too close for larry

2/26/13

GFWD asked some excellent questions about how TV is made, the sort of stuff you wouldn’t know unless you’ve been in the trenches a while. I’ll do my best to answer them without resorting to anything egregiously cynical! So here you go…

When you write a show, do you write for the particular network, or do you write the show and then try to shop it or tailor it? For example, was MODERN FAMILY written for ABC or just picked up by ABC?

Now we’re talking! First off, remember that each network has a certain “brand” that they feel defines their zeitgeist. Just like Porsche caters to a different customer than Volvo, the USA Network caters to a different audience than Showtime.

The three broadcast networks of our youth (now five, although that distinction is approaching irrelevance) all seemed the same when we were growing up, but they, too, have a brand identity. ABC goes for a younger, soapier audience for dramas (“Grey’s”, “Housewives”, “Revenge”), whereas CBS is more staid but arguably more solid (“The Good Wife”, “Blue Bloods” and all the NCIS’s).

In comedy, ABC is more single-camera and quirky (“The Middle”, “Modern Family”, “Suburgatory”) where CBS has those conventional sitcoms like “How I Met Your Mother”, “2 Broke Girls” and “Two and a Half Men”. Fox remains the only network that will get away with “The Simpsons”, “Glee” and “Fringe”.

Knowing that, let’s shift gears and define the two kinds of ideas that get bought: one is a pitch, meaning you go into a meeting with a network with a big idea and do a little dog-and-pony show; and the other is a spec, where you write a pilot script on your own and then shop it around.

A spec is great when you have an idea that simply can’t be pitched, or is odd enough that it has to be read to truly sing. The drawback is that networks don’t have a sense of ownership of the material – they didn’t get to help shape it, and there’s always plenty for them to say “no” to.

A pitch is more common. The drawback is that you, the writer – who ostensibly chose your career because you didn’t enjoy performing, and are more at home pulling the strings behind the curtain – have to razzle-dazzle a room full of execs who have already heard 7 pitches that day.

So if you’re pitching, your agent will send you to the network most likely to have a kind ear. Have a crazy, young, weird procedural with a high concept? They might send you over to Fox to wow ’em.

If you have a spec script, your agent will send the script over to the place that will appreciate it. Have an intense, funny drama about a tortured individual with dark secrets? Your script might land on a desk over at USA.

So to answer GFWD’s question, the answer is “both”. Getting your idea bought, then made into a pilot, is a whole other political animal. As for “Modern Family”, the creators had a long and storied track record featuring too many shows to mention – but they still had to pitch to all the networks, and ABC got the timing right.

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Is it harder to write for or get picked up by cable networks? It sounds like cable allows shows to breathe and get their footing, instead of making a snap judgment after only two episodes. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t more folks want to write for them?

That is a fascinating question, one that many writers ask themselves daily. I’ll try to make it simple.

• In general, non-premium cable channels (meaning not HBO, Showtime, etc.) have a lot less money to spend than the networks. This disincentivizes agents and managers to have their writers pitch there, because it’s not as profitable.

• In some ways, it’s much harder to sell something to a cable network because they don’t buy 60 scripts a year like the networks do. Cable companies tend to buy only a handful of scripts, and then actually make them.

• Although this is changing, cable shows – even successful ones – have tiny audiences compared to the networks. For instance, the finale of last season’s “Mad Men” was seen by 2.7 million people. Last week’s episode of NCIS was seen by 21 million people.

That said, once you get a show on cable, your world opens up considerably. Tessa and I would be over the moon if we got a cable show.

How many shows are filmed or shot before a show gets on the air and where do the ones that never get seen go?

Typically, a network buys 60-ish scripts (depending on their needs), will actually shoot 8-12 pilots, and put three on the air (one as a mid-season replacement). Those numbers vary wildly, but even a cursory glance shows you a vast graveyard of unseen pilots.

Those pilots live on in three places: YouTube (such as the oft-lamented Heat Vision and Jack), infamy, and on lonely hard drives missing power cords in closets. Given that many pilots cost millions to make, it might well be the least-efficient business model in modern capitalism. To which we all say, THANK GOD.

Do writers write the entire season or just a few episodes and then make it up as they go once a show gets going?

Ah, the “LOST” question. Well, if you’re writing a procedural (“CSI”, etc.) there’s no need, because the nature of the show writes itself. But if it’s a drama, particularly one with constant mystery, you really had better have a decent idea about the arc of season one. Which leads to great first seasons of shows like “Heroes”.

Everyone lives with cancellation hanging over their heads, so network showrunners are likely to throw everything into the stew at once, and let the future take care of itself. But that always comes at a price. I’ll let you guys think of the shows that have paced themselves well, and those that have burned bright and flickered out.

For the scripts that you’ve written, do you get the same amount of money whether it’s put on the air or not?

Every writer – or writing team like me and Tessa – have a “quote”, which is your going rate for writing a script. This increases over time, and especially when you’ve become a proven commodity. Interestingly, you don’t get very much money if the script is made into a pilot – but if that pilot actually airs and becomes a fixture on the schedule, then you can make actual bank.

What’s the longest wait time between when a TV show script is picked up and then put on the air?

This is part of why TV felt so refreshing to us: they actually make decisions and act on them. They have hours they need to fill, and they either say yes or no. It’s in stark contrast to the movie business, which can be an immediate greenlight or 17 years of dicking around.

In TV, the schedule usually looks like this:

• summer = pitch season

• most pitches bought by October/November

• script due just after New Year’s

• decision made to make pilot around February (“pilot season” for actors)

• decision to air the pilot made at the end of May (the “up fronts”)

• show premieres in the fall

So the quick version takes about 14 months. If you’re a mid-season replacement, it’s about 18-20 months. And everyone keeps threatening to get rid of this schedule and have year-round development, but it for now, it still seems to hew to this schedule.

Still reading? That wasn’t EGREGIOUSLY boring, was it? Ask more questions if you so desire!

 

7 thoughts on “too close for larry

  1. Tanya

    Okay, so I just have a quick follow-up question…
    When you go in for your pitch, who exactly from the network is in the room? And, for that matter, how many people in general are present? What does your dog and pony show consist of? Do you sit around and talk excitedly with your hands, or do you have props (imagining something like storyboards used in ad campaign pitches – something I’m more familiar with)? So, basically, what’s pitch meeting like?

    Reply
  2. Alyson

    Thank you! I love hearing about the magic of tv.
    Am I understanding correctly that writers can continue to write and get paid even if their shows never make it to pilot or to air?

    Reply

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