Network veteran Michael Cascio makes the case for when feedback is necessary, even helpful…and when it’s not. Here’s his top suggestions on how to make the process more palatable:
It’s the bane of producers: You submit a carefully crafted rough cut and get back reams of single-spaced, nit-picking notes, gutting your hard work and forcing more time and expense in the edit room for no apparent reason.
It’s the bane of networks: You commission a show and get back an incomprehensible, steaming mess of footage that has no story, looks nothing like what you ordered and will fail miserably if it airs. You have no choice but to fix it. With lots of notes.
In the factual TV community, “notes” are a necessary evil. Everyone accepts that networks and distributors need to get what they want, especially when financial investments are substantial. But do all those notes make a difference?
I tried — and failed — to cut down on my own note-giving while I was a network EVP and SVP at A&E, Animal Planet, and National Geographic, and I supervised talented EPs who were much better at it. But I often worried that with too much interference, we could undermine the talents of our production partners and take away their incentive to fix things on their own.
At the same time, the networks are always wary of what a colleague called “being sizzled” — buying a show on a great sizzle reel but by the first delivered cut, they’re forced to make chicken salad out of chicken waste. Ideally, if you pay for a program, it’s up to the producer to deliver what you want — not the network.
So, who’s right? I’m working independently now, and with some perspective, I can tell you that sometimes those notes are needed, and sometimes they’re not. Here are some universal truths:
Producers can get too close to the material. Sitting in an edit room for days can cause myopia that good network execs can correct. They often have experience at how best to grab the audience, how to improve pacing, writing, flow, and teases, as well as dealing with marketing, scheduling, content standards and sales. One longtime producer told me the best note she ever got from a network EP was a loving KISS — “keep it simple, stupid” — providing help to “reduce the complicated to the simple.”
Generalized notes can be confusing. The worst? Notes that are so broad that you can’t figure out what to do. Comments like, “It sort of lacks energy,” or “It doesn’t work for me” drive producers crazy. One veteran producer told me he once got a comment scrawled in the margin of a script saying simply, “What is this sh-t?” Not exactly useful or inspirational.
Specific notes help the most. The best? Notes that point out the important places that need addressing and why they need changing, offering suggestions or improvements, but letting the producers take it from there in case they have a better idea. By being precise yet flexible, it allows the production team some liberty to continue being creative and not just reactive.
Keep the production process in mind. There are many horror stories about networks asking for substantive changes at fine cut, picture lock, or even after it airs. No matter how many costs are covered — if they’re covered — the requested changes should be commensurate with the time and effort that disrupts the schedule and relationship.
Make early cuts watchable. You’d be surprised how many times a network’s senior manager looks at an early cut and criticizes the scratch track audio or fuzzy video — even when they know it’s temporary. Producers make mistakes by assuming everyone can share their vision even if there are huge portions missing. Here’s a tip: Make your rough cut look like a fine cut. And make your fine cut look perfect. A slick-looking video is less likely to be criticized.
Too many people give too many notes. Often there may be one set from the EP and additional comments from higher-ups. When bosses weigh in with conflicting notes, they undercut their EPs, cause chaos in the production pipeline and quash motivation. Networks should coordinate notes so producers get one set of comments per cut.
Remember that network execs report to bosses. Inside scoops: Some bosses love to see their EPs whipping up on producers — it shows they’re really on top of things. When a program gets to the big boss level, there’s an all-too-familiar response from the underling: “Yes, boss, but you should have seen the rough cut. It was a mess.” Implication: “But I fixed it!” And don’t under estimate fear. The reactions of execs are often all about hedging bets — trying to predict if the boss will like it or at least avoid triggering an outburst, which could get them fired.
At the networks, there’s an enormous amount of pressure to deliver superior programming that meets their goals and standards. At the same time, execs should realize that producers are partners who actually pay your salary. Their shows attract an audience that advertisers or subscribers want, and thus bring in the money that pays you. Without their success, you’d be working at Target. And without the network’s success, those producers would be working there, too.
Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.
This column first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of realscreen magazine.