Quality TV: Easy to watch, tough to produce

Editor’s note: This article ran previously in Outdoors Unlimited and will appear in OWAA’s newest publication, “The Freelancer’s Guide to Business Practices.”
By Mark Sosin
clapboardTelevision sings a siren’s song. Hunters, fishermen, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts envision themselves in front of cameras producing footage to regale viewers every week locally, regionally or nationally. Someone once opined that anyone who came in second in a bass tournament and had access to a Betacam would probably try to produce a television show. And, somewhere buried in that desire to have one’s own show lies the mistaken notion that those who have television shows reap millions of dollars in profits. All they have to do for that king’s ransom is hunt, fish or enjoy the outdoors in some other way with very little work, a lot of fun and a modicum of responsibility. The word on the street is that if you want to make a million dollars in television, start with two million dollars.
Having your own show requires only two things. You have to find a channel or network to air your production, and then get somebody to pick up the tab. It may sound easy, but it can loom as a formidable challenge, particularly since the market is inundated with outdoor television programming. Unless someone hires you to host their show, the challenge is yours and yours alone. In fact, even though you may not shoot or edit the show, the finished product is your signature and it reflects on your name.
A publisher of a major outdoor magazine confided that until he looked into television production, he lacked an appreciation for everything that was involved. “In the magazine, newspaper and book businesses, we have tiers of editors who can whip a manuscript into shape even after it has been submitted,” he said. “With television, when the finished tape arrives, there can be no further changes and there are no backup editors.”
If you intend to produce your own show, think of yourself as an entrepreneur. You are about to run a business and its success or failure is in your hands. The place to start is with a game plan. Your show will have to have a focus, format and a name. In fact, you may have to produce a pilot at your own expense so you can sell your concept to a television station or a network and then get financial backers. Generally, you have to put most of the puzzle pieces together before you can sell sponsors or investors. They want to know what the show is about, where and when it will air and so forth before putting their money on the table.
Estimating the cost of production and other expenses becomes the most challenging part of the business plan. Most of us have a tendency to underestimate and not prepare for hidden costs that surely will come up at an inopportune time. Start by figuring out how long it will take to shoot a show assuming everything goes as planned. Consider, too, that you are shooting outdoors and must endure the vagaries of weather and the abundance (or lack thereof) of fish or game. The fish may not bite and the ducks may not fly. Every shoot may not be successful. For a 13-week series, for example, you may have to go out in the field 15 or 16 times or spend extra, unplanned days on a number of outings. All of this costs money, yet you still have to operate within a given budget. It is usually easier to cut costs than to raise more money.
Several decisions have to be made early in the venture. The majority of outdoor programming airs either 13 weeks or 26 weeks. You need to decide which option makes more sense, at least in the beginning. Then, there is the question of format. High definition (HD or Hi-Def) certainly appears to be the format of the future. Some outdoor avenues are using HD right now. Other formats are still acceptable. Keep in mind you can shoot in one format and deliver the show in another. The only exception is HD. You have to shoot in HD if you plan to air in HD.
Regardless of the format, producing a quality show requires skilled and experienced videographers who understand the basics of professional video. Too many efforts today fit in the category of home movies and amateur productions. For awhile, stations and networks were very forgiving on production standards, but the pendulum may be swinging back to quality shows. If you can use the same videographers on every shoot (once you find competent ones), they will become better at delivering the type of coverage you want.
A two-camera shoot makes more sense than simply using one camera, but it also affects costs. Delivering quality with a single camera takes more time. In many instances, producers hire freelance videographers who provide their own equipment and charge a fixed rate for a 10-hour day. Anything beyond 10 hours is billed as a premium. A second choice involves renting the equipment and then hiring cameramen to operate it. Finally, you can form your own production company, buy the equipment and either put videographers on staff or hire them as needed using your gear.
Once the field footage has been produced, you will need someone to log the shots and then do the editing. Again, you have to find an edit facility that can work in the format you used in the field and then deliver in the format the station or network demands. The on-air facility will tell you the timing of the show, how many commercial breaks and so forth. You will also have to develop a standard open and close that identifies your show.
Most newcomers fail to recognize that any music used in the show – and that includes the open and close – must come from a licensed music library. There are several from which to choose. You can either pay by the needle drop (play) or license the whole library. Be sure you buy all of the rights you need. On-air rights are different from showing your video to a group in a theater or auditorium. The station or network will insist on a music clearance sheet accompanying every show with the rights spelled out, and you have to have it to get on the air.
Show hosts sometimes fall into a trap. They view their job as catching fish or shooting game, leaving the videography and the editing to others. No one should be more concerned with turning out a quality product than you. You don’t have to know how to shoot a camera or which buttons to push on an edit console, but you do have to know the capabilities of the camera and how to put a show together avoiding the pitfalls of hasty editing. It’s your job to make sure the cameramen capture all the essential material in the field including more than enough B-roll to give the editor some latitude and to cover all the dialogue. If you don’t have it “in the can,” it isn’t going to be in the show. And, you have to watch every segment of the show to make certain it is exactly what you want. You are the final authority. One way to judge a strong editing effort is by counting the number of cuts (shots) and how long each one remains on the screen. The human mind can grasp what it is seeing in two seconds or less. Shots that linger become boring to the viewer.
Understand from the beginning that “standard” contracts don’t exist. Depending on how badly someone wants your product, contracts are negotiable. In working with a station or network, four options exist. They can buy or license the program from you, but this tends to be the exception. Usually you either barter for the air time by trading advertising time or you pay the station for the privilege of giving them a show ready for airing. What you are buying from them is commercial inventory. The fourth alternative is a combination of barter and cash.
If you sell the program, you usually have to give up the copyright and it becomes a work made for hire. Under a licensing agreement, you own the copyright and license it to the network. Be very careful of what rights you are giving away in any deal. It pays to have a lawyer skilled in contracts look over the document before you sign it. This is not the place to gamble on your knowledge of the law. Television programs may have ongoing value well after they aired the first time.
A finished show involves three phases: pre-production, production and post-production. Each step becomes a critical part of the finished product. It all starts with the planning stage (pre-production). Pick a location and the species you intend to catch or shoot or what you want to show the viewer if you are not fishing or hunting. Develop a detailed written treatment including key shots that can be shared with everyone on the shoot. This puts everyone on the same page and leaves little doubt as to what has to be accomplished. Then, work out Plan B, just in case your initial goal cannot be reached. And, it doesn’t hurt to prepare for Plan C. Barring a crisis, you want to come away with something usable.
During pre-production, you handle all the logistics involved in travel to the destination, where to stay when you are there (if that is necessary), permitting (if required), transportation on site and the list goes on. You then have to schedule the crew and anyone else you intend to take with you. Remember that the more people you have in the field, the more problems you will encounter when you try to shoot. Unnecessary bodies get in the way. Also, you may have to extend a shoot because of weather or other factors. Make sure everyone with you has a flexible schedule and can give you the extra time if needed.
Remote areas create additional problems. You cannot get backup gear by simply making a phone call, so you have to anticipate what might break down while you are in the field and take spares with you or figure out in advance how to get it if needed. If electrical power isn’t available around the clock, take more batteries, and don’t forget more tape than you think you will need. If you run out of tape or batteries on a shoot or even during the day, that’s your fault and it can be a costly mistake, even if you have more back in the hotel room.
Production takes place in the field, and it holds the key to the quality of the finished product. Tape is the cheapest commodity you have. Shoot all you think you need and then shoot more. Taping should start as soon as there is available light, and it should continue throughout the day. Shoot cutaways in the same light as the action so they match and can be edited together. The prime mission, however, centers on capturing the action. While you are waiting for something to happen, the cameras can be shooting footage of the area and other scenes that could be used in the finished product. Make sure everyone refers to the treatment and shot list you prepared before you left for the shoot.
Your job in the field goes beyond simply hunting or catching something. As you gain skill, you will begin to work with the cameramen to make certain they can get the necessary shots. Look at it as a team effort. You’re part of that production team. Learn to make it easier for the cameramen, so the cameras aren’t trying to grab what they can in a typical TV-news type scenario.
Each finished tape should be numbered sequentially along with the camera designator. If you have one camera, it is the A Camera. The second one becomes the B Camera. Tapes would be labeled 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, etc. Be sure to label the tape itself plus the case that protects the tape. Finished tapes must be cared for in the field and accounted for continuously. Before you go home at the end of the shoot, put all the shot tapes in a bag or backpack and keep them with you. If you have to board an airplane, carry them aboard with you. Never put finished tapes in checked baggage or let them get out of your sight for any reason.
Unless you have your own editing equipment, post-production usually will be billed on an hourly basis depending on the time of day you edit, the equipment you need and so forth. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of time puts money in your pocket. It may make sense to purchase the bare essentials that will allow you to edit offline. Then, when you enter the production facility, you already have a rough cut, and the time needed for the online edit has been reduced dramatically. If you’re going to require voiceovers, they need to be written in advance and arrangements made for the voiceover talent unless you plan to do it yourself. Production houses often have music libraries available that they can use in your show, but they will charge you for each needle drop. If you do use the facility’s library, be sure to find out what rights are offered and if those rights cover your needs.
It makes sense to cut your standard open and close before you edit your first show. Schedule post-production time for this and be sure to have the necessary logos for billboards along with whatever shots or artwork you plan to use. Some stations and networks simply have you insert two minutes of black where commercials go and they will put the commercials in the correct spot. You send your commercials to the station separately and then each week you send them an insert order designating which commercials go where. If you have to insert the commercials in your show, be sure to take them with you to the production facility.
Networks have their own set of post-production guidelines you are required to follow. Most insist on specific graphics and even give you a window for the length of each segment. Be sure to study these rules and make sure the editor complies with them. If you don’t follow them, the network or station may reject a show and make you change the parts that don’t match their guidelines.
Finally, pack each show carefully and ship it to the station or network in plenty of time for staffers to air it. No one likes to receive a show at the last minute, since many stations want to preview anything and everything they put on the air. Whatever you ship should get to its destination within one or two days. You don’t want tapes lying idle in hot warehouses for prolonged periods. Make sure you keep track of the shipment and check it off once you get a confirmation it was received.
It may look easy to someone peering in from the outside, but producing quality video on a consistent basis ranks as an extremely challenging and demanding job. There are no shortcuts and no one else to blame. It’s your name, your show, and the outcome reflects on you.
marksosinMark Sosin is host of “Mark Sosin’s Saltwater Journal,” a 52-week TV series on the Outdoor Channel and Sunshine Network (Fox). He’s also a book author, producer of videos and TV commercials and a past president of OWAA.

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