Surf’s Up Again for ‘Baywatch’ : Big Foreign Demand, Lower Costs Give Show a New Life
“Less is more,” said David Hasselhoff, mouthing one of the cost-cutting slogans uttered often around “Baywatch” headquarters.
He is not talking about bikinis or speedos.
The fact is that hands wring and heads roll in television circles these days as network audiences shrink, prime-time ad revenue drops and pressure increases to reduce production budgets. But TV always seems to find a way, even in a recession. Behold, the “Baywatch” solution.
“When you pout, you’re out,” said Hasselhoff.
Hasselhoff, the star and one of four executive producers of the syndicated hourlong drama about Los Angeles County lifeguards, translates the slogans thusly: Shoot less film, use low-rent quarters, keep networks and studios out of the executive loop and fire anyone who shows less than effervescent enthusiasm for the show.
It isn’t that the canceled 1989-1990 NBC series has found new life in syndication through the mantra-like repetition of Hasselhoff’s one-liners. But they do help.
In a former McCulloch Chain Saw warehouse near Los Angeles International Airport that rents for $17,000 a month, the Baywatch Production Company quietly began structuring its model of post-recessionary programming six months ago. This month, Hasselhoff and company wrapped up the last of 22 episodes for the season that began in September.
By cutting corners and time, according to co-executive producer Michael Berk, they were able to finish the season months and millions of dollars ahead of network production companies. The bottom line is that the per-episode cost of the series this year is $775,000, compared to an average of $1.2 million during the year when GTG Entertainment (the Grant Tinker/Gannett production company) was producing the show for NBC.
“Baywatch” is already the most popular American show in England: No. 25 out of the top 100 with an estimated 11.4 million viewers each week. It debuted in Australia and New Zealand this month as the No. 1 show, according to executive producer Doug Schwartz, and it has been sold to every major market in the world except Brazil.
“Why not Brazil? You tell me,” said Sid Vinnedge, president of All-American Communications Television, which syndicates the program internationally. Given the show’s reception in every other major market, however, he doesn’t care very much about Brazil, he said.
Indeed, it was the demand of foreign broadcasters for more “Baywatch” episodes that got the revival going. Pre-sales overseas raised half the $20-million budget for production, advertising and distribution.
“ ‘Baywatch’ is a great example of what Hollywood can do: straight-out entertainment. Its selling point is obvious: young, attractive people on the beach,” Vinnedge said.
The beauties-and-the-beach combination has plenty of appeal at home too. LBS Communications Inc. has sold “Baywatch” to 147 U.S. stations, reaching more than 90% of the country’s potential viewers, including KCOP Channel 13 in Los Angeles, where it airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m.
“The key is the demographic,” said Paul Siegel, president of the entertainment division at LBS, which pioneered the breakaway-network-turned-syndicated-TV drama in the early 1980s with “Fame.” Like “Baywatch,” “Fame” was a marginal network drama in terms of overall ratings, but it did well at attracting the young viewers that many advertisers prize.
Hasselhoff left for Europe on a concert tour three weeks before Thanksgiving--something he could never have done mid-season during his days as a network star. But that’s only one of the perks for being his own boss, he said. Hasselhoff and his partners are also making more money now than they did at the network, chiefly because they each share directly in the show’s profits and thus have a built-in incentive to keep costs down.
“Union crews are the biggest thing,” Hasselhoff said. “We forget about lunch hours and overtime (in order) to finish a scene. We don’t break union rules, but we do bend them.”
Because the economics of working in Hollywood have sent production companies packing as far away as Israel and Canada to avoid the high cost of union camera, sound, prop and craft employees, “Baywatch” has been able to gain major concessions from the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees and other industry guilds.
“Baywatch” has paid no overtime since going into syndication production and the production staff is 25% smaller than it was when it was an NBC show, according to Schwartz. And there are other concessions.
“The headline concession is fringe hours,” said Schwartz. That’s the industry term for working straight through a scene--particularly expensive live shots out in the ocean or up in a helicopter--without having to break for lunch or some other reason mandated under union contract terms. Union technicians also double up on jobs. A three-person sound crew, for example, might have two audio specialists, but draw its third member from an idle crew.
Similarly, “Baywatch” has one-third the writing staff of a network show because the writers double as producers, directors and editors.
Instead of complaining, however, the crews seem grateful to have jobs. Three generations--a grandfather, father and son--are all gaffers on “Baywatch,” and several other employees are related through blood or marriage. Among the executive producers, for example, Schwartz and Berk are cousins and Greg Bonann is Schwartz’s brother-in-law.
“I don’t want the networks to think I sound arrogant, but there are ways to keep costs down,” Berk said.
Under GTG’s aegis, he said, “Baywatch” was billed $40,000 in overhead per episode just to use GTG’s Culver Studios in Culver City. The warehouse that “Baywatch” uses now for $17,000 a month has been converted into a self-contained, state-of-the-art soundstage, complete with editing, recording and mixing facilities. Nothing is wasted. The “Baywatch” kitchen where the lifeguards gather to chat doubles as a real-life kitchen for snacks and coffee breaks. Likewise, the “Baywatch” weight room is for the actors and crew to work out in, both on and off camera.
Another difference: “We write more efficient scripts,” said Berk. “At the network, you’ll often go into an hour show with a 50-page script, and a half-dozen scenes will wind up being left on the cutting-room floor. Our shooting scripts are 38 to 40 pages long. There is very little left on the cutting room floor. We know what we’re going to shoot. We finish a show in five days while most network hourlongs take seven or eight days.”
The one episode that did come in 20 minutes too long this season was turned into two shows. “It was all very good material, so instead of throwing it away, we rewrote it as two hours and were able to shoot the additional footage in 2 1/2 days,” Berk said.
So far, “Baywatch’s” low-overhead results have been intriguing enough to lure CBS programming executives to the company’s headquarters to see how they do it.
According to Hasselhoff, the biggest cost-saver is the fact that the producers are their own bosses. “We can say ‘cut, print, move on’ and we don’t have to ask anybody’s permission,” he said.
By contrast, he remembers the costly production maneuvers during his four years playing Michael Knight in MCA/Universal’s NBC series, “Knight Rider.”
“If you wanted to change one word in a script, you had to stop everything and call ‘upstairs’ to get approval. Meanwhile, everybody was still on the clock. It cost a fortune,” Hasselhoff said.
“Now, when we’re on the set and we want to make a change, one of our directors will say to me: ‘Don’t we have to call upstairs on that?’ and I’ll say, ‘There is no upstairs. I’m upstairs.’ ”