Knowledgeable about American television, Matt Vasallo, International Distribution Manager at Reveille LLC, one of the most powerful independent production studios in North America, participated in the sixth summit.
With an interesting analysis, he let us see that fiction products are the ones that best work at present, and provided some concepts to understand the direction that huge market is heading.“What's on U.S. TV?” asked the executive at the beginning of his presentation. Basically, there are two genres: dramas and comedies. In the first one we can find “proven formats” such as medical and crime procedural dramas.
Some examples of their success are ER and Law and Order, both on NBC, already on their 15th and 19th seasons, respectively. The secret of their continuance on air is that “each episode is related to a case. Viewers know the
formula and know what to expect, what we call a cold open,” explained Vasallo, and added that that is what provides “some security to people”, inviting them to sit in front of their television sets week after week.
The formula is the antiformula
On the other hand, series operate in a different way. “Instead of being predictable, and having clues in each episode to have solved, they have story art,” maintained the executive. In these formats, each episode is not self-referring
but is about “the entire series”. This is the case of Lost, which has been dragging people on for four years now with its “overall mysteries” that do not conclude in the individual episode. Something similar occurs in Ugly Betty, which is more character-driven. Thus, in series we find what Vasallo defines as the antiformula, since “you wonder what is going to happen next and it is hard to predict.”
Comedies: from sitcoms to single-camera comedies Sitcoms have been on TV ever since the sixties.
“Networks tend to incorporate long-lasting trends,” the executive analyzes. Old and present products such as Cheers, Seinfeld and Two and Half Men have always worked really well. The good thing is they are “cheaper to produce”, as they are shot in a multi-camera set up, with four or five cameras always in the same position in three or four sets and
practically no on-location scenes. Besides, they are broadcasted weekly. The innovation in this genre is the “singlecamera comedy.” A good example is the British product The office, which fits perfectly the American screen as “we all work in offices and can relate to it.” Similar to Thirty Rock, and produced with the same shooting concept,
they are more expensive since they have more scenes and are shot in different places, instead of a number of sets.
Innovating in proven formulas
“Once you find a show that works, you tend to repeat that and bring it back to the audience over and over again,” affirms Vasallo. Thus, a number of changes are produced over proven formulas. According to him, the new kind of ER is Dr. House, which became one of the most popular shows on U.S.
television. The “new crime procedural drama” would be CSI, where everything is “more scientific and technological” than in Law and Order.
It is hard for Vasallo to say what will work in the market. “If anyone can really predict that, you would be the first successful,” he says. Nonetheless, he gave the audience an overview of which products, in his opinion, will be successful.
One of them is Brothers and Detectives, the format created by the Argentinean Damián Szifrón, which tells the story of a cop who is helped by his younger brother to solve crimes.
It is a crime procedural drama, but it has a new twist: parents can watch it with their kids. “It could work well for viewers and they sell well overseas.” It all makes sense. Among the new successful formats we can also find Lalola, which is definitely not a traditional comedy. The “new twist” here is a man who becomes a girl, and it is not based on the typical dating story. To round off this topic, Vasallo cites the Peruvian format My problem with women, a show that Reveille got for NBC. A funny comedy about dating to which “everyone can pretty much relate.”
Goodbye pilot model
Another aspect that is changing is the production model for scripted series, as the pilot model is being increasingly replaced by the series model. The reason? Resource saving. In the pilot model, a network takes about 80 scripts and has writers from all these scripts developing. For the course of six months, they come down to about 15 pilots
and, later on, 5. After the development season you may get only one that works, or potentially none. “This model is really inefficient,” maintains Vasallo. “It costs a lot of money to do shows this way. You are investing a great deal of fat to the very little meat that is left.”
Lost, he exemplifies, cost from 10 to 18 million dollars for the two-hour pilot. On the other hand, in the series model,
instead of doing the pilot, they modify the show a lot, they do six episodes on their back, which are then on air. Approval is on the part of the audience, more than executives. “Basically, we go from scripts to series,” something NBC did with the show Cath and King. As opposed to the onerous pilots, a series costs between 2.5 to 4 million dollars each episode. It saves a lot of money.
Reasons to change
Resource saving responds to competence in cable TV and new media such as the Internet. At present, the advertising pie has more pieces, making dollar-saving a must for channels. “Today, TV is an international business.
Everything that happens in every provided given territory has some way in another territory,” Reveille executive points out, who also highlights the advantages of coproduction. A successful case is Flashpoint, jointly produced
by CBS and CTV. Financed by both networks, it is aired at the very same time in both countries.
Vasallo also talked about “acquisitions” and cited the example of Mentals, shot in Fox Bogota Studios, in Colombia, where producing is much cheaper. Fox Latin America, Fox Asia, Fox Turkey and Fox Greece, all the
channels all over the world put in the show at the front, in an unprecedented move that had never happened in the U.S. Trends indicate that the international market is driving to the massive market, where the same product in on different screens and in different cultures.
Once Vasallo provided a sound overview of what is on U.S. television today, he concluded his summit presentation strongly.