Sunday 4 March 2012

The Wheel of Television Part 2: Structure and Season Length

In Part 1 (which you can find here) I argued that a screen adaptation of The Wheel of Time would work much better as a TV series than a series of films, the option currently being pursued by Red Eagle Entertainment and rights-holders Universal Studios. As discussed in that article, the story would have to be substantially gutted to work even as six 2-3 hour films, and much of the story from the books would be lost. My conclusion was that a TV series would be the only viable way for the books to be adapted to the screen.

Cable or network?
Once the conclusion is reached that the story must be adapted to television, the next question is whether a deal should be pursued with one of the big, universally-available TV networks in the USA (such as ABC or NBC), or with one of the smaller, but usually more flexible, cable networks. If we assume that HBO would not be interested because of their commitment to Game of Thrones, that leaves stations such as Starz, AMC and Showtime as possible contenders. The smaller cable stations, like SyFy, would almost certainly lack the resources to tackle the project with adequate funding.

This question is important for practical reasons. Most notably, the networks usually have longer seasons than cable. If this was the sole issue, in fact, it would be a no-brainer to go with a network. With 20-24 episodes per season, it would be easy to cover two or maybe even three books a season, easily enough to tell the whole story. This would even include the duller moments later on, though I would still argue in favour of condensing events in the third quarter of the series to maybe half the length of narrative they currently span, if not less, to improve pacing.

Of course, there are drawbacks to being on a network. The biggest are money and how much of a chance the series would be given to prove itself before cancellation. Networks are notoriously trigger-happy on cancelling shows early, even when prior evidence shows this to be a self-defeating practice. For example, Seinfeld was almost cancelled at birth due to low ratings, but given another chance and went on to become one of the biggest American TV shows of all time. This tendency increases exponentially the more money is poured into a project. The head of ABC was fired for profligacy after greenlighting Lost's pilot with an astonishing $15 million budget, even though it rewarded that investment by going on to become the biggest thing on TV for a couple of years. A Wheel of Time TV show would require more than the standard $2 million-per-episode budget common to network genre projects (Game of Thrones's budget is more like $6 million per episode, for comparison's sake), which would make it much more likely to be dropped should ratings not match expectations almost immediately.

That said, networks have become more willing to give shows a chance in the last few years. Fox gave both Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles two seasons each to prove themselves before cancelling them, apparently learning from the short-termism that led to the premature cancellation of Firefly several years earlier (later shown to be a mistake after impressive DVD box set sales). They've also shown a willingness to invest more money if the show is a success: Lost's budget (after the generously-budgeted pilot) reached $5 million per episode by the final season, whilst Heroes enjoyed $4 million per episode until its final season, when the budget was slashed in the face of sharply dropping ratings. Still, the greater risk of immediate cancellation makes the networks an uneasy choice to pursue.

On cable, the issues are different. First off, the success of Thrones on HBO means that the other big cable networks will almost certainly be receptive to having a fantasy TV project of their own, especially one where the books are (or were, before Game of Thrones started on TV, anyway) even more popular with an even larger fanbase and an even greater name awareness. Also, whilst the other cable companies don't have HBO's impressive financial resources, they can usually muster up larger budgets than most of the standard networks. Shows like The Tudors (on Showtime), The Walking Dead (on AMC) and Spartacus (on Starz) enjoy significantly more resources than most network shows, whilst not quite being in HBO's league.

The trade-off for more money is shorter seasons. 8-12 episodes per season is normal on a cable network, and 16 episodes (for Season 3 of The Walking Dead or Season 4 of Oz) is the absolute maximum, usually only possible after the show has been a proven success. This is a major limitation in adapting The Wheel of Time for a cable network. If we assume 12 episodes (probably the maximum realistic figure for the first season, at least), that means either hoping the series goes for 10+ seasons (highly implausible) or condensing the story down, which, if not handled right, could takes us back to the movie problem of the project not being worthwhile in the first place.

Length of the seasons
So the question becomes, how much time is necessary to tell the Wheel of Time story on TV? How many episodes should each book cover? Looking at Game of Thrones on HBO, the 800-page first novel had to have a noticeable number of minor plots (mostly flashbacks) and characters shaved off to fit into ten episodes. If for Wheel we accept that we have to cover a minimum of two books per season (meaning a seven season show) and, on cable, only twelve episodes per season will be available, that gives us the prospect of fitting each Wheel of Time novel into just six hour-long episodes.

This initially looks dubious, until several things are factored in. First off, six hours is still twice the absolute maximum length of a potential Eye of the World movie, and more likely closer to three times. So it's still the better option from a time perspective. In addition, Robert Jordan's natural verbosity and tendency towards detailed descriptions means that fitting 800 pages into six hours is actually more straightforward than it appears. The Eye of the World is marginally longer than A Game of Thrones (306,000 words to 298,000) but a plot summary of the former is much more straightforward. The plot is more linear with considerably fewer characters overall, and certainly far fewer 'main' characters (at least at this point). Unlike Thrones, the narrative doesn't need to cover three distinct and major storylines (and several smaller ones) unfolding thousands of miles apart. There is a section mid-book where the characters divide into three groups and reconvene a few chapters later on, but this is still less problematic than the issues faced by Thrones in its first season. The Great Hunt, which would form the remainder of a first season, would be slightly more challenging (due to the characters being apart for a much larger part of the book), especially from a budgetary standpoint given the action that takes place at sea, but time-wise it could fit into six episodes even more easily than the first book (it's somewhat shorter, to start with).

In short, although it would still be something of a squeeze, it should still be possible to fit The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt into twelve episodes. Given the superior budgets available on cable, and the greater likelihood of the show at least making it to a full season before cancellation is a danger, this leads me to conclude that pursuing an adaptation on one of the bigger US cable channels is the logical way to proceed, despite the tighter time constraints.

With HBO unlikely to want to have a show competing with Thrones on their own network, one of these three is the most logical choice to make a Wheel of Time series.

Next time (and hopefully not a year down the line!): shaping the entire story into a TV series and how future seasons would face the challenge of adapting both the longer books in the series and also handling the 'slower' books later on.


Brett said...

I'll second the strategy of going for one of the cable channels, and it would probably be either Starz or Showtime. AMC already has several expensive shows that will only get more expensive in the immediate future, so I doubt they could give a Wheel of Time series the budget it deserves.

Starz is an interesting problem. On the one hand, they invest in things like Spartacus, and they put down a ton of money on Camelot (the 1st season of Camelot was more expensive than the first season of Game of Thrones). On the other hand, Camelot ended up being cancelled after one season, so I don't know if they'd be willing to go down that road again.

Trying for a network release is not a good idea. A Wheel of Time series has everything they hate:

1. A serialized, non-episodic plot, which makes the show very difficult to syndicate and for new viewers to jump into.

2. High production costs before and during the series run.

3. High cast costs, since it's a long series and the cast will inevitably start pushing for much higher compensation far into the series run.

4. Unusual concept that doesn't fit into the Standard Show Categories, like "police procedural", etc.

Any Wheel of Time show would come under huge pressure to make changes to "broaden its appeal", only to get canceled in the second season after one of the networks realizes that they could fill the programming hole with vastly cheaper reality TV programming and more reliably successful procedurals. Yes, there's Lost, but Lost is the exception that proves the rule. There have been several attempts to do shows that were "another Lost", and all of them were cancelled quickly.

Dan said...

And the major networks tend to make things so overly accessible any meat to the story is stripped, where as on cable, I would say we are going through a golden age of television. For the first time I can remember, tv shows are actually deeper and better made than feature films (who also seem to be on an overly "safe" kick). My vote is also cable.

Mike said...

I know this is pretty much just wishful thinking, but it would be great to just release it strait to iTunes. Or Netflix. Netflix just started producing some of their own content.

The iTunes route would require someone with a *ton* of money to pay for the production, but I believe they would make a nice profit. That way there would be no limit on the length of a season, or how many seasons a year.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Is there need to have 2 books per episode? From what I understand - never managed to finish the series because I hate ALL the female characters ;) - the later books don't have that much plot to cover until Sanderson took over. So why not book 1-3 in 2 seasons, same with 4-6, and then pack 3 books in one season? Or break up at different points than the books - except for big battle finales that could work-

Adam Whitehead said...

I am very interested to see how the Netflix stuff works out. If successful, that could be another possibility.

Brett said...

I don't think Netflix has $50-60 million to spend on a Wheel of Time show, not without heavily cutting into content acquisition funding. House of Cards alone is pretty expensive for them, and they also have the re-started Arrested Development run to pay for.

The iTunes route sounds like a possibility, but that's a lot of money they'd have to put down before making a dime. And you just know that a Wheel of Time show is going to get pirated seven-ways from sunday in mere hours after its release on iTunes.

B. Reed said...

Every single person who reads this blog post needs to write to Red Eagle, at, and tell them we approve of this person's idea.

I recently wrote to them about this very topic, begging them to NOT turn this awesome series into a movie, and they pretty much told me to F-off, only in much nicer terms.

Maybe if they get as much of a backlash as they should they will reconsider.

Also, I just want to say, REE was FIRED by Robert Jordan shortly before his death, because they refused to listen to him. They treated him, a dying man, like crap and so he threw up his arms and said 'screw it! I am done with you!'

So of course when REE heard that the rights had been sold to universal they went slithering away, like the snakes that they are, to Universal to say 'Hey! We have been working on just such a thing, here is our idea's, let us work on this....pleeeeassse!!' And Universal, who probably had no immediate plans to do anything with the rights said "Knock yourselves out"

And that is how, despite betraying the ENTIRE Rigney family with their mistreatment of Mr. Jordan (Also known as Mr. Rigney), they got the permission to continue to work on a movie script.

Needless to say, Robert Jordan hated them, so I hate them too.

I completely agree that a movie format will not work. And it frustrates me that REE is determined to turn it into a movie even though it will be an epic fail.


Anonymous said...

What about a video game adaptation? Video games are becoming more and more cinematic as time goes on. Take a look at the vastly successful Mass Effect series, which is almost more like a series of movies than a traditional video game franchise. A video game could easily tell the story of the Wheel of Time, but may take a slightly longer production time.

I'd be interested in hearing others' thoughts about this.