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Creating a Television Series is Hard.

by Ryan Johnson, Oct 28 2008

All the elements of TV production are difficult and require much attention, time and money.

Landing a network TV production deal to have the opportunity to show all that hard work to a nation, and even the world, is much like hitting the lottery.

Too bad I don’t play the lottery.

Convincing entrenched, and complacent programming TV executives that you have a program that will change the way people consider their TV entertainment seems to be next to impossible.

I set out on a journey to do just that, and with the help of an amazing production team and an all-star skeptical cast, we’re going to make it a reality!

In my last blog, I shared some of the process to get this idea off the ground.  In this second installment, I want to give you an idea about how we came to decide who should be on our esteemed panel of brilliant minds for the show.

As you no-doubt have gleaned by the official contributors of SkepticBlog, the Skeptologists are: Brian Dunning, Steven Novella, Phil Plait, Yau-Man Chan, Kirsten Sanford, Michael Shermer and Mark Edward.  One doesn’t just open a book and check the boxes next to: Awesome Skeptical Soon-to-be-TV-Celebrities.  Much thought went into who should be a cast member and the type of background each individual should have.

Covering the Bases

In our little baseball game, we’ve got 6 bases actually. They will all be used in our massive game of Skeptic investigating.  We also have our umpire, Brian Dunning, to call foul balls!

Brian Dunning, my good friend and writer David Vienna and I worked at figuring who would be the Skeptologists and what they would represent.  By thinking through the topics of the show and the types of experiments and examinations that we wanted to do, we came to some conclusions:  

We first agreed that all of the Skeptologists would need to be able to consider themselves skeptics. Seems kinda obvious, but you’d be surprised how many “believers” sent us resume’s. I guess it shows how some believers really don’t think that  the rules apply to them. So silly.

We needed a doctor.  Someone that could analyze the physical effects that can be manipulated by food, drugs, injury, or plain old hocus-pocus. This person needed to be skeptically minded and have a real understanding of the medical world, a practical understanding of medicine and its uses, as well as a deep understanding of the medical profession, issues of health, the study of medicine and the diagnosis of illness and injury.  Why all of that?  Well a lot of topics that we plan to cover, involve people’s perceptions of health, physical effects and treatment.  We need someone that can definitely say whether or not these things are actually happening and they need the credentials to show they are, in-fact, qualified to make those assessments.

Next, we wanted someone that could understand electronics, complex technical systems, and physics.  We may build devices to examine, test or measure certain events or objects and having someone that could build measuring and testing equipment that will stand up to scientific scrutiny would be key. Our world is full of technology, and we need someone that can decode some of the trickier aspects of it all. Plus, if my laptop breaks while I’m on the set, I want someone that can take care of it… Just kidding, Yau-Man.

We wanted to have representation from the world of physiology as well.  Understanding how certain body processes work and the way we control and influence those functions can be very important.  Many topics that we cover have real effects on the human body, that are many-times falsely interpreted.  Maybe it’s an ingredient in some home-brew remedy that’s wreaking havoc, or understanding how a dog can smell so well.

Of course, someone that could understand people’s behavior and how they interpret the world around them would also play a vital role.  Many of our topics would include the investigation into people’s understanding of the subject and how it emotionally affects them.  A psychologist with a great track record and experience in the area of skepticism was definitely on the list.

Because we planned to discuss issues of extra terrestrial origin, space, UFO’s etc., we needed someone that could make sense of the study of the universe, aliens, and the research that goes on in the field of astronomy and science. Though this area seemed very specific at first glance, we found that the amount of skill and education that a good astronomer needed to posses had enough crossover in other areas to warrant a full cast member in this discipline. Excellent.

And finally, we needed someone skilled in the art of deception, illusion and manipulation. Not a politician running for President…  Someone that could use powers of observation… Not to fool us, but to be on the vigilant lookout for acts of fraud perpetrated on us by our research subjects.  We didn’t want to have anyone pulling the wool over our eyes. Like the software companies hired hackers to write their security protocol, we wanted a magician or illusionist to keep a keen eye out for those who were bent on deceiving us.

We were satisfied that this would be the perfect core team. If we needed additional experts, we could always enlist someone that had strengths in another area for a specific episode.  Brian, David and I were quite sure that this would make up a great team of people armed to be able to de-bunk any pseudoscience, paranormal or otherwise ridiculous claim that came our way.

Brian Dunning’s very important role is that of a moderator, host and skeptic of the skeptics.  His role is to understand and represent the general viewing audience’s position.  He’s there to not only help behind the scenes, but to make sure that our brainiacs aren’t going into upper-level scientific stratosphere.  He has to keep things grounded in a way that our audience can understand.  Brian’s gift for distilling detailed, lengthy and difficult concepts down the perfect liqueur of information is key. He’ll also pose questions to our Skeptologists throughout the show that we think the audience is asking (or yelling) at their television set.  It’s a one-sided, interactive show!  …did I just invent something there?  No.  I’m quite sure I didn’t.

The Dream Team

Brian and I started talking about our “Dream Team”  We both discussed a list of people that we thought would be perfect for the show. A list that was, “If we could choose anyone to be in the show, who would it be?”  

Among those on that secret list was Steven Novella from The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.  I had listened to his podcasts and quickly understood why his place in the skeptical community, along with his fellow rogues, has been cemented as Skeptical All-Stars.

Brian was invited to participate in the SGU podcast about his new book, Skeptoid: A Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena …(Order now!) During that interview, Brian publicly announced our project as well as the casting call. After that episode aired, Steven talked with Brian about it and he said that he was interested. That was great news, but we still considered the physical distance a barrier. We assumed that because he was from back East, and a very busy and successful clinical neurologist at Yale, that he wouldn’t be able to make the time to commit to this project.  Little did he know that he was actually on our “Dream Team” list.  After that podcast aired, we were inundated with people anxious to either be a member of the cast or to help out in production.

Brian made announcement on the Skeptoid podcast, a few blogs were notified, and many emails went out to the community. Surprisingly, almost instantly, many resume’s and emails started coming in.

I was so pleasantly surprised by the level and quality of the applicants, and to those who took the time to reach out, I can’t thank you enough.

At one point we decided that we had the concept far enough along, and the response was so well received, that we decided to call the members of our Dream Team list.  To make a long story short.  We quickly filled our roles for Doctor, Physiologist, Psychiatrist,  and Astronomer.  We had several people that were in the running for Illusionist, or Magician, and that was a tough decision.

Our physicist, was undecided. Then, out of the blue, Yau-Man Chan reached out to us through an email to Brian.  He had just returned from production on CBS’s reality show, Survivor and was catching up on podcasts when he heard about the casting call.  He fit the bill perfectly, and after talking with him and reviewing his demo tape that we asked him to make, he rounded out the 5th member of the cast.  

The role of Magician was tough. However, on the advice of Michael Shermer, we decided to meet with Mark Edward and after a meeting in Long Beach, right before a location scout/ghost hunt at the Queen Mary, Brian, my producer, Shawna Young and I decided that we had our 6th and final Skeptologist.

A litany of phone calls, emails and deal memos whizzed across the country, and Michael Shermer, Phil Plait, Kirsten Sanford, Yau-Man Chan Steven Novella and Mark Edward transformed into “The Skeptologists!” Each understood what we were trying to accomplish and were very excited and positive about the project.  We made it through scheduling hurdles pretty easily, and suddenly, our “Dream Team” was a reality and was augmented by new individuals that made the team even better!

Hat’s off to the whole team and everyone that expressed an interest in the show.  We are limited to the number of people that we can have, but rest assured, skeptical readers, there’s a wealth of amazing talent and fine individuals that are certainly doing their part to be the Silent Skeptologists across the nation.

Next week, Pre-Production and the topics revealed for the Pilot Episode!

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10 Responses to “Creating a Television Series is Hard.”

  1. Charlie Noble says:

    Well its sounds like it is a going to be an exellent show.

  2. Skepdude says:

    Great cast, I hope (pray???) that the show will be picked up. One question though? What about the Skeptic of all Skeptics, The Amazing One, James Randi? He must have been at the top of your Dream Team list.

  3. [...] READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “SKEPTICBLOG” Posted in SkepticBlog. Tags: brian dunning, Kirsten Sanford, Mark Edward, Michael Shermer, Phil Plait, Ryan Johnson, Steven Novella, The Skeptologists, Yau-Man Chan. [...]

  4. Ryan Johnson says:

    Regarding Amazing, Yes, he is always at the top of any list, however, we’ve elected to keep him as our ace up our sleeve. There’s always the possibility of bringing him on for episodes where his vast wealth of knowledge would aid our efforts.

    Thanks for all of the positive and comments! We’re all working very hard to make this show a reality, and we’re making great progress!

  5. The first time I heard about your efforts I once again took an interest in my TV listings in hopes of seeing something. Sadly, the only news I am getting is that Lex and Terry will get some sort of juvenile reality show on the air before you guys manage to. Not to take anything away from Jack@$$ redux, I’m sure someone must find it entertaining since it permeates the airwaves, but I’d like to have some level of intellectual stimulation.

    Keep up the good work, and if you need a letter writing campaign or something of that sort, please feel free to call on your legions of adoring fans.

    And keeping “Amazing up your sleeve” made me giggle! :)

  6. Susan B. says:

    What can we, as hopeful viewers, do to help the show along? Any petitions you need signed? Letters to producers? I’d love to see this show take off and I’d like to do what I can to make it happen.

  7. Ryan Johnson says:

    Thanks offers the offers of help. There are three ways that you can help out right now:

    1. Go online to http://www.skeptologists.com, take a look around, those web hits add up and will help us show there is an active interest.

    2. Write an email in support of the show (email address: skeptologists@newrule.com) That email will go into a pile that already has over 2700 emails of support. It’s a numbers game folks, and when the time comes, we’ll present this pile of email to the powers that be. Networks base their programming decisions on their ability to generate an audience and support their advertisers. Showing a “built-in” audience help them “get it!” The email doesn’t need to be long, just a quick, “I support this show and can’t wait to see it!” is great!

    3. Donate to the cause. I hate this part, but it’s a very real aspect of the success of a new show, on the Skeptologists website, we’ve setup a PayPal donate button. Those funds are used to offset the costs of creating demos, printing pitch materials, communications and travel… oh, don’t forget legal fees. They add up quick, and the more support we have in this area, the better prepared we are to present our program to the people that can make the difference.

    As we progress through our efforts, there may be other things that you can do, and I’ll be sure to let you all know. I’m so glad to be a part of this project. It may be challenging, but it is really a worthwhile endeavor.

    -Ryan

  8. Greetings!

    I’m going to be featuring your story, and linking to it from our variety of blogs later this week. Something else that you might/should consider is putting much of your show effort, even the creation portion of it online, perhaps in a YouTube channel. The power of what is something social and viral like YouTube, where people send links all day long to things that matter (even if it’s just to THEM) is something that you should prey on.

    I’d also suggest that after getting the demos/portions of episodes up online, send contacts to people like me that review things professionally online. There is a great talent pool of skilled, unbiased, adept “guys” that will give you their true read on your show, and – if it’s anything like your great website, newsletter, and now an outstanding regularly-sent-through blog (which I will also be linking to shortly) – it’s a no-brainer.

    Keep up the great work and remember the online people who review things JUST LIKE your program. There is MUCH in the way of audience for items of the Skeptic nature, and I look forward to helping you succeed.

  9. Steve Organek says:

    This will be the first reality show that is actually about reality. I think you should use that concept in your pitch and marketing. You could even incorporate it as a subtitle, something along the lines of “Reality based reality TV” or “Reality squared”.

    Another use of “Reality Squared” could be as a substitute title if you come to the conclusion that a title with the word “skeptic” in it could be a barrier to entry or turn off potential viewers. At first that may seem like a ridiculous notion, but we live in a world where Sarah Palin is a VP candidate. Any assumption that the word “skeptic” has a generally positive image should be viewed skeptically.

  10. I love this idea for a show and will be sure to tune in. Are there any plans to put a couple pilot episodes online to test the waters? I bet some You Tube viewers would enjoy it and it could help advertise a bit. Out of the many people who sent applications, are there any plans to have guest stars for different shows? I can’t wait to watch!