The Film Business

What Does a TV Producer Really Do?

The definition of a producer: An idealist, a realist, a practical dreamer, a sophisticated gambler, and a stage-struck child.

– Oscar Hammerstein


Television has affected—and reflected—the culture of global communications for over a half-century. And now, the explosion of new media is demonstrating a similar impact, as it bursts onto the scene with innovative possibilities and real challenges. Even the very word itself, “television,” takes on new meaning. As we enter this extraordinary era of media transition, traditional television programming, viewing habits, advertising models, and delivery systems must inevitably change with the times.

TV and its new media counterparts must be fed, and it’s the producer who feeds them. The producer is central to every aspect of a project—from the wisp of an idea to a tangible piece of work. In theory, a producer has unlimited potential to educate and entertain. But the trade-offs are intensive hours, stressful demands, and myriad responsibilities.

The demands of viewers and the appetites of commerce require a continuing stream of unique programming, or content, for television and new media to survive. This content can range from sitcoms on NBC and TV movies on Lifetime, to internal corporate training videos for IBM, or segments for CNN cable news; from one-minute “webisodes” for mobile devices, or an intricate video game, to 24/7 content for online channels—regardless of the delivery system, each of these content formats has a producer in charge. The producer must satisfy both the client and the viewer, and utilize the talents of the cast and crew, manage the budget, possibly write the script, and master dozens of skill sets.

A producer’s job description combines art with craft, commerce with technology, and leadership with collaboration. There is arguably a producer’s personality and mind-set that comes with the territory; some people who want to be producers are naturals; others may simply not be right for the job. So, whether you become a producer, or work with producers, or simply want to adopt a valuable producer’s skill set, you can start by exploring the many layers of responsibility and creativity involved in producing.

I love bringing talented people together. There’s no greater feeling than standing on a shoot, sitting in an edit, or watching the final product on TV, knowing that you as the producer pulled together an incredible, hardworking group of people to create something.

– Justin Wilkes: Executive Producer/Producer, TV series, features, and documentaries (including Iconoclasts; Jay-Z in Fade To Black; The Exonerated )

An effective producer is a multitasker, regardless of the content or its delivery system. A producer might not only research, write, and produce a program or segment, but might also shoot it, edit the footage on a desktop system, mix the audio, design and add graphics, or write and record narration or voice-over. The increasing availability and low cost of equipment, along with decreasing budgets, make these skills both valuable and necessary to the producer.

A producer’s talents cover a broad spectrum—from creative to technological, from the first hint of an idea to its final broadcast, from finding finances to marketing.

Producers are risk takers, who seize an idea, run with it, and convince others to follow them.

Gorham Kindem, The Moving Image


I’m a producer. I do whatever is necessary to turn an idea into a finished product. That means at different times I’ve been a salesman, director, film editor, casting director, creative consultant. I’ve even driven the bus.

– David L. Wolper, Producer: A Memoir

Without a producer, there is no project. The producer propels the project from an unformed idea to final broadcast or download. He can nurture the project from conception to distribution and might also be the writer, director, and/or the source of the financing. At various stages of production, he may bring in other producers who can help in handling the hundreds of details that need supervision or polish.

The producer is usually the first one on a project and the last one off. She is essentially the overall project supervisor. She gets the project off the ground, and then supervises every step of its development and production. Not every producer originates the idea; often, a producer is hired to work with a network or production company after an idea has been created and sold. Some producers do it all themselves, others are part of a producing team. It’s work that’s exciting and exhausting.

The job of a producer of television and new media is different from a film producer’s job. Conventional wisdom defines feature films as the director’s domain, theater to be the realm of the actor, and TV as the domain of the producer. In most cases, the feature-film producer acts as the liaison between the studio and the production, providing a support system for the film’s director: increasingly, producers shepherd their own scripts or projects, hiring the director and cast, and overseeing the film’s integrity, production value, and marketing.

In television and new media, the producer is the governing force who often doubles as the director, unless the project is heavily actor-oriented, like network episodics, sitcoms, and drama. The producer usually hires and fires the director, writers, key department heads, actors and other talent, crew, and anyone else needed to bring the project to life. The director in television generally makes more of a technical contribution, working with the talent and crew on blocking and lighting and rehearsing lines, or is in the control room, making camera decisions on a live or prerecorded show. But it is the producer who makes the final decisions; the buck stops there.

I carried my tape recorder with me everywhere as a kid. I had this odd fascination with recording things and playing them back. I taped everything. As I got into school, I brought my video camera to school. It was this odd fascination with wanting to play things back for some reason. By the time I was old enough to try and figure out what I was supposed to do for a living, all I really knew was I wanted to continue this process of recording something and making it into something.

– Matt Lombardi: Producer, CBS Evening News

Who and What Makes a Good Producer?

These digital cameras now? People can make a show—make a movie. That’s what I like. The industry is just so hard to get into, you know, unless you have a lot of money. Now, people that have an idea of some kind of media that they want to share can put things on YouTube—the sky’s the limit now. It’s wide open for people to be as creative as they can possibly be.

– Sheila Possner Emery, Producer, The Dog Whisperer

If you’re eager to meet challenges and can multitask and handle a steady stream of demands and questions, if you are slightly type A or obsessive–compulsive and like to run a tight ship while still having fun, you have the makings of a good producer. Combine those qualities with creativity and flexibility, an openness to new ideas and information, a genuine respect for all kinds of people, and an ethical and profitable approach to business—if this all sounds like your personality, you could wake up each day excited to go to work as a producer.

The majority of working producers truly enjoy their job. They like its random nature, and welcome the challenges. The job fits their personality. Some producers are calmer or nicer or more organized than others; some act badly, others can inspire.

A good producer:

Is a problem-solver. A producer anticipates what’s needed, and solves problems rather than creates them. He’s smart and plays fair. He’s a nurturer, an arbitrator, can be both a leader and a team player. He’s a risk taker with contingencies for any predictable scenario—he has a plan A, plan B, and even a plan C.

Is the master of multitasking. Whether the project is a low-budget documentary or an expensive weekly drama, the producer balances dozens of tasks at once. She might be an entrepreneurial executive producer who secures the financing and makes deals, or a producer commissioned by the executive producer to work on aspects of the project, such as segments, post-production, music, and so on. She might also be working in several stages of production at once.

Is an intermediary. The producer who’s wise enough to be on set regularly (even though he may not be needed) becomes the point person for the director, the Director of Photography (DP), the actors, and the crew members who rely on his leadership. The producer balances the needs of the network or client with the needs of the talent and cast.

Wants to know everything. A good story and useful information are both at the core of a producer’s craft. The world of producing changes daily so the producer researches everything at her disposal—books and magazines, the industry trade papers, newspapers, the internet, plays, biographies, art and history, and philosophy. She looks for ideas that interest her and that might also appeal to a wide audience. Her goal is to understand where the media industries are going, as well as keep current with what is popular now. She watches TV and explores new media.

Enjoys the process. The producer is comfortable doing business and being creative. He doesn’t need to know how to do everything—like write, direct, edit, create sound design, and light and design sets—but he does know how to hire the best people to do those jobs. He creates a loyal and talented team who can all work toward a common goal—creating a compelling story.

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a producer is a producer is a producer. The needs of each individual job may fluctuate but the skill sets on most jobs are similar. A good producer can produce almost anything—a two-hour documentary, a half-hour sitcom, streaming online video, a 30-second commercial, a mobisode, a corporate image piece, even a music video. The projects may differ in content and length. They may require skills in producing a specific kind of program or content; but the creative, financial, technical, and interpersonal skills required are similar for all producers.

I don’t really think there is a “producer’s personality,” but I think there are many qualities that a good producer should have, if he or she wants to do the job well and also be able to sleep at night. Despite the clichés of what a producer acts like (sharp-dressed, fast-talking, megalomaniacs), I think that honesty is very important. Anything else will eventually come out anyway, so aside from basic ethics, there’s really no point in making things up to cover your bases, or to convince someone of something that isn’t true, just so you can get out of them what you want.

– Michael Bonfiglio, Executive Producer/Producer, nonfiction and documentary (including Metallica: Some Kind of Monster; Iconoclast; Addiction)

Excerpt from Producing for TV and New Media: A Real-World Approach for Producers By Cathrine Kellison, Dustin Morrow and Kacey Morrow, © 2013 Published by Taylor and Francis Group. All rights reserved.

Image by Jenny Downing via Flickr

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