At some point, during your TV series/pilot pitch, I will bet you my grandfather's watch you will hear the question:
“How do you get to episode 100?”
As my college friend Ita answered – “Um, by being really funny for the first 99?”
Television has a particular problem. Set aside your ideas for characters, funny or touching situations … just do this. Think of someone you know really well, say – your spouse, your best friend, whatever. Think of one story about her. Something interesting, the sort of story you’d tell at a party – but it HAS to be entertaining enough to keep the interest of a group of drunken strangers, with a nice payoff. Seriously, take a pencil and a pad and jot it down. Nothing detailed. Premise, complication, payoff.
Good. Think of another.
Good. Think of two more.
Good. Three more. No cheating, write them down. Stories both entertaining and detailed enough to last a few minutes.
Good. Three more.
Good. Three more.
Good. Now, realizing that on average only about half the show ideas pitched in the room actually work out as full episodes – write thirteen more. I’ll wait.
… Congratulations. You’re now halfway through your first American television season. Only 87 more to go (or, with the same success rate, 174).
A little history. Skipping over early golden age TV, the working model for modern television * proceeded roughly thus: Networks paid a licensing fee to get the show, and then collected their filthy monies from advertising during the show. As the licensing fee was rarely big enough to actually cover the cost of the show, studios made shows at a loss – deficit financing – and then recouped their expenses when they sold the show into syndication. Syndication – for you real wee ‘uns – is when your favorite shows run in repeats at odd hours. Back in the three-channel days that meant on weekdays between 4:00 in the afternoon and seven-ish, then local news and then your local TV affiliate would pick up the network feed. With cable, of course, syndication is non-stop. But you get the idea.
Now, for a show to be worth buying, it had to fill a full year of weekday programming without too many rebroadcast shows. As the syndication business evolved, that came to mean five seasons, or roughly 110 episodes, with a bare minimum of 100. Hence, the historical basis for the mythical “Episode 100.”
Syndication money, by the way, was obscene. I have heard film directors with multiple mega-blockbusters under their belts say “Well, yeah, I’m rich – but I’m not Bochco rich.” Even lowly writers with our crappy deals would make enough off world-wide syndication to live off of for years. This also is the source of many rueful anecdotes about coming up juuuust short. There are even stories, told under dark glances, about a vengeful network exec canceling your show, or even more viciously short-ordering your last season, to deprive the exec producer of his hundred episodes and thereby render the entire previous 41/2 years financially moot.
This is, when you think about it, the creative equivalent of wildcatting. This means, spec-monkeys, that not that long ago a show could have great ratings -- allowing the network to clean up from charging advertisers more money for airtime --but wind up an unprofitable sinkhole of tens of millions of dollars for the studio if it didn’t go into syndication. Small studios could go broke with a few shows on the air, but none that went into syndication. Even more desperate can be the situation a major Hollywood studio found itself in a few years ago – wildly successful with many, many shows on the air, but not enough going into syndication to cover the growing deficits. It was literally succeeding to death.
With the advent of DVD and home-video, we are right now, and I mean right now, in the middle of a radical sea change. The vast amount of post-broadcast income on a show comes from DVD sales now – and a popular show can start selling big fat boxed sets from first season on. Luckily, we writers have cunningly ignored that our income model is changing, and decided to let DVD revenues slide negotiation after negotiation.
(Seriously. I have not just voted for a strike the last three times, I have written “STRIKE GODDAMMIT YOU LUDDITE MORONS!!!” in red magic marker on my union ballot. But that’s another column …)
So why still hew to developing shows that can run to episode 100? Well, other than tradition, it does not behoove a network to develop a show that’ll succeed for one year only. In the constant battle for ratings, execs need shows that consistently deliver, and the execs depend on building nights around these anchors, launching other shows under the protective wings of these hits. A successful show is a money geyser for all involved. They want a show to last.
This is linked to a creative issue. When you are pitching a TV show, you are asking the studio to invest millions of dollars and asking the network for a ferociously valuable piece of real estate. You need to prove that your wee idea can sustain itself for a considerable length of time. If the show is good, your audience wants you to go on making it, your network will want you to go on making it, you will want to go on making it – but the question is, will the premise support you, err, going on and making it? Because you’ll need stories to tell with that show. You need to tell a hundred stories. With the same characters, because characters are how the audience lock into shows. You don’t go tossing characters away willy-nilly. To be blunt, even developing 22 interesting stories is a bitch, never mind going the distance.
So, in order to see where you want to take your show, what you want to do with it, how you will sustain audience interest, whether your ideas have the depth to carry the show on with entertaining and original ideas – basically measuring both your creative testicular fortitude and how well-constructed the show idea is – all this is summarized in the largely traditional question of … “How do you get to episode 100?”
With that context, we will attempt to help you handle that question in the next post.
* (before the FCC fucked up big time and let studios own television networks)