What you don’t know about TV show production could instantly change the way you watch your favorite shows. Every sitcom, drama, reality show and primetime competitive showdown brings together small armies of diversely talented, focused individuals behind the scenes to entertain millions of viewers each season.
Even before the lights are lit and the cameras roll to capture the action, these teams pour countless hours of dedicated effort into preparing sets, talent, props, makeup and occasional special effects for a meticulously planned day of shooting. The on-set experience is sometimes a creative exercise in barely controlled insanity, but just how unpredictable and stressful can it all get?
Some of the Best Ideas Are “What If?” Concepts
Producer Vince Gilligan once wondered, “What if a down-on-his-luck chemistry teacher and family man became a renowned meth cook?” Around 20 years earlier, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David asked themselves, “What if we made a show about nothing?”
Granted, not every show becomes an iconic classic such as “Breaking Bad” or “Seinfeld”, but the vast majority of series begin not at all but with someone asking, “What if?” This is a fantastic way to set a show apart to stand out from an enormous pack of premises all looking to be picked up. It doesn’t need a subplot or even a vague roadmap to an endgame yet. However, from a documentary filmed at a paper company (“The Office”) to multiple sagas centered on boldly going where no man has gone before (“Star Trek”), the scope of potential ideas that have spiraled from this one speculative line of thought is staggering.
Reality Shows Lie
All things considered, the term “reality show” makes about as much sense as equating professional wrestling with legitimate athletic competition. After all, both employ comparable degrees of manipulation, scripting and calculated pandering to create an illusion of legitimate unpredictability. By deftly editing together separate clips, complete sentences and entire conversations come together from scratch with just a few careful cuts away to a shot of something else voiced over with a completely unrelated sound bite.
More often than not, producers of competition shows—not the judges—have a contractually overriding ultimate veto over which contestants get the boot. DIY reality shows may portray full bathroom renovations as taking a mere day or two on a strict budget, but most professional crews slaved for weeks with bottomless production funds. Finally, for the sake of maximizing dramatic potential, producers absolutely favor the most flawed participants willing to sign up, but only after conducting stringent background checks, interviews and physical and psychological evaluations.
Chaos Is the Norm
Think of everything you can possibly imagine sabotaging a TV show’s production. Chances are, it has all happened to someone. Charlie Sheen brought the eighth season of “Two and a Half Men” to a screaming halt after only 14 episodes due to his erratic behavior and a nuclear falling-out with series creator Chuck Lorre. The “MythBusters” crew once accidentally obliterated someone’s house with a cannonball. Much more tragically, John Ritter suffered a fatal heart attack while filming ABC’s “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” and an in-ring mishap paralyzed professional wrestler Darren Drozdov from the neck down during a live episode of “WWF Monday Night Raw.”
The aftermath? “Two and a Half Men” ran for three more seasons with Ashton Kutcher replacing Sheen. The Discovery Channel picked up every cent of the cost to repair the wrecked house and still finished the episode. “Raw” is still running to this day and the rechristened “8 Simple Rules” wrote the death of Ritter’s character into a memorably touching tribute episode and even produced a third and final season with James Garner and David Spade joining the cast. Even on the worst days, the show must go on.
Disorganized People Need Not Apply
Only diligent organization and a capacity to think on the fly hold that chaos at bay. You can only ad-lib so much. Improvisation is typically the last resort to salvage a plan that falls through and reach the same desired end. There is just too much money, manpower and reputation at risk to wing it unnecessarily. In fact, what might sometimes seem like an on-the-spot audible is often a clearly defined Plan B laid out far in advance.
Beginning production without filming permits in place, crews hired, schedules coordinated and all equipment functional can send productions barrelling over their budgets and planned air dates careening into uncertainty faster than you can say, “You’ll never work in this town again.” As often as possible, every variable and contingency is accounted for. Staying ready means never having to get ready.
Television is a thrilling, in-the-moment medium for producers. The landscape can change dramatically from one season to the next. One episode of a single series can revolutionize everything. One series can ignite a trend that raises a new bar for every network to meet. That unpredictability makes a high threshold for stress and equal talent for meticulous planning and effective improvisation absolute must-have pillars of lasting success. At the same time, the people who make the magic happen wouldn’t have it any other way.