Let’s assume for a moment that you are the Producer / Executive Producer / Creator of a TV series. Or a radio series. Hell, even a podcast. You plough your time and energy in to developing a format; you whore it to all of your contacts, and anyone else you can make contact with, in order to pitch it. You work terrifyingly long hours for very little reward in the almost vain hope that this will take off.
Pause. Have you ever watched a TV series – a “quiz com” or the like; a sitcom; a drama series; not a soap: that bit’s important – which you watch every year, sticking with it year-in year-out? I’m fairly sure you will have done. You may have become hooked from the start; you may have joined part way through. You’re used to the people in it, and the formula they use. It’s comfortable. Great: hold that thought, because we’re going to come back to it. It may even be the crux of this whole post.
Record. You’ve worked hard to get your series commissioned; you’ve endured even more punishing schedules and restrictions to get a pilot thrown together; in a million to one shot you happened to be successful; you’ve been handed the opportunity to do your real job and make the bloody thing.
Fast forward. You have sat at the helm of this series for a decade now, working hard, developing the format, keeping the quality high, attempting to keep network, viewer and team alike happy with the output you are guiding in to existence week after week. You are doing what you have always aspired to do, practicing a craft you have spent most of your life learning. Then the ratings start to fall. Fall.
Pause. We’re all armchair critics at heart, aren’t we? Yet we’re so easily fooled. You watch a series of something every year, but it’s only when you binge a whole show, several series in a row, that you can see how much the producers changed everything between series. Try it: it’s true. That said, we are also very quick to pass judgement. I think Have I Got News For You is very stale, and I keep on saying so on this blog. Yet I have never produced a single second of TV in my life. What do I know?
Play. The network are telling you you’re happy with your ratings, that it is a product of multi-channel TV; the viewers are tweeting their gushing approval of your work week in week out. You are buoyed by the support, but you feel that it is a bubble chamber. You’ve seen this happen to your friends.
Rewind. You have several choices you see before you: one is to keep plugging away at it, keeping the ship on an even keel, and everybody employed. Another is to make small tweaks to the format in the hope of accessing a new demographic: new blood to the ratings. Another is to make radical changes, with much publicity, to fully refresh the image of the show. There is a fifth option; you could go now.
Pause. TV costs a lot of money to make. For those of us on the outside it seems like a stupid amount of money to spend on so many stupid things. The amount spent on sets, which will inevitably end up being held together with gaffer tape at the end of the run, is eye-watering. People on screen earning the average annual salary of a normal person per episode, for something which to a lot of us looks incredibly easy (it isn’t). Add in locations, red tape, and simply keeping the lights on, and it’s huge.
Stop. A meeting is called. The network wasn’t happy with your ratings; they were giving you the room to get your house in order. Now it’s time for them to intervene, and you know how they hate to intervene. You need to cut budgets drastically or increase viewing figures to match your spend.
Eject. Again, you have several choices: fire on screen talent and replace them with someone untried, and hopefully more diverse. The blogosphere offers ideas daily. Fire behind the scenes talent and bring in some new blood. You have CVs piling up on your desk of people willing you to hire them. It would certainly reduce costs. The network are offering you solutions for your own replacement. It cannot be put in to words the magnitude of their kindness in this regard. You pour yourself a drink.
Pause. We have to remember, when we’re talking loftily about hiring and firing talent, either in front of or behind the camera, that the livelihoods of real people are at stake. Real careers hanging in the balance in the court of public opinion; it’s not a productive trend. Yet there we all were, when Bake Off was in turmoil, adding petrol to the flames. Likewise Top Gear. Yet here we are, in a world where both series have had offspring beautiful and hideous. Could, should, we all have been nicer about it?
Play. Behind the scenes reshuffles have been done with aplomb, the network accepting pitches from a tumult of departing producers. They don’t commission any of them, but you knew they wouldn’t.
Shuffle. You’ve rewatched a few dozen past episodes, and you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. Why were you never able to look so critical upon something you have poured yourself in to for so long? The format used to be interesting, engaging, but you changed it to please the writers. The performers used to be exciting, but now they’re phoning it in. You know what you need to do, and you know you should have done it years ago. Time for some new on-air talent: send in the lawyers.
Pause. Some things which seem so obvious from the armchair are incredibly difficult. Why can I not take my daughter’s favourite Netflix series on holiday with us? Rights issues I would suspect. Taking a much loved personality off the air is very expensive, and brings with it a litany of risks. That’s one of the reasons it doesn’t often happen. We’re all so risk averse, and that’s what keeps us alive.
Fast forward. Your changes and reversions worked wonders, and revitalised a format you loved, keeping it on air for another decade. Your series has transcended to the realms of national treasure, and you have received plaudits and awards all round. Now, your ratings are slipping again. Falling.