How Television Shows Are Created – Part One

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Michael Corleone

“Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.”
Emerson, Lake and Palmer

“What the hell is HE doing here?”
Robert Gregory Browne

“Huh?”
David J. Montgomery

Yes, it’s me again. But don’t fret, it’s a very limited engagement. X asked me to speak a little about the TV world, and having just returned from a crazy four weeks of it in LA, well, timing is everything.

NOTE: What follows is exclusively my personal info/experience in writing one-hour dramas. Half-hour comedies – sitcoms and single-camera – are worlds away, and if that’s your little red wagon, go read Ken Levine’s fine blog about that world: kenlevine.typepad.com.

Part One:  HOW TELEVISION SERIES ARE CREATED

Unless you’ve won an Emmy within the past 15 years, and can get the heads of studios and networks on the phone – writers with Emmys can do this – what follows is how a television series winds up on the air.

You (meaning the writer, though there are other non-writing entities that do this) have an idea for a TV series. Stop Guyot. You forgot the checklist. Ah, yes. Before we continue, there’s a checklist of things that are REQUIRED for you to move beyond simply having an idea for a TV series.

Item 1 – You must have a place of residence in Southern California. You may be able to swing a NY residence, but if you are truly starting out, it’s SoCal or nothing. X has covered this. Look it up, people.

Item 2 – You must have an agent. A legitimate agent. “Bob’s Talent & Pet Agency” in Pacoima is not legit. Your cousin acting as your agent is not legit. Some guy you met online who claims to be a manager is not legit… unless he can show you at least three working clients. Having 17 unemployed clients does not count. Besides, managers are for actors, or people who can’t get real agents. I know exactly one working screenwriter who has a manager (along with an agent), and that writer hates the manager. You don’t need to be with Endeavor (though it helps), but you must have an agent that is capable of having their calls returned.

Item 3 – You must have NO LESS than two samples of your writing. And I mean samples of one-hour episodic television writing. Three is really how many you should have, but you can get away with two if both are brilliant. Nowadays they should be original specs – meaning, they should be pilot episodes of some idea of your own. It used to be you needed specs of shows currently on the air (hit shows), but that’s more about getting a staff job, and we’re talking about how series are created. Oh, and it’s a good idea that neither of your samples are the show you are trying to sell. They can be, but it’s a slippery slope.

Item 4 – You must have the ability to check your ego. It’s okay to have an ego, but you must be able to sit across from an idiot who is telling you what’s wrong with the thing you wrote and, while you know with every fiber of your being that what is being said is complete horsepucky, you must be able to nod your head and say, “That’s interesting. I’ll take a look at that.” If you cannot do this, sell your SoCal residence, fire your agent, and burn your two specs. You will not make it.

Okay, you’ve got the checklist covered. So, here’s how a television series winds up on the air.

You have your great idea for a series. You tell your agents about it, and if they’re good agents, they say they love it regardless of their real feelings. See, agents don’t know shit about anything but agenting, and they can be deadly to the creative process. If your agent ever wants to give you notes on something you’ve written, or tells you it’s not a good idea, or that there are already three ideas in town just like it, don’t listen to them. Just tell them to set up the meetings.

So, your agents get you “pitch” meetings at the studios. Sony, Lions Gate, and Warner Television are examples studios lacking the vertical integration X spoke of. Studios having meaningful sex with networks include: Paramount (which is now CBS-Paramount), Universal (which is now NUTS. I’m not kidding. It’s: NBC-Universal-Television-Studios), Touchstone (which is now ABC Studios), 20th Century Fox, and HBO Studios.

THE STUDIO PITCH

This is where you walk in and tell the black-clad assistant with the tiny headset that you’re there to see so-and-so. Regardless of whether you are there thirty minutes early, or thirty minutes late, the assistant will always says, “So-and-so is running a little behind. He/she will be with you in a few minutes.” Then the assistant asks if they can get you a bottled water. If you say yes, they ask if you want it cold or room temperature. If you’re at a really fancy POD (more on PODs in the coming weeks), they may offer you a latte or even a Red Bull. Though, I don’t recommend the latter right before you walk into a pitch meeting.

So, you sit there, either in an uncomfortably upright chair, or on a leather couch so soft that you feel like you’re being swallowed by a jellyfish. There is always something to read while you wait, and it’s always the same thing: the Trades. VARIETY and the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, daily publications listing all the business dealings going on in Hollywood.

DON’T READ THESE.

DON’T EVEN OPEN THEM. It will kill your pitch. Why? Because you will either get so depressed by reading about the hacks doing so much better than you, or you will read about some network already developing the exact same idea you’re about to pitch, or you’ll read about how the networks are looking for anything BUT the type of idea that you’re about to pitch. The Trades… it takes you five minutes to read them, and five days to get over them.

Finally, the assistant walks over and says, “So-and-so is ready for you.” You follow the assistant back through a Habitrail of cubicles – unless you’re at Sony, in which case you’ve been waiting in the foyer of Tara – the GONE WITH THE WIND mansion – and you follow the assistant back down a long corridor – to an office where two to four people (no matter how many you were supposed to meet with), all younger and prettier than you, greet you like you’re their favorite uncle at a family reunion. And then they offer you that same bottled water thing the assistant already did… even if you’re holding one.

Then you have to make the BIG CHOICE… where to sit. They always let you choose, and choosing right is critical. NEVER sit with a window at your back – you don’t want them distracted by a passing bird, or helicopter, or cloud if your pitch is really sucking. NEVER sit in the lowest chair in the room. If you’re looking up at them during your pitch, it’ll screw with your head, and if they’re looking down at you the whole time, they’ll subconsciously feel like you’re unworthy.

So, you choose your seat, and then the small talk begins. Everyone makes small talk for five or ten minutes. Complete bullshit-nobody cares-pointless-fake small talk. Why? God only knows. Probably because they hate being there – they hear about twenty pitches a day for several weeks – and you hate being there because you’re a writer, not a freaking car salesman. So, you make small talk, trying to get the nerves out, and then someone in the room awkwardly segues into why you’re all sitting there.

And then you pitch. What the hell does that mean? A pitch is where you, a writer, a person used to working long hours all by yourself, a person usually socially awkward with bizarre idiosyncrasies, a person who chose writing for a living because you can’t express yourself in words, a person who is the furthest and farthest thing from any type of salesperson, must now sell your idea. You sit there, across from two to four people that you know are not writers, are not artists, and are envious of you, and you must sell them on your idea. Convince them to put their jobs on the line by going to their boss and saying, “This is the idea and the writer we should put millions of dollars behind.”

Pitching sucks. Even if you’re good at it, and I know some folks who are freaking geniuses at the art of pitching, it still sucks. It is so counter to the creative process. The closest thing to it is an actor doing a cold reading for a role. The actor may be perfect for the role, but because their cold read was weak, or not exactly what the people in the room were looking for, they didn’t get it. There’s a great old Hollywood story about a female actor that was horrible at auditions. Would go in and freeze up, or just be awful, and got a rep as a horrible actor, and couldn’t get any work for the longest time, so she started doing theater and some people saw her, and she got a job or two without having to audition. Her name: Meryl Streep. Probably not true, but a good story.

So, you sit there and, if you know what’s good for you, you pitch for about seven to ten minutes max. If you’re an idiot, you pitch for fifteen or twenty minutes. If you are in dire need of a lobotomy, you pitch for more than twenty minutes. You’re saying things like, “This is a show about…” and “Then there’s this character Joe, an everyman, but good looking…” and “And he’s in love with this woman named Maggie and she’s totally unaware of her natural beauty…” and on and on. And during this verbal diarrhea, the young beauties are nodding, wearing their interested look masks, and they will occasionally write something down on their little notepads that they’re all holding. If you laugh at something in your pitch – indicating a funny part of the idea – they will laugh, too. The young beauties are very polite.

When you’re done with the pitch, they ask questions. If they start asking questions during your pitch, it’s best to just stop, thank them all, and go home. You’re sunk. But if you can get to the end without interruption, then they’ll ask a series of questions about character motivations, relationships, machinations, story points, arcs, or whatever else it was that they all talked about at their last corporate retreat. Remember, they ain’t writers for a reason. And after everything has been asked and answered, they will tell you that they loved it. Or that it sounds great. Or, and this is the kiss of death, “Sounds interesting.” Then they’ll say, “So, let us talk internally and we’ll get back to you.” Then they tell you what a great job you did with the pitch. As I said, they are nothing if not polite.

You walk out of every pitch meeting thinking you hit a homerun. Thinking that they’re gonna be on the phone with your agents before you have your parking validated. As you take the elevator down to the parking garage, you’re trying to decide if you’ll buy property in Sun Valley or Martha’s Vineyard, once season five airs and your backend starts kicking in.

Don’t call the real estate people. Because you’re wrong. No matter how many years you pitch, and I’ve done it quite a few, your ego is so tweaked as a writer, that you always think THIS TIME they really did love it. So, then, a day or so later, when your agent calls and says they passed, you want to kill yourself.

But, let’s say you heard the kiss of life in the studio pitch. That’s where someone in the room says, “You know, this could be perfect for [insert network here] or [insert second network here].” If the studio thinks your idea might be right for more than one network, there’s a good chance they’ll buy it. If they ask you in the pitch what networks you were thinking of, it means they don’t have a clue, and you’re dead.

The young beauties have a tough job. Their job is to say no. They are required to say no to about 95% of everything they hear. Which means they must say yes to 5% of it. Ah, but which five percent? And what if they say no to an idea that some other studio says yes to, and it becomes THE SOPRANOS? Then they’re working at Bob’s Talent & Pet Agency. So, without an “element” – oh, did I mention elements? An element is when you go into pitch and you already have a big name director attached, or a big name actor, or sometimes a big name producer. The young beauties are taught to say yes to pitches with fancy elements attached. Despite the fact that very few – read it again: VERY FEW – shows ever succeed with big names attached from the beginning. So, for them to say yes to you and your silly idea, well, let’s just say it’s akin to buying a lottery ticket.

But let’s be positive here. Say you hit a homerun and the young beauties loved your pitch, and  have decided that one of the twenty or so pitches they buy out of the, oh, three to four hundred pitches they hear that development season, is yours. Woohoo! Pop the champagne, right? Uh, no… because chances are the deal they make with you is an IF-COME deal. That means that the studio agrees to pay you a certain price to write the pilot ONLY IF it is sold to a network. If/come deals are the hot thing right now because of the pending strike, and for some other boring reasons which I won’t go into here. The deal you want is a Blind deal. That means the studio loves you enough, or your idea enough that they will gamble and pay you to write the pilot whether you sell it or not. Meaning, if you don’t sell it to a network, then you are contractually obligated to write some pilot for them that year. Either another idea of yours they like, or they can tell you what to write. It can often end up being a lot of work for one set fee, but to me, money in the bank is always better than money promised.

So, now you have a pilot deal. Sony (or whomever) has agreed to pay you $150,000 to write your pilot script… IF they – meaning you and the young beauties – sell it to a network. The next thing that happens is you go into the outline phase. This is a sieve of time where you write up who the characters are, what the show is, how it will be structured, and anything else you want, and then the studio’s young beauties give you notes. During this process you may or may not discuss and develop the actually story for the actual pilot episode. It depends on the studio. Either way, once the young beauties are happy with your pages, you move on to which networks would be good possibilities, which networks would never buy an idea like this, and so on. The studios have strong opinions about exactly what the networks are looking for, because they meet with them and they ask them.

But here’s one of the hee-larious things about the TV biz: they’re always wrong. The studios have no idea what the networks will or won’t buy because the freaking networks themselves have no idea. Take this development season as an example – ABC and NBC both made it very clear to Hollywood that they were only developing “Blue sky” shows, meaning they only wanted feel good, happy, light, dramas. Everywhere I went I heard this, as did my agents, the studios, everyone.

And guess what? The first few things bought by those two networks? Not blue sky, not light and happy.

So, you and your studio figure out just what networks you’re going to pitch to, and during the two to three weeks it takes for a studio to schedule a freaking pitch meeting with a network, you all hone the pitch within an inch of its life. This is the network pitch, and though you might think it should be the same as the studio pitch, think again. See, the young beauties must get their fingerprints all over it. So, you discuss and discuss and practice and practice the pitch so much, that by the time the network meeting is set, you hate your own idea.

And, another hee-larious aspect of all this is when the studio has you alter your pitch depending on which network you’re going to. “So-and-so at NBC hates blah-blah-blah, so we need to say blah, blah, blah, instead of blah-blah-blah.” Or… “So-and-so at ABC loves it when blah-blah-blah, so make sure you blah-blah-blah.” Now, I know you smart ‘Rati readers are going, “yeah, but what about the show? The idea?” Nope, has nothing to do with the idea.

Next week, I’ll take you through Phase Two: THE NETWORK PITCH.

18 thoughts on “How Television Shows Are Created – Part One

  1. Julia S-F

    So, Guyot, I have this great idea for a series I jotted down on a bar napkin. I thought I could tell you, and you could write it and pitch it and produce it, and then we could split the proceeds.

    I’d do it myself, but I don’t want to live in L.A.

    Reply
  2. Bryon Quertermous

    Julia, I hear rural Maine is so the new SoCal.

    And Guyot I have this idea that’s a cross between Felicity and Judging Amy with hostage negotiators. Know anybody who could write something like that?

    Reply
  3. AlnAndrsn

    Great stuff, Guyot.

    Wow. After reading this, why would ANYONE want to write novels?

    Bring on the young beauties of TV!

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    Great tale of the young beauties, Guyot.

    The nightmare design of these pitch sessions is so bizarre. Instead of the Writer-Agent-Publisher handoff of my world, it looks like it would be a Writer-Agent-EDITOR-Publisher format, adding a whole new layer of selling.

    Hmmm … come to think of it, maybe these worlds aren’t so different after all.

    Reply
  5. Guyot

    BQ and Spen-Flem, you two should combine your ideas, write it down on a oily shop rag (using a glitter pen), and get it to me right away.

    Oh, and it should be set in rural Maine with a protagonist from suburban Michigan, who has a little too-friendly relationship with a chicken wing eating school teacher from Jersey.

    I smell Emmy!!!!

    Oh, wait that’s not Emmy, that’s… pardon me.

    Reply
  6. Kathryn Lilley

    One other aspect of the sitcom career path that’s worth noting: I have several successful friends in the “biz”, and all agree that there’s a weird phenomenon that takes place around the 40th birthday–unless they have a “piece” of the show, the writers disappear, no matter how talented they are. No writers with gray hair or wrinkles (even if dyed, even if Botoxed) are allowed.

    Reply
  7. Julia S-F

    The glitter pen. See, that’s the sort of insider knowledge you only get at expensive three-day screenwriting seminars. Yet here it is! For free!

    How big should the margins be on the oily rag?

    Reply
  8. Patti McCoy Jacob

    I had heard that, Kathryn, about the whole LOGAN’S RUN phenomenon when it comes to a Hollywood writer’s age. Heard it from Mr. Guyot, as a matter of fact. Makes zero sense to me. What a waste of a talent that could only come from years of experience. And 40’s the magic number? Well, Paul, at least that gives you a good ten years before YOUR “Lastday,” right???

    Reply
  9. Mark Terry

    If your number–$150,000–is accurate and fer-real-fer-shur, then most novelists would screw Brian’s suburban Michigan chickens at the say-so of the young beauties, or damn near anything else they ask.

    I’m just sayin’…

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Mark, NOTHING is fer-real-fer-shur. You can do all of that work G just described – over and over and over and over again – and never see a dime out of it, ever. It’s all spec work.

    Same for features – same exact pitching process.

    That’s why I started writing novels – I realized that for every shelved script I’d ever written, in the time it took to set it up and go through the process, I could have had a novel for every one.

    Believe me, you start to think.

    Reply
  11. Zmajrak

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