10 Things I Learned About Cable Show Production
I Learned These Tips About Cable Show Production While Writing and Shooting My First Pilot.
Cable show production isn’t the same as shooting corporate videos.
Sure, they have a lot in common. Lighting. Cameras. Framing shots.
But I had spent most of my career in advertising. All of my projects had been relatively small—web videos, mini documentaries and YouTube content. I had never even thought about large-scale cable show production.
That is, until one of my clients called, wanting me to shoot a pilot.
Cable Show Production
For months, we talked about the concept of the show, trying to focus on a core idea. At the same time, I started talking to friends and show runners, asking questions about formats and equipment.
The good news: most shows are shot on cameras much like mine.
Then, after interviewing several potential cable show hosts, planning the production, and writing the script, I finally felt like I was ready.
We shot the pilot episode in a small town near Asheville—Hendersonville, NC.
Here’s some of the footage:
Of course, this doesn’t include any of the interviews we shot, or footage of the show’s host. It was a lot to plan out and produce, and as you can imagine, I learned a lot during the process.
Here are my Top Ten Tips for Cable Show Production:
1. Develop a Core Concept
Nearly half of the decisions made during production boiled down to “What’s the Big Idea?” It is so easy to veer off course, and shoot interviews and locations that really don’t fit with a show’s core concept.
The worst thing you can do is start shooting now and figure out the concept later, like during the edit.
By developing and focusing on a specific core concept, we were able to find locations, set up interviews, and identify potential B Roll opportunities.
Our pilot, for example, was shot in the North Carolina mountains during peak fall season. That opened the door to shooting stunning nature photography—waterfalls, scenic overlooks and fall colors on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Every location on our production schedule tied in closely with the core concept. It made choosing the right locations and interviews that much easier.
2. Plan Ahead
The next tip is to know what you're going to be shooting before you start. This may sound like common sense, but I had our entire production mapped out weeks before production.
Thanks to Google research and phone conversations, I knew the locations, where they were in proximity to each other, and the best time of day to shoot each one.
Here’s an example. I shot the duck pond the Carl Sandburg National Historic Home at 9:30 a.m.
At that time of day, the sun was low in the sky, casting long beautiful shadows across the fields, and bathing the front of the home in soft, golden light.
Two hours later, the front of the home would have been in shadow, and by afternoon, we’d have been shooting into the sun, getting lens flares.
At another local landmark, we were almost too early. We started day two of the production driving up narrow mountain roads with hair-pin curves, to a remote scenic overlook, only to find heavy fog and clouds. The entire panorama was solid white.
We considered leaving and coming back, or maybe rethinking the scene, all of which would have cost us valuable time. Fortunately, the fog burned away, revealing a breathtaking view. We finally got the shot, but not until it put us an hour behind schedule.
3. Script Out Every Scene
Some people think talk show interviews don’t need a script but that’s only partly true. Interviews don’t have to be scripted, but should be planned out. What’s the main point? What’s the takeaway you want to achieve?
Our first interview in Hendersonville was someone from the Department of Tourism. She could have talked about a dozen different topics, but we focused the conversation on “fun things to do.”
The takeaway we wanted was that Hendersonville is a great place for outdoor activities—which transitions nicely to waterfalls, nature trails, and other scenes on our shot list.
The most important aspect of a script, in cable show production, is the transitions from one segment to another. Every show tells a story, and a script has to move that story along, with logical transitions.
4. Hire Experienced People
On corporate projects, I tend to do everything myself. I run the camera, record the sound, direct the action, and edit the footage.
On a larger production, you can’t do that. There’s no way one person can manage all the details.
That’s why, for the cable show production, I hired a second camera operator as well as a sound guy. That way, all of the interviews ended up being shot from two angles, one wide and one close-up. And I never had to worry about audio quality—the sound guy monitored levels at all times.
That decision paid off on the very first shot.
We were recording sound amid an endless procession of traffic noise—pickup trucks, flat beds, 18 wheelers, and even cement mixers. One trucker even beeped his air horn during a shot.
It took time, but we finally got the shot. Then just to be safe, we recorded those lines of the script in a different, quieter location. All thanks to the sound guy’s advice.
5. Hire Local Crew
Another good bit of advice is to hire local crew when you can. Hiring people who actually live near the location means you can spend less on hotels and mileage reimbursements.
But that’s not all—local crew people also know the area, and can suggest places to shoot and people to contact.
On the Hendersonville shoot, the second camera guy had been to the waterfall location many times before, and suggested which trails to take. He also suggested stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which saved me a lot of time when I was on my own, shooting B Roll.
6. Limit Your Camera Gear
When packing the truck for the production, I included every bit of gear I own—lights, mike stands, tripods, gimbals, jibs and more. But having all that equipment in the truck doesn’t mean you need it at every location.
Being selective about the gear you plan to use for each shot means you can get in and get out with minimal effort.
Here’s a great example—the waterfall location required a half-mile hike over rocks, bridges and trails, so I packed my gear in a fold-up wagon (one of my better equipment purchases).
I only brought the essentials: camera bag, tripod and slider. When shooting B Roll a few days earlier, I went even further along the trail, to the rocks at the base of the waterfall. For that trip I didn’t even bring the wagon—just my camera, a single lens, and a gimbal.
I got the footage I needed, in record time.
7. Minimize Crew Travel
While you need to shoot each shot at the right time of day, you also need to plan the order of those shots, for efficiency’s sake.
In Hendersonville, our first three shots were within blocks of each other, so we were able to avoid driving, parking, loading and unloading gear.
Shooting in a different order would have been much less efficient.
8. Don’t Waste Crew Time
My first instinct as a photographer is to grab shots as I see them. It only takes a few minutes to capture a memorable landmark, or a beautiful nature scene. But when you’re shooting with a crew, that kind of shooting wastes time and resources.
For example, if you’ve hired a sound guy for a day, why keep him standing around while you shoot without sound? You can shoot the B Roll later.
In Hendersonville, I arrived a day before the crew. I spent that day scouting locations, and shooting B Roll on my own. That’s when I shot all the waterfall closeups—I hiked the extra mile to the base of the falls, and got moving gimbal shots along the rocks below.
That saved me an hour, maybe two, on the actual shoot day.
9. Professional Talent is Worth It
Most of the web content I shoot uses real people, not actors. When shooting documentary style projects, I capture people on camera just being themselves, talking about their business or answering questions.
A cable show is very similar. Real people often appear on camera just being themselves. They’re the ones being interviewed by the host. The host, however, needs to be a pro—someone who can carry a conversation, as well as deliver scripted lines on camera.
In Hendersonville, I worked with Sasha Rionda, an experienced interviewer and TV host on E! Entertainment and CNN. She did an amazing job, and I hope to work with her again when we sell the show.
10. Save $$ for Post Production
Before starting this adventure, I talked to several show producers and experienced crew people. Every one of them told me one of the most common mistakes in developing a show is blowing the budget during production and not saving enough for later.
Everyone budgets for equipment rentals, crew salaries, travel costs and talent fees, but too many people forget about what comes later. Graphic design, video editing, music fees, color correction, audio mixing—those are just a few of the necessities that go into finishing a cable show pilot. And they all come with their own price tag.
I’m just starting the edit on the Hendersonville project, so chances are I’ll be learning additional lessons in the near future. If that happens, or if we manage to sell the show, you’ll be able to read about it in future blog posts.
About the Author:
Harry Hayes is the owner and executive producer at Content Puppy Productions, a corporate video production agency based in Charlotte. Before starting Content Puppy, he spent 20+ years as an advertising writer and creative director.