Television production, Part one

By Mark Sosin

Editor’s note: Sosin’s article is the first of a two-part series. Next’s month article will include information on pre-production, production and post-production. More advice on setting income goals, how to get paid, legalities and rights purchased is found in the Freelancers Guide to Business Practices. Compiled by more than 50 OWAA members, this must-have book is available through OWAA’s store:

Television 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 camera 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 $2 million.
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 recently 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.”
Develop a Game Plan
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 that 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 other details 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 tend to underestimate and not prepare for hidden costs that will surely come up at an inopportune time. Start by figuring out how long it will take to shoot a show, assuming that 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. These circumstances cost money, and you still have to operate within a given budget. It is usually easier to cut costs than to raise more money.
You must make several decisions early in the venture. Most outdoor programming airs either 13-week segments or 26-week segments. 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  such as Mini DV or Beta SP, which has been the standard for years, are still acceptable. Keep in mind that 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.
Make your Show Professional
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 of 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 that you used in the field and then deliver in the format that 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, including 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 that avoids 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.
Contract Options
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. First, the company can buy or license the program from you, but this tends to be the exception. A second option is bartering for the air time by trading advertising time, and a third option is paying the station or network 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 the production then becomes a work made for hire. Under a licensing agreement, you own the copyright and license it to the network or station. Be careful of what rights you give away. It pays to have a lawyer skilled in contracts look over the document before signing. 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. ◊

Editor’s note: Check back next month for the second part of Sosin’s article, which will discuss pre-production, production and post-production. Read the complete article and other advice from more than 50 OWAA members in the Freelancers Guide to Business Practices. Shop now:


Scroll to Top