In part two of an exclusive, three-part interview with The Savvy Screener, Hand of God executive producer/showrunner Ben Watkins compares creating original content for a streaming service versus a basic cable network. The second and final season of Hand of God premieres this Friday, March 10, on Amazon Prime.
TSS: What was it like doing a series for an ad-free streaming service vs. doing one for basic cable?
Watkins: There are some obvious differences. For example, in Burn Notice [on USA Network] we made a lot more episodes and we were writing simultaneous with production. So, we had a chance to adjust course and change emphasis based on things we saw in production or feedback from the viewers. For example, an actor we cast as a one-off guest star might be fantastic and we could easily make them recurring. Or a story line we planned to be minor might really pop with the audience, and we could adjust upcoming episodes to really cash in on it. When you write short order, the scripts are usually stockpiled more and you have less episodes, so less opportunity to tweak.
Doing fewer episodes gives you the advantage of being more selective in terms of what you want to do with characters and story, and you can spend more time delving deeper into the stories and characters and build anticipation and peel back the layers. I enjoyed doing both.
“Now you see on streaming shows and on a lot of short-order cable shows, some of the tricks that were used in old serialized radio programs and of course the gold standard, daytime dramas.”
One of the biggest differences I have found is the streaming experience. We basically produce all the episodes and send them through post without ever getting feedback from audiences. So, you have a show that will drop all at once. That means you have to really think about how you are ending one episode and starting the next. You want to build momentum that will make the audience keep watching. It’s funny, because now you see on streaming shows and on a lot of short-order cable shows, some of the tricks that were used in old serialized radio programs and of course the gold standard, daytime dramas. Soap operas are the ones who perfected the tricks that were designed to get people tuning in the very next day. Now I see these tricks being used on shows that are considered very high-end and [prestigious]. It doesn’t make me think less of those shows. It actually makes me appreciate soap operas more.
“There is a huge freedom that comes with doing a show for an ad-free streaming service versus an ad-supported cable network.”
There is a huge freedom that comes with doing a show for an ad-free streaming service versus an ad-supported cable network. There are different standards when it comes to creative content and how far you can go with it. I’m talking about things like nudity and language and subject matter that may be deemed too controversial in basic cable but we were able to do in our show for Amazon. This would be more comparable to some of the premium cable channel experiences. (By the way, I hesitate to use that word premium because I think there is good premium TV at all levels of the video spectrum — from broadcast to basic cable to pay TV services, and of course streaming services like Amazon Prime Video.)
On Amazon, for example, in season one of Hand of God we did an episode where we really explored the power of language and the impact words can have – in a racially charged society. And we used the N-word repeatedly for a very specific purpose — in a way that would not have been allowed on broadcast TV or basic cable. In fact, I think there are even some pay cable outlets that would’ve pushed back on that.
Amazon was very nervous about it but ultimately agreed to let me do it, after hearing the reasons and then seeing the product. It made everyone very uncomfortable and raised some very tough questions for everyone involved — from the writing staff to the crew to the cast and the audience. But then that was the point, and I am so glad we were able to explore it.
Ron Perlman and Dana Delany in ‘Hand of God’
“One of the things that always stuck with me in working with Amazon was that this was a different landscape to work in than traditional networks. They are experimenting and tinkering with the TV model as we know it. Innovation requires that.”
TSS: What are the benefits and challenges of working for each type of content provider?
Watkins: One of the things that always stuck with me in working with Amazon was that this was a different landscape to work in than traditional networks. They are experimenting and tinkering with the TV model as we know it. Innovation requires that, and these folks are really doing something different, so it’s interesting watching them learn as they go. This is just the natural product of a new studio finding its sea legs.
I remember when we shot the pilot, and I was on the eve of production and still hadn’t gotten an “S and P” (standards and practices) report. This is something I was used to getting from the network for every episode of Burn Notice. It basically lets you know if there’s anything in the script regarding nudity or controversial content or language that cannot be filmed or broadcast according to that network’s standards. Amazon hadn’t really dealt with this or did not have a policy in place, so when I called to say I still haven’t seen the S and P report, the answer was more like, “Oh, we hadn’t thought about that before.” But then the answer coming back was, “Shoot whatever you want for the story.” So, I started off frustrated, but I kind of liked being in an environment that had a little bit of a Wild Wild West to it.
“I think there is good premium TV at all levels of the video spectrum — from broadcast to basic cable to pay TV services, and of course streaming services like Amazon Prime Video.)”
Sometimes that would lead to ingenuity and opportunity, because they would be foolish to try to duplicate what other studios and networks are doing and they were open to other ideas. For example, we were able to shoot on film in season one. There are some studios and networks that would not give us a chance to even make a case for that much less let us do it. And in season two I asked for an extra day of production. And they ultimately approved it. I don’t see those kinds of conversations happening at many other established studios where they stick to the systems they’ve had in place for so long.
(See part one of the Ben Watkins interview for a discussion of season two of Hand of God and part three when Watkins talks about Connoisseur, his new series for USA Network, and shares some of his streaming favorites.)
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