Musings on secret preview TV viewing versus feedback reading

I’ve done my fair share of reading and providing feedback on short stories and novels over the years. It’s much easier to be objective and analytical about someone else’s work — all in the name of being constructive and helpful, of course.

In such cases you know the author will take onboard some suggestions, discard others, depending on how it aligns with their grand vision or whether there’s consensus. Because everyone is unique, responds to stories differently.

What is clear to one reader will be confusing to another. Plot holes may only be glaringly obvious to a tenth of your audience (although a tenth is probably still too many). Some readers will happily go the journey and trust something will be explained; others have less patience.

Whatever happens, it’s up to the author to revise and play with the words on the page. No one else needs to get involved.

It was recently impressed upon me that it’s not quite so ‘straightforward’ in television and film.

This week I attended a secret preview screening of a new Australian TV mini-series that’s in post production, scheduled to hit local screens later this year. Having signed a non disclosure agreement, I cannot say anything about the show itself. But I can talk about the interesting experience of providing feedback in this very different medium.

The production team had assembled a small group of about 15 people (referred to as ‘civilians’, by which I think they meant non TV industry) and sat us down to watch the first two episodes of a six-part series.

After each episode, we filled out a questionnaire on issues such as pacing, characters, logic, clarity of plot etc. Most of it was exactly the same sort of feedback authors ask for. I was right in my element!

Except, as I filled out my answers, I couldn’t help feeling perturbed by the fact that the scenes had already been shot, with actors. Going through my mind was the recurring question of how much they could actually change at this point?

They emphasised that it wasn’t a final edit, and I’m aware there’s probably tons of footage currently on the cutting room floor. But… what if it’s a story hole and there’s simply no way of fixing it without reshooting some scenes? Or what if it’s just bad acting?

I should say at this point that these thoughts were hypothetical about the industry, rather than specific to the particular show in question. But I certainly wasn’t holding back with my comments (which were mostly positive) or hesitating to make suggestions, just as I would if it were simply words on the page.

Following the questionnaires, an objective facilitator led us in a group discussion for about half an hour, which went much as a group critique of a story does — different people picking up things I hadn’t noticed, or didn’t necessarily agree with. Debating what things meant, what might happen next. All very familiar.

But when you get a group going like that, it’s inevitable they end up ‘rewriting the script’ so to speak (as one participant jokingly said). How do the producers weed out the real value from this type of feedback, when so much of it is obviously not feasible? How do they identify the gold?

I will be really interested to see the final cut of the show when it’s aired later this year, just to see how much it changes. To see how much it can change at such a late phase of production.

The whole experience has given me a new appreciation of the TV and film industry — as in just how many people have an input into the final product. How many instruments need to be tuned before music is made.

It makes the solitary art of fiction writing seem unbearably simple. Although I know it’s NOT — and this is because the author has to effectively play and tune all the instruments herself!

In any case, I’m certainly interested to see the rest of the show… a mere two episodes out of six, kind of sucks.

4 comments

  1. I definitely wouldn’t know how it works in the Australian TV industry, but at least in American movies, I’ve heard that focus groups can result in changes to the final product. I don’t know if anything to be could to fix instances of bad acting unless they have multiple takes laying around, but I seem to recall hearing stories about filmmakers sometimes shooting new footage in order to fix stuff that tested really poorly.

    But ultimately I have no idea how that stuff works 🙂 Sounds like a neat experience for you.

    Liked by 1 person

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