What is a television line producer, and how long have you been doing this job?

Production companies hire me after they’ve received the “green light” to develop and produce a new television series. The first thing I do is read something called the bible, a document that explains the concept, visual look and tone of the show. My job is to create a production budget based on the amount of money the executive producer has for the entire project. For example, if he or she gives me \$6 million to produce 26 episodes, I need to allocate every cent within several dozen categories over the length of the production. I also create the pre-production, shooting and post-production schedules, assist with casting, hire the technical crews and then oversee the whole project from beginning to end.  I’ve been doing this work for 23 years.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I have to break everything down in the budget and make sure we only spend what we have! So for example, I have to figure out how many days we need a wardrobe assistant, how much it will cost, and make sure we have some wiggle room for overtime, extra prep days, etc. Sometimes, if I’m working on a smaller budget show, I’m the one who calculates the actors’ and technicians’ time sheets, so lots of adding, multiplication, etc.

Every week or so, I have to do cash flow reports; how much I estimated to spend, the actual costs, and estimated future costs. It all has to balance out, so if we do lots of overtime one week, I need to figure out what needs to be cut over the coming weeks to make up for that shortfall.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?  Why or why not?

Oh yes!! Time sheets are now calculated on the computer, but I still check everything with a calculator, as I’ve fallen victim to incorrect formats. Nothing worse than a camera operator coming up to you saying his paycheck is wrong!! Cash flows and budgets are either done on Excel or through special software, often MovieMagic, which has programs for film and television scheduling and budgeting.

I have to admit I also still count on my fingers sometimes

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

It forces me to focus on what is perhaps the most important part of any creative project: the bottom line. Television is lots of fun, but it’s a business, and the executives and broadcasters expect me to deliver a project on budget. Time is money when you’re on-set, so even 15 minutes of overtime can sink you, if you have dozens of cast and crew to pay. Math makes me more organized!

How comfortable with math do you feel?

Today, I’m very comfortable with math, but since I have a tendency to do everything quickly, my challenge is always to slow down and get it right.*

What kind of math did you take in high school?

I hated math all through school, and always excelled at writing, and other creative subjects. I had one fabulous math teacher in tenth grade who finally made math fun. Good thing I was in his class, because I’d always figured I’d never need math to pursue my career goals, but was amazed years later to discover how much math I needed when I started working in television production. I was a script supervisor whose duties included timing segments with a stop-watch, adding things up and making sure we wouldn’t go into editing with too many long scenes. I was terrified of making math errors, and realized quickly to slow down, relax and always double-check my work.

Wendy Helfenbaum is a writer and television producer in Montreal, Canada. Visit her at http://www.taketwoproductions.ca.

*This is perhaps the best advice I can offer anyone who is struggling with math.  Only your fifth-grade teacher and the Mathletes coach care how quickly you can do calculations.

Last week’s Math at Work feature was with my sister, Melissa, who is a speech therapist.