Why I fear for the future of quality production

NBC’s recent announcement that they were dropping five hours of prime time television to strip program a new Jay Leno show at 10pm weeknights made me think about the problem with high quality (i.e. expensive) “television” programming. (I define “television” as a style of production created by professionals, with professional standards with the intent of making money, regardless of what outlet it goes through.)

I first started worrying about this a couple of years back during the run of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” – reportedly a $2 million an episode show. The problem is that these shows require large audiences to recoup the production costs, and the network operating costs and profit, from advertisers. A 6 million person audience of high-net-worth individuals was not enough to justify continued production.

It’s not surprising really, when you consider that a hit network show today, would have been dropped 20 years ago because of its small audiences. Quality drama and comedy production – shows like Studio 60, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, CSI, Lost, Heroes, et al. – is expensive and does not get the huge ratings that are required. The hit ratings are reserved for American Idol and reality TV.

So, how do we produce that high quality if the audiences aren’t there?

One obvious answer is to cut production costs. As Matthew Winer, writer/producer of Mad Men, said at a TV Academy function last year, we’re going to have to get used to a “independent film production” mindset for TV production. While I’m not entire sure what he meant by that, it is clear that Mad Men is a quality product – Emmy Award winning quality – but is clearly being produced on a cable budget. (It’s also likely that AMC are subsidizing Mad Men as a flagship for the channel.)

Is this the future for production? Tighter budgets, fewer big name stars (but overall higher quality acting) and a more guerilla approach. Certainly that’s been happening with Friday Night Lights where they shoot in locations rather than sets; shoot multi-camera and avoid over-rehearsing to keep spontaneity. As a consequence, they’re often finished the day’s production by mid-afternoon.

Maybe that’s the future of production? For some other thoughts on the implications of the NBC decision, Kent Nichols blogged about it, and why it was good for new media.

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