mimic the locations it was supposed to be done in.  That kind of trickery is often expensive, though not as expensive as shooting on the real location (the real location in shows like this is impossible to shoot in anyway:  Afghanistan, North Korea, etc.).  So, even though CHAOS didn't have any huge stars in it, it was clearly not a low budget show.  They invested the time and money to make a nice looking show, and it didn't give them a proper return on their investment, via ratings.  When I saw the first episode of CHAOS, I, in fact, thought it looked so expensive that it would likely be doomed.  I mean doomed in two ways.  The first is that either the production value in the real run would suffer, or it would be so expensive, that it would need to get high ratings.  Since I've already said that Friday night is where TV shows go to die, it wasn't likely that high ratings were coming.  I can happily say they never reduced the production value, but the problem with that is that it put even more pressure on the show to succeed.  It didn't, and that's why it got canceled.  There are other reasons why it didn't find an audience, but I have hope it will find one in the TV series burn off, that started last Saturday.

You can't quote me on this, but I am pretty sure the vast majority of The Event was shot in California.  The neighborhood the aliens inhabited clearly looked like Santa Clarita to me, in or near the Disney Ranch, though I suppose I could be wrong.  There's just really no mistaking Southern California tract home stucco.  There was also a scene that was supposed to take place in Russia, that looked suspiciously like San Pedro to me (think of the scene in Heat, where they were planning the heist).  However, they were supposedly shooting all over the country (Texas and Washington, D.C. included), and in several parts of the world.  I was not convinced that many of the locations were accurate, throughout the series, and don't know where the aliens were based out of, since it was a secret.  

While the show CHAOS has a relatively small cast, which helps keep costs down, The Event had a very large cast, which, even though it has no stars, makes the cost rise exponentially.  The Event didn't have a particularly high production value (while still giving off the aura of being extremely expensive), but at least one episode was directed by Janusz Kaminski, who was Steven Spielberg's Cinematographer, for many years.  I doubt he came cheaply, and the show he did was filled with hugely expensive pieces of plot (he was probably chosen because they wanted someone who had experience on large scale movies).  Still, with the advent of HD video shooting, the show was much cheaper than it would have been, if it had been done on film.

As for shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, which are relatively large ensemble casts, the costs are relatively low, especially when compared to half hour sitcoms, with huge stars (I'm talking to you, Charlie Sheen).  When The Office started, Steve Carrell wasn't really even a star yet (he's a big one, now), and no one else was even heard of, as far as I know (maybe with the exception of the Dwight character, who was on Six Feet Under).  It's shot in basically one location (a set you can build once, and be done, minus re-arranging), an office park, and it's shot commando style, like a documentary (which it's supposed to be).  By nature, run and gun shoots are much cheaper to do than a traditional set up the camera, shoot the scene, move the camera, do another scene, etc., because you are spending so much less time setting up individual shots.  If you need to shoot something on a low budget, there is no doubt that a run and gun style is the way to go.  So, when it comes to cost, a show, like The Office, when it first started, would have been about as cheap as it can be for a scripted show. Therefore, its ratings needed to be much lower than those of a show that is done expensively, and houses several stars.  

Big stars are a staple of traditional sitcoms.  It's rare that a show gets an audience without one.  When they do become popular, without a big star, those shows end up in syndication, and often times end up classics in the genre.  I can't find any actual numbers on The Office, but my guess is that it likely cost well less than $1 million per episode to produce, when it first came out.  I doubt it's anywhere near that cheap to produce now, because of how many stars were borne out of the series.  So, if I'm guessing even remotely accurately, it could be approaching the $4 million per episode mark, which means it needs to maintain high ratings all the time, and a high 18-49 demo.  Its positive is that it's already in syndication, which is where TV shows (I think the production company, especially) make the money back that they lose in the original network run.  I believe shows are always in a race to 100 episodes.  If it gets to that number, it can have a healthy life in syndication.

Parks and Recreation, basically a spinoff of The Office, is still filled with people who are only B-level comedy stars, with A-level talent.  Amy Poehler is, by far, the most famous person on the show, and when it started, she was playing WAYYYY against type.  It is clearly shot in Burbank, though it's supposed to be taking place Pawnee, Indiana, and it does have a decent amount of location shooting, which, as I stated before, isn't cheap.  I think nearly all of the shooting is occurring within a very small radius of NBC in Burbank (I think the park they use is right across the street from NBC, and it looks like the houses are in that area, as well), so its location costs are probably much lower than a typical show shooting on location in L.A.  However, even though it has a few things that make its costs rise, it's still surely a cheap show to produce in relation to most scripted TV.

An interesting case is 30 Rock.  30 Rock takes all the elements of The Office and Parks and Recreation, and puts them on a very large stage.  While Alec Baldwin was at a lull in his career when that show began, there is no denying that he was once a huge star.  Nearly every other major player, in the cast, was an established network level talent, and several had starring roles in movies (I'm talking to you Tina Fey).  I stated in a previous blog post that I can't really get into 30 Rock.  I don't really like shows about the industry, especially ones like 30 Rock, which portray the industry in ridiculously unbelievable caricature.  30 Rock is a relatively low rated show, in relation to what I think it must cost to produce.  Maybe because they are probably mostly using the offices inside 30 Rock (NBC New York), they have no location costs to pay for.  If I am screwing up the show, in any way, please let me know.  I have only seen bits and pieces of it.  I think the fact that the people who like the show really like it, and that its ratings are still okay in the 18-49 demo, saves it.  I predict if this show ever drops to a 1.5 in the 18-49 demo that it will be on a high speed rail to cancellation.  It won't get the benefit of the doubt, most likely due to star salary.  It's also always been rumored to be on the bubble frequently, which I am guessing is solely due to cost.

I said in previous blog posts that I don't really watch sitcoms, these days.  I did watch Sh*t My Dad Says, a few times, and it was pretty painful to watch.  William Shatner just could not carry that sitcom, with the lesser actors (mainly the son lead) backing him up.  I understood what they were trying to accomplish.  It just didn't work, and it got canceled.  I also watched Mr. Sunshine, which was kind of like The Office, but without the mockumentary angle.  It was actually intended to be a behind the scenes of running an arena, except without cameras watching.  It had the always likable Matthew Perry, as the lead, playing the sarcastic bastard he usually plays.  The first 2 shows were pretty weak.  However, the third episode brought in Randall Einhorn to direct, one of the directors on The Office and Parks and Recreation.  He clearly helped them solve the "look" issue they had experimented with on every show, and the style went on in the direction he helped establish.  By the fourth show, the show was clicking on all cylinders, and looked like it would be a great show.  However, due to the weakness of the first two episodes (which looked like they were made up as they went along), the ratings fell dramatically, and the show was canceled, in favor of Happy Endings.  Do you have a guess as to why Mr. Sunshine got axed and Happy Endings got picked up, even though Happy Endings had lower ratings than Mr. Sunshine?  If your guess was cost, I'm betting you would be right.

Sometimes shows are so popular late in their runs that cost stops being a factor to the networks.  When a show has huge ratings, the networks are able to charge top dollar for advertising, and the show will have a very expensive syndication deal (though I am unsure how much the network shares in this, as I have always thought that is where the production company makes its money).  A show with high ratings, in its prime, is what networks are looking for.  In some ways, The Office is just that.  However, it doesn't even begin to touch the gold mine that NBC had in the 1980s, when all they would do is produce classic sitcoms.  In some ways, it's kind of sad that NBC is such a joke, now, when back in the day, everyone dreamed of doing what NBC did.  Here are a few examples of NBC sitcoms in the 1980s:  The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, The Golden Girls, and Night Court.  I'm sure I'm missing several others, but you get the point.  Outside of Night Court, if a network had 4 top level sitcoms, like the ones I mentioned, it would be ecstatic.  To think that it had 4 on at the same time?  That's pure gold.  If a network even had one of those types of shows on at one time, it would be pretty ecstatic.  Then, in the early 90s, NBC brought us Seinfeld and Friends.  However, as the NBC sitcoms started to go away, or move past their primes, CBS took over in the late 90s and early 2000s, because it had two shows that were very popular, Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens.  If you can get people to watch two sitcoms on the same network, that are supposedly good, there is a good chance that people will give your other new shows chances.  Those two shows likely paved the way for Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, and The Big Bang Theory.  There's no doubt that CBS is considered the top sitcom network these days, and I don't watch any of those shows.  They just don't appeal to me, at all, but I don't mind, at all, if you like them.

Most of those shows on CBS either starred actors who were in lulls in otherwise star type careers, or people who would become A-list comedy types.  So, they probably weren't super expensive when they began, but they sure did become expensive later.  High rated sitcoms tend to be the biggest offenders of the "we cost way too much to make" way that TV has gone in the last several years.  All of the shows mentioned above became more and more popular throughout their runs, which led to much higher salaries for the stars.  One of the most famous salary disputes of all time was the one that occurred on Friends.  They all banded together to get $1 million per episode, which is ridiculous.  You have six stars making a combined $6 million per EPISODE, BEFORE anything else has even been done.  I find it hard to believe that show, by the end, didn't cost nearly $10 million per episode, which has to be practically unheard of for a 22 minute show.  This is probably part of the reason why the Charlie Sheen thing ended up being such a big deal.  I find it extremely hard to believe that any TV show, regardless of ratings, can recover those kinds of costs, and the way it was going, Two and a Half Men was certainly going to go toward Friends territory.  The final seasons of shows like that are often complete budget busters, and would not be sustainable for any length of time.  They're just not worth the cost.

So, to sum it all up, there are many factors that go into what makes a show expensive.  The most obvious ones come from the type of show it is.  If it's an action show, you expect there to be a significant budget given for the explosions and stuff.  If it's a sitcom with a once big, or established, star, you figure there will be a healthy amount of cost involved to make that person a star, again.  The same can be said for network dramas.  It's pretty rare that a network drama is filled with complete unknowns.  There has to be at least one established star, a person at a lull in their career, or someone with a lot of TV gravitas.  On the sitcom side, it's often enough to just see the potential of someone, though it doesn't hurt to find someone who can bring viewers in at the beginning.  If a sitcom has no established star, the general formula is to the lead the show in with the most popular sitcom on the network.  The other costs for shows come in how much location shooting there is, what city or cities it's done in, how many actors there are in a typical show, how famous the Producers/Writers/Directors are, and how complex it is.  A show like Lost hits every major point of an expensive show, minus the cast.  It was shot in an expensive location, it was very complex, and I'm sure it had plenty of special effects, plus, by the end of its run, it was massively popular, which equals large salaries for probably all of the cast.  In my opinion, Flash Forward failed solely because of its costs.  It was an extremely location heavy show, with high production value, and it was also extremely complex.  That's a recipe for disaster, unless you have extremely high ratings.  It was similarly rated to the show V, which was also on the bubble.  ABC decided to go with V, this past season, likely because it cost less to produce, and was much less complex.  It also could have been solely due to it costing less than Flash Forward, to produce.  V has now been canceled, as well.  So, if there is a lesson to be learned, which I'm sure I will say over and over, in the future, it's this.  Make sure people watch your show, make sure it's cost effective, and make sure it's good.  The less it costs, the more leeway you have on the ratings and quality of the product.  The higher ratings you have, the more leeway you get on the costs, and quality.  The better quality of the product, well, you better hope you have ratings, because the cost is probably relatively high to begin with.

As you can probably tell, what seemed like a pretty simple question, turned out to have quite a complex answer.  It was long, but I hope it was worth the read.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Thanks for the extensive answer! Your bit about Parks & Recreation being filmed in and around Burbank made me think of something that has bothered me about The Office in the past. They've also filmed a few exterior scenes in Burbank, and the architectural styles and the trees were so obviously native to California instead of Scranton, PA. It also reminds me of an ongoing argument I had with my sister re. MASH (a show I really dislike): the exterior shots to me looked more like California than S. Korea (I thought it should be more lush, although she later proved that Korea does have some arid, scrubby landscape). On another tangent, as a military brat, I also hated the fact that no one on the show had a military haircut.

  2. Yeah, every time I have seen exteriors on The Office, it is clearly Burbank, though they try to show as little exterior scenery, as possible.

    M*A*S*H was definitely shot in California. Ironically, if you google photos of South Korea landscapes, you will see that it actually does look rather similar to California. The main difference is that the landscapes portrayed in M*A*S*H are quite a bit more brown than the ones seen in the photos I saw.

    That's pretty funny about the haircuts. I think they let them slide due to the fact that they were drafted into a pretty terrible unit. The only "real" soldiers were Col. Potter and Major Burns. Everyone else really didn't want to be there, and they were just brought in due to their surgical skills.

    Thanks for your input, Jessica, I'm glad you appreciated my long winded response...lol.


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