Death of Economical Writing?

For those who don’t know, I’m supposed to be in England this week, getting ready to watch the ICC World Twenty20 Final on Sunday, but I’m not and therefore I’m in a grumpy mood, so rather than take it out on England’s mostly rubbish performance (Seriously, they lost a cricket match to the Netherlands?) I’m going to continue to pick on Primeval for a while.

ITV, the people who commission and broadcast Primeval, are loosing money. Ad revenues are down, and Primeval is an expensive show, even though its ratings are good enough to deserve a renewal. ITV has decided to concentrate on “post watershed programming”.

For Americans who read my blog, the watershed is a curiously quaint British television concept. Before the watershed is time for family programming – cute furry animals, Doctor Who and lots and lots of gardening shows. After the watershed, which I believe starts precisely at 8:23PM each night, they are allowed to talk dirty and show naked women’s breasts in the shower with water erotically cascading off their nipples. (Hence the origin of the term, “watershed”.)

(In America we solved this problem by evolving a television industry that never makes any program than anyone would ever want to watch.)

If ITV wants to concentrate on post-watershed programming we can conclude one of two things. People are more likely to be home and watching TV later at night, or more people like to watch women in showers. (You can decide that one.)

Primeval, being pre-watershed, doesn’t make was much money as ITV would like. They could solve this problem in one of three ways (or a combination of all three.)

  • They could have kept Jenny (and/or Claudia) and write in plot devices that would involve herself taking more showers, thereby forcing a move to post-watershed scheduling.
  • They could write high-quality and compelling scripts to increase viewership.
  • They could learn to write economically.

I’m going to address the later, because the other two are self-evident and before anybody says, “You’re not a scriptwriter, you don’t know what you’re talking about”, I’ll just interject the disclaimer, nope, I’m not a professional scriptwriter, but I have studied the craft of scriptwriting and I’m paraphrasing the words of people who do know what they’re talking about.

Writing is an art. Scriptwriting is a craft. This is because scriptwriting is a part of an overall production, be it stage, radio, TV or movies. If the script is not produced, it is a failed script. Part of being able to write a produceable script is to understand the limitations of the target medium and write accordingly.

Prolific scriptwriters learn this and turn in scripts that producers read and say, “I can make this on my budget.” Producers, in turn, remember this and come back to those same writers for more work.

Part of the writing process is for the author to take a critical look at each and ever scene of his/her own script and ask if it really advances the plot, and, even if it does, will it be difficult to produce. When a producer receives that script, he’ll do the same thing – or he ought to.

I contend that the writers of Primeval could easily produce a few episodes (not back to back) which did not have an incursion by an expensive CGI creature from the past or future, or even an open anomaly. They had a ensemble cast and an overarching mystery. Time could have been spent on those issues. An episode of Primeval without an anomaly should be much easier than an episode of Doctor Who without the Doctor – and the Who production team pulled that off with varying degrees of success.

In one episode of Primeval, they appeared to cut cost corners by not showing the anomaly being locked and unlocked, despite the fact that it made for an awkward scene without the visual. Yet repeatedly, they waste their FX budget on Conner and Abby’s adopted prehistoric animals, which virtually never advanced the plot in any meaningful way. If they needed a pet for comic relief, get a dog. They’re much cheaper.

I’m not saying that a program like Primeval doesn’t require expensive FX. It does. It simply wouldn’t work without the credible threat of time-traveling creatures, but the judicious use of them could have helped save the show from extinction.

2 thoughts on “Death of Economical Writing?”

  1. First glance at this post’s title and I thought you meant economical with words. As exemplified by Tony Jordan, who described on Charlie Brooker’s excellent writers’ Screenwipe of removing from his dialogue one word at a time, until it ceased to make sense. Then putting the last word back.

    The thing is, I think the writers on Primeval were pretty decent writers. It was the story editors, producers, show-runners that made the mistakes.

    You’re right about economies, though. Many of the shows I love were kept to their budget through the power of suggestion. I remember how one of the directors who worked on The Avengers recollected in a documentary creating a set in bank simply by shooting through some bars representing the tellers’. Where are the expensive sets in Ultraviolet? On the other hand, you can tell immediately where all the money spent on special effects in Torchwood has been saved from (writers, script editing, coherence).

    Interesting etymology for the term “Watershed”! Twenty years ago you’d have had to wait until after midnight for some erotically cascading water. 9pm was just the dividing line between when you were and were not allowed to say bugger.

  2. First glance at this post’s title and I thought you meant economical with words. As exemplified by Tony Jordan, who described on Charlie Brooker’s excellent writers’ Screenwipe of removing from his dialogue one word at a time, until it ceased to make sense. Then putting the last word back.

    The thing is, I think the writers on Primeval were pretty decent writers. It was the story editors, producers, show-runners that made the mistakes.

    You’re right about economies, though. Many of the shows I love were kept to their budget through the power of suggestion. I remember how one of the directors who worked on The Avengers recollected in a documentary creating a set in bank simply by shooting through some bars representing the tellers’. Where are the expensive sets in Ultraviolet? On the other hand, you can tell immediately where all the money spent on special effects in Torchwood has been saved from (writers, script editing, coherence).

    Interesting etymology for the term “Watershed”! Twenty years ago you’d have had to wait until after midnight for some erotically cascading water. 9pm was just the dividing line between when you were and were not allowed to say bugger.

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