TV1 - Let There Be Shows

the Hyperion Chronicles

"I've been told I have rage blackouts but I don't remember anything like that"

#157 TV 1: Let there be Shows

Back in column #154 I asked you if you wanted me to do any more series like the groundbreaking one on movies I did this summer. There was some support for music-which I may do later-but most of the responses voted for TV. As my father would say, "You asked for it."

I was trying to spend some time with the family Sunday night and I ended up watching part of the Emmys. Boy, were they boring. Except for the tribute to those who died (my dad and I always like that part), I would have changed everything. I kept thinking to myself, "I wish they had nominated this show," or, "I wish they had that category." Suddenly it occurred to me: why don't I do my own awards?

So; I'm going to, with shows from the past as well as today, and cool categories. Then you, my Loyal Readers, can vote on them. The nominations will be out Wednesday; partly because my Nominating Committee is still deciding on the entries, and partly because I haven't thought of good name yet.

For today, I'd like to write about two things: how a show gets made, and how to watch TV the right way.

Many of you have seen some program-quite bad-and asked aloud, "How did this piece of *&%$ get on the air?" Several things are involved.


Before a show ever gets made, somebody has to first dream up the idea and then pitch it to the networks. There are four main types of pitches. There is the High Concept:

"A girl is working for the CIA and then finds out she's working for the enemy of the CIA, so she goes to the actual CIA and agrees to become a double agent to bring down the bad guys, and the only one who knows about this is another double agent, who is also her estranged father." [Alias]

This is how most shows are pitched. However, since studio executives are not that bright, sometimes a Short-Cut Pitch is used, combining well-known existing shows:

"C.S.I. meets J.A.G." [Navy NCIS] or "Mork and Mindy meets The Muppets." [A.L.F.] or "The Brady Bunch meets the 9th Circle of Hell. [Full House]

Then there's the Spin-off (something we'll talk about in detail in another part of this series) pitch, which is either a character from an existing show, or a movie character (or sometimes a play) made into a show:

"Superman's sorry love-life." [Lois and Clark] or "That dry-cleaner from All in the Family moves on up to the East Side." [The Jeffersons]

Sometimes a regular show sets up a Spin-off with what's called a Backdoor Pilot. C.S.I. Miami started that way, on C.S.I. More on Pilots in a minute.

Finally, sometimes TV show ideas are Vehicles, build around a star and set up especially for him or her:

"Ray Romano is annoyed by his family." [Everybody Loves Raymond] or "Bill Cosby and another family with a lot of cute kids." [Cosby]


Once some big wig likes the pitch the real work begins. The episodes have to be written and the characters cast. Most important, though, is the Pilot.

A "Pilot" is the first episode of a show, and unless the show is a sure-fire hit, it is usually the Pilot that determines whether a show gets picked up and aired on TV.

The Pilot's job is to showcase the characters, the style, and the plot set-up in such a way that it leaves you the viewer wanting more of all three. Because of this, the trend is for Pilots to be much more "over-the-top" than the episodes that follow. They often have to be, to impress the executives, and pull in viewers. Many people decide whether to invest time watching a new show based on the Pilot. A new show has a tough time, because people are loyal to their old shows, so Pilots have a lot of pressure to knock your socks off.

There are other reasons the Pilot often looks far different from the other episodes of a show. Most of the time, the Pilot is shot weeks or even months before the other episodes (because they don't know whether they will get picked up). By the time they start shooting again people have new hairstyles, have gained or lost weight, or just look different.

Another reason is because the Network orders changes. A show may get picked up based on its potential, but the Network may not like the Pilot, and order a lot of changes in the show's direction and focus.

There is one more reason a Pilot usually looks different. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but as long as it exists on paper that's all it is: an idea. Even the best shows take a while to find their footing. Actors have never played these parts before and need time to grow comfortable with their characters. They feed of the writers and the writers in return feed off of how the characters are working, or not working, as the case may be. Some fine-tuning is always needed, and this may take a few episodes or even a season for a show to, "find its voice."


You may wonder how long it takes to actually shoot a TV show. Usually, each episode is shot separately (except for two-parters). Dramas take the longest because there more locations and often logistics and stunt-work involved. An hour-long drama usually takes 5-8 days to film each episode.

Comedies are totally different. For one thing, they are usually half the length. A traditional 4-camera comedy (that's how many they use on set at once) is called a Sit-Com, which stands for Situational Comedy. There are two or three main sets, and they don't change. (There may be some location work, but it's usually light). These unchanging sets make it ideal to film Sitcoms before a live audience, and the filming is done on one day (although the cast may rehearse for several days). The audience is warmed up ahead of time, and told when to laugh.

They use four cameras so when you see it at home the camera angle goes back and forth and it looks like a lot of work. There is a new trend for "single-camera" comedies that are filmed more like a drama, and without an audience or laugh track, like Curb Your Own Enthusiasm. I think these could catch on but never replace the traditional Sitcom.

In this series I'll mostly be talking about Dramas and Comedies, but just for your interest, I thought I'd tell you how some other genres are filmed. Nighttime Soap Operas are filmed just like dramas, but daytime Soaps are completely different. Because they do five new shows a week, they don't have the luxury of a long shooting schedule. The sets are more often like Sitcoms; a few that stay the same. The amount of dialogue these actors have to learn is astounding, as well as their marks. A mark is the place an actor has to stand to ensure the proper lighting and camera angle on them and to make sure the other actors in the scene aren't blocked out.

Game Shows, which also film five episodes a week, have to work quickly too. Although, I found out it's not as quick as it looks on TV. If I have space in this series, I'll tell you about the time I tried out for a game show. I can tell you they take two to three times the actual show length to film.


So what is the best way to watch TV? From experience I can tell you, it's not to just sit down and watch whatever is on. That way leads to hours of your life being stolen (something we'll talk more about in another column).

The best way to do it is to know what is coming on. Using your paper, magazine, or the Internet, it's pretty easy to find out ahead of time what is coming on. Then you can decide whether you want to watch something or not. It sounds like you're planning your life around TV, but believe me, this way gives you much more control over your time.

But what about shows you've never seen before? Maybe you've heard some buzz or friends have told you it's good. What then? The first thing to know is what kind of show it is. One type is the Stand-Alone or Episodic, which means the plot of the show is contained in that one show, and it's not necessary to see any other episode to enjoy this one. You may miss out on character development, but as far as plot, you should be able to follow it just fine. Crime shows such as Law & Order and C.S.I. are good examples of this, as well as almost every comedy.

Another type (mostly Drama here) is Serialized. This means that not only the character development but also the plot is connected from week to week, and you need to have watched the previous episodes to be fully aware of the back-story. For this reason, many people are scared of trying to get into a show with a huge back-story.

My advice for this type of show is to jump right in. As long as you know ahead of time you won't know every character or plot line, it shouldn't disable you from enjoying the show. And that's the ultimate test. If you can watch a serialized show, without knowing the central characters or plots and still be interested, that's a good indication that it might be worth your time to get into the show.

How long should you give a show? That's up to you. If you're going in blind, and it's bad, I wouldn't waste my time. If you've been told by people you trust how good the show is, maybe give it an extra viewing or two. But, if after three episodes you don't like something, chances are it's not for you, and there are better things you can be doing, like catching up on reading this column.

That's all the space I have for today. Join us next Wednesday for Part 2, where we delve into other aspects of the TV world, and give you a chance to sound off.

Until then,


September 25, 2003