In Praise of Hollywood Factories

I have said a few times in the past that I admire the approach Warner Brothers has taken to TV production in recent years. Not that all of their shows are good; obviously not. But they make a lot of shows, often largely shot on their own studio stages or backlots, and they sell them to the highest bidder among the four main networks (since the WB network no longer exists, the closest thing to their “own” network is the CW, which barely counts). They are basically the successors to the big Hollywood TV production factories of the past, churning out a huge quantity of home-grown Hollywood product ranging from great to awful.

This season Warners is the producer of several of the shows that have a chance to succeed, like 2 Broke Girls, Person of Interest, Alcatraz and Suburgatory, and they’re also the producer of some of the sure-fire bombs, like I Hate My Teenage Daughter and Work It. But they turn out a lot of product, and much of it is done with a certain amount of basic competence in terms of production values – Fringe (though that’s done outside of L.A., in Toronto, New York and Vancouver) The Mentalist and The Middle are all in their own ways among the handsomest-looking of current shows, though they vary a lot in terms of style and core audience.

So I enjoyed reading Amy Chozick’s Wall Street Journal piece about a trip to the Warner Brothers lot. It has a fuller explanation of the business strategy involved – which meant very consciously trying to build on the ’90s success of ER and Friends and sign up as many people as they could. (They got lucky, of course. When they signed Chuck Lorre, for example, he’d done a number of successful shows but no huge hits.) But mostly it has some material about the old-fashioned process of studio factory production, which involves a ton of productions fighting for space, and finding ways to dress up old familiar sets so they don’t look exactly the same as they did in all those other shows:

The back lot gets so crowded this time of year that productions must work “on a bell.” When “Chuck,” for example, is shooting a scene close to the CW’s new series “Hart of Dixie,” a siren-like bell alerts the adjacent production to keep quiet. On a recent afternoon, “Hart of Dixie” transformed a grassy area into small-town Alabama. American flags made in the studio’s upholstery department festoon storefronts and Spanish moss from the greenery department drips over trees…

Productions must share. “Hart of Dixie” and ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” had to negotiate the use of the lot’s lagoon. The bar in Showtime’s “Shameless” serves as the hardware store in “Hart of Dixie” and everyone fights over a row of New York tenements known as “Hennesy Street” after Dale Hennesy, who built the set for “Annie.”

“What we think of as America is in some degree what we see on the back lots of Warner Bros. It’s the Platonic ideal of small-town America,” says Bruno Heller, executive producer of “The Mentalist.”

Other production companies seem to be starting to take a cue from Warner Brothers and trying to sell shows to everybody. In particular, Sony – which also doesn’t have a network – is working very hard to secure coverage for its efforts, including the endless stories about Breaking In. The difference, as that Times article notes, is that Sony hasn’t come up with hit shows, which limits how much it can expand.

Among network-affiliated studios, Fox has the best track record, selling shows to its own network and also to the outside (Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother). Whereas NBC/Universal spent most of the ’00s producing shows only for NBC and USA – House is a rare example of a show they sold to another network – and the new NBC President, Bob Greenblatt, has more or less admitted this was a mistake, that they need to get back aggressively into outside production. CBS Studios, the sad remnant of what used to be Paramount TV, is a somewhat similar example; they do produce some drama hits for the network, but in comedy, CBS’s own product tends to flop, and it gets its hit comedies from WB and Fox.

I’ve mentioned this earlier, but the “vertical integration” model was big in the ’00s, and it’s still big: HBO, in particular, still sticks to the model of airing only shows it produces itself. But it’s losing a bit of steam, as the model doesn’t always help the networks. A studio that can’t produce shows for outside networks may be one with a limited upside for its own network as well.

In any case, for now, Warner Brothers is the most prolific producer of hits and flops (as the article mentions, having more shows on also means they have more shows canceled than any other) as well as the most powerful advocate of the filmed-in-Hollywood model, as opposed to filming shows on different locations or different cities. This will change as other studios expand or as WB’s luck runs out, but that whole model of factory production is an important part of Hollywood TV, and it’s good to know it won’t die out.

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