Ever wonder how your favorite TV sitcom got on the air? There are, of course, many different ways a show can reach the tube. But, as several new programs launch this week, we thought we'd explore how two children's shows made their way into living rooms across America.
For one of the creators of the show "That's So Raven," now in its third season, it all began with an idea and a conversation. The children's sitcom, which airs on the Disney Channel and ABC Kids, is about a fun-loving teenage girl who sees a little bit into the future.
"Initially, a friend of mine named Susan Sherman had an idea about a buddy comedy," says Michael Poryes, a co-writer and producer of the show. "We asked ourselves: 'What is the one thing an adolescent would want to be able to do?' To see into the future! To know if you talk to that boy, that he'd be interested.... To see what is coming around the next block.... That's where it was when we pitched it."
A "pitch" is when writers talk to network programmers about their concept to see if they'd like it developed into a script. The pitch is important - it's the first big hurdle to getting a show on the air. A well-known writer has an easier time lining up a meeting. Mr. Poryes has been working in TV for quite a while, so executives were willing to listen to his and Ms. Sherman's ideas.
Meanwhile, writer/producer Stan Rogow didn't really have to sell the network on his idea for the show "Darcy's Wild Life," which debuts its second season Oct. 1 on Discovery Kids on NBC. Discovery actually approached Mr. Rogow (who also created the hit TV series "Lizzie McGuire") and asked him if he would help create a show for Saturday mornings.
Rogow came up with the idea of Darcy, a teen from a wealthy Malibu Beach community. Darcy's mom doesn't want her to grow up spoiled, living in a bubble of privilege. So she moves the family to the small, fictional town of Bailey, where Darcy must adapt to a life of fewer luxuries and more responsibilities. Darcy adjusts well, makes friends - and even learns about all kinds of animals.
How did Rogow come up with the idea?
"The origin of Darcy was really in the history of literature for young adults," Rogow says. "There are a lot of books that deal with young girls and their horses. There is something magical about that subject. I asked myself: 'How could I tell that story again and make it fresh for a TV audience?' "
Creators acknowledge that a lot of thought goes into crafting an appealing script, creating strong characters, and forming a storyline that holds up, episode after episode.
When both Rogow of "Darcy" and Poryes of "Raven" work on their scripts, they feel it's important never to talk down to their audience, but to speak to children honestly.
Like any thoughtful person, young or old, children are trying to make sense of life and of their place in it, Rogow says.
Both "Raven" and "Darcy" creators aim to tell stories that convey a meaningful point to kids - such as what it means to be a good person and why unselfishness makes a difference in the world. "You can make a point about friendship and honesty without being preachy," says Poryes.
On "Darcy's Wild Life," for instance, Darcy makes the most of her situation when she moves. Instead of getting angry with her mom and acting rebellious, she has a positive attitude and tries to make others happy, too.
On an episode of "That's So Raven," Raven could temporarily hear other people's thoughts. She respected her parent's privacy enough to warn them - so they wouldn't think about anything they didn't want her to hear.
The writers agree that their shows reflect how it feels to be a young teenager, but they like to get comical and downright goofy, too.
After a script is written, it's time to cast the show. Actors audition for each role in front of a committee of writers (seven to 12 is typical) as well as directors and producers.
For "That's So Raven," casting became an important part of the process.
"When we went into casting," Poryes recalls, "[actress Raven Symoné] was so terrific, we had her read for both the [lead] and the goofy friend. The [lead] character is the natural center of the show, but we asked her what role she'd like to play, and she wanted to play the goofy friend."
So initially, the creators shot a pilot episode with Raven cast as the friend, not as the star. A pilot is the first episode of a new show, but it can be reshot and changed before it finally reaches the air (or dropped altogether). Pilots are tested. This is when an audience is privately shown the first episode and asked for their opinions. Creators also pay close attention to what jokes make the audience laugh.
In the case of "That's So Raven," the audience really loved Raven. She's versatile, endearing, and her range of funny expressions keeps viewers giggling. (Some viewers may know Raven from "The Cosby Show," on which she played the young girl Olivia.) It was obvious to the creators that Raven should be cast as the star. So the script was rewritten, and Raven changed roles. The show was even renamed to include Raven's real name.
After the next round of testing proved successful, Disney Channel put "Raven" on the air. It's now a very popular children's sitcom.
In the case of "Darcy's Wild Life," Rogow offered Sara Paxton the role of Darcy without an audition. He had worked with her on "Lizzie McGuire," and he knew her style. He wanted Darcy to be optimistic - a girl who could triumph over challenges and show audiences how to do the same. He felt Sara was perfect for the job. (See interview, right.)
"Darcy's Wild Life" is shot more like a movie, on location and in one big chunk. The cast and crew travel to a farm just outside Toronto. It takes longer to shoot this way because the environment can't be controlled as it would be on an indoor set.
The production team consists of directors, actors, producers (who do the writing), technicians, wardrobe and makeup artists, and chaperones. There are even teachers. During the school year, the young actors are required by law to spend three hours a day in classes. The teenage cast does this on the set.
The actors must learn their lines each night, rehearse, and perform the next day. It's hard work, but the kids have fun together, too.
Each episode is edited right after it is filmed. The soundtrack, including music and dialogue, is also put together. Then it's showtime! Five to six weeks may elapse between shooting an episode and the time it airs.
"That's So Raven" is taped more traditionally, in front of an audience in a set on a soundstage. The show typically shoots two days a week, with breaks to accommodate the children and their school schedules. "Raven" operates on more of a weekly schedule - with read-throughs of the script and rewrites early in the week, followed by rehearsals and tapings of shows. Episodes are edited weekly.
Although changes can still be made, these are the basics of how two shows are put together.
For Poryes, hearing his own child laugh during tapings of "That's So Raven" makes his work rewarding. "When you make a bunch of kids laugh, that's the best," he says. "That's my favorite thing in the world - to hear my kid laughing."
She's young, she's bright, and she's a rising star. But underneath it all, Sara Paxton is a normal teenager who says she has never been to a glamorous Hollywood party.
As the star of "Darcy's Wild Life," this animal-loving actress fits neatly with her character, Darcy, especially when it comes to having an optimistic outlook.
One difference is that Sara is 17, while her character is only 14.
"She's a lot more 'girlie' than I am, but I do identify with her," Sara says. "I don't wear so much pink, frilly stuff.... But I do try to stay positive and stay happy, even when things aren't going my way - like Darcy."
Sara usually spends the first five weeks of the school year in Canada shooting her show.
Then she continues to audition and act in other series and movies throughout the year. She had to find a school that would let her study on location. So she enrolled in a coed private school last year. Sara is a senior now.
"It was really hard when I was in public school," she says. "But the teachers at my new school are really helpful. They e-mail me assignments. And I have really good teachers [on location], who are experts in their fields. We spend three hours a day in class with them, and they keep us from falling behind."
Sara has appeared in movies, too - 12 feature films to be exact. She just spent last spring in Australia making a film called "Aquamarine," in which she plays a mermaid. It debuts next spring.
But acting is not all she wants from her career. "I would love to keep acting. But I want to produce and direct, and maybe have my own production company someday. That's why I'm going to college," she says.