TV shows take extra time for creative process

Writers, cast, crew able to refine episodes

Looking back, Jack Bender feels bad about how the smoke monster killed Mr. Eko.

It’s not that Bender, the “Lost” helmer who directed the fatal encounter, wishes he’d kept Eko alive. If he had it to do over again, he’d just show less of the monster.

“Occasionally you look back on an episode, and you say that ‘That was the best choice in post that we could have made at the time,’ ” Bender says. “There have been certain choices that we’ve been forced to make because of the nature of scheduling.”

But a growing number of shows are avoiding those creative crunches — at least in the first half of the season — thanks to longer hiatuses and later season premieres.

The delayed launches of show like “The Sopranos” and “24” have proved that auds are willing to wait awhile longer to see the shows they crave, so more and more series, including “Lost,” are taking extra time at the start.

Those long lead times are a side effect of the death of the primetime repeat.

The traditional 22 episode/September launch sked needed reruns during the season to let production catch up — and to let the writers, cast and crew catch their breaths.

In recent seasons, though, auds have been wandering off, sometimes never to return, when a show goes into repeats during its season run. That, along with record low Nielsens for repeats, has the nets embracing the idea of running an entire 22-episode season straight through, with no breaks.

But that means building in time to bank plenty of episodes beforehand. Hence the midseason returns of “24” and “Lost.”

That business-driven decision helps out directors, especially early in the season, “24” helmer Brad Turner explains.

“We can spend a lot more time refining our first premiere episodes, getting them exactly the way we want them,” Turner says.

In the TV biz, there’s a conventional wisdom that the first half of a TV season — when stories are fresh, the writers aren’t burned out and production is still on schedule — is frequently better than the second half of the season (at least, until the last few segs, when everyone’s trying to make sure a pickup is assured).

For series that don’t even bow until midseason, that gives producers and directors even more time to hone the first few segs, through reshoots, extra post-production or other luxuries that are less available late in the season.

In the case of “24,” it’s paid off in Emmy noms. Out of 35 episodes that have been nominated for “24,” more than half — 18 — are from the first half of the season, while nine more were either a finale episode or close to it.

Of its three directing noms, two were for season openers, including the original pilot, and the third was for the second episode of the season.

That fits with the conventional wisdom that the best TV happens in the first half of a skein’s season, when everyone’s fresh, and at the very end of the season, when everyone runs on adrenaline in the run-up to the finale.

“As you get close to the end of the season, there’s less and less time for everyone,” Bender says.

Emmy contenders from the networks have long complained that HBO shows have an unfair advantage in some Emmy races because they’re not under the same time and money pressures as network shows.

Indeed, “The Sopranos” benefited over its last several seasons when the show’s seasonal premiere moved back.

Bender, who’s also a “Sopranos” alum, says the mob drama went from its normal eight- to 10-day shooting schedule for each episode to 12-15 days as HBO allowed the show to move its preem later and later in the season.

“There was never any pressure, because of what the show did for HBO,” he says. “Whatever the episode took, that’s how long it took. … Network TV is very different than that.”

In contrast, on previous seasons of “Lost,” Bender and company found themselves racing to keep up with on-air deadlines. Each episode shoots over 10 days and there isn’t much room for prep.

“As you get close to the end of the season, there’s less and less time for everyone,” he says. “By our season finale this year, we prepped that one really fast — and that was a two-hour episode.”

Hence the Mr. Eko scene, in which the character (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is killed by that smoke monster. In hindsight, Bender believes the scene could have been edited to show far less of the monster, leaving more to the imagination (in the vein of the first “Jaws”).

Now, with more time before “Lost” is slated to hit the air, the show’s cast and crew are able to be a little more loose in production early on.

Post-production also gets to breathe a little easier under this schedule.

Producer Michael Robin, whose shows include “Nip/Tuck,” says the roomier schedule avoids the crunches that plague series post when on-air deadlines loom.

“Also,” Robin says, “if something goes wrong and you have to reshoot some scenes, you don’t have to do it in a crisis mode.”

Still, the additional time doesn’t always translate to extra shooting days or prep time in the long run. As much as the longer lead time helps early in the season, there’s still the same number of episodes to be made.

The more relaxed early-season atmosphere quickly dissipates once the shows return to air in midseason — and the race really begins.

“At the end of the schedule it catches up to you,” Turner says. “It’s your friend at the beginning and your enemy at the end. You try to maintain your schedule throughout the whole shooting period, but at the end, you’re back in a normal situation. At the beginning, you’re refining your work. At the end, you’re scrambling to get this on the air. And you don’t have any preemptions to help you out.”

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