San Diego Business Journal USA Network Airing Latest Program From Local Settings

When scouting locations for "Cover Me," a series that began airing on the USA Network this month, producer Jim Michaels had to contend with a $1 million-per-episode budget that's lower than average.

For that reason, San Diego became the choice over Los Angeles and Chicago, Michaels said.

And San Diego has worked out nicely for a number of reasons, Michaels said.

He attributes that in part to San Diego's proximity to Los Angeles and its talent pool, and the minimal travel expenses, he said.

For indoor shots, the show is renting space from the Kearny Mesa studios of Stu Segall Productions. Segall's shows include the "Pensacola: Wings of Gold" and the defunct "Silk Stalkings."

Both series have been shot in San Diego and have paved the way for current productions, Michaels said.

"San Diego has had a television business for a long time, and so people are used to crews down here," he said.

Spectators and residents' reactions to the shoots are more manageable than if locals were not as used to it.

Michaels said that the permitting process is less complicated and cheaper in San Diego than in some cities. He credits that to the San Diego Film Commission.

"We took one big meeting when we started," he recalled. "We all know what the 'day-to-day' is, and once we find out what the rules are in this particular back yard, you just abide by them and go forward."

Also, San Diego's an appropriate setting to the plot, Michaels said. The show is about the real-life story of an FBI agent who tries to protect his family by enlisting them to infiltrate the mob, and the family had lived in San Diego, he said.

For that reason, scenes such as Sunset Cliffs, parts of Point Loma and the murals in Chicano Park will be familiar to local viewers.

For an upcoming episode being shot this week, Balboa Park is used as a convalescent home, Michaels said. To keep the setting less recognizable, the cameras avoid any distinctive park symbols, he said.

For exterior scenes at the main characters' home, the series is using two houses in a Scripps Ranch neighborhood. One is being shot as a front yard, the other as a back yard.

Although the show has built indoor sets for the characters' home at the Segall studios, they haven't been using them as much as expected, Michaels said.

"We're shooting seven days an episode, and with normal television schedules, you're typically on your stage at least half of those days," he said. The "Cover Me" production has used its studios an average of two days per episode, he said.

For the episode to be shot next, the stage will be used for only half a day, Michaels said.

For each episode, the $1 million budget breaks down into construction, props, wardrobe, renting locations and salaries, Michaels said. Paying the staff, crew, actors and extras adds up to about 35 percent of each episode's budget, he said. Locations cost from $10,000 to $20,000 an episode, he said.

Despite the fact other productions have budgets that can be about $1.6 million, Michaels is pleased to be on this one, he said.

He oversees the production with executive producer Shaun Cassidy. Cassidy, of TV's "Hardy Boys" fame, has been working behind the scenes in television for many years. He created the hourlong "Cover Me" and wrote the original script.

Now, the show will shoot the last of its current 13 episodes in May and is awaiting news as to whether it will be renewed for another 13 episodes, Michaels said. If so, production will begin again in July.

Cathy Anderson, who heads the local film commission, represents the city, county and San Diego Unified Port District in bringing movie and television productions to San Diego and aiding them while they're here.

There are many benefits to having the show here and having it set in San Diego, she said.

"I think that's nice for us," Anderson said.

"It's not real necessary in our work because we're trying to create jobs and economic benefit, but it's a nice second level marketing opportunity when it shows our beautiful locations."

"Cover Me" could prompt more people in the film or television industry to work here and also recognize it as San Diego, she said.

Also, the show is good, Anderson said.

"I think it's something that will create a lot of buzz and a lot of conversation, and that also helps us in future marketing," she said.

On an economic level, the show offers crew members steady work for the nine months of shooting a full season, Anderson said.

Anderson's support of local productions ran a little more close to home than usual. While shooting the third episode of "Cover Me," which aired last week, producers lost a location for an accountant's office.

Viewers instead got a glimpse of the film commission's office.