Today I wanna talk about TV, how that particular sausage traditionally got made, and what big changes have been made lately.
(FWIW, I'm not ~just~ out of work and a little bored. A lot of this is cribbed notes from some acting classes I used to teach. I'm a firm believer in the idea that people who want to make a living in a given industry should damn well know how that industry makes money.)
TV traditionally operated on the "radio" model: the audience gets to watch for free. Advertisers pay for access to the audience's attention. Despite the name, it's almost as old as the "theater" model (control a space, sell access to that space, perform in that space, repeat). Newsreaders in Ancient Rome had words from their sponsors.
How much to charge advertisers requires two bits of info: how many people in general are watching, and what the demographics of those people are. This is why we all notice Super Bowl commercials are stupid expensive.
As you can imagine, when TV first kicked off, the execs finding this info and acting on it were the types that would think Don Draper was too progressive. Advertising was based on a stereotypical suburban home owned by Walter and Wendy Whitebread and their two kids. The rubric went something like: male/young, male/old, female/young, female/old. Not all that accurate then and really inaccurate now, but it's what drove the decision making process, which went something like this:
The early morning has Walter off to work and the kids off to school. There might be news or a kid's program in there. But by 9AM, Wendy's the only one in the house until 3PM, so TV gets targeted to her: game shows, talk shows, soap operas.
By 3PM, the kids are home, so cartoons and similar start running. Walter's home by 5, so the local and national news runs at 6PM. Then prime time kicks off.
7PM-9PM, Sunday through Thursday nights. Everyone's home, everyone's had dinner, everyone's watching TV. This is when a station puts on it's most exciting and popular programming in the hopes that all four watch them instead of another network. Ad space is at a big premium here.
After 9PM, some less popular shows may come on, with another news broadcast at 11PM. Late-night talk shows come on after that, with filler and reruns after that until the morning comes.
So that's a day. There's targets during the week as well. Friday and Saturday nights don't really have prime time, because people are doing other stuff for the weekend. &PM on Fridays is actually called the Friday Night Death Slot, a dumping ground for less than popular shows that aren't quite unpopular enough to be cancelled yet. (There are exceptions to this. 90's kids will remember the TGIF sitcom block that did very well for ABC). Saturday mornings run cartoons for kids who aren't in school. Saturday and Sunday afternoons show sports, old movies, and reruns.
Which brings us to the annual cycle and what Hollywood calls "seasons."
Back in the day, a full season of TV was about twenty-odd shows or even more. If you're thinking about a year, you'll notice that allows for a new episode about every other week for a full year. They get distributed like this:
A station's fall lineup debuts around Labor Day and runs until about Thanksgiving. That's when new episodes start getting pre-empted by holiday specials and sports events. This is the first half of a TV season. (Some people refer to a "front nine and back 13," referring to the number of weeks.)
By the end of this, the production side of things is ramping up when the holidays end. This is called "pilot season," and it runs roughly from New Year's Day to St. Patrick's Day. By the holidays, networks have a good idea which shows they'll renew and which they'll cancel. So producers pitch their ideas for new shows to the networks. Most of these pitches will be shot down, a rare few will see an entire season ordered, and a handful will see a pilot ordered.
So these pilots are written, cast, designed, and filmed, with the hopes of becoming a full season show. This is a particularly exciting time for actors, because being a series regular on a popular show is the closest thing the profession has to a steady, reliable, upper-middle-class income.
Pilots are screened to executives, notes given, and the fortunate few get full season orders. Those start going into production in the spring and are announced as the new fall lineup around May.
Back to New Year's Day. Some shows did so badly they're dropped before the holidays. In which case, the occasional pilot that wasn't picked up the previous spring gets an order for a half season in what's called a midseason replacement. This is why some shows, like Buffy, have a much shorter first season than the other seasons.
Anyways, the second half of the season starts showing around the Super Bowl, and plays that way until around Memorial Day. By then, there's a drop in viewership as kids get out of school and people go on vacations. This is also when mid-season production hiatus happens, as the cast and crew finish filming the first half of a season and get a few weeks off before coming back to film the second half.
So that's how it's traditionally done.
There's been some big changes over the last couple years.
The first was "Peak TV," a high-concept, largely uncensored drama. OZ on HBO was the first one of these. It meant that a showrunner could have the subjects of an R-rated movie with the running time of a series.
The second was TV on DVD. Putting season of TV on video was largely commercially nonviable when at best two episodes would fit on a tape and a season would fill an entire shelf. A few series did this (Star Trek, Highlander), but it usually wasn't a thing until DVD, when HBO released The Sopranos by the season. Now, binging was possible. And immensely profitable.
The third was streaming. Not beholden to a calendar, ratings, or anything but their own subscriber base, once streaming services started producing their own shows, anything was possible. A whole season dropped onto a service at once so audiences could binge? Sure! Six episodes? Eight? Ten? However many it took for you to tell a story! Film a pilot in the middle of autumn? Go for it!
The freedom in both size and subject matter brought a lot of talented directors, writers, and performers over to streaming TV, and a lot of landmarks were made.
But a few big changes have left a lot of people in the lurch.
One, seasons have gotten smaller and smaller.
One of the big milestones of a traditional TV show has been the third or fourth season. That's when a show officially lands between 65 and 100 episodes, enough to sell to other networks as a syndication package. (Over 100 episodes means you can rerun an episode every night of the week for months without viewers noticing).
This has a big impact on the showrunner, cast, and writers. Partly because a lot of the below the line crew work by the day or by the week. Partly because fewer episodes mean fewer guest stars, co-stars, and day players, which are about 80% of the acting roles out there.
Partly because it actively prevents stars from truly becoming stars.
Their contracts are up by the end of the second or third season. And if the show is popular, everyone negotiates for higher earnings, because they're the ones that made it happen.
We're seeing a big trend lately of shows being cancelled at the end of three or four seasons. Enough for the network to make a big splash and make big money, but not enough for the previously-unknown cast and crew to cash in.
(This is a big reason why you see spiking actor salaries for the few top stars that still exist. They know there's no longevity they can control, so they're all trying to make what they can when they can before it all collapses under them.)
Two, nobody knows how popular streaming shows really are.
Netflix keeps that info really close to the vest, as do the other streamers. With traditional TV, Neilsen measures how many people are watching TV at any given hour and what percentage of those are watching a given show. Streaming is a black hole of data that they keep to themselves. They don't have to justify themselves to advertisers (yet). So we only have the exec's word that a given show is popular or not.
Three, your favorite show can fall and die for no given reason.
In the old days, a show that was well liked could live on in reruns. Then even moreso on DVD. Both of which eventually made respectable residual streams.
Direct to streaming shows almost never have a physical release these days. They run from uncommon (the Umbrella Academy) to ridiculous (Wandavision, which is about to get a steelbook release of... nothing. No discs, no download code, just a place for bootleggers to put their copies, sold at a premium).
And now we're seeing that the premise of streaming, that shows would go to the cloud and be available forever, is a lie. They'll be available as long as the service wants it to be. Even if it just released a show six months ago, owns it entirely, and has no plans to sell it, it can just go away.
This was a lot, I get it. But it's a very rough overview of just how much those who work on TV are being asked to do more and more yet earn less and less, with no evidence whatsoever to back up claims that this is the way it needs to be now.
Take care of yourselves out there.