It is pretty daunting to look at the TV landscape and the people who are already involved with scoring for television and ask yourself: How in the hell am I ever going to get a shot? So many shows are in production, not to mention the fact that television is not just about the “regular season” anymore — it’s about a fragmented “season” that now runs year-round. The big networks are now starting to show the signs of a marathon runner trying desperately to keep up with the young bucks that are also on the course. These “youngins” are starting to become directly responsible for some of the best drama and comedy on television, with second and third-tier premium cable leading the pack with content that cannot be shown in a regular primetime slot.
With all of these variables at play in the current TV landscape, and given the fact that most people would still rather recline in the comfort of their own living room than brave cellphones, babies, and teenagers with laser pointers in a theater setting, TV is 2.0 these days.
As a film composer, you might be wondering how to tap into this luxurious stream, and how to start looking for TV gigs today in the crowded river of television composers?
Well… Not so fast. TV is pretty different from what you might be used to.
#1) TV is not film.
Scoring for television is nothing like scoring for film. Not in the least bit. There are some similarities, but not many. First, the schedules on television shows are insane. The hours you have to put in are completely inhumane. A typical season might stretch from September to May, literally with no break, and your weekly schedule often doesn’t allow for any downtime during score production. If you are used to hanging out with your family on weekends, keeping your composing time as “banker’s hours” during the week, you probably aren’t cut out for television. The truth hurts.
#2) TV is not cheap.
Television is very transparent. Because of the shorter runtimes that TV shows naturally have to cater to, music is often looked at to carry more of the story than it would during a 90-minute film. In addition, HD and digital cable have upped the ante in regards to audio resolution, and now, even people with hearing issues can hear their favorite shows – and everything in them – better than they’ve ever have been able to before. Bottomline… your music has to be amazing. Television is no place to cut corners, skimp on audio quality, or rest on your laurels by using a quick and dirty methodology of loops and patches. You have to put time, attention, and detail into it or you are simply eventually going to get that call that nobody ever wants to get.
#3) TV is not for egomaniacs.
Most of us are probably not at this level yet, but with film there comes a certain level of opinionated ego that you can get away with, and frankly, that most producers and directors who are worth their salt will even invite. After all, why would they have hired you in the first place if not for your musical opinion? Conversely, in television, you are rarely working with a director, as their job is finished once principal photography wraps. Instead, you are joined at the hip with either the producers or the “showrunner” — that person possibly being anyone that the producers deems responsible enough to handle the show and all of its components. There are bound to be lots of changes, suggestions, requests, demands, and mandates from the showrunner, because they are responsible to the studio to bring quality and consistency week after week. The pressure is really on them, therefore everyone on their team must perform at an optimum level. There is no room for you to allow your feelings to be hurt over someone on the creative team demanding that you make a change or rewrite a cue to fit the scene differently than you had first interpreted. The time constraints often do not allow for any other communication style other than directness, and you must have the kind of thick skin that can tolerate that.
#4) TV is not for the uneducated.
This last point is two-fold. The first part is appropriate for everyone working in TV or film, but I’ll relate it to TV in this way: If you want to work in television, you have to know what works in television. If you have no idea what has come before you, how can you compete? A case could be made that you can be more original and have a fresher perspective if you are naive to what has been done before, therefore possessing zero knowledge of the limitations imposed by history. However, in television, some things just do not work. Again, often because of the medium, if you think like a film composer while scoring a TV show, you are going to get yourself into some serious trouble at some point. Very often, motifs and themes that you would develop over time on a film will not work on a TV show because again… there isn’t enough time. Similarly, since you are working within an episodic framework, you have to remember that you are relatively blind to what is coming from week to week. Therefore, your anticipatory skills need to be razor sharp. I’m probably not being clear enough here, but there are just certain “rules” by which TV works. Breaking them is certain death, and any showrunner will agree.
The second part of my point here is that when I say “you cannot be uneducated if you want to work in TV”, I mean that you… wait for it… need to watch TV! If you aren’t a fan of TV or if you are one of those who hasn’t seen a dramatic television show since the 1960′s, forget it. You + TV writing = FAIL. Period. TV is a medium that has captivated audiences since 1929, so it has had a lot of practice at getting certain things right. If you do not watch TV, then you do not know what works on TV. TV has changed over the years, and you have to keep up on trends, current sounds, dramatic chops, just like film or video games or any other medium that you might want to write for. Not everyone can cut the mustard in television. Many people try, and many people die. Be a fan, get on the bus, and start studying. There is no other way. Learn by immersion.
What’s the Point?
I want to end this by telling you that my experience with all this is highly subjective. I have never scored a TV show in my life. On the other hand, I have been on teams that have scored plenty. I’ve written additional music for TV and have had my music placed in dozens of primetime TV shows. I’ve seen it done over and over and over and over again as an assistant to several great TV writers. I’ve watched and I’ve learned so that when the time comes for me, I can have somewhat of an idea of what I should be doing. I know I’ll still be scared to death, but I will have the procedure down in a way that maybe others haven’t had the chance to observe. I hope that you get the same out of my little diatribe here.
Talk to me, SCOREcast! Let me know in the COMMENTS what you are thinking about this. Are you scared of TV? Are you excited to write for this medium? What about television seems foggy or unsure to you as you contemplate launching in? Let’s talk it out!