Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Precarious Post-Production of Reality TV

One day, sitting in the office at work, some coworkers began to comment on a peculiar odor wafting through the air. I described it as chemical-y at the time. Speculation abounded about what, exactly, we were smelling. We ruled out fire. We ruled out strange food. But what was it? Concern grew, and eventually we all decided to vacate the building.

I was working in post production at "The Amazing Race" and, as we all stood in the parking lot for five minutes, then ten, then twenty, my thoughts began to drift to what would happen if, hypothetically, we were never allowed back into the building. What if it was a fire? What if it was some radioactive chemical spill? What if whatever was happening upstairs would cause the complete destruction of all the materials in the building?

If that had been the case, then "The Amazing Race" would not have aired that year. Everything related to the season was in that one building. If the building were lost, the whole season would have been lost with it.

This is not a unique situation. I've worked on many shows at many different companies now, and all of them do the same thing: they put all their eggs in one basket. Or, they put all their tapes in one building.

This surprises me. It always has, and it still does. While property destruction and/or injuries are always a tragedy, you'd think that networks and production companies would want the show to go on regardless of circumstances. But they don't. I'm sure they have some sort of insurance in place to recover the loss if some fire burns up a season before it has a chance to air. Still, recovering your money is one thing; completing and airing the show is another. If you're already promoting the upcoming season of a show, don't you want to make sure you deliver on that promise no matter what?

I'm certain that these thoughts have crossed the minds of those with the power to do something about it. I know this because, once an episode is complete, multiple copies of the master tapes are always made and are usually distributed throughout the country - typically Los Angeles and New York; Atlanta if you're working for Ted Turner; maybe Chicago in other circumstances. This guarantees that if something goes wrong in one place, there's a backup in another place.

Call me crazy, but it seems like they'd want the same protection for the raw materials while the show is being constructed. At the very least, why not take the tapes to a second location after they've been digitized into the computer system. (For beginners: Most shows are edited on the Avid system. The footage recorded on tapes is imported into a huge server - usually a system called Unity. All of the Avids draw their footage from the Unity. So once the footage is in the Unity, why aren't the tapes taken to some fireproof vault or something for protection?)

All it would take is one little fire in one little building, and everything would be lost. If there were a fire at my current job, for example, half of MTV's programming would be up in smoke. They might be forced to -- gasp!! -- air videos.

Just to be clear, let me say that I'm speaking strictly of reality TV here. I can't speak from personal experience with regard to how movies or scripted TV shows are handled in post production. I'm reminded, however, of an incident widely reported about the Tim Allen movie "Jungle 2 Jungle." An entire day's worth of footage was lost and had to be reshot. It is believed that the footage was accidentally left in a taxi by the person transporting it.

Now, this just blows my mind. First of all, they were transporting the day's shoot in an average New York City taxicab. You're telling me they didn't have a special van, or a production assistant with his or her own vehicle set aside for the specific purpose of getting the film to the lab? We're using taxis for this? Second, how many other things were on this person's mind that he or she FORGOT THE FUCKING FILM WHEN LEAVING THE TAXI?! In my mind, if you're sending someone to the lab with the day's footage, the most important thing on this person's mind should be delivering the footage. Your job and the jobs of hundreds of other people depend on one thing: getting a film made. When all is said and done, millions of dollars and thousands of work hours are represented by that pile of film accompanying you in the taxi. I'd place that as a high priority. Just me?

I guess it is just me. Let's face it: the system seems to be working. The airwaves are cluttered with reality shows, and the world was not deprived of the brilliance of "Jungle 2 Jungle." It all just seems very precarious to me. And when so much money is at stake, you'd think the people spending the money would want as many guarantees in place as possible.

But they don't. So what do I know?