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Down The Tube: A Developer's Guide To Television

Channel Hopping

You may have heard about last weekend's extraordinarily disastrous attempt to film and broadcast a Pepsi-sponsored game jam, called GAME_JAM. At enormous expense (rumours fly of around $400,000), a group of in-indies - the likes of Zoe Quinn, Davey Wreden, and Robin Arnott - and YouTubers were supposed to be taking part in a reality-show-cum-game-jam for four days, to be professionally filmed, edited and broadcast on YouTube. The event didn't make it through the first day before a number of the developers walked off set and refused to return, and everyone involved was upset and pissed off. It didn't make it to day two. For a comprehensive account of what happened, you ought to read Jared Rosen's article on Indie Statik, but the short version is: one of the people in charge was a sexist arsehole, the sponsorship was so ludicrous they weren't allowed to drink anything other than Mountain Dew (not even water), and the atmosphere was miserable beyond anything conducive to making games. It was a massive, hugely expensive, disaster.

In response, we and asked Size Five Games' Dan Marshall to use his experience working in television production to write a guide for developers when it comes to TV. What to look out for, the tricks of the trade, and why it's probably best avoided altogether. We should stress, this is a general guide, and not directly related to those peculiar events in LA.

Hello! You might not know this about me, but before I made silly video games for a living, I helped make largely-dreadful TV programmes for a living.

With TV production budgets shrinking, and video games becoming increasingly popular, it’s only a matter of time before flavour of the month is TV shows about The Indie Scene, Game Jams , the [Your Country] Games Industry, whatever. I am aware that as an ex-TV indie dev, I’m in a unique position to share some of the facts-and-opinions stored up in my brain.

Bear in mind, most of what I ‘know’ is from the British TV industry from about 5 years ago. Most of it is presumably applicable to other countries, but always look into it yourself, thoroughly, find out what’s what.

This is your career we’re talking about. Your career is arguably one of the most important things in your life, so I want to argue that you probably don’t want to be gambling it on the say-so of someone whose job it is to make interesting television.

For minor TV roles, we’d normally get “contributors”, as you’re all called, to sign a Release Form. Some productions require one for anyone who is on camera, others will stick up signs saying, “This event is being recorded, if you don’t want to appear on TV, talk to a member of Production.” You absolutely must do that, if you’re at an Expo and don’t want to be shown picking your nose in the background on someone’s 52” HD screen, in 3D.

The Release Form is a handy and relatively-harmless bit of paper that’s only about a page long, and tends to be written in relatively comprehensible English. READ IT. It basically says, “We can do whatever we like with the footage for [£1], which you agree to having received,” (upon signing, some people ask for their £1, but 99% don’t). The pound is a token fee, presumably because there has to be something for it to be legally enforceable. Without the £1 it would not be a valid contract and may not be able to be relied upon. The TV people will have been told by their lawyers to get this signed and will make statements in their agreements based on the fact that these are all signed and correct.

Regardless, the Release Form is largely to cover The TV Guys after-the-fact against you saying, “HEY I was in your TV programme in the background, I want £15,000 for my appearance,” and also so they have free reign to use the footage they got as they see fit. In most cases, where you’re just doing small bits-and-pieces, or in the background, that’s not really ever going to be as sinister as it sounds. Once signed, The Release Form will generally go in a cupboard, forgotten about, unless you call the TV people with reason for them to go scrabbling about looking for it in a panic. It’s genuinely not really a thing to get excited about.

If you’re doing anything that involves an actual contract, I’ll say it again: this is your career. Your public and professional image. Imagine going to GDC and everyone knowing you not by your games but because you’re “That guy from that thing and oh my God wasn’t he awful?”.

It might seem like it’ll be a bit of fun, but if there’s a whole production around it and contracts flying around, it’s serious business to someone, somewhere. Someone wants to get as much mileage out of you as they can, for as little hard cash as possible. It is absolutely worth your time to have a quick chat with the likes of Alex Tutty [other lawyers are available, but he’s rather good – RPS Legal Ed], to make 100% sure you know what is required from you by that contract.

Look at it this way: from experience, if I were doing a small TV thing and a Release Form was put in my hands, I’d read it, sign it and forget about it. If they wanted a contract signing, I’d drop the whole thing and walk away.

If I desperately wanted to do it, I’d talk to a lawyer and be fully prepared to drop the whole thing every step of the way. What we’re talking about here is the right of the TV people to be able to cut and edit the footage how they want and you not having any say (or right of review and edit).

That old adage of, “They can take enough footage and cut it together to make someone out to be whatever they want,” is a bit of a myth. You can’t take a weekend’s footage of someone who has just been genuinely lovely and friendly and make them out to be Queen Arsehole of the Show with a couple of crafty shots of them about to sneeze so they look angry. Maybe if you’re filming 24/7 for three weeks, but certainly not for the smaller productions you’re likely to be involved in. Bear in mind with voice over, though, you can do what you like. Couple of shots of you working and someone talking over the top about how “certain people aren’t pulling their weight” and it doesn’t matter if it was you they’re talking about or not, the deed is done.

That said, it’s worth noting that American contracts tend to have a standard clause in there saying something along the lines of, “We can make up any story we like about you.” It’s a standardised thing, but talk to a lawyer. I did some work on a UK-US crossover show, and the US contract went round the office email like wildfire. Jaws dropped; we couldn’t believe how audacious it was. We couldn’t believe anyone would sign it. The same type of contracts do exist in the UK but they are not used that often. I'm sure if you think about it you can think of the obvious candidates for this with people who are desperate to be on TV and be famous and so don't challenge these agreements.

It should be said that most people working in TV are brillo, and just want to make fun, interesting TV in the same way that you just want to make fun, interesting games. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the lovely fresh-faced Researcher you’ve been dealing with is calling the shots.

TV doesn’t work like games. Imagine if after every Half-Life game, Valve—ok, bad example. Imagine if Valve EVER MADE HALF-LIFE GAMES ANY MORE and after every game the entire development team split up and went to find jobs at different companies. That’s what TV is like. Executive Producers (which is a term with significantly more oomph in the UK than US, by the way) tend to stick around, but everyone else will work on different shows, for different companies, in different parts of the city they live in.

The point of this is that people are working on a show for maybe 4-8 weeks, and then they’re done with it. They move on, have a little holiday, and start production on something else. Most of the Production Team will do the filming, and then the editing and post-production is way out of their hands. So if you think the public-facing people are going to be around after filming stops, think again. The people you forged a genuine, friendly bond with during filming are, in most cases, going to have absolutely nothing to do with how it’s cut together. The people in charge now, I hate to say it, are complete strangers and generally couldn’t give two hoots about you. They’ve got a TV show to edit together.

They’ve got to make a load of footage about geeks sitting in front of computers into compelling into engaging TV for which ordinary people will sit through adverts.

Let’s talk about how it’s cut together! Editing is REALLY EXPENSIVE. Some productions will pick their contributors based on who’ll be entertaining on TV, then write a script based on those “characters”, and then do the shoot. That’s right, script comes first. That’s because it’s much easier to manipulate people into doing what’s on the script and edit it down afterwards, than it is to shoot a shit-ton of footage and then try to wrangle some sort of story out of it.

‘Manipulate’ is a strong word, but that's what it is. "Now we need to do this shot. Now we need to get an interview with you about this. Now it's time for This Part of the process". Reality, by which I mean how things actually progress naturally, doesn't really need to ever enter into it.

Oh, there’s so much more I could write. If you have questions or concerns about anything, or want to hear more, absolutely please do pester me @danthat or email dan@sizefivegames.com, I’d be delighted to offer any advice.

Look, just be really really fucking careful.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.