It’s all about the snow plow: wrapping up NSI Lifestyle Series Producer bootcamp


NSI program manager Brandice Vivier has been keeping us up to date on the NSI Lifestyle Series Producer bootcamp taking place in Toronto this week. Check out  day oneday twoday three and day four. Here she wraps up the training week.

I woke up Friday morning and watched a morning news show (a rare treat because my kids make me watch cartoons at home) and caught the tail end of a brilliant flash mob in Cologne, Germany. It was classical musicians playing the Star Wars theme song. I got goose bumps – both times I watched it. That is the power of music. It has the power to transform you.

Steven Mitchell the wonderful series producer on the ratings hit You Gotta Eat Here has this innate ability to listen to a piece of music and instinctively know what visuals will work along side it. As he puts it, ‘Music is the subtext, emotion and colour that supports the visuals.’ Because the music plays to the subtext of the show, it works on the audience on a subconscious level. They may not even realize the music is affecting them. You can have all sorts of fun with that information!
Of course, since Steve spent the day with us, he talked about considerably more than just music.

We started the day talking about how he created a very clear vision for the show, sharing it with the team and making sure everyone is on the same page – broadcasters included. Aside from the obvious, the risks of everyone not being on the same page (as a result of an unclear vision/premise) is a show no-one is happy with – everyone is making a different show and decisions become subjective (I talked about this in my day two blog).

It was important for Steve to find a way to not only get everyone on the same page, but to use his role as a leader to keep them there. To keep them actively engaged and enjoying the process of making the show. The process he came up with likens him to a snow plow (this analogy makes perfect sense to me, maybe because I’m a Winnipeg girl) whose responsibility is to provide a clear vision to the team, to remove obstacles so his team can perform to the best of their abilities and to empower the people who work under him by trusting them. Trust means letting go and not micro-managing. If you can do this you will build a great team – and you’re only as good as the people who you surround yourself with. I keep coming back to how this principle applies to a larger slice of life than to just that of a series producer – it applies to my personal and professional life.

(1) My job as a parent is essentially the job of a series producer and to be a “snow plow” for my children. Mind you I have a ‘co-series producer’ in my husband but it’s essential we’re both on the same page when sharing our ‘vision’ with our girls. It’s also essential that I don’t micro-manage my husband 🙂

(2) John Gill, NSI’s CEO, is the ‘snow plow’ at our office (I wonder if he’ll like being compared to a snow plow?) who provides staff with a clear vision of what NSI is. He removes obstacles so we can execute our jobs to the best of our abilities and he empowers us by trusting us to do our jobs. When you look at the size of the NSI office (we are a small team of nine people) and all that we accomplish in any given year it’s apparent we have great leadership with superb communication skills at the top.

But of course none of this can happen if you don’t have a clear premise – if the show concept isn’t clear. So we got into the nitty gritty of how Steve defined the show. You start by asking a lot of questions, which sounds easy. The tricky part is knowing which answers are the right ones. You need to make choices and weigh them against the premise.

One way Steve got to the heart of the show was by looking at the role of host John Catucci. John needed a mission. I liked the way it was described: your host is your avatar who will guide you through the world of the series. So John Catucci’s mission, our avatar in You Gotta Eat Here, was to answer to the question “Why would anyone drive an hour out of their way, or drag a friend, to eat at this restaurant?” Getting to the heart of the show then became about defining the criteria that would answer that question in a satisfactory way.

At the end of the day, you’ve made a promise to the audience and it’s the series producer’s job to ensure the show is delivering on its promise each and every week. You Gotta Eat Here does just that, which is why it’s a ratings hit.

So now what? You have your very clearly defined premise and show mission. How do you collapse 20 hours of footage into 22 minutes of engaging television content? By providing your fabulous editors with a great generic rundown that identifies the key beats for each scene. That’s how.

Editors are storytellers and impartial observers. You need to trust them to tell your story. Of course they will get notes from the series producer, the executive producers and the network. But back to the whole trust thing: Steve encourages the editors to look past the actual note to the reason for the note, or the goal of the note. i.e. “Can you try this so we can get that?” Providing the editor with the freedom to explore the goal/concern behind the note allows them to explore options for solving the problem. This also gets the editors to “buy in” to the show. It gets them on the same page. As an aside – the goal for the network cut is to get a shut out (no notes) to use a hockey analogy.

While we’re on the subject of hockey…

Each proposed episode needs to be approved by your production executive at the network level. The problem with this is that your production executive is almost always over-worked and definitely has a mile-high pile of reading to get through. So how did Steve get his episode proposals approved in a timely manner? By creating ‘hockey cards’ for each episode. In the same way each hockey card has the player’s name, their stats etc., he created stats for the proposed episodes. Not only does this make it fun for the production executive but it also gives them the info they need in a simple, clear and concise way.

There is definitely a theme here. Clear and concise how premise, clear and concise rundowns, clear and concise ‘hockey card.’ Clarity of concept. That’s a phrase that we drilled into the NSI Totally Television participants and it seems it’s no different in the non-scripted world. The week was full of themes: clarity of concept definitely being the most overarching theme.

The beauty of Steve’s session was that we took all the themes and threads of thought from over the course of the week and really delved into them in a much deeper way using You Gotta Eat Here as our context. I think this is where it really all came together for the participants and I hope it made them more confident going into their eight-week internships.

The internships, by their nature, are all going to be very different. It will be our job (Al Magee and me) to make sure it’s as relevant, positive and impactful as it can be. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, all eyes will be on the participants. They are the next generation of great series producers in this country. I have full faith that they will all be running shows three to four years from now.


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