Screenwriter Eric Heisserer wrote a terrific piece on the writing process recently in which he outlined the various frustrations writers experience along the way to a finished product, citing issues like different execs on the same project at odds over what the film should be, the common problem of subtext reading as invisible unless you’re shouting it in ALL CAPS in your draft, and the way that changes don’t always happen to make things better. You can find that piece here.
In the reality universe, the process of refining story can be even more convoluted.
Usually, the network has some idea of what’s being produced in the field before it happens, at least to the extent of what personal storylines are developing, certain scenes the field team is hoping to accomplish over the course of a week or so — X is finally going to talk with Y about Z’s infidelity or some such thing — and the general flavor of the outcome of that content, once in the can, is reported back to them in the hot sheets (summaries) generated by the field team… the same documents that the story team on the post side will be using to help them along in arranging this content into a show.
Assuming that your field team has done a terrific job and provided you with accurate notes and solid, workable content, the post team will begin to group like scenes with similar content together into multiple A, B and sometimes C storylines that will comprise an episode. Your job on the post end, again, is to compress and arrange time in order to relate story in a way that mimics the way traditionally scripted stories are told, finding beginnings, middles and ends to each storyline. If you didn’t, the shows wouldn’t make much sense.
This process is incredibly subjective, and while some network execs prefer to review and discuss outlines for episodes before you assemble the scenework, most of the time, they’re going to wait for you to send them a rough cut of the show and start the post-production notes process based on a viewing rather than outlines.
Here comes the tricky part.
It’s possible, even likely, that not every executive who’ll have to sign off on your show will review cuts of the show at the same time – or even at all. Some execs like to weigh in early on, others wait until the show is actually in its final stages before laying eyes on the content. Still others let their assistants, often the least experienced people in the production chain, give notes on early cuts.
Also, just like Heisserer writes about the script process for films, the reality television process can find execs at odds over what the show should be. The first few episodes of a debut season are often a nightmare as a result, and there are some networks where ongoing internal power struggles pass the agony down to you even many seasons into a run, a gift that keeps on giving.
It’s all a matter of conflicting, totally subjective tastes. Execs who review your early cuts may be more interested in big action than smaller, emotional moments. This creates problems down the line when someone else finally gets their pass and wants to know why you went all-action and left out the emotional scenes they’d read about in the hot sheets during production. You’ll be caught in the middle and you and your team will be frustrated by the network’s seeming inability to get it together.
Know now: You cannot defeat this dragon.
I get a little bit of flack for being something of a network apologist when it comes to the process. Sure, it drives editors and story teams nuts when the president of a network suddenly wants to implement massive changes to something his or her underlings have signed off on repeatedly during rough and even fine cuts, but it’s the nature of the process. It happens. The idea that the head of a network is going to be able to watch every cut of every program from rough to fine to locked is borderline crazy. While my own instinct as top of the food chain would be to give notes on the rough and then let subordinates handle the subsequent fine and lock cuts, many top execs prefer to do the complete opposite. To me, this is like being presented with an intricately crafted Fabergé egg and then asking, “What if this were gold instead of blue?”
Again, you cannot defeat this dragon. And while there are execs who have about as much business giving you notes as an alligator has running a day care center, the occasional round of crazymaking notes isn’t always just a matter of whim.
What you don’t see on the network end is the constant pressure on execs from sponsors who want to not only deliver eyeballs to their ads, but get them there in a manner they feel dignifies their product. I can remember getting a call once about a major sponsor who was concerned that a participant’s breasts were too prominently featured in scene. It was the middle of the summer, about a hundred degrees outdoors, and she’d worn a spaghetti top in a few shots. Story wasn’t a concern for the sponsor – they were just concerned about advertising on a show they felt had taken a turn for the salacious. The notes kept coming back: “Can you not show the female judge walking up to the house in slow motion? It accentuates the undulation of her breasts.” “Can we not feature [cast member]’s breasts so prominently?”
I kid you not. Those were the notes. And it’s not like we could reshoot the stuff. We were cutting around shots, making editing choices based entirely on someone’s boobs.
It’s not the first time I’d ever dealt with it. Another show had a problem with a shot of someone wearing a towel in a scene, as it “implied nudity.” That time, it was Standards and Practices that issued the edict, owing to the fact that the network was under pressure to keep their lineup “family friendly”. Ironically, the towel was (in my opinion) the frumpiest thing the va-va-voom-ish cast member wore in the entire run of the program.
What I’m getting at is while yes, sometimes exec story sense sucks, they sometimes make decisions or change their minds for reasons you may never know. You can address a set of notes perfectly and then be asked to change things back to the way they were in the previous cut. It’s not personal, and unfortunately, you’ve just got to roll with it.
Unfortunately, the end result is often a version of the show you’re not happy with. Peaks and valleys in story are gated to a point where there’s less rise and fall. Conflict is either cut out or overhyped to the point where the delivery is a disappointment, but it’s par for the course. You’ll be asked to cut things you think are clever, be asked to have a character explain something in interview that’s perfectly obvious in scene to any viewer with a pulse, or lose what I call “ligament” scenes that cushion the shock of moving from one story point or noisy conflict to another too abruptly, allowing a show ‘s energy to rise and fall and give viewers a chance to settle down before being jarred again.
Again, it’s not personal. No one is trying to undermine you or intentionally wreck your story. Push back if a change is going to affect story adversely or back you into a corner the show can’t get out of, but always approach it as a polite conversation when you need to respond. Ask questions when a note doesn’t make sense to you, as execs aren’t necessarily story people – they sometimes have a hard time articulating what they mean.
Above all, though, avoid the urge to turn the process into an “us versus them“ scenario. I’ve seen naked animosity breed some really bad notes… yes, you can find yourself in a position where you get notes designed solely to screw with you.
Just do the best you can in presenting the show you’d want to see in the rough cut, hope for the best, and don’t let your feathers get too ruffled unless a note reads like a real clinker. Stay flexible, and like I tell my story team and execs, if you can talk me out of something by presenting a better option, it’s my job to be open to it.