Adventures in Prime Time TV Production
Posted Dec 9, 2009

In the first season of the The Wonder Years (ABC, 1988–1993), there’s an episode in which 12-year-old Kevin Arnold goes to work with his ever-laconic father and finds himself captivated by the driven, purposeful frenzy of the office, a busy adult world in which his father seems (at least at first) to be a very important man. Swiveling, starstruck, in his father’s desk chair, Kevin says, “So, Dad, when did you know you wanted to be a manager of shipping and product services?” His father laughs and explains that no one really grows up dreaming of being a manager of shipping and product services. When he was young he’d dreamed of being captain of a ship, “navigating by the stars,” but the onset of adult life—Korea, marriage, and the birth of Kevin’s older sister—changed his plans. Although Kevin does see the darker side of his father’s job a little later in the episode, this isn’t a rueful moment focused on the bitter recriminations of a defeated man. But there is a bit of wistfulness in Kevin's father's voice as he wonders how things might have gone differently if he’d “taken a few more chances.” For many event videographers—especially full-timers—striking out on one’s own to set up an independent studio is the sort of chance you take to get a little more out of life than the 9-to-5 grind might offer. And though it turns out to be a dream job for many, how many kids really dream about growing up to be wedding videographers?

More often, wedding videography falls somewhere in the middle—more than a job, often a passion, but not exactly something you guessed you’d spend your life doing when the part of life you’d spend doing something still lay before you. Danny Sayson of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Sayson Video Productions has approached his event videography career with immense passion and dedication and has been rewarded with as much success as anyone could ask for. He’s a two-time EventDV 25 honoree and a WEVA Hall of Famer who delivers packed-house seminars at WEVA Expo every year. He’s won numerous WEVA Creative Excellence Awards for his wedding and corporate work, produced award-winning commercials, and landed lucrative regular freelance gigs as a shooter and editor for the Vancouver Canucks NHL franchise and other regional professional sports teams. He also enjoys a close relationship with the British Columbia Professional Videographers Association, Canada’s largest PVA.

But for years, Danny and his wife, Sophia, have dreamed of producing for prime time TV, and this wasn’t just some vague ambition—they knew exactly the show they wanted to produce and had an increasingly clear idea of how to do it. The idea was to combine their lifelong love of the outdoors—particularly the myriad natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest—with their vision of a point-of-view adventure show that brings the user into the midst of the experience. They had the vision, the passion, and—after 14 years of building one of the videography industry’s most successful studios—the production chops to pull it off; it was just a matter of taking the plunge and accepting the risk that no matter how good a show they produced, it might well become another one of the thousands that get pitched to TV networks and never air.

Three-and-a-half years after they agreed to throw caution to the wind (sometimes literally), their show, West Coast Adventures, is entering its second season as a half-hour show about “fun, travel, and adventure in beautiful British Columbia” that runs weekly in four northwestern PBS-TV markets with a combined viewership of nearly 13 million (plus viewers across Canada with satellite packages). But as you might imagine, the journey from dream to screen wasn’t a short or simple one—in fact, it was an adventure all its own.

West Coast Adventures producer Danny Sayson

Jumping In
From the beginning of Danny Sayson’s training in videography and broadcast, he knew what he didn’t want to do: TV news. “When you get trained to do TV broadcast,” he says, “the first thing they teach you is how to do news. I didn’t want to spend my life chasing ambulances and focusing on mishaps and scandals and politicians; I wanted to do stuff that’s fun.” Wedding and sports have provided the sort of “fun, happy environments” in which he wanted to work and have given him a great career. But still, in the back of his mind, he wondered if there was some way to work in the environment in which he found himself the happiest: “What I love to do in real life is travel and be in the outdoors, and certainly in the region where I live there are plenty of opportunities for that.”

The answer, he knew, was a TV show that focused on outdoor activities in the region that not only showed viewers what it was like to do those activities but made them feel it, and for years he and his wife had discussed the why, what, and how of this show. But what they couldn’t commit to was the when. “Eventually, I kept talking about it, and my wife said, ‘When are you going to do it?’ We were reaching a point where we were talking about having kids soon, and she said, ‘It’s now or never,’ and I said, ‘It’s gonna be now.’ That was in the spring of 2006.”

Sayson’s other source of inspiration at that time was a book called Jump In! Even if You Don’t Know How to Swim by Mark Burnett, producer and creator of Survivor, The Contender, The Apprentice, and other shows that have brought reality TV to the mainstream over the last decade. Burnett describes his struggles as he tried to bring Survivor to market—it was turned down by all the major networks on the first go-round—and the philosophy that motivated him to persevere until he made his outlandish idea into a successful show. “Burnett’s whole point,” says Sayson, “is that at some point you can be so settled in your life that you never do what you want to do because there are so many uncertainties and so many ‘what ifs.’ At some point, you have to make a conscious decision to say, ‘I’m gonna jump in, I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna learn as I go.’ After I read the book it all made sense. For so long I’ve wanted to do this, but I kept saying, ‘What if this, what if that, what if nobody wants it, and how am I going to pay my bills if I spend all my time doing this?’ When I read his book, I realized, if you keep thinking about the what ifs, at some point in your life you’ll be old and gray and wind up not getting anything done.”

Another reason Sayson decided to jump in when he did was his sense that the timing was right, not only for him to produce this show, but for the rest of the world to appreciate it. With the Olympics coming to Vancouver in 2010, keeping the show regionally based (a necessity for Sayson, not only financially because of the travel a less geographically contained show would involve, but also in terms of time spent away from his family) might actually be an advantage. Granted, it was only 2006 when they started to produce the show, but Sayson realized, even then, that absorbing TV show production into his already busy schedule wouldn’t be easy, and it might be a couple of years until he was ready to start pitching the show. “We started in 2006, and it didn’t air until this year [2009]. Part of that was because I was doing it part-time while traveling, doing seminars, and doing corporate videos, while trying to squeeze it in during the heat of a wedding season. Literally, filming and editing took a couple of years and it took another year to bring it to market, and another 4 months to get PBS to return my call and set up a meeting. Just because you have something done doesn’t mean somebody wants to look at it right away.”

Casting Call
The first step of this long journey was to find a host. Initial casting attempts proved fruitless; Sayson knew that the host would need a unique mix of talents that the first casting call failed to yield. With episodes involving skydiving, paragliding, underwater hockey, honey harvesting, and trapshooting in the works, Sayson knew the job would be a demanding one. “Finding a host who had charisma and screen presence was part of it, obviously, but what was even more challenging for us was finding someone who would be comfortable and be daring enough to do all these things,” Sayson says. “We spent quite a bit of time looking for the right talent, and we didn’t want to use someone who was already recognizable from a different TV series or a certain network. For one thing, that would cost a lot more.”

After several unsuccessful auditions, Sayson remembered Susie Lee, a Vancouver-based actress who had appeared in a commercial he’d shot a few years earlier and combined the energetic and bubbly personality he was looking for with a penchant for world travel and adventure. She came in for a new screen test and was hired. Although a second host appeared on a few segments in the first season when Lee was unavailable because of other commitments, the idea from the outset was to have one host, and Lee remains the host of West Coast Adventures through the show’s second season, which is in postproduction now.

Planning and Production
With the host in place, Sayson assembled his skeleton crew (himself, his wife, and occasionally fellow BCPVA member Scott White, who has become full-time second shooter and editor in the show’s second season) and began setting up shoots at the numerous locations selected for the first season of the show. Each half-hour episode would include two or three different adventures, which meant different locations and, in most cases, different arrangements with the attraction hosts and an array of administrative tasks including acquiring permits and ensuring that the proper insurance was in place for shooting at the various locations.

Episode 1 (which you can see in its entirety, along with the other nine episodes from the first season at www.westcoastadventurestv.com) included three adventures: a canoeing and hiking trip to Greater Vancouver’s stunning Widgeon Creek and Widgeon Falls, a visit to Honeyland Canada to experience firsthand the honey bee world and see a “jaw-dropping bee beard presentation by the world-famous Dr. Bee,” and a skydiving excursion in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, in a segment that captured the host’s first jump.

A skydiving shot from West Coast Adventures episode 1

For each segment, Sayson would prepare a short script—called a “stand-up”—for the host to introduce the location and provide a little context and history. But for the most part, the shows simply took place as the adventure unfolded: “The majority of our stuff is reality-based,” Sayson says, “in terms of getting her impromptu reactions to jumping out of a plane or paddling down a river and encountering things we don’t expect. So, as much as we’d like to have a storyboard or shot list, most of the good stuff actually comes on the spot. One of the most important things I’ve learned,” he continues, “is to tell the story and to have the shots and the b-roll and cutaways to be able to do so when you see something cool that you didn’t expect while you’re on location. So you do have to be prepared, but you also have to be in the mindset of doing things on-the-fly and telling the story as it goes.”

Most of all, he says, he had to be prepared for the unexpected, such as on an episode they shot in the summer of 2009 for the second season, when they were just about to go snorkeling with salmon and found grizzly bears right in front of them. “You have to be ready to go at any given moment. Always have your batteries, always have the tape out of the package, always have your camera ready to roll. The minute you walk out the door, if anything happens, you’ve got to be ready to shoot it.”

Of course, readiness means more than having your camera poised to shoot what comes your way. It means planning ahead, scouting locations thoroughly, and knowing exactly what sort of permits and insurance you’ll need to shoot there legally and with properly limited liability. For insurance, this means not only being insured for yourself and your equipment, but also being insured for $2 million, $5 million, $7 million, or whatever the location requires to cover your liability if you damage anything. As for permits, this part of preproduction planning means calling ahead to the location—say, if it’s a state or provincial park—asking who you need to talk to about permits, asking that person exactly what you need, and making sure you allow plenty of time before the shoot to get the paperwork in order. “You can’t just show up to a location to shoot and then be asked, ‘Where’s your permit?’ and then find out you can’t shoot there after traveling there. These things must be done in advance and some of them don’t take overnight to do.”

West Coast Adventures episode 9

Preparing the Pitch
If there was any question as to whether Sayson’s passion for this project would sustain him long enough into the production phase for him to create something he could pitch to the networks, here’s the answer: He didn’t just go out and produce a teaser or a pilot; he shot and edited an entire season before even beginning the process of trying to sell the show. “Certainly, when you go into something like this, you know what the odds [of selling it to a network] are,” he says, “but after shooting one episode, we were having so much fun, we just decided to keep going. ‘Oh, let’s do another one.’ Next thing you know, we had 10.”

Part of this approach was strategic. “Pilots come and go, and something in the neighborhood of 95%–98% of pilots ever produced are never picked up,” he says. “There are always objections to the content or the presentation. But after I did 3 or 4, I decided, well, I’m going to swing for the fences here. So the idea was to walk up to a broadcaster and say, ‘Here, it’s fully done. Either you’re going to like it or you’re not.’ That was the process. Every broadcaster I saw was surprised to meet anyone insane enough to do that.”

Naturally, Sayson didn’t just walk into network offices and dump 10 tapes into a program director’s lap. While having the sizzle and the steak ready to go certainly renders moot the question of whether you can deliver on the promise of the sizzle, the pitch is still about catching their attention with something succinct. So Sayson prepared a 14-minute highlight reel on DVD and presented that to the networks along with a cover letter and a colorful, professionally assembled booklet containing “one-sheets” on each episode with pictures and a description of the activities featured.

West Coast Adventures one-sheet

Although Sayson says he didn’t follow any particular guidelines in preparing his presentation for the networks, he says putting it together this way was a matter of “common sense”: “Execs don’t have a lot of time to watch. People send me their reels all the time as shooters who want to work for me, and lots of times, the first 5–10 minutes is all I have. If I’m not captured by it, it’s lights out. I kept that in mind as I made my presentations.”

As for delivering the highlight reel on DVD as opposed to a broadcast format such as Beta SP, Sayson says that he imagined that a program director who picked up his show would probably be someone who would take the disc home to watch it rather than a guy reviewing tapes on a Beta SP machine in the studio.

A Question of Gear
This brings up another point about “broadcast standards” and “technical requirements” that Sayson believes is a key part of his story. Although the show, once accepted, had to be re-edited somewhat to match the length of half-hour PBS shows and transferred to the station engineer’s choice of media tape formats, the first season was shot on a Sony PD150 in standard-def, old-school DVCAM.

While Sayson says he was ready to explain that he shot on DVCAM because he was working with a limited budget, “Not once in my conversations with network executives did the question come up until after the series was sold” and the discussion turned to taped delivery and closed-captioning. “The point is, it’s not really about technical merit or format; it’s about content. If they have to ask, ‘What equipment are you using?’ they’re already noticing something wrong.”

Sayson acknowledges that a certain “snobbery” toward prosumer formats does persist among broadcast engineers and shouldn’t be downplayed. He says he did have an encounter with an engineer after the show sold where the question of color sampling came up, with the implication that DVCAM’s 4:1:1 color space would be considered inadequate for broadcast. Sayson deflected the question by offering to send in a sample, which met the engineer’s requirements and resolved the question once and for all.

Season 2, he says, has been shot in HDV, but format remains a non-issue. “This is the only time in the history of television and video production when the average guy—and in this I include myself—can go out and produce a broadcast-quality show. When I started in 1988 with Betamax or 8mm VHS, I could only dream about doing stuff at the broadcast level because of the technical limitations of that time.”

Danny Sayson, Susie Lee, and Scott White shooting West Coast Adventures season 2

And as for the question of whether he’d shoot West Coast Adventures with a $100,000 HD camera if he had his druthers, he says, “I don’t have the budget for that, and given the choice, I’m not sure I’d want to because they’re so damn big, and the next thing you know you need an Anton/Bauer battery that’s 5 lbs. heavier, the camera is 5 lbs. heavier, the tripod is bigger, and I can’t hand-hold it while I’m in a raft.”

Licensing, Sponsorship, and Web Presence
Selling the show to PBS exceeded even Sayson's expectations.“PBS is an American network,” Sayson notes. “You just don’t see Canadian content on PBS. To have a show about Canada on PBS was a big deal and was a very well-received thing from a media point of view here.” To describe West Coast Adventures as “sold” to PBS is something of a misnomer. As is the case with many TV shows developed externally, West Coast Adventures is presented by the four regional PBS stations that run it through an agreement that pays Sayson a nominal licensing fee and gives him the right to solicit all sponsorships and to use the proceeds to underwrite production. (Because PBS is a noncommercial network, it doesn’t have traditional commercial breaks, but instead it runs 1-minute blocks of sponsor spots at the beginning and end of each show.) “The majority of our income comes from the sponsors we solicit. That’s the relationship we have this year as well,” Sayson adds, noting that “it doesn’t always work this way.”

One advantage of the nature of West Coast Adventures’ licensing arrangement with PBS is that it allows Sayson to maintain complete autonomy with regard to the show’s website. With all episodes of the TV show presented in full on the site, www.westcoastadven turestv.com boasts broadcast-quality video, which gives it a certain amount of competitive cachet among travel sites. “Travel shows have the highest broadcast website return, because when people see something like this on TV, they want to know how they can find out more, and the first thing they do is go to our website.” In addition to the episodes, Sayson says, “We also have links to the places that we’ve featured plus articles, adventure tips, and so forth. Next thing you know we’re getting emails from China, Taiwan, and Europe—places where our show’s not even seen.”

Although he hasn't had much success in monetizing the site yet, Sayson says he’s exploring preroll and postroll ads for the second season of the show when the episodes are ready to appear online. And even without a lot of advertising support on the site, Sayson says he’s already reaping the rewards of his show’s success in his relationships with the adventure sites and tourist attractions that he visits on the show and that he hopes may become his advertisers in the future. In the first season, he says, he was the one trying to sell them on appearing on his show, usually having to lure them with the promise of a professionally produced promo video in the event that the show never aired. (He emphasizes the effectiveness of this approach as an example of the benefits of thinking of networking as a two-way street.) Now, he says, they’re pursuing him, and he’s fielding offers from places to produce his segments rather than struggling to get his foot in the door.

Anything for the Shot But Your Life!
One thing Sayson decided early in the development of West Coast Adventures was that it wouldn’t be a show made just for “adrenaline junkies”; the idea was always to showcase a broad range of outdoor activities that might encompass anything from skydiving and paragliding to bird-watching and cranberry harvesting. This approach stems in part from what Sayson sees as the show’s educational mission but also from his concern for the breadth of the show’s market reach: “If everything you do is for adrenaline junkies, your audience is really quite limiting, especially on PBS. We always try to have an educational value rather than an adrenaline-type show cut to hip-hop music with cool effects, because there’s really no value in that in terms of longterm marketability.”

Likewise, Sayson’s motive in producing a show like this is not to continually put himself in harm’s way as a shooter in search of some perverse risk-taking rush. As he and his crew shot the first season, their motto quickly became “Anything for the shot but your life!” The lesson there, he says, is to know your limitations, and to always assess your shot choices based (in part) on what you know you can do and what you can’t. For Sayson, this meant yes to shooting while paragliding, but no to shooting while skydiving (he was handling the camera on the ground). Which is not to say that this motto has kept him from suffering the occasional mishap, from kicks in the face during the underwater hockey shoot to a bee sting in his naval cavity sustained while shooting the honey harvesting segment.

“Anything for the shot but your life!” goes the other way too: For what turned out to be a spectacular 4-second shot of 30,000 lesser snow geese taking off in Episode 9, Sayson spent upward of 40 hours in position in a British Columbia bird sanctuary waiting for the geese to assemble and fly. “If you love doing that kind of stuff, time goes by in an instant,” he says. “I’d spend that time with my wife and take my kid along and be out in nature. It’s the kind of stuff that keeps you up at night editing. But when you’ve really got it, that’s the moment when you realize ‘I’ve found my calling in life.’ When you just do things for the sheer passion of it.”

Passion and Timing
As mentioned earlier, timing was a key factor in Danny Sayson’s decision to start production on West Coast Adventures in 2006 for a number of reasons. One was the fact that he wasn’t getting any younger, and with parenthood lying ahead of him (a possibility that became reality shortly after they began shooting), his already busy and complex life wasn’t about to get any simpler. Another was the approaching 2010 Winter Olympics and the promise of global interest in the British Columbia region that it was likely to bring. And then there was the welcome convergence of prosumer equipment with the ability to produce broadcast-quality work when in the right hands.

Danny Sayson and Scott White on Whistler Mountain

But there was another factor that made the timing right for Sayson to pursue the show in 2006. “Part of the reason that it took me so long to do this, my lifetime dream,” Sayson says, “wasn’t just procrastination and fear, but honestly, my need to develop the skills I needed. If I’d done this 10 years ago,” he explains, “the show wouldn’t have been nearly as good as it is today, simply because of my experience and because I’ve learned so many things as the years went along. You can’t expect to run the Boston Marathon if you haven't trained for it. There needs to be preparation and training.” For Sayson, it comes down to one basic question: “You need to ask yourself, honestly, is your stuff up to par with what’s on TV? If the answer is no, then it’s quite simple: You’re not ready for this yet.”

But if, on the other hand, the answer is yes, and pursuing a dream of producing for broadcast is something you want to do, Sayson says it’s well worth the risks and challenges of doing it, much as it has been for him to realize his dream and achieve even what he acknowledges is modest success in broadcast production. “Producing a TV series from scratch is like climbing Mount Everest,” he says. “There will be many times you’ll second-guess yourself and want to quit. These are the times when you need to keep your eyes on the prize and look up at the summit to visualize how amazing it is going to be once you reach the top. There are also times when you look at the summit and say to yourself it’s still too far and too high. In these instances, look down below and you’ll see how far you’ve gone already, and focus on the immediate steps in front of you and see how close you are to the next plateau. It doesn’t make it any easier to climb, but it certainly makes you more motivated to keep going.”

And what was it like, ultimately, to reach that plateau as producer of his own prime time TV show? “The first time I saw my show on TV I was almost in tears,” Sayson says. “The journey was just so monstrous. To see it come on air was the most gratifying and satisfying experience—tops in my life next to my wedding and my child being born—to turn on the TV and know that millions of people are watching it and to know, ‘I did that’ or ‘I had some part in that.’ It’s just the coolest thing.”

Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and programming director of EventDV-TV.