Television Production: Crash Course Film Production #15


These days, you might turn on the TV and think
you’d been transported to a movie theater. Oscar-winning movie stars are all over television
shows, Directors known for big screen blockbusters,
like David Fincher and Martin Scorsese, have found success working in television. And the advent of streaming services and premium
cable networks have expanded not only how we watch shows, but also the kinds of shows
that get produced. Edgier content that used to be reserved for
feature films is now being explored every day on TV. As the line between cinema and television
continues to blur, no discussion of film production would be complete without tackling the TV
landscape and how television production has come to look a lot like making movies. [Opening Music Plays] Television includes a huge variety of content that can be broken down into a bunch of different
categories, from prestige dramas and traditional sitcoms, to infomercials, soap operas, and
24-hour news networks. One of the most basic ways to categorize TV
shows is to divide up scripted and unscripted content. Scripted TV simply means there was a script
written for the show. So that’s everything from Game of Thrones
and Empire to Family Ties and Quantum Leap. Unscripted TV is – you guessed it – any
show made without a script. This can include reality TV, like The Bachelor
or House Hunters, as well as sports games, awards shows, and cable news. Today we’ll talk about scripted TV, since
that’s closest to film. We’re also going to focus on television
in the United States. We’d be here all day if we dove into how
other countries produce and monetize TV shows! Now, television can also be broken down in
terms of how it’s delivered to the audience, which has a major impact in how the money
is made and what shows make it onto the air. The four main kinds of contemporary TV networks
are broadcast networks, basic cable, premium cable, and streaming services. Today, there are five major broadcast networks
in the United States: NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and The CW. There are a handful of other ones, like PBS, which offer more specialized programming and operate under
different economic models. But these five major broadcast networks make
most of their money through on-air advertising – things like restaurant commercials, pharmaceutical
ads, or geckos selling you car insurance. So broadcast networks want to reach as many
eyeballs as possible, by making their shows widely appealing. A season is traditionally a year’s worth
of episodes – often 22 for broadcast network dramas and sitcoms, and more like 8 to 12
on cable. And if networks cram more episodes into each
season, they can sell more commercial blocks. Which is why NCIS runs for 22 episodes a season
on CBS, and has since 2003! The more people watching a network’s shows,
the more money advertisers will pay, which is why ratings matter to broadcast networks. Ratings are a measurement of how many viewers
watch each episode of television. In the United States, the Nielsen Research
Media rating system has become the industry standard for figuring out how popular a show
is. Nielsen ratings rely on complex statistical
sampling, the same technique used for predicting the outcome of political elections. The Nielsen team monitors the TV viewing habits
of a sample of American households, and then extrapolates from those numbers to arrive
at a rating for each episode. Among the various problems with this system,
the sample size is really small. Something like 5,000 households are used to
determine the entire nation’s viewing habits. Also, the advent of DVRs has made collecting
reliable viewership data trickier, because lots of people record shows and watch them
later. Officially, Nielsen Research Media counts
DVR numbers in a show’s rating if the episode is watched within one week of the original
air date. But if you save up every episode of American
Horror Story to marathon in one terrifying sitting, that doesn’t count. Even with these flaws, broadcast networks
continue to use Nielsen ratings to decide which shows get renewed and which get the
ax. Basic cable networks operate similarly, but
don’t have as much pressure to reach a massive audience. These include all the channels you get with
the standard package from your cable company, like TNT, USA, AMC, the Disney Channel, the
History Channel, and Sy-Fy… Plus all those other channels you zip past
to get to your favorites. Basic cable networks make money through on-air
advertising, like broadcast networks. But they also charge a carriage fee to the
cable company that “carries” the network into your home. That means that basic cable shows can appeal
to a more niche audience, and still make a profit. Especially if that audience is likely to spend
money on high-end and luxury products. So Mad Men was a hit for AMC, even though
only 2 million people watched it each week, while each episode of The Big Bang Theory
reaches almost 20 million people for CBS. Premium cable networks, like HBO, Showtime,
and Starz, abandon on-air advertising altogether, and rely largely on monthly fees paid by each
viewing household for income. So ratings matter much less for these channels,
and they measure success in other ways. Game of Thrones and Girls aren’t expected
to draw 15 million viewers each week. Instead, HBO hopes lopped-off heads and hilarious
20-somethings will create enough cultural excitement that more people sign up for the
network. Streaming services that produce original content,
like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, also rely on a subscription model. A show like Transparent is a hit because it
makes more people pay for Amazon Prime, not because it can compete with Quantico for viewers. All these different kinds of networks matter
because they affect which shows get made, how they’re produced, and what subject matter
they can tackle! Since broadcast network shows need to appeal
to a wide audience to make money, premium cable and streaming series can tell more challenging
stories with higher levels of sexuality, violence, and harsh language. That doesn’t make premium cable shows better,
but it certainly makes them different! And just like film distribution went through
big changes after home video, video-on-demand, and now streaming services, TV networks have
many ways to get their shows to an audience. The old broadcast model used to rely on first-run
episodes followed by re-runs, where the network would air old episodes of their own shows
later in the week or over the summer. If a show was successful enough to run a hundred
episodes or so, it might be sold into syndication. This is where the studio that actually made
the show starts licensing the existing seasons directly to local TV affiliates. These days, premium cable series sometimes
make the syndication leap to basic cable networks, like when A&E bought the rights to air a slightly
tamer edit of The Sopranos, which originally aired on HBO. Premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime
have set up their own streaming services too. That way, they can keep sole ownership of
their content and sometimes bypass cable companies altogether. Now, in many ways, producing scripted television
and making feature films are remarkably similar. Writers write scripts, producers assemble
crews of cinematographers, gaffers, costume designers, and so on, directors oversee the
shooting of the scenes, and editors cut them together. In other ways, they’re fundamentally different. Most obviously, TV series are way longer. A show might run anywhere from 6 episodes
per season on premium cable, to a whopping 22 episodes per season on a broadcast network. And super successful shows like Friends or
Grey’s Anatomy might keep airing for more than a decade. That’s a lot of story, which means a lot
of scripts, locations, characters, and shooting days, which means more writers, producers,
actors, and crew. And longer shooting schedules. If film shoots are grueling, shooting a TV
series can be a full-on marathon! Also, unlike feature films, the main creative
decision-maker on a TV series is a writer-producer called a showrunner. Very often, the showrunner is also the creator
of the series and the sole writer of the show’s pilot, a test episode that helps the network
choose which series to make. Showrunners can oversee everything from the
story direction and writing, to hiring directors, and even editing the series. Most shows have a writers room, where a group
of writers gather to outline and write the series’ episodes. On broadcast network shows, the writers room
may have as many as 15 or 20 people. But for cable series, the writers room is
often much smaller. One season of Game of Thrones is regularly
written by only three or four people. And on rare occasions, a single writer may
be responsible for an entire season. Michael Hirst writes every episode of Vikings. And Nic Pizzolatto wrote the first two seasons
of True Detective. When it comes time to film the show, most
series divide their episodes among a number of different directors. Usually, the director of the pilot helps set
the look and feel of the series, and stays involved as a producer to make sure future
episodes remain true to the original vision. On occasion, a season of a premium cable or
streaming series might all be directed by one person. Cary Fukunaga directed all eight episodes
of True Detective season one, giving that story a cohesive quality that’s unusual
on television. For actors, working on a TV series can be
a major commitment. Most series are designed to last for several
seasons, so an actor might spend years playing the same part. That’s great for job security – something
many actors struggle with – but it can also make an actor feel trapped in a role or a
show. While film franchises do have recurring characters,
like Harry Potter, James Bond, or any of those Fast and Furious drivers, they’re the exception
rather than the rule. More and more, TV series are being produced
like feature films. This is especially true for single-camera
shows – everything from comedies like Atlanta or Master of None to mysteries like Castle,
sci-fi epics like The Expanse, or realistic dramas like Friday Night Lights. They look and feel like movies, as though
each scene is happening in an actual location within the world of the story. They also allow for more control over the
shooting and editing of the show. Three-camera shows, on the other hand, are
about as far away from feature films as scripted TV gets! They’re almost always sitcoms, and often
performed on a stage in front of a “live” studio audience. Think of Cheers or The Big Bang Theory. These shows look more artificial because…
well… they clearly are. Multiple cameras capture the action, the sets
are designed to only be shot from one direction, and the editing mixes mostly wide shots with
pre-recorded or enhanced laugh tracks. They can be hysterically funny, but they don’t
seem that real. Across different types of productions, more
actors, directors, writers, producers, and crew members are working in both TV and
film. We even have universes that crossover, thanks
to Marvel, and limited TV series like HBO’s Big Little Lies that feel like extended movies. It’s an exciting time to be involved in
both movies and TV, as an artist and a viewer, where the only downside is there’s not enough
time to see it all! Today we talked about the difference between
broadcast and cable networks, and how new streaming services are changing the definition
of television. We looked at how ratings impact what shows
make it to air, and how the subscriber model of premium cable and the streaming services
allow them to make edgier shows. And we discussed how TV shows are actually
made, from the power of the showrunner to the difference between single camera and 3-camera
shows. Next time, we’ll switch gears and start
watching and thinking critically about films together, starting with Citizen Kane. And you’ll be getting a brand new host:
Michael Aranda, who’s a very talented human and has been working on Crash Course behind
the camera for years! Crash Course Film Production is produced in
association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check
out a playlist of their latest shows, like The Art Assignment, Gross Science, and ACS
Reactions. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these nice people and our
amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.

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