The Pancake Show

As reality shows are produced on ever-shrinking schedules, I’ve noticed a phenomenon in post that I like to call pancaking.   You know how the more batter you pour out, a pancake seems to get wider but not taller?  Same principle.

In the old days (meaning right around Y2K), you’d have three to six story editors / story producers putting together docusoaps / docuseries with an editing staff not much larger. Story would get a couple of weeks to work through the material and come up with a paper edit that would then be passed off to the editors, who would turn everything into an assembly and refine it further with the participation of the story department.

Now, with shows going to air almost as fast as they’re ordered up by networks, I’ve seen scenarios where story producers and editors sometimes start on the same day. In most cases, the ratio of story to editors has drifted considerably — two story producers may serve up to four times as many editors. Basic laws of time and space dictate that two story producers simply cannot feed the beast that is eight hungry editors looking for thoughtfully composed scenework over the course of a ten or twelve episode run. That’s what I mean by pancaking — operating a smaller story department but adding more editors in the belief that the show will go out faster.

If you find yourself in the position of story producing on a pancake show, you’ll have to resign yourself pretty quickly to a few things in order to survive:

1) You can’t create thoughtful paper edits for every scene. There’s no time. What you can do is provide highlighted copies of field notes to your editors and give them ultra-specific guidelines (I prefer a written paragraph) as to how you’d like to see the scene come together and what it needs to accomplish.

2) You’ll have to warehouse your content. If you’re not sure yet where story is going, but you want to be ready to create a rough assembly in short order somewhere down the line, have editors cut scenes and store them in a community CUT SCENES bin. I also highly recommend that all cut scenes be titled beginning with the date, as in “9.26 MARION AND JO GO TO THE MALL,” for reasons explained in the next entry.

3) You’ll have to be more organized than usual. One of my story producers, Andrew Hoagland, came up with a terrific little Excel spreadsheet on which we enter the names of all the scenes that come in each day, in order by date. In columns to the right of these, we leave a spot for the story producer to initial once content has been reviewed, a space to initial which editor the scene has been handed off to, and which episode the final, cut scene appears in. This is stored on a server, so that everyone in our story department has access to it. If I suddenly find myself four minutes short on an episode, I can glance at the sheet, find a relevant scene that doesn’t have a home yet, and plug it into my assembly. Scene titles on this sheet should be exactly the same as they’re entered into the system by editors, as it makes them much easier to track down if you know both a date and title like “9.26 MARION AND JO GO TO THE MALL.”

4) You’ll have to chase the boss sometimes while anticipating last-minute changes in his or her schedule. On pancaked shows, I always preschedule screenings for the full season, always 48 hours before an episode (any version of) is due to go to network. That way, if something comes up and your EP or Supervising Producer suddenly can’t make the screening to sign off internally, doing it the next day will still give you 24 hours to make changes before you’re due to ship. Trying to coordinate these at the last minute can be painful… you don’t want to be begging for a screening the day you need it if you’re on a compressed schedule.

Keep these in mind and you’ll have a much better go of things, trust me.


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