Don't Forget the Budget

One thing about “Louie” that has a lot of people excited is that it seems like it could finally be the breakthrough when it comes to making scripted television very cheaply – maybe not as cheap as reality shows, but cheap enough that networks might not automatically turn to reality if they need an inexpensive program. Now, there are several caveats here. The quickest way to drive down costs is to make things as bad for scripted crews as they are for reality crews; “Louie” apparently works under union guidelines (cutting deals to pay as little as the union will allow), so I’m not talking about that show, just the possible future of cheap scripted TV. Whatever agreement they’re covered by, TV shows tend to hold down costs the way everyone holds down costs: longer hours for fewer technicians. You could see network executives pointing to “Louie” and demanding that other shows work as cheaply as that (or somewhere near it) without the special circumstances that allow that show to get away with it.

Those special circumstances include the fact that it is mostly a one-man operation, which cuts down on the costs of hiring writers, directors, regular cast members; it also may cut down on little expenses that add up (like perhaps making it simpler to schedule: Louis CK is in virtually every scene, and usually tries not to have too many other actors in the scene, so he can schedule around the availability of relatively few people). But I don’t doubt that other shows will try it. In fact, this is the first real success in a long-standing FX network strategy of trying to find a very economical way of producing TV.

The network already tried it with “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” but while it was eventually a success as a show, it was a failure as a money-saver: the extremely cheap first season didn’t make much noise, and so the show was retooled with a bigger name in the regular cast (Danny DeVito) and a more normal budget. With “Louie,” FX’s John Landgraf finally figured out how to put together a show that cost very little money and had big names in the cast (mostly as guest stars) and could get attention without the necessity of raising the budget to regular TV levels.

I don’t know that this will work for other shows, artistically I mean, because while I’m on the record as believing in cheap comedy (huge budgets don’t always help comedy, particularly since it encourages the directors to shoot too much footage and rely too heavily on editing), most shows probably need a bigger baseline budget than “Louie”‘s. But the show does at least demonstrate what has been true since the silent film days: it can be good for a comedian to make his own films, or at least learn all the facets of the filmmaking business – writing, directing, editing. Because while “indie” scripted TV may not take off, cable networks are clearly on the hunt for this kind of thing. Making a TV show is more expensive than ever for a studio, but easier than ever for one person who knows where to get the equipment. These things could be coming together.

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