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The High Cost of Drama

February 14, 2011

I was thrilled to read NewTeeVee’s Janko Roettgers’ article explaining how viewing habits contributed to the cancelation of “Caprica” on SyFy. The piece includes extensive quotes from SyFy Digital’s GM and Senior VP Craig Engler explaining how online viewing reduced his advertising revenue by nearly 90%.  (For more details, read the full article at  It ends with the hope that someday television series could survive even if a majority of the audience chose to use Hulu, iTunes and similar services.  One very important fact that isn’t mentioned is why the advertising income is crucial to the survival of quality television: A standard episode of your favorite drama takes over a week to make and likely costs upwards of $2 million.

I confirmed my estimate through a connection with the producer of another science fiction favorite, “Supernatural”.  This series currently costs about $2.5 million per episode, which includes the tax break they receive by shooting primarily in Canada instead of the US. To those of you who think this number is the result of their special effects budget, I remind you that demons and ghouls are not the only elements requiring a little television magic.  A typical chase scene calls for cars, stunt drivers, permits and police protection.  A shoot out entails prop guns, choreography, possible street closures, police and neighborhood notification to avoid even more police.  And many of today’s most popular shows have large casts who all get into character with the help of appropriate sets, wardrobe and props.  Magic indeed.

Yes, budget measures can be and are taken.  One of my favorite, if slightly exaggerated, examples was shared in a workshop I attended on budgeting and scheduling.  Unit Production Manger John Slosser (“Quantum Leap,” “Remington Steele,” and the award-winning pilot of “Hill Street Blues”) described a scene calling for a dog to drown in a lake.  A feature film would likely employ a trained poodle. If the scene were sufficiently intricate, they might even spring for an animatronic model to ensure precision.  In television, he said, you are more likely to have enough money to dye a mop-head black and toss it quickly into some water while a production assistant barks dolefully off-screen.  A clever crew finds ways to make it work.

Cuts are now regularly made to audio budgets, with superior quality booms being replaced with small radio mics hidden in the actors’ clothing.  This allows a scene to be shot from several angles simultaneously without the danger of getting an unwanted microphone in frame.  While this hardly takes advantage of the sound systems in today’s home theaters, average viewers can’t perceive the difference and the elimination of several camera set-ups saves time and money.

Sometimes a show is lucky enough to land a white knight who defends their production values to the death.  You’ve no doubt noticed the increase in product placements.  Without Subway, we might never have seen Chuck Bartowski achieve full spyhood, not to mention all the Jeffster music videos that would have been lost to future generations.  But for the most part, it is still the conventional commercial that pays the bills, including Zachary Levi’s salary.

I’m not slamming Hulu or any of the internet-based services.  They serve a wonderful purpose.  But I don’t want everyday viewers to get lost in all the jargon about “business models” and “revenue streams.”  The bottom line in every sense is that all viewers have to pay their fare share.  If inexpensive downloads are treated as a replacement for the traditional pipeline, we will see more terrific programs fade from the air.  Many shows with enthusiastic followers are already “on the bubble” for fall, waiting to see if networks can ensure there will be enough dollars to support a season.  Not every expensive item can be offset with cheap filler.  We already tried that.  It was called The Writers’ Strike and it was very sad.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Debbie permalink
    February 14, 2011 10:00 am

    Your insight and wit will hopfully fall into the laps of those who currently just don’t ‘get it’ and with any luck swing the pendulum the other way. I like my TV!

  2. February 15, 2011 6:56 am

    Shouldn’t TV monitization have to catch up with how viewers are currently watching content? Early acolytes like me have invested hundreds of dollars in internet connected devices for our TV’s to keep from paying the Cable company, not to keep from paying for the content. This technology is starting to be embeded into every new TV sold.

    How many good shows have to die before production companies reload they are leaving money on the table by not having a good Internet minimization policy in place?

    • February 15, 2011 10:13 am

      I agree with you, but it might take a while. It’s ironic that while people in television want and need to be innovative, they frequently don’t want to be first. Projects are customarily pitched with a “it’s like this only with that instead of the other thing” formula. I expect we won’t see anything resembling a true policy until there is more data to help them determine what makes an acceptable profit for the production, the advertisers and the content providers.

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