Silicon Valley Producer Alec Berg Explains How Quality Programming Is Profitable

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Answers by Alec Berg, Writer/Producer/Director: Silicon Valley, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, on Quora.

A: The biggest difference a place like HBO and a broadcast network (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) is that HBO is a pay service and the networks are ad-driven. The networks have sponsors they have to keep happy. They need eyeballs to charge the rates they charge. They need to make sure they don't offend anyone. They have to make sure that people aren't using competing products on their shows.
We can do whatever we want. HBO's sole concern is quality. Are their subscribers willing to pay for their service? I think it allows them to take a lot of chances, to swing for the fence on riskier projects, and to be way way way less afraid and less hands on.
A friend of mine did a pilot a few years ago for a broadcast network I won't name called Fox. I went to the first table read to help out. At the read were the writer, the director, about 6 cast members, and fifteen executives. After the read, the executives huddled together in separate group, then all together, then told the writer and the director what changes they were to make. It was a jaw-dropping and sad example of why for the most part network comedies suck. It's scared group think. These umpteen executives can't get out of their own way.
On our show, there are two, at the most three people from the network at a read. Their notes are thoughtful, well presented, and at all times deferential and respectful. We have never been told what to do. It's a conversation.
It's an amazing place to work. And I think the quality of their programming speaks for itself.


A: I think the biggest change is routed in economics. When I started there was really one business model - make 22 or 24 episodes a year, make it to 100 shows and sell into syndication. There were four networks (well, 3 1/2, Fox was still paying half-price for scripts because they were claiming they were a mini-network.) Networks weren't allowed to own the shows they aired, so there were dozens of independent production companies (CastleRock, MTM, etc) that were making shows at a deficit, essentially renting them to networks to air, then selling them to independent stations in syndication. The giant pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was syndication, but if you didn't make it, you lost money.
But since then, the "fin-syn" rules on ownership have been relaxed, and the explosion in digital platforms has resulted in an increased ability to sell shows with less total episodes in more places, so shows like the one I do can make 10 episodes a year and actually be profitable. Subscription services need to sell the shows as worth the price, rather than just selling ad time. People care a little less about how many total viewers you get, and a little more about how passionate your viewers are. The result is that there is less emphasis on quantity and more emphasis on quality. Better actors are interested in TV now, because doing a season of a show takes 3 months instead of 9 or ten. They can still do movies.
I think as a result TV shows are better than ever.


A: We always laugh about how many similarities there are.
Creating a pitch for a TV series is like creating a business plan. Pitching to networks is like pitching VCs, you're asking for seed money to create your minimum viable product (a pilot). If that works you go back and ask for your Series A (season one) Series B (season two) etc, until you're either acquired or go public (syndication.)

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