A little more than a year ago, I sat down with some colleagues at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles and started drawing the blueprints for what we hoped would be a new kind of TV show—an immersive documentary series that featured stories of people doing crazy, fascinating, amazing, or terrifying things with technology. Everyone else at the table had TV experience; I was a text-world native who had been hired by Fusion and entrusted with the intimidating task of producing an entire show from scratch.
The show that emerged from that dinner brainstorm is finished now. It’s called Real Future, and today, the last of its 16 segments went online. It’s about the ways that city officials in Los Angeles are using homegrown technological tools to patch the city’s crumbling infrastructure; we’ve also had incredible episodes about revenge porn, drone racing, body-hackers, sex robots, predictive policing, and hologram pop stars, among others. (If you want to watch any of the episodes, they're all here.)
As the show’s co-executive producer and one of its hosts, I had the rare experience of jumping from a position of relative ignorance about the TV industry right into the weeds of full-scale production. And I thought it might be useful to collect some of my initial impressions on the TV industry—a first-time producer’s field diary. At the very least, it’s a testimonial from someone new to this world about what this enormous, important industry looks like on the inside. And maybe the lessons I learned will help explain some of the existential challenges faced by the TV industry today, and what digital media can learn from the TV world.
Fusion is, among other things, a cable TV channel. But we’re also a digital media company with a big presence on the web and social networks like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, and on “over-the-top” platforms like Roku and Apple TV. And from the start, we decided we wanted our show to be designed for these spaces. The internet is where most of our audience is, and it’s where stories about technology and culture feel most at home. So we aimed to make Real Future a rare hybrid creature: a TV show made for the internet.
I know, intellectually, that lots of people already watch TV online, on mobile devices and outlets like Netflix and Hulu. But it’s surprisingly hard to keep the internet in mind while you’re making a TV show, using TV equipment, with a TV crew and a TV van and all the other trappings of TV surrounding you.
Designing for the internet changed the way we built the show. It meant not building in commercial breaks at 8, 16, and 24 minutes, and instead formatting the show as two distinct, unbroken segments per episode (which could be posted individually online), with one long commercial break in the middle. It meant trusting that lots of people would watch these segments all the way through, and that we didn’t have to build up artificial suspense or use “after the break…” teasers to retain viewers after the commercials.
None of these decisions were revolutionary—plenty of shows have made them before. But it was important (and hard!) for me to think first and foremost about how this show would look on the internet, competing for attention not with other broadcast shows, but with Making a Murderer and Snapchat and teenage promposal videos.
I grew up writing on the internet, where there were very few rules about how stories could be formatted, how long they could be, or how many boundaries they could push. So it was a little jarring to be thrust into broadcast TV, a media environment that is governed by templates and restrictions.
Fairly often, while asking my colleagues about some minor detail of the production process, I felt like a grouchy 6-year-old asking too many questions of his parents. Why do we need establishing shots of the exteriors of buildings? (Because viewers are used to seeing them, and it's confusing when they're not there.) Why do we need people to sign release forms in order to be on camera, even in public places? (Because getting a form signed is way easier than fighting a lawsuit.) Why can’t we show nipples? (Because the FCC.)
Most of these rules can be traced to the fact that TV is simply an older medium than the internet, and has had decades to accumulate regulations and customs that can be hard (or expensive) to break. These strictures weren't all bad; they often forced us to think more creatively about how to tell a story. But it made TV production a surprising experience for someone who had been spoiled by the internet’s freedom.
When my friends ask how producing TV is different from reporting for the internet, I tell them a story about Lawnmower Guy.
During one of our shoots last summer—a segment on a revenge porn king that we filed in a residential neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio—the revenge porn king's next-door neighbor decided to mow his lawn at the exact moment that we were shooting an intimate, quiet scene inside the house.
If this kind of thing happened while I was reporting a text story, I might have been annoyed. Most likely, I would have tried to talk over the noise.
But since we were taping a show that required good, consistent audio, Lawnmower Guy became a major problem. The cameras stopped, and crew members went to talk to him. There was some begging. Eventually, he relented, and paused his mowing while we finished the scene. But it was a stressful detour, and the distraction almost cost us one of our biggest, most emotionally poignant scenes. This kind of chaotic flare-up happens more often than you’d think, and it often diverts time and resources from the actual work of making TV.
Speaking of which…
Before making this show, I had blithely assumed that I knew what it took to make a TV segment: a director, a host, a camera or two, maybe one of those microphones on a long stick if you were feeling fancy.
But as it turns out, producing a TV show is like coordinating the movements of an army platoon. On every shoot, we traveled with 8-12 crew members, including two camera operators, a director, two producers, a sound mixer, a gaffer (lighting guy), an assistant camera operator, a production coordinator, and a handful of production assistants, who did everything from charging the camera batteries to getting lunch and coffee for the crew. (Ours was a bigger crew than some bare-bones news shows use, but it's a very small crew compared to the ones that produce most shows on TV.)
All of these people had to be transported to and from the set, fed, put up in hotels, and given their union-mandated breaks. Each day we filmed, a “call sheet” would be sent out early in the morning, detailing all of the plans and movements for the day ahead, and it often reminded me of a physics textbook. Moving locations—say, from someone’s house to a restaurant down the street—was a two-hour operation. Since union rules limit the number of consecutive hours a TV show can be in production, we could have been forced to add extra days to our shoots if we had gone over our allotted times.
Once we actually got the footage we needed, there was another long post-production period that involved editors, sound mixers, color correctors, and graphic artists, not to mention the people tasked with uploading, posting, captioning, and marketing the finished videos.
The whole production process took about 10 months, from start to finish—and that was, I’m told, an exceptionally fast turnaround for a documentary series. (Scripted TV is a different matter altogether; just look at this Vox piece on the insanely complicated production process behind “The Americans,” which, I mean…dear God.)
All of these moving parts are why it's been estimated that even low-budget reality shows cost at least $100,000 per episode to produce. And that inflexible cost structure is a big part of why I think traditional TV is going to have a hard time competing with digital video in the coming years. A professionally-produced TV episode might look ten times as good as a video shot in a BuzzFeed conference room, or a Facebook Live video shot on someone’s phone, but if it costs 1,000 times more and takes 100 times longer to produce, the economics still favor the cheap version.
(And the dirty secret is that viewers might not care about the additional quality—in fact, the low-budget version might be preferable, since its relatable aesthetic looks more at home on a user’s Facebook feed.)
There will probably always be prestige video—high-budget, high-value productions that live on platforms like Netflix and Amazon, and cost millions of dollars to produce. But that kind of cost structure won’t make sense for everyday news and entertainment video, when the low-budget alternatives are becoming more sophisticated every day.
As a writer, I’d gotten used to the idea of adjusting my tactics on the fly. I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned up to interview someone only to discover that their co-worker was a more interesting story, or that the vaunted business executive I’d planned to profile was actually something of a scam artist.
In writing, you can get away with ad-libbing. But in TV, you have to have everything planned before you shoot a single frame. There’s just too many bodies and resources involved. If you’re scheduled to put a dozen people on a plane to Las Vegas to profile a tech company, and the company gets cold feet at the last minute, you can’t just plan to show up and change their mind—you have to cancel the trip, refund the tickets, and rebook the shoot somewhere else. (This actually happened to us—thanks, Zappos!) You can’t plan a shoot in a public park, only to discover that you need location permits to shoot in public parks, and that those permits need to be applied for 4 business days in advance. (This happened to us, too—thanks, San Francisco Film Commission!)
That TV is not a spontaneous medium doesn’t mean that Real Future is scripted or fake. It’s not. In fact, the best moments in the show—like the moment late in the drone racing episode where Zoe gets emotional while telling Alexis about her medical problems, or the moment in the first episode where Scott Breitenstein decides to shut down his revenge porn kingdom—were totally unexpected and unplanned. But you can’t go to these places hoping to discover the real story once you get there. You have to have a plan—and most of the time, you’ll end up sticking to it.
I don’t mean emotionally heavy. I mean literally, heavy. Writing requires almost nothing in the way of equipment—you just show up somewhere with a notebook and a voice recorder—but TV is filled with carts and vans and lighting equipment and lithium-ion batteries and 50-pound gyroscopic camera stabilizers that need their own hard-shell cases.
The actual, final product of TV—video footage—is also a shockingly physical asset. As a writer, I’m used to my output being measured in kilobytes, or maybe megabytes. But video is measured in gigabytes and terabytes. In a storage closet in our office in Oakland, I now have a half-dozen hard drives stuffed with raw video files—the vast majority of which will never be seen by anyone except by our editors. The ratio of input to output—the fact that these hard drives contain probably 200 hours of footage, all of which got edited down to sixteen 10-12 minute segments—isn’t exactly news to people in the TV industry, but it still shocked me.
The weight of TV was especially glaring when our crew went to LA to film a segment about Keraun and Simone, a social media power couple whose Vine and Instagram comedy videos have gotten them millions of followers. We watched through our fancy, shoulder-mounted cameras as Keraun, Simone, and two other Viners filmed a six-second video with an iPhone and a cheap ring light, put it up on their accounts, and racked up hundreds of thousands of views almost instantaneously.
As a writer, I’d always secretly considered video an inferior mechanism for reporting the news. But I was wrong. For certain topics, video is a better way—and sometimes, the only way—to tell the right story.
Take our episode on ASMR— a weird, quasi-scientific phenomenon that gives some people a warm, tingly feeling in their head when they watch YouTube videos that contain certain sounds, like whispering or brushing hair. There have been dozens of stories written about ASMR, describing the phenomenon. And yet, I hadn’t really grasped what ASMR was all about until I watched Ally Maque, a pro ASMR video creator, whisper into a binaural microphone for an audience of hundreds of thousands of people. Those information-dense minutes taught me more about ASMR, and got me to experience it more deeply, than a dozen magazine stories would have.
Plus, the mere presence of cameras can make reporting easier. Time after time, as I contacted potential interview subjects and told them I was producing a TV show, even incredibly busy people’s schedules magically opened up, and they gave us all the time in the world. (The flip side of this coin is that in certain situations, like when dealing with introverts or people with something to hide, it's much harder to convince someone to go on camera than pick up the phone.)
8. The TV industry isn’t worried enough about the internet—but the internet isn’t worried enough about the TV industry, either
People in the digital media world tend to assume that TV is a dying industry just a few years away from obsolescence, as more and more cord-cutters cancel their cable subscriptions and get their programming from Netflix, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat instead.
Those people aren’t necessarily wrong. Several times while producing Real Future, I looked around at the giant TV apparatus surrounding me, did the mental math about how much money and time was involved, and started trying to calculate how many videos a digital video company could produce in the same timeframe, with a fraction of the budget. And I fear that much of the TV industry may be overestimating the cross-applicability of their skills to the digital video world. (I still remember one conversation I had with a crew member during the shoot for our eSports episode, in which we interviewed a professional video gamer about the lucrative career she’s built out of streaming herself playing games on Twitch to audiences of millions of strangers with a $50 webcam. “I’m in the wrong business,” the crew member said.)
But I also don’t think that digital media companies—especially the ones currently realigning themselves to gear up for the stratospheric growth of Facebook video—give the TV industry enough credit for how hard it is to make good, compelling video that millions of people will want to watch. (All you need to do to see the benefits of real, professional production is to scroll through media companies’ early attempts at Facebook Live videos, most of which are charmingly amateurish, but could benefit from a good producer or two.)
Right now, digital media companies like NowThis, AJ+, Vox, Mic, Business Insider, BuzzFeed (and, yes, Fusion) are producing a ton of digital video by editing footage they’ve licensed from other media companies, or shot very cheaply themselves. But eventually, those companies will want to differentiate themselves by shooting more of their own footage, using more of their own on-screen talent, and telling their own, original stories. They’ll need bigger, longer video series they can sell to Netflix or Amazon, roll up into sellable packages for advertisers, or use to compete on platforms like Roku and Apple TV. All of that takes expertise in making big, ambitious, original programming—the kind of expertise that TV companies have, and that digital media companies are still just beginning to acquire.
Despite the occasional frustrations, I'm still glad I made a TV show. More than 10 million people have watched Real Future online, and many of them have written to us saying that it was their first experience watching a show about technology that felt like it was made for them, and not for their parents. There’s still something about good, well-produced documentary film that hits people hard, and without a TV network's resources, we wouldn’t have been capable of finding and telling these stories.
I’m not a video quality snob. I love an exploding watermelon or a viral Vine as much as the next guy. And I’m excited for all the ways in which the internet is enabling cheaper and nimbler video production, and putting what used to be prohibitively expensive tools into everybody’s hands. But as digital video grows, it will need to borrow some lessons from the TV industry, which has been producing mass culture on a global scale for many decades, and knows a thing or two about what people want to watch.
The new video world may not require 12-person crews, $20,000 cameras, or massive quantities of discarded footage, but it will still require artistry, relevance, and attention to detail. As the internet becomes the dominant distribution engine for video news and entertainment, we digital media folk should remember, with a dose of humility, that millions of people still sit around on their couches watching TV every night, and it’s not because they don’t have Snapchat.
A special thanks to my co-producer, Alexis Madrigal, and my co-hosts Kashmir Hill and Cara Santa Maria, along with our executive producers, Jonas Bell Pasht and Jonah Bekhor of Citizen Jones, for guiding me through some of the finer points of the TV process. And thanks, of course, to the entire crew of Real Future—but especially Isaac Feder, Trevor Worley, Mike Langer, and Valentina Clerici—for bearing with me.