The Constant is Change: How to Survive a TV Show’s Summer Test Run

Summer is here, and if you’re a TV producer, that means you get to do one of three things:

  • Enjoy your (forced) hiatus as you wait for your show to begin production in the fall, by seeing friends, cooking, traveling, and creating other projects, all while reveling in how responsible you were in saving during the year
  • Don’t enjoy your (forced) hiatus as you wait for your show to begin production in the fall, by refreshing Staff Me Up and posting your resumes on Facebook groups every hour on the hour, rueing that month-long trip you took to Thailand in the middle of the season
  • Produce for a summer test run

I’ve had the pleasure of doing all three. But for today, I’d like to talk more about what a summer test run is, and, if you’re considering this special brand of insanity, how to survive it.

Over the last eight or nine years, production companies have embraced the idea of testing talk shows over short summer runs of 10 to 30 episodes that air in June, July and August. This summer, Fox is testing four. The idea behind them, as Marc Berman lays out, is simple enough:

The primary reason, of course, is money. If a show fails to catch on — and many do — you avoid spending upwards of $30 million to launch a high-end production. But the model provides other benefits, too. Producers can use early feedback from test markets to tweak the show before rolling it out across the country. And for a station group like Fox, which has two stations in the same markets in a number of different cities (aka “duopoly”), these tests represent an opportunity to fill unused time periods.

Marc Berman, Test-run programs: the new normal in first-run syndication

 

Over my “career” (no TV producer I’ve known actually calls the freelance life that feels like monkeys swinging from vine to vine a sustainable career), I’ve helped launch five shows on networks like Fox, NBC, and CNN, and three of those have been summer test runs.  The shows I worked on produced 10, 15, and 30 episodes, and lasted from four to seven weeks. On two of them I was involved in all three stages of production (pre-production, production, and post-production), while the third mostly kept us out of the editors’ bays.

While the shows produced per week over a summer test run doesn’t appear exceptional (most daytime talk shows do 5 or 6 a week, while court shows can do upwards of 10), it’s the pain of squeezing the whole life cycle of a show into less than two months that makes these tests such an unruly beast. Essentially, you’re developing a brand new show (the starting point is often little more than, “Here’s a host, and an hour to fill), and delivering that brand new show to a network with highly demanding specs – two processes that have career paths and companies devoted to them – while also producing the show, all at the same time.

Having been through this strange, sweaty crucible three times, I wanted to put together a list of the best ways to survive the summer test run for those of you who are considering making the same move. I hope that, if you’re deciding to take a summer job, these tips will give you a glimpse of the environment you’ll likely find yourself in. If you’ve already taken the job, I hope they help you get to August intact. While there’s no shortage of lessons learned (and NDA-barred stories I can’t share), the following 10 tips will get you through the chaos that is a summer production.

  1. Controlled Panic – Don’t panic about what you can’t control. Because, invariably, you will be given a lot of news that seems panic-worthy. No segments to produce? Panic. Too many segments to produce? Panic. Canceled celebrity guests? Panic. Host doesn’t like you? Panic. Unless it directly affects you in your duty as assistant, PA, AP, or Producer, save your anxiety for actual problems you can actually work on.
  2. Backups on Backups on Backups – Getting to know the likes and dislikes of your executive producers, talent, and network in under a month, and then delivering what they want, is one of the bigger challenges of the summer test run. Because of this overly critical gauntlet, most of your ideas will die an early death. So, have a backup plan, or three. If you’re producing the celebrity interviews, have backups for games, questions, and surprising photos. If you’re pitching a human interest guest, have others who are available, or local options, or kid options. If you’re pitching a news story for the table discussion, think of two or three different conversations that could be had about it.
  3. The Work Week is A Week – You may get lucky and work 5 days a week. You may work 7 days a week. But my average for summer test runs is something like 6.33 days a week (repeating, of course). You can ask as much as you like in the interview process what the expected workload will be, but you’re going to get a conservative answer (“We’re totally going to leave by 6pm every night!”). The longer nights and weekend days may also be tied to new responsibilities and interesting roles, so the extra work isn’t a categorically bad thing. Just adjust your expectations: a summer test run doesn’t mean Summer Fridays.
  4. Serving Two Masters – While producing for television nearly always means getting approval from the show’s executive producer, as well as the network, the summer test run means you’re often getting regular, prolonged exposure to both groups, at the same time, as they butt heads on making the best possible show, while also appealing to a very specific audience. There aren’t rules on how to handle this, necessarily, just be aware that you’re about to experience some fun dynamics. You’ve got two moms now.
  5. Don’t Bitch About Pitching – Though the burn rate for ideas is higher during these pressure-cooker summer tests than a season-long run, idea generation is a part of television. TV is fueled by ideas. If you don’t like ideas being pitched, discarded, and born again from the ashes, you’re probably not in the right industry.
  6. Level Up – If you’re between jobs, this summer test run can be a chance to try on a new title for size. If you’re returning to a job in the fall, you can get experience you might not have otherwise gotten in the more ossified systems of a season-long show. From PA to Executive Producer, you have the chance to create opportunities for yourself, and grab on to the next swinging vine.
  7. Let Me Reiterate: Iterate – The show will change. The format will change. Your responsibilities will change. Then, they may change back. Roll with it. With new teams, raw talent, and lots of network cooks in the kitchen, the show’s identity will change a dozen times before you start taping. Then, if you’re lucky, it’ll settle in for the run. Likely, it’ll keep changing throughout. That’s the nature of this experiment you signed up for. Solutions are only meant to last for two or three weeks, not six or eight months, so don’t expect every iteration to be the most logical one.
  8. The Great Departmental Divide – Sometimes you’ll be staffed with long-time TV friends. Other times, you’ll know no one. Some staffs and stage crews have worked together before. Others come from wildly different backgrounds. During long office hours and longer tape days, strange allegiances form, between teams on the staff, between the staff and crew. Make an effort to keep communicating and checking in. Communicate, don’t fester. Bridge the Great Departmental Divide, and the show, and your experience on it, will be that much better.
  9. Eyeing the Finish Line – Freelancing is frustrating because the jobs keep coming to an end. How people handle the finish line speaks volumes. Some spend a lot of time and energy looking for their next jobs; their focus will wane, and they’ll make mistakes. Others keep locked in until the bitter end. What can you do about it? Handle your own business. Pace through to the finish.
  10. Closure? Yeah, Sure – Summer runs are like summer flings. Enjoy them in the moment – don’t worry about what’s going to happen in the winter. Don’t expect a satisfying conclusion where the show’s future is explained and everything makes sense. Go to the wrap party and celebrate that you pulled off making a massive show with a skeleton staff, and don’t worry about the show getting “extended” (spoiler: it won’t). If it’s going to get picked up for another season, you’ll likely hear about it in December or January.

While I’ve painted a picture of summer test runs that’s no doubt frenetic, frantic, and more than a little frustrating, it’s worth disclosing that my favorite job was one of them. I worked with an incredible host, a team as strong as Achilles (and yes, with a heel like his, too), and the show was perfect.

You do need to know that these summer tests are gambles. No one can predict the outcome from the start – that’s why they exist in the first place. While the payout for the show isn’t guaranteed, you can help your own odds. If you have the right attitude, and a lot of patience, you’ll leave the table with more chips than you put down.

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