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In our final episode of Crash Course Film Production, Lily Gladstone takes a look at television production and how it differs from feature film production. It's subtle but it has a lot to do with how television shows make money for their many different types of platforms. So, strap in and get ready for a trip into the world of TV!


Produced in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios:


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  Intro (0:00

These days, you might turn on the TV and think you'd been transported to a movie theater. Oscar-winning movie stars are all over television shows. Directors known for big screen blockbusters, like David Fincher and Martin Scorsese, have found success working in television. 

And the advent of streaming services and premium cable networks have expanded not only how we watch shows, but also the kinds of shows that get produced. Edgier content that used to be reserved for feature films is now being explored every day on TV. 

As the line between cinema and television continues to blur, no discussion of film production would be complete without tackling the TV landscape and how television production has come to look a lot like making movies. 

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 Types of Television (0:48)

Introduction includes a huge variety of content that can be broken down into a bunch of different categories, from prestige dramas and traditional sitcoms, to infomercials, soap operas, and 24-hour news networks. One of the most basic ways to categorize TV shows is to divide up scripted and unscripted content.

Scripted TV simply means there was a script written for the show, duh. So that's everything from Game of Thrones and Empire to Family Ties and Quantum Leap. Unscripted TV is - you guessed it - any show made without a script. This can include reality TV, like The Bachelor or House Hunters, as well as any sports games, awards shows, and cable news. 

Today, we'll talk about scripted TV, since that's closest to film. We're also going to focus on television in the United States. We'd be here all day if we dove into how other countries produce and monetize TV shows.

Now, television can also be broken down in terms of how it's delivered to the audience, which has a major impact in how the money is made and what shows make it onto the air. The four main kinds of contemporary TV networks are broadcast networks, basic cable, premium cable, and streaming services.

Today, there are five major broadcast networks in the United States: NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and The CW. There are a handful of other ones, like PBS, which offer more specialized programming and operate under different economic models. But these five major broadcast networks make most of their money through on-air advertising - things like restaurant commercials, pharmaceutical ads, or geckos selling you car insurance. 

So broadcast networks want to reach as many eyeballs as possible, by making their shows widely appealing. A season is traditionally a year's worth of episodes - often 22 for broadcast network dramas and sitcoms, and more like 8 to 12 on cable. And if networks cram more episodes into each season, they can sell more commercial blocks. Which is why NCIS runs for 22 episodes a season on CBS, and has since 2003. 

The more people watching a network's shows, the more money advertisers will pay, which is why ratings matter to broadcast networks. Ratings are a measurement of how many viewer watch each episode of television. In the United States, the Nielsen Research Media rating system has become the industry standard for figuring out how popular a show is. 

Nielsen ratings rely on complex statistical sampling, the same technique used for predicting the outcome of political elections. The Nielsen team monitors the TV viewing habits of a sample of American households, and then extrapolates from those numbers to arrive at a rating for each episode. Among the various problems with this system, the sample size is really small. Something like 5,000 households are used to determine the entire nation's viewing habits.

Also, the advent of DVRs has made collecting reliable viewership data trickier, because lots of people record shows and watch them later.  Officially, Nielsen Research Media counts DVR numbers in a show's rating if the episode is watched within one week of the original air date. But if you save up every episode of American Horror Story to marathon in one terrifying sitting, that doesn't count.

Even with these flaws, broadcast networks continue to use Nielsen ratings to decide which shows get renewed and which get the ax. 

Basic cable networks operate similarly, but don't have as much pressure to reach a massive audience. These include all the channels you get with the standard package from your cable company, like TNT, USA, AMC, the Disney Channel, the History Channel, and Sy-Fy, plus all those other channels you zip past to get to your favorites. 

Basic cable networks make money through on-air advertising, like broadcast networks. But they also charge a carriage fee to the cable company that "carries" the network into your home. That means that basic cable shows can appeal to a more niche audiences, and still make a profit. Especially if that audience is likely to spend money on high-end and luxury products. So Mad Men was a hit for AMC, even though only 2 million people watched it each week, while each episode of The Big Bang Theory reaches almost 20 million people for CBS.

Premium cable networks, like HBO, Showtime, and Starz, abandon on-air advertising altogether, and rely largely on monthly fees paid by each viewing household for income. So ratings matter much less for these channels, and they measure success in other ways. Game of Thrones and Girls aren't expected to draw 15 million viewers each week. Instead, HBO hopes lopped-off heads and hilarious 20-somethings will create enough cultural excitement that more people sign up for the network. 

Streaming services that produce original content, like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, also rely on a subscription model. A show like Transparent is a hit because it makes more people pay for Amazon Prime, not because it can compete with Quantico for viewers. 

All these different kinds of networks matter because they affect which shows get made, how they're produced, and what subject matter they can tackle. Since broadcast network shows need to appeal to a wide audience to make money, premium cable and streaming services can tell more challenging stories with higher levels of sexuality, violence, and harsh language. That doesn't make premium cable shows better, but it certainly makes them different!

And just like film distribution went through big changes after home video, video-on-demand, and now streaming services, TV networks have many ways to get their shows to an audience. The old broadcast model used to rely on first-run episodes followed by re-runs, where the network would air old episodes of their own shows later in the week or over the summer. 

If a show was successful enough to run a hundred episodes or so, it might be sold into syndication. This is where the studio that actually made the show starts licensing the existing seasons directly to local TV affiliates. These days, premium cable series sometimes make the syndication leap to basic cable networks, like when A&E bought the rights to air a slightly tamer edit of The Sopranos, which originally aired on HBO. 

Premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime have set up their own streaming services too. That way, they can keep sole ownership of their content and sometimes bypass cable companies altogether.

 How TV Differs from Film (5:55)

Now, in many ways, producing scripted television and making feature films are remarkably similar. Writers write scripts, producers assemble production crews, directors oversee the shooting of the scenes, and editors cut them together.

In other ways, they're fundamentally different. Most obviously, TV series are way longer. A show might run anywhere from 6 episodes per season on premium cable to a whopping 22 episodes per season on a broadcast network. And super successful shows like Friends or Grey's Anatomy might keep airing for more than a decade. 

That's a lot of story, which means a lot of scripts, locations, characters, and shooting days, which also means more writers, producers, actors and crew. And longer shooting schedules. If film shoots are grueling, shooting a TV series can be a full-on marathon! 

Also, unlike feature films, the main creative decision-maker on a TV series is a writer-producer called a showrunner. Very often, the showrunner is also the creator of the series and the sole writer of the show's pilot, a test episode that helps the network choose which series to make. 

Showrunners can oversee everything from the story direction and writing, to hiring directors, and even the editing of the series. Most shows have a writers room, where a group of writers gather to outline and write the series' episodes. 

But for cable series, the writers room is often much smaller. One season of Game of Thrones is regularly written by only three or four people. And on rare occasions, a single writer may be responsible for an entire season. Michael Hirst writes every episode of Vikings. And Nic Pizzolatto wrote the first two seasons of True Detective

When it comes time to film the show, most series divide their episodes among a number of different directors. Usually, the director of the pilot helps set the look and feel of the series, and stays involved as a producer to make sure future episodes remain true to the original vision. On occasion, a season of a premium cable or streaming series might all be directed by one person. Cary Fukunaga directed all eight episodes of True Detective season one, giving the story a cohesive quality that unusual on television. 

For actors, working on a TV series can be a major commitment. Most series are designed to last for several seasons, so an actor might spend years playing the same part. That's great for job security - something many actors struggle with - but it can also make an actor feel trapped in a role or a show.  While film franchises do have recurring characters, like Harry Potter, James Bond, or any of those Fast and Furious drivers, they're the exception rather than the rule.

More and more, TV series are being produced like feature films. This is especially true for single-camera shows - everything from comedies like Atlanta or Master of None to mysteries like Castle, sci-fi epics like The Expanse, or realistic dramas like Friday Night Lights. They look and feel like movies, as though each scene is happening in an actual location within the world of the story.

They also allow for more control over the shooting and editing of the show. Three-camera shows, on the other hand, are about as far away from feature films as scripted TV gets. They're almost always sitcoms, and often performed on a stage in front of a "live" studio audience. Think of Cheers or The Big Bang Theory

These shows look more stagey because...well, they are. Multiple cameras capture the action, the sets are designed to only be shot from one direction, and the editing mixes mostly wide shows with pre-recorded or enhanced laugh tracks. They can be hysterically funny, but they don't seem that real. 

Across different types of productions, more actors, directors, writers, producers, and crew members are working in both TV and film. We even have universes that crossover, thanks to Marvel, and limited TV series like HBO's Big Little Lies that feel like extended movies. 

It's an exciting time to be involved in both movies and TV, as an artist and a viewer, where the only downside is there's not enough time to see it all!

  Review and Credits (9:16)

Today we talked about the difference between broadcast and cable networks, and how new streaming services are changing the definition of television. We looked at how ratings impact what shows make it to air, and how the subscriber model of premium cable and streaming services allow them to make edgier shows. And we discussed how TV shows are actually made, from the power of the showrunner to the different between single camera and 3-camera shows. 

Next time, we'll switch gears and start watching and thinking critically about films together, starting with Citizen Kane. And you'll be getting a brand new host: Michael Aranda, who's a very talented human and has been working on Crash Course behind the camera for years. 

Crash Course Film Production is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel, check out a playlist of their latest shows, like The Art Assignment, Gross Science, and ACS Reactions. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all these nice people. And our amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.

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