A message from show creator and host Stephen Chung:
As Cool Spaces! makes its way across the country, I frequently get questions about future seasons. To be sure, I want to continue making episodes. There is definitely no shortage of great buildings out there to profile, and architects everywhere are offering up their best projects to my team for consideration. Especially important is that the show has been received well by public television networks. So there is a lot to feel good about. But ultimately, a fundamental challenge exists: Can Cool Spaces! find the funding it needs to create future seasons?
In the world of public television, individual shows and complete series (with the exception of popular programs like NOVA and Masterpiece Theater) are funded by underwriters that are procured by the producer, not the network. In other words, it’s up to me and my team to find a way to pay for Cool Spaces!
This is very different from the way it works on a commercial network like Travel or Science or HGTV. In those instances, the network will commission a show (i.e., pay to have it made). Think of it like a client hiring an architect to design a building: The client commissions the architect, and the architect designs a building based on the program and the budget. The working relationship depends on the network and the producer, but in effect, it is a similar kind of partnership. But make no mistake — the network is in control. It assigns its own production team to any project and shepherds a project through to the channel’s satisfaction. And when all is said and done, the channel owns the end product.
With public television, the producer has much more input on the editorial content of a program. The network certainly weighs in and “guides” a project, but far less so than a commercial network would. Once a show or a series has finished production, it is offered through a distributor to public television stations across the country, and then it’s up to the individual stations to determine if they think the program is worthy of airing.
I am happy to report that most stations have felt that Cool Spaces! is worthy of airing. For example, 49 of the top 50 television markets have committed to air the show this year! Given that Cool Spaces! is a new program on an unproven topic (as far as TV is concerned) and features an unknown host, it’s been a terrific debut. And we would love to keep going! So how do we do that?
In television, the executive producer is the person that gets the money to pay to make a show. (The producer makes the show.) It is the most important and difficult job by far; by comparison, the job of the host is relatively easy. By default, I have taken on this role. And I’ve hit the road and made lots of pitches. As you can imagine, it’s exhausting work. I have a lot more respect for people in sales after this experience. In the beginning, each “no” took a lot out of me. But over time, I got used to it and just tried to think about how to make the pitch better next time. What else can you do?
One thing I do is remind myself that it’s almost never about the merits of the show. It’s just that everything has to align perfectly for a potential underwriter. A company has to be in the position for a large media buy — and not just that, but one specifically for public television. With so many companies focusing on online ads and other forms of social media to deliver their messaging, the more traditional television buy is becoming more of a challenge.
What’s in it for an underwriter, you ask? Basically, an underwriter is given “spots” that appear at the beginning and end of each episode. The spots are able to convey a specific message and deliver it to a certain demographic — the desirable PBS demographic. There is also an implicit alignment with cutting-edge architecture that some brands might find to be a positive thing. A car company, for example. A luxury carmaker might find the connection to the world of architecture as reinforcing some of its core concepts: style, performance, aesthetics. This is called an “affinity” alignment. Whatever the rationale for an underwriter, the reality is that making television is very expensive. As a result, one does not enter into underwriting a public television show lightly. It has to make sense, and on many levels.
Fundraising for Cool Spaces! has been and continues to be a challenge, for sure, but I feel great moving forward. With the first four episodes continuing to air across the country and the next four in the works, companies and organizations are reaching out to us and expressing their interest in being part of our team. I think there is a lot of interest in the world of architecture, and hopefully our show will help to grow the audience.
Image: Filming architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien at The Barnes Foundation.