Holy smokes it’s fall! When did that happen?
One minute I was scheduling feedback calls for the declined NSI Totally Television applications around my summer holidays and the next thing I know the leaves have changed colour.
NSI Totally Television is a TV series development program for writer / producer teams who go on to attend the Banff World Media Festival and pitch their projects.
This is the second year I’ve offered feedback on the declined NSI Totally Television applications and, based on the response, I won’t be retiring this practice anytime soon (out of 38 declined applications, I scheduled 24 feedback calls).
Every call starts the same. I take pains to explain that the comments I’m about to share are just other people’s opinions (including my own).
Yes, the opinions may come from some very experienced people but, at the end of the day, they are just opinions. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. I also ensure the team understands we are not criticizing the work but are hoping our comments help push the project further and make it stronger.
I ask a lot of questions during these calls.
Often the team knows a lot more about the series than is coming across on the page. So I ask questions. What are they really hoping to explore in the series? What do they want to write about? What’s the tone? Who’s the potential audience? Where do they see the series airing? Who’s the main character and what do they want? Why do we like these characters? What’s their goal? Who or what gets in their way? And of course, the biggest question of all: what’s your show REALLY about?
Let’s take some of these bigger questions and break them down.
There seems to be an anti-hero trend right now. Lead characters who are selfish, rude, inconsiderate, mean, etc. And that’s OK. Not everyone is a nice person. BUT (in capital letters) there needs to be something redeeming or likeable about them. The audience still has to root for them.
Take Dexter for example. He’s a murderer but he murders serial killers which somehow makes it alright. Doctor House is a huge jerk but he saves people’s lives so you grudgingly respect him. Michael Scott (The Office) is rude to his staff and screws up the life of everyone around him but he always tries to do the right thing. None of these characters are good people or heroic in any sense, but we root for them nonetheless.
I also ask about tone.
Is it funny in an endearing way or is it funny in a laugh out loud way? Is it serious with occasional light-hearted moments or deadly earnest?
It’s so important to understand what tone you’re trying to set and then keep the same tone throughout. Audiences are creatures of habit and don’t like change. They like half hours to be funny and hours to be dramatic. This doesn’t mean you can’t have some comedic elements in your hour-long show or even have some dramatic moments in your comedy. But make sure you give the audience what they want…or they won’t come back next week.
Which of course brings us to: your audience.
Your audience are the people at home sitting on the couch in front of their TV or in front of their laptop as well as the people who are going to buy your series and help you make it. With that in mind, do you see your show on CBC or CTV? There is a huge difference between the two and anyone who wants to work in TV should know the difference.
Few things bother me more than people who want to make TV but don’t watch it – or only watch pay TV. You need to watch all of it. You should be able to read a script and say, ‘This is a CTV show, or Showcase show,’ or ‘This feels like an HBO Canada show.’ Once you’re able to do that you’ll know who’s at home on the couch watching your show or on their iPhone watching. CBC’s audience is different from Showcase’s audience, is different from HBO Canada’s audience and so on.
Your lead character, the tone of your show and your audience are all hugely important elements that need to be considered when creating a series. But the number one essential element to consider is: what is your show about? I call it your series ‘engine.’ What keeps the show going? What’s the core conflict? What happens each and every episode…and I don’t mean plot.
Aaron Martin, a brilliant writer and story editor who helps with NSI Totally Television a lot, has distilled the following series to their very core, the foundation out of which each and every episode spins:
The Big Bang Theory – the smartest people in the world are the dumbest people when it comes to real life.
Arrested Development - a normal guy tries to rein in his insane family, which makes him the craziest one of them all.
Mad Men – Don Draper, a man who sells the American Dream, is himself a complete fabrication.
The Walking Dead – the survivors of a zombie apocalypse fight for their survival against the undead, when the biggest threat is from the living.
Character, tone, audience, central conflict: that’s a lot of stuff to talk about. It’s no wonder every request for feedback takes about an hour and a half. One hour to review the project and a half hour on the phone. So, 24 feedback calls at one and a half hours per request = 36 hours! My co-workers tell me this number is a conservative estimate which begs the question, ‘Why do I do it?’ The answer is simple. I figure that if I’m going to encourage people to re-apply, I should take the time to explain to them whey they were declined in the first place to give them a better chance next year.
The National Screen Institute is a training organization – I’d feel like a hypocrite if I only cared about training the successful teams. That isn’t what we’re about. Also, the response has been amazing in terms of how appreciative and collaborative the teams have been on these calls. My favourite part of running NSI Totally Television is working with the teams as they try to figure out their concepts. Each feedback call is a mini version of that. It can be a lot of fun and I’ve met some great people on the phone.
Next time you sit down to create a series – keep the above things in mind. Look at those series distillations above and see if you can articulate your concept that succinctly. If you can, maybe you should apply to NSI Totally Television.
Brandice Vivier runs NSI Totally Television, is co-manager of NSI Aboriginal Journalism, sits on the NSI Online Short Film Festival selection committee and helps deliver the Featuring Aboriginal Stories Program. She develops training curricula and has worked on many NSI training programs. Brandice is a cheese connoisseur – the more aromatic the better.