You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Fast-tracked sitcom may be way of future

'Anger Management' follows 10-90 cable pattern

Bruce Helford has produced a whole lot of television in his 30 years in the primetime trenches.

He shepherded nearly 100 episodes in the 2000-01 season alone when his Mohawk Prods. banner had four series on the air: ABC’s “The Drew Carey Show” and “Norm” and the WB’s “Nikki” and “The Oblongs.” But Helford had never endured a production marathon quite like the one he ran in spring when he was tasked with transforming “Anger Management” from a movie title into a comedy comeback vehicle for Charlie Sheen.

In so doing, Helford believes he has seen the future of TV development and production, at least for some shows. Produced by Lionsgate TV, “Anger Management,” which bows Thursday on FX, is part of the Debmar-Mercury stable of so-called 10-90 sitcoms produced on an accelerated timetable designed to get the distributor and profit participants to the promised land of syndication more quickly than a traditional series.

The model calls for a test run of 10 episodes on a cabler, and if those episodes hit pre-determined ratings targets, the cabler is obligated to pick up 90 more to be produced over two years. That allows Debmar-Mercury to then sell the off-network rights to local stations, which means the show (in success) is churning out profits barely two years after its premiere.

This innovative approach, first blazed by Tyler Perry’s TBS/Debmar-Mercury sitcoms, leaves showrunners no margin for screwups, reshoots or unplanned hiatuses to rethink story arcs. The point of shooting fast on a cable-lean budget is to better amortize production costs. The cost-consciousness begins by diving in to 10 episodes rather than a single pilot. Helford calls the process “backwards” — but he means it in a good way.

“Normally, for a pilot, I write a script and it goes through the notes process. And then we cast it and have all this luxurious time to rehearse and prepare,” Helford says. “This was the opposite — I was simultaneously writing scripts, casting and hiring a writing staff because everything had to get up and running so quickly.”

Helford developed his own rhythm for producing the initial batch of 10 episodes, with most segs being prepped and shot over two days, compared to a five-day sked for a typical network sitcom. For about six weeks in March and April, on a soundstage in the hinterlands of Sunland (about 11 miles north of Sheen’s old “Two and a Half Men” stage on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank), the “Anger Management” troupe worked Monday and Tuesday, took Wednesday off and came back for another episode on Thursday and Friday. Perry’s shows at times have turned out three episodes a week, but Helford felt that was simply “too heavy” for actors who were still finding their way with new characters. The famously volatile Sheen thrived on the accelerated work sked, Helford assures. “He’s been nothing but an incredible gentleman and supportive of everyone,” he says.

For writers, there are definite upsides to diving in to 10 episodes as opposed to focusing for months on a pilot.

“You know you have 10 episodes, so you’re not trying to stuff everything into a pilot to get it to test well,” Helford says. “And you really have to go on your gut instincts. You don’t have the time to overthink things, and the actors don’t have the time to get tired of the material. That gives it an honest spontaneity that you don’t always see in sitcoms.”

As tough as it is on the creatives, the 10-90 format requires adjustment on the part of network and studio execs too, Helford observes.

“They can’t have as much of a hand in the process,” he says. “If this show is a success, it will change things for everybody. Financially it makes more sense for everybody. Giving creators more autonomy can only be a good thing — as long as (execs) trust that left to our own devices we won’t go crazy.”

Before signing on to “Anger Management,” Helford had taken a three-year break from showrunning, his first extended time off since his career took off in the 1980s. In 2008 he’d worked with Bernie Mac on a Fox pilot, and the comedian’s death that August had a big wakeup-call impact on Helford.

“My kids were getting ready to go to college and I really wanted to spend more time with them,” he said. “When I came back, I was so energized that when (Lionsgate) said, ‘How do you feel about doing 100 episodes in two years,’ I said, ‘Sounds good.'”

More Voices

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    WGA, Agents Face Tough Issues on New Franchise Pact (Column)

    The Writers Guild of America and the major talent agencies are seven weeks away from a deadline that could force film and TV writers to choose between their agents and their union. This is a battle that has been brewing for a year but few in the industry saw coming until a few weeks ago. [...]

  • FX Confronts Streaming Thanks to Disney

    Kicking and Screaming, FX Is Forced to Confront Future in the Stream (Column)

    During his network’s presentation at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour, FX chief John Landgraf made waves — and headlines — by mounting perhaps his most direct criticism yet of Netflix. Landgraf, whose briefings to the press tend to rely heavily on data about the volume of shows with which FX’s competitors flood the [...]

  • Longtime TV Editor Recalls Working for

    How a Bad Director Can Spoil the Show (Guest Column)

    I have been blessed with editing some of TV’s greatest shows, working with some of the industry’s greatest minds. “The Wonder Years,” “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “Scrubs,” “Pushing Daisies” and, most recently, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” I have earned an Emmy, ACE Eddie Awards, and many nominations. But whatever kudos I’ve received, over my [...]

  • Stock market Stock buyback

    Stock Buybacks Leave Firms Without Funds to Invest in Future (Column)

    Corporate giants on the S&P 500 have spent more than $720 billion during the past year on stock buybacks. Media and entertainment firms account for only a fraction of that spending, but even $1 million spent on share repurchases seems a foolhardy expenditure at this transformational moment for the industry. The record level of spending [...]

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content