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  • Summer Season Wraps

    Posted on September 19th, 2010 Mike 1 comment

    As someone who’s worked in network television for a long time, it seems strange to be wrapping a season of a show – let alone two shows – in September. Throughout the medium’s history, seasons have traditionally begun in September, with production commencing in July. But in recent years, the growth of cable networks as a venue for scripted series has largely changed that model, with many cable shows having production and post cycles that don’t coincide with the traditional network periods at all. With creatively and commercially successful dramas (and comedies, albeit to a lesser extent) now being produced for services like TNT, USA, TBS, FX, AMC, and A&E, not to mention the pay channels like HBO and Showtime, “production season” can begin in July, September, November, March, or anything in between, depending upon the network, show, and proposed time of year for airing. This has allowed them to air shows at times of the year when they don’t have to compete directly with the broadcast networks, for instance, during the summer.

    Years ago, the broadcast networks actually had a separate summer season as well, and it wasn’t dominated by cheap reality series. It was, to some extent, dominated by cheap variety shows, along with some scripted series (the most famous of which might be the original version of “The Prisoner,” aired on CBS during the summer of 1968). Shows like “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” were used as “summer replacements” for regular season shows like “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” There was sometimes little distinction between the regular shows and their summer replacements, but the primary characteristics of the summer shows were 1) they could be made cheap, and 2) the ratings were not expected to be at the level of the regular season. That is essentially the model of the cable shows, although some of them actually have nearly network level budgets, justified largely by international and ancillary sales. Like the broadcast networks before them, many of the cable networks have worked hard to develop their own “branding,” some identifying characteristics that all or most of their shows share. For HBO, it’s been quality, quality, and quality, exemplified by such programs as “The Sopranos,”  “Rome,” “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific,” “Big Love,” “True Blood,” “Six Feet Under,” and now “Boardwalk Empire.” These shows share high level talent and significant budgets, justified by HBO’s status as a premium pay cable network. Showtime has taken a similar route, with shows like “Dexter,” “The Tudors,” “United States of Tara,” and others. The “regular” cable networks have also attempted to brand themselves in different ways. Some have natural branding, like the  SyFy Network. Others have developed their own identity, like TNT (“We Know Drama”) with “The Closer”, “Leverage,” “Saving Grace,” and recently “Rizzoli and Isles.” FX has developed dramas with rather deep continuing storylines, like “Nip/Tuck”, “The Shield”, and “Rescue Me.” AMC has gone the HBO “quality” route with “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad”, and now “Rubicon.” TBS is in the process of trying to brand itself as the comedy network, particularly in late night with “Lopez Tonight” and the upcoming Conan O’Brien show. And USA has been very successful with its “Characters Welcome” brand of drama and “dramedy,” airing such shows as “Burn Notice”, “Royal Pains”, “Monk”, “White Collar”, “In Plain Sight”, “Psych”, and “Covert Affairs.” In some cases, such as USA Network’s shows, the branding even extends to the on the air look of many of their programs. Some refer to USA as “the blue sky network,” due to many of their shows being set in bright, colorful locations, and being photographed and color graded to present a bright, accessible on-air look. The interesting thing about all of these networks is that they have embraced scripted, quality programming at the same time the broadcast networks have moved more and more towards “reality” shows, particularly during the summer months (with a few exceptions, like “Scoundrels” and “The Gates” on ABC this summer). And the cable networks have, to a great degree, been very successful with that strategy. Many of the shows, particularly those on TNT and USA, achieve “network level” ratings numbers nearly every week – even during the summer. Shows like “The Closer”, “Burn Notice”, and “Covert Affairs” regularly beat their broadcast network competition this year, getting numbers that would land them in the top 30 shows even during the regular season. This can lead  to one wondering how long the current network model can sustain itself outside of the “event” programming that is sometimes their bread and butter, things like the Super Bowl. But with even expensive programming like NFL Football already appearing on cable (or have you forgotten that ESPN is a cable network, as is the NFL Network?), the future of broadcast is certainly in flux, if not in doubt. Time will tell.

    Getting back to the subject of this post, I found myself busy all summer doing color grading on two shows, one for a broadcast network (“The Gates”, for ABC) and one for a cable network (“Covert Affairs,” for USA Network). Both shows were shot outside of Los Angeles (“The Gates” was in Shreveport, Louisiana, and “Covert Affairs” was in Toronto, Ontario in Canada) and both were shot primarily on Red cameras, with Covert Affairs also making rather liberal use of Canon DSLR’s for additional coverage. Having these shows during the summer months was a welcome change, and having them shot primarily on Red was an excellent opportunity to become intimately familiar with that camera’s files and formats and how best to handle them. What I learned was interesting in that I wound up treating each of the shows very differently due to their intended final looks. “The Gates” needed to be rather dark and mysterious much of the time, while “Covert Affairs,” being a USA Network show, was basically the opposite of that. The sets in “The Gates” were primarily the characters’ homes, with only two regular workplace sets (the police station and Devon’s spa), which weren’t particularly large or elaborate. “Covert,” on the other hand, set a lot of the show in the main CIA headquarters, which was presented as a very detailed, rather large set with lots of windows, lights, desks, rooms, and hallways. It also involved a lot of visual effects to allow the characters to travel to various locations in each episode. To me, one of the things I realized was that although nearly all electronic cameras, including the Red, have an inherent “look”, in the hands of a talented director of photography they can be used to produce images that are appropriate to different moods and stories, and when properly handled through post production, can produce shows that would not likely be comparable in terms of their final imagery. In my case, I was fortunate to have such people involved – Arthur Albert in the case of “The Gates,” and Jamie Barber in the case of “Covert Affairs.” Each achieved images that were completely appropriate for the shows and the stories they were telling, although I actually used very different methods for posting them (for those who might be interested, on “The Gates” I used Red’s Rec709 gamma curve, whereas on “Covert” I used RedGamma, except in some rare cases). I really enjoyed working on both of these shows, and it does seem strange for them to be wrapping at this time of the year. “Covert Affairs” has been picked up for a second season, and will likely go back into production in March, so I look forward to working with them again. And I offer my thanks to both Art and Jamie for doing a lot of excellent work on each of their shows. Well done.


    1 responses to “Summer Season Wraps” RSS icon

    • Great article Mike. I’m currently working on a television event for a few weeks “Real Housewives of DC Reunion” and you post is very pertinent to this project. Quick questions for you.

      1. What color grading app are you using for the shows?
      2. I’m assuming you convert the R3Ds to QTs or DPX
      3. How long do you usually take to color grade an episode?

      I’m used to commercial work and find television work much different. Man you gotto be fast! Television is a totally different beast.

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