Why TV Productions Suck and How YouTube Will Save Us

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The Scale of TV Suckage

Yes, this curve shows averages. The point is in the comment: the more business entities screw with creative decisions, the more the distribution of the curve shifts left, toward an abundance of suck and a dearth of quality.

I love quality entertainment. Why is there so little of it on TV or in the movies? Why is it that most really good shows seem doomed to short runs and early cancellation (especially if they’re in niche genres like science fiction), and shows that hold high promise in the conception have the spark leeched from them before they ever hit prime time?  That people want superior storytelling is evident in the runaway success of shows that have flourished in the cable oases, with less (or different) corporate pressure to please advertisers and willingness to take risks. I could list a good number of those shows (The Wire and Sopranos on HBO; Mad Men on AMC; many others), but my point here is about the movie and tv productions that suck.

There are reams and reams of them. Some of this is due to the law of averages: the average production, statistically speaking, is going to be exactly that, and about half of what’s out there will be worse than average. That’s the good old bell curve at work for you. But that’s not the only reason sucky shows and movies get made.

Old Habits Die Hard

The other reason is the legacy system of Hollywood production, which sets up a dynamic that permits, even encourages, bean counters and executives to fiddle with creative decisions until they are “certain” they have a hit on their hands (pardon me while I ROFL for a while), or at least have a show that won’t scare off advertisers and create negative feedback from viewers.

Here’s a snippet I read recently that brought this home to me. This is the tiniest isolated instance touched on in this reportage, but it happens day in, day out, and in much more egregious measure than this, throughout the traditional entertainment media establishment. This anecdote is about the award-winning performance of Bryan Cranston in the phenomenally successful Breaking Bad:

[I]n typically nearsighted network fashion, AMC initially hesitated when his name came up. As the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, tells it, “There was concern originally: ‘This is the father from Malcolm in the Middle, which is night and day from Breaking Bad. Why do you think this is the guy?’?” A longtime X-Files producer and writer, Gilligan had cast Cranston as a menacing racist in a 1998 X-Files episode. “We needed a guy who could be scary and kind of loathsome but at the same time had a deep, resounding humanity. When Malcolm went on the air, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realize he could be so funny!’?” To convince AMC, Gilligan distributed copies of Cranston’s X-Files appearance: “That was all it took.” (source: http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/55303/. Registration may be required to view, but is free.)

Well, yay that they saw the light eventually in this one instance, but why are they even involved in such decisions in the first place?  That’s outrageous. Why did Gilligan even have to make a case to have the actor of his choice approved for casting? Yes, I understand this is “business as usual” in Hollywood, but I don’t care: that legacy system has long outlived its usefulness.  It is designed to put entirely too much creative control in the hands of pedestrian business people who have never been enlightened by an artistic vision in their life. I don’t care if it’s their money. Sure, let them argue about what show concept they are willing to finance. Casting is a creative decision that should be strictly up to the director, series creator, or other primary creative running the show, and not be mucked with by anyone else.

Collaboration, or Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

In the “collaborative” (cough) model of movie making and tv production, anyone with a financial stake in the show or  a producer title figures they have creative input that’s just as valid as the originators of the concept. Sometimes that input is valid, but it is more often the case that constraints are dictated on the basis of an executive having been in the business for so long and fancying they know “what the market wants.” Or because he or she has a stack of (unproduced) screenplays they authored in their file drawers, and is eager to jump into someone else’s project with “input”. (Can we say “blocked artist”?) Or because unnecessary financial constraints are imposed that reduce an exceptional production to something pedestrian.

Walking Dead zombie horde

Do we have to show so many zombies? Can't we just hear them instead?

This is why so many creative shows are strangled in infancy by the production machine that dominates our entertainment industry. This is true even in the cable outlets which have ventured to tell daring tales, but which are still structured in the Hollywood studio manner.

AMC, for instance, produces some wildly talented shows (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead) but it seems they manage to do this in spite of themselves. They forced a parting of the ways with Frank Darabont, the creator and showrunner of The Walking Dead,  over budget disputes that would have limited his creative vision in ways he didn’t want to compromise.  Wanting to cut costs by 20%, AMC felt qualified to judge artistic elements like the need to shoot in outdoor locations, or whether it was necessary to show the zombies in this zombie-apocalypse series.  Not doing so was cheaper, so that was the kind of limitation they sought to impose, and the sort of issue that contributed to Darabont’s departure from the show.

This is not just the normal tension between budget constraints and a director’s artistic vision and ability to implement within cost.  At the time this dispute occurred, Walking Dead was “the most successful show in the history of basic cable.” They had a runaway profitable hit on their hands precisely because of Darabont’s vision, but still felt free to jump in in ways that impacted creative decisions.  “It’s not broken, but we’ll fix it anyway.”   This is par for the course in the “many cooks in the kitchen” atmosphere of Hollywood-style production.

I’m boggled that anything worthwhile ever manages to make it through the labyrinth of systems like that, which I think account for the endless hours of drek passing as mass-media entertainment in this country. (Others share my disgruntlement on this point; here’s a good rant from The Angry Black Woman on this topic).

The Tech Cure For TV Mediocrity

Rosa

Rosa

But there is one silver lining here. The technology revolution we’re experiencing right now has put hugely powerful production tools into the hands of independent filmmakers. Such artists can now create shows and movies previously impossible to make without the support of a studio system and industrial-sized budgets – and do it on a single desktop computer, if one has to low-end the process. And because the lion’s share of the actual film-making takes place in a computer, and likely in a home office/studio, this allows individual artists and independent filmmakers to be answerable only to themselves and their own creative vision.

Even more importantly, this growing wealth of creative output is readily available online, and in particular at YouTube, where 48 hours of viewing material is uploaded every minute1. Online outlets provide the distrbution, and on the production end we’ve finally reached a tipping point in the density and availability of media tools. The fruits of this magical combination are now emerging online. I’m seeing things of amazing sophistication and superior storytelling surfacing ever more frequently on the web.

This trend may be intensifying now, but it has been going on since the middle of the last decade. Some established producers have had the ability to put complete webisodes online, either to enhance existing series (Ron Moore with Battlestar Galactica webisodes), or to introduce a story concept in hopes of it getting picked up for production (Amanda Tapping’s initial Sanctuary webisodes); or an unknown artist creating originals like the very clever Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager webisodes that predated these and became a regular web-based entertainment series.

The trend I think is heating up now, though – especially via YouTube – is of many short films intended to portray an artist’s story world, their capabilities, and perhaps to lure funding for a lengthier full-blown project, as well as more and more story series like webisodes.

I predict this refreshing type of media production will only become more commonplace, and that our next big wave of good entertainment series will start to emerge from the web, not from television, cable, or movie studios.

Some samples of superior creativity of the sort I see happening:

Archetype, by Aaron Sims
Dark Resurrection, the Italian Star Wars fan movie
Dragon Age: Redemption
Portal: No Escape, by Dan Trachtenberg
Rosa, by Jesús Orellana. Embedded at end of this post.
The Gift, by Carl E. Rinsch.

Not all of these are by solo artists like Orellana, laboring alone in their garrets over a hot laptop in post-production (Dragon Age is done under license from Bioware and presumably some production funding from them as well). But the fact that the web is the premier venue of choice for such content says much about the direction this new media is flowing in. And many other samples online are simply inspired productions by people passionate about their storytelling. These little gemstones may not stay on the web – hopefully many will get picked up and turned into tv productions and major-release films, as has happened with Orellana’s Rosa, and find large audiences – but the web is becoming the incubator for this wealth of creativity.

May we see much more of this in the future.

Portal: No Escape

Portal: No Escape

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1 There’s an astounding quantity of material being uploaded to YouTube: 3 months worth of non-stop viewing every 24 hours. YouTube now contains more hours of media than were produced by all of network television in the last 60 years. If you want to hit a large audience and get maximum exposure for your video, YouTube is the place to be.

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