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Dawn of a New Day

Day 5 of the hit Fox television show "24" promises another season of tension and unexpected twists and turns.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

(continued from page 3)

The production schedule is part of the fascination that Hollywood has with the show; when George Lucas started development of a television production unit, the executives asked to visit the set of "24." According to Cassar, two episodes are shot together in a 30-day span. He says preparation for the episodes takes 15 days, which means scouting locations, finalizing the cast, applying for any necessary location permits and, of course, getting the script close to a final version. Then the two episodes are shot, from top to bottom of each script in 15 days. "They may not be edited, but they are in the can," Cassar says. "It's a little like doing 12 mini-movies every season," which is why the production process interests the rest of Hollywood. Brad Turner, the other main director on the show, was involved in shooting his two episodes during the two days of on-set interviews, and wore the look of a man overwhelmed with the enormity of the task; he didn't have time for a sit-down chat.

Raver recalls being asked last fall if she would mind shooting her day's scene straight through, back-to-back. "I said, 'Oh my God, that's like a play,'" Raver says over the phone. "You have to be on your game to do something like that. But it keeps you focused."

Cassar also suggests that the system allows for acting and directing decisions like the one with Raver. "It means you have one director for two episodes, which is very important from a tone point of view," says Cassar. "We have one big story arc, and you have to be constantly aware of everything else that's being shot. From a director's point of view, you have to be very careful because you are dealing with a single '24-hour' period. So how many times can a woman cry in a single day? How many times can a guy get angry? As a director, you have to pay attention to that kind of stuff all the time. And you have to watch the other director's work, too."

Surnow adds that the single-plot concept places an inordinate amount of pressure on the scriptwriters and the actors. "There's a mandate from the studio that you can't have a bad show. You can have a B-minus, but you can't have a D-plus or a C-minus. If you put two of those bad shows together, you lose everybody for the whole season because the audience will say you've lost the story line," Surnow says. "What that means very often is that we have to go back after a shoot and edit it, and say, 'That's not good enough,' and we have to do two more days of shooting. The studio supports that, and most studios won't do that."

Of course, "24's" commercial success helps. No one was willing to go on the record with the show's financials, but according to industry sources, with an approximate $850,000-a-minute rate, the math on the direct ad revenue side is pretty simple. With about eight to eight and a half minutes of network advertising per episode, that translates into $6.8 million to $7.2 million per show, or more than $150 million in revenue from on-air advertising in a season alone. Add in DVD sales, syndication rights and foreign sales, and it's easily conceivable that the Fox Network would give the show's producers some flexibility in creating the best possible shows they can.

Now the challenge revolves around keeping the show fresh. "This will never get to the level of a 'CSI' because it's just not a comfortable show that you come home [to] at the end of the day, and it makes you feel good," says Surnow. "It's an investment...that runs counter to what people have always thought TV should be. I would have loved to know what 'The Sopranos' would have done on a major network. I think they would have bumped up against the same ceiling we did. It's just not for everyone.

"I would be thrilled if we maintained a double-digit rating this year," adds Surnow. "But I also believe it is a format that can sustain itself, like a 'Law & Order' format. We all feel this is a great format. It's new. It cranks up the intensity for an action show, and gives the audience something different. But every year, we ask ourselves those questions: how much more can you do? We don't want to start repeating ourselves."

But for now, Surnow and the other creative minds behind the show are just happy to revel in the success of a hit TV show.

"It's a journeyman's career working in television," says Surnow, still drawing on his cigar. "If this hadn't happened, I would have been happy because I had worked for 20 years. The name of the game is working year in and year out. I'm still of that mind-set. I'm happy to have a job."

Surnow ran down the statistics on how many television shows make it from the concept stage to actually being aired. He estimates that at the beginning of every development season, thousands of ideas are presented to the five major networks, and of those, maybe 200 are green-lighted for development, and about 40 are made into pilots. "At that point, in this business, you've won the game," says Surnow. "You've got $3 or $4 million to make a pilot. Before this, I had written 11 pilots and not one of them went to film." But out of the 40-odd pilots, Surnow says, only about 10 make it to air, and of the 10 or so that debuted five years ago with "24," the only one still being broadcast is "Alias," which is in its final season. "So, it's like winning the lottery," he says.

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