The real action on a television set doesn’t happen in front of the camera. Behind the scenes the show’s producers wear every possible hat – they pitch the pilot, write the scripts, hire actors, and oversee film editing. Over the years that job has become even more complex. As cable has broadened the creative possibilities and show topics are more niche, creators have had to expand their knowledge base.
Charlie Craig (above, right) knows this better then anyone. He was a writer and supervising producer on The X-Files and, more recently, executive producer of Eureka, one of SyFy channel’s most highly rated shows. Today he spends his days writing pilots and pitches for new shows. Craig talked to Erin Biba about the balancing act of making a show from pitch to production.
Biba: How many show ideas do you have to come up with before you get one on the air?
Craig: When I started doing this 25 years ago you came up with an idea and could go and pitch it to all the different studios and networks and one would like it. But now there are many more networks, which sounds good from a writer’s standpoint, but each one of those networks has an extremely particular set of criteria for what they want to put on the air. It’s narrowcasting.
I have a deal with Fox 21, which is a studio, to make pilots. Every idea is just good for one network and if they don’t like it I have to throw it out and come up with a new idea. It’s become much more difficult. You’d think with all these networks you’ve got it made.
When I started in 1985 “Kate & Allie” was the only half hour comedy in the top 20 and there were only basically three networks. When you came up with an idea your agent got excited and said: “Let’s go pitch to the three networks on Friday and one of them will outbid the other.”
Flash forward to today and there are more networks then I can count and even networks you don’t think are in the live action business are starting to get into it like Cartoon Network. To succeed and realize some level of potential each network has had to carve up the spectrum of public interest into a particular slice.
Biba: So, realistically, you have to come up with a lot more then one idea.
Craig: Right. I have to say: who’s the idea for and does it appeal to enough people that I’m not limiting myself to a niche? It’s no longer good enough to just have an interesting idea for a television show. That is the starting place. Now it has to be: that’s interesting but what niches can it go into? My work has quadrupled. It’s not just about a good idea.
Now I have to come up with 8 new ideas every year and that’s a lot work.
You hope to find something that sparks you and run it by your agent and hope he doesn’t say: “They tried that a CBS and it didn’t work out. Everything on TV is already like that and ratings aren’t very good.” The hardest thing is not psyching yourself out. There’s a five-minute lag after coming up with something when your brain starts to generate ideas about why it’s not good.
With the incredible number of networks there’s a greater sense of frenzy. There’s a bit of a frantic nature now — pitching a show is much more complex and much more hurried than it used to be.
Biba: Do you worry that your show concepts aren’t as good because you’ve had to significantly increase the volume of what you’re putting out?
Craig: All good ideas become diluted because that’s the process of television. Honestly, some of the best work I’ve done has been when somebody threw an idea at me and said: “If you can do this in a week we’ll put it on the air.” There is no safety net, you can’t fail because everyone else already has, and in this amount of time who would expect me to succeed anyway? Whatever I come up with will be fresh and accessible. That frees your mind. Some of the best stuff I’ve done has come from that need for speed.
Biba: But that speed isn’t relegated to the moments when you were asked to save something at the last minute. Isn’t working fast the key factor on any television set?
Craig: When I’m running a TV show it’s always about hustle. There’s no time to go back home and think about things. When you’re writing, running, and producing a show you have ten minutes to come up with the best possible solution and implement it. Pressure makes diamonds. I learned that in the ’80s on TV shows. If you’re good, when you’re forced to suck it up and do it, you get it accomplished.
Biba: So what, exactly, is happening on the set that pulls you in so many directions?
Craig: In TV you’re sitting in an office coming up with idea. Meanwhile, people are shooting nine pages of your script. It’s all about the calendar. For example: They’re shooting episode two right now and we haven’t written episode four. It preps in two days. If we don’t have something ready it will cost $100,000. Then you have to cast the episode you’ve already written, go in to post and edit episodes which are about to start airing. All the while your sitting around creatively saying: “We’ve got ten more episodes we have to come up with.”
The downside of that is often you write a script a couple weeks before it shoots and then you get notes, things change, and tomorrow you’re shooting something you rewrote today, which doesn’t have the polish but time’s up. That’s a big reason why a lot of television is good but not great. You end up making decisions at the last minute that have lasting impact.
Biba: Sounds exhausting.
Craig: It’s a real balancing act. That’s what everyday is like running a show. At least you come home at the ending of it saying: “Not sure what I accomplished, but we didn’t shut down, and no one fired me.” But if you’re good at it you enjoy it. There’s something about coming home and knowing I had to make 25 decisions and because 20 of them were good I’m good at what I do. The sheer volume causes you to feel like you have lived up to your title as a producer.
Editor’s Note: Erin Biba is a correspondent for Wired magazine and lives in San Francisco. This article was originally written for the 48 Hour Magazine project but was not included in the issue that went to press. PB