How TV Production Works


The cast of "Guiding Light," the longest-running drama on TV.  See more TV show pictures.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Jackpot! The network has green-lighted (said yes to) the show concept we followed in How Writing a TV Show Works and How Getting Your Show on TV Works. Now it's time to shoot the pilot episode. A pilot is the first episode of a show -- they're shot, fittingly, during pilot season, between January and May. If the network likes the pilot, it will pick up the show for the season and make it a series.

When the network approves a pilot for filming, several things must occur. First, the showrunner and producers are hired. The showrunner is the person in charge. He or she works with the writers and script, casts the actors, is responsible for creative direction and usually oversees the project from start to finish. Sometimes the showrunner is the person who created the show's concept, wrote the script or treatment and pitched it. Producers help the showrunner handle everything. They help with hiring the director, talent, crew, writers and assistant producers, and their first task is rewriting or updating the script. When that's done, cast auditions are next. Then the producers hire the crew -- and finally, the pilot is shot and edited. This schedule is generally outlined as preproduction, production and postproduction.

Advertisement

When it's time for casting, there might already be a lead actor (or actors) attached to the project. If not, the people in charge could try to assemble the cast themselves -- or they could work with a talent agency or casting director. A casting director is usually well connected with agencies and managers and will put together a casting call, or daylong series of auditions. The producer and director get together with the casting director and audition actors for all of the scripted roles. These taped auditions usually last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes each. If it is an ensemble cast, they generally try to audition in groups to see if the actors have chemistry. Callbacks are repeat auditions -- it might take multiple callbacks before all of the talent is hired. The casting director can hire extras or other nonspeaking roles, usually working through a talent agency.

­

At any given time, more than 80 people can be working together to make a TV show. The production team and the crew are as important as the talent (again, think of the writers' strike) and really make the show happen. Here's a short list of some of the production crew.

  • The director of photography (DP) is in charge of the shoot. He or she sets up the camera angles and shots and supervises the camera operators.
  • The production designer creates the physical vision of the show and designs the environments where the action takes place. Think of the bar in "Cheers," the coffee shop in "Friends" and Al's Diner in "Happy Days."
  • The gaffer is the primary lighting technician.
  • The Foley mixer records and mixes the sound effects.
  • The editor puts it all together; assembling the video, audio and graphics for the show into a finished product.

Now that the cast and crew are set, it's time to start shooting.

Production

"Scrubs" films on location at an abandoned hospital.
"Scrubs" films on location at an abandoned hospital.
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

So, we have the who (the talent) and the what (the script) -- and now we need the where (location). As with real estate, location can be everything. Again, there are several choices. Shooting can happen on location, in a studio or both. The decision can be based on the story, the time of year and the availability of a studio or location. But more often than not, the decision is based on budget.

Shooting in a studio or on a soundstage can be very expensive. Many variables can affect the cost, like the studio's policies -- does it rent out the studio by the day, week or length of the project? The time of year can also dictate the cost, as can the city (Toronto, for example, can be less expensive than Culver City, Calif.).

Advertisement

Shooting on location is time-consuming and can also be expensive, but it's typically more economical. A location scout will find just the right location, put together video or photos of possible shoots, negotiate pricing and manage legal agreements. Sometimes, he or she can secure locations at little to no cost. The location scout continues to work as part of the production team and is responsible for all location-related issues.

Some shows shoot in Culver City, some shoot in New York City, Toronto and even Wilmington, N.C. It really depends on the production or show's needs. But Los Angeles remains the hub.

"The Honeymooners," and many sitcoms after it, was shot in front of a studio audience.
"The Honeymooners," and many sitcoms after it, was shot in front of a studio audience.
Paramount Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

One of the advantages of shooting at a studio or soundstage is control. You can control the lighting, weather, outside noise -- everything, really. "The Office" used to shoot on location and made the switch to shooting at a studio. During the first season, it shot on location in an old office building in Culver City. For season two, everything moved to a soundstage.

Even with the lack of control, there are several advantages to shooting on location. The location often lends authenticity to the story and can make the production seem more realistic. The sitcom "Scrubs," which is shot on location in an abandoned hospital in North Hollywood, is a great example of this. Shooting on location can also add variety and interest to the show and work to visually move the story along.

In a studio or soundstage, the producers and directors will have to decide between a one- or three-camera shooting approach. Beyond the pilot, though, this can become a network decision. With a single camera, there is more control over the camera and editing work, allowing for a nice mixture of close-ups, wide shots and a lot of movement or activity. With three cameras, the scenes rely more on dialogue to help the story progress. Think about the differences between "My Name is Earl" (one camera) versus "Two and a Half Men" (three cameras).

A three-camera show allows the opportunity to shoot in front of a live studio audience. Here, the set is usually similar to a stage play, with three walls. The "fourth wall" is open to the studio audience and cameras. "The Honeymooners," "All in the Family" and "Will & Grace" are some examples of shows that shot in front of a studio audience. Typically, the cast has several practice runs and then shoots the show with the audience. The show doesn't actually air live, but it does have the audience sounds (mainly laughter) retained in the edited version. Talk shows -- think "Oprah," "The Daily Show" and "Late Night with David Letterman" -- also shoot in front of an audience. Dramas, for various reasons, are audience-free.

On the next page, we'll find out what happens to the show after filming is done.

Postproduction

Former "Cheers" cast members appear at the Nick at Nite upfronts in 2001.
Former "Cheers" cast members appear at the Nick at Nite upfronts in 2001.
Gabe Palacio/Getty Images

Once the pilot is shot and edited, it goes back to the network execs for review and any final edits or changes are made. Now the network must decide which shows to air, which to shelve for possible later use and which to dump altogether. The percentage of shows that get picked up for the fall lineup varies from network to network. A recent Variety article stated that during development season "a broadcast network will buy 25 comedy scripts, shoot 12 of them as pilots and pick up two of the 12 for series." That same article also asserted that a cable network will "develop three sitcom scripts, shoot two pilots and go into series production with the better one." Based on that scenario, the percentages are pretty high with the cable network, provided you're one of the three with an accepted pitch and purchased script.

This brings us to the end of pilot season. Pilot season always closes with the all-important upfronts. This is when the network execs gather in New York to premiere their slates of fall shows for advertisers. The name comes from the process of advertisers buying ad time "up front" based on the perceived success of the fall lineup.

Advertisement

On the Air

So, here we are in the fall lineup, which means the show has been picked up and slated for a series run of 13 episodes. A full season is usually 22 episodes. Back in the early days of television, a full season was at least 42 episodes. If it was an hour-long show, each episode ran for 50 minutes, with 10 minutes of advertising. Today, hour-long episodes are only 44 minutes long.

The success of a new show can be measured in several ways -- placement in the lineup, advertising, buzz, critical review -- but it is really the Nielsen ratings that make or break it. You can find the full list of weekly ratings in Hollywood Reporter or go to nielsenmedia.com for a list of the current top 10 shows. If the Nielsen ratings are good, the season can be extended and/or a second season set. If the ratings are bad, the network will often pull the show and substitute a midseason replacement.

Every network hopes the show will be a multiple-season hit. Any TV show that reaches 100 episodes is eligible for syndication. In syndication, the rights to the show are sold to another network or, in some cases, retooled for the same network, allowing the series to be shown outside of the current or regularly scheduled time slot.

One way to assure a continuation is to do well during sweeps week. For this week in May, all episodes are new, full of hooks, twists and big plotlines in an effort to get ratings up.

Ultimately, if a show fails, it doesn't mean the show is necessarily over, so to speak. In most cases, a writer or show creator will turn to plan B and start the process all over again. A fine example of this is film director Barry Sonnenfeld. He has had four series canceled since 1998: "Fantasy Island" (no, not that one), "Maximum Bob­," "Secret Agent Man" and "The Tick." But now he's back with "Pushing Daisies," one of the most talked-about shows for fall 2007.

To learn more about TV production, check out the links on the next page.­

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • ABC.com. http://www.abc.com
  • CBS.com. http://www.cbs.com
  • Cook, Martie. "Write to TV: Out of Your Head and Onto the Screen." Focal Press, 2007.
  • Epstein, Alex. "Crafty TV Writing : Thinking Iinside the Box." Owl Books, 2006.
  • Finer, Abby and Deborah Pearlman. "Starting your Television Writing Career: The Warner Bros. Television Writers Workshop Guide." Syracuse University Press, 2004.
  • Guinness World Records. http://guinnessworldrecords.com
  • Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com
  • NBC.com. http://www.nbc.com
  • Sandler, Ellen. "The TV Writer's Workbook: a Creative Approach to Television Scripts." Bantam Dell, 2007.