By Clive Whittingham 24-04-2013
My first job as a student was as a pizza delivery boy for a particularly large, aggressive restaurant owner who, in order to force his long-suffering staff to keep turning up, would withhold our first month’s wages until we left after serving a suitable notice period. It meant that for the first month of the job I was working for free, pouring petrol into my car to cart his lousy food around at my own expense.
I was what the television industry would now call ‘zeroing out’ my first month of employment – making a financial loss in order to secure some money further down the line.
For the producers of ever-popular reality television, the streets should be paved with gold. Factual broadcasters like National Geographic and Discovery are now heavily into character-led series, while drama- and comedy-focused US cable networks like TNT, TBS and USA are also looking in that direction as a way of bolstering their slates of original commissioned series.
But that’s certainly not the impression given by some of the most respected and prolific producers in the business.
Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch), CEO of FremantleMedia North America, and SallyAnn Salsano (Jersey Shore) of 495 Productions have both spoken of this zeroing out tactic. They say that broadcasters’ budgets are now so tight you cannot possibly produce a quality series for the money, so you make up the difference yourself, produce the first season at a loss, and hope that this makes it good enough to secure returning seasons where money can be made.
“Your show is your calling card,” Salsano says. “Nobody wants to hear ‘They didn’t give me enough money’ when your stuff looked like shit.”
But in the US, where cable networks can take a show away from one production company and give the next season’s commission to another, zeroing out the first season is a risky strategy.
The knock-on effect is a debate about construction within reality. Producers have to make their reality shows more remarkable and eye-catching than all the others to get them recommissioned, but they have less time and money with which to do it – which makes constructing better scenes necessary.
Beers and A&E are embroiled in a legal spat with one of the Storage Wars stars about the lock-ups in the show being allegedly ‘salted’ with valuable goods by the producers. Original Productions and A&E deny the claims.
This state of affairs is prompting producers to seek safety in numbers. Stephen Lambert, who has Undercover Boss and Wife Swap on his resume, folded the US arm of his prodco Studio Lambert into All3Media America. “There was a feeling about whether it was the wisest thing to have every company in the All3 group set up its own US operation,” he explains. “In America, every idea you sell is its own deal; there are no standard terms of trade. Each producer is trying to establish good terms of trade with each individual buyer, and if you have one hub then you can establish precedence.”
The question is, if producers like Beers, Salsano and Lambert are having these issues, where does this leave new, unknown talent that can’t possibly afford to zero out – other than at the mercy of agents or in need of an established prodco to partner with? And what great ideas for the next character-led returnable series may broadcasters be missing out on as a result? It rather smacks of false economy. Just like delivering pizza for free.