Write to TV
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Write to TV

Out of Your Head and onto the Screen

Martie Cook

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  1. 340 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Write to TV

Out of Your Head and onto the Screen

Martie Cook

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About This Book

In Write to TV (third edition) industry veteran Martie Cook offers practical advice on writing innovative television scripts that will allow you to finally get that big idea out of your head and onto the screen. With this book you'll learn to craft smart, original stories and scripts for a variety of television formats and genres, including comedy, drama, pilots, web series, and subscription video on demand.

This new edition has been updated with expanded coverage on writing for global audiences, content creation for streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, as well as writing the web series, podcasts and utilizing free platforms such as YouTube. It also features new chapters on writing for niche markets; breaking into the writers' room; creating binge-worthy series and how to accompany pilot scripts with a series pitch document. Plus, expanded information on creating complex and compelling characters including writing anti-heroes and strong female protagonists and much, much more.

Including information directly from studio and network executives, agents, and managers on what they're looking for in new writers and how to avoid common pitfalls, advice from successful creators and showrunners on creating original content that sells, and tips from new writers on how to get into a writers room and stay there. This book contains information frommore than20 new interviews, access to sample outlines, script pages, checklists, and countless other invaluable resources, and is the ideal book for anyone who wants to break into the TV writing industry.

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How Hollywood Works



In order to fully comprehend how the television industry operates today, it’s important to look at its past. Knowledge is power. The more you understand about television’s past and how it got to where it is right now, the better prepared you’ll be for its future. This will put you in the driver’s seat.
Long ago, in what seems like a galaxy far, far away, people watched television on, well . . . television sets—which were basically bulky electronic boxes adorned with rabbit ears. And while remotes had technically been invented, few people owned one. For most, changing channels required the exhausting task of getting off the couch, walking across the room, and physically flipping a dial. In those days, if you wanted technology, you watched The Jetsons.
The original Golden Age of Television occurred during the late 1940s through the late 1950s. When the short-lived Dumont Network dissolved in 1956, there were three major broadcast networks left standing: ABC, CBS, and NBC. Most scripted shows were born in Hollywood. Each evening, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, families gathered around the TV set and made a collective, often democratic choice of which programs to view. Watching television was more than an event. It was something you shared with other human beings and talked about the next morning; adults at the office water cooler, kids in the school yard. That’s because everyone watched the same bat channel at the same bat time.
Before you roll your eyes or thumb your nose at network television, let me assure you that the Big Three churned out a lot of classic, quality programs— too numerous to list, or to even come up with a Top Ten. Because their target audience was Americans from sea to shining sea, networks needed shows that would appeal to the masses. “Niche” was not a concept networks put much stock in. So, if you were a young male, obsessed with the game Dungeons and Dragons and you hoped it would become a TV show, you’d likely be waiting for a very long time. Early on, many shows tended to be family-centric, and more often than not, portrayed the “ideal” American family rather than the “real” American family. This is in part because there was more pressure on people to put up a façade of living a perfect little life. Americans were much more tight-lipped (and therefore much more isolated) on matters that were considered “private.” People didn’t openly discuss things like divorce, sexual orientation, mental illness, drug addiction, and alcoholism, and so consequently, television didn’t discuss them either.
Networks had plenty of rules surrounding content. Some were self-imposed, while others were strictly enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates content that is broadcast over public airwaves. There were rules for what could be said. For example, in 1952, on the show I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball’s character Lucy Ricardo couldn’t use the word “pregnant” even though her character was exactly that. (CBS preferred the phrase “having a baby.”) There were also rules for what could be seen. Lucy may have been pregnant, but she and her husband Ricky slept in twin beds. Go figure. And because television reflects time and culture, there were also the unspoken rules about who could be seen. It wasn’t until 1963 that Cicely Tyson became the first African American to star in the CBS drama series East Side/ West Side. Three years later, Bill Cosby became the first African American actor to take a lead role in the NBC drama, I Spy. Sad, but true, networks programmed for a predominantly White America. That is until 1971, when my own personal hero, writer-producer Norman Lear, jolted America (and the television industry) with All in the Family. Based on some of Lear’s own family experiences, the CBS show regularly challenged closed-minded thinkers by championing diversity and tackling important real-life issues head-on. And television slowly started to make advances in social justice.
Back in the day, the television season was as reliable as the summer sun. Shows started in September and ended in May. The magic number for episodes per season was 22, and occasionally, depending on the show, that number was even higher. If you missed an episode of your favorite program . . . tough tooties! You had to wait for reruns, which generally happened in the summer.
Networks were fierce competitors, and with only three to choose from, the number of people tuning in to any given program was, by today’s standards, jaw-dropping. As more and more Americans brought televisions into their homes, it was not uncommon for top-rated shows to regularly draw audiences of 15–20 million people, often topping that number. And when something special happened like a marriage, a birth, or a show finale the numbers skyrocketed. On January 19, 1953, when pregnant Lucy gave birth in an episode called Lucy Goes to the Hospital, 44 million viewers raced to their TV sets to bear witness. The final episode of M*A*S*H brought a whopping 106 million viewers to their sets and the finales of Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends boasted audiences of over 50 million people. Consider these numbers historic, as it is highly unlikely that this kind of mass viewership will ever happen again.
Television had a simple business model for making money: they sold advertising. The more viewers a program attracted, the more money companies had to pay to advertise their products. Viewership was tracked by Nielsen, an independent company that recorded and reported the number of viewers per program. The data they gathered were called “Nielsen Ratings”. Every morning, Nielsen released what were known as the “overnights”—an official, fairly complex report detailing the number of viewers who had tuned in to each show the previous evening. Television executives, writers, and producers lived and died by these hugely critical numbers. Four months out of the year—November, February, May, and July were known as “Sweeps.” The number of viewers per show in these months was even more important as this was the number used to set the cost of advertising. Because so much money was at stake, networks did everything possible to pull in viewers during these crucial months. Traditionally, it was during Sweeps that most of the so-called big moments occurred on television, such as weddings, first kisses, births, deaths, cliffhangers, etc. At the end of the day, if a program didn’t have respectable ratings, the network wouldn’t be able to charge big money for ads. If a show wasn’t bringing in the bacon, it would be canceled, plain and simple.
Needless to say, “cancelation” was the last thing word anyone wanted to hear. In the days of old, studios and production companies longed for shows with longevity; they hoped a show would last for at least 100 episodes, the magic number needed for syndication. Syndication deals, meaning the show would rerun—sometimes for decades—on independent stations across the nation, made a lot of creators, writers, and producers extremely rich.
The line between television and feature film was a thick one, seemingly etched in indelible ink. For the most part, talent lived on one side or the other. Feature films came with lots of glitz and glamour, big budgets and big stars. Besides a brief guest appearance (usually on a popular show) the majority of movie stars rarely worked in television. Similarly, for writers, getting a movie produced was the be-all and end-all, and something most TV writers aspired to. That’s because television writing was widely considered inferior to feature film writing. TV writers were quietly—and sometimes not so quietly—thought of as hacks, while feature film writers were put on pedestals and branded “artists.” Still, some writers wanted to write for television. Perhaps it was because they understood that a film script—no matter how well written—was always going to be at the mercy of a director who called all of the shots. In television, the writer had much more power and control over the script and what ultimately made it to the screen.
For TV writers who didn’t have any industry connections, there was a clearcut path through the gates of Hollywood. You wrote some sample scripts and pounded the pavement until you found to an agent (a necessity) to represent you. The agent then pounded on studio/network doors, schmoozed with executives and producers and sang your praises, presenting you as the greatest, most talented writer that ever lived. While producers and executives may have taken that over-the-top sales pitch with a grain of salt, they agreed to read your sample scripts and if they liked what they saw, they offered you a job. The agent cut a deal on your behalf, getting you as much money and as many perks as possible.
If you were a newbie writer, breaking in was no easy task. Competition was stiff because, with three networks programing only seven nights per week, there were considerably fewer shows being produced (as compared to today) and consequently fewer writing jobs. Adding to a new writer’s misery, networks wanted experienced writers—someone who had previously worked on other shows, or who had at least a few produced scripts under his/her/ their belt. Likewise, agents weren’t crazy about signing fledgling writers because it was so much harder to get a new writer a job. Writing staffs were pretty much dominated by white men. It was hard to get a paid gig writing television if you were a woman, and even harder if you were a person of color. “Diversity” was not a word on the tip any anyone’s tongue.


. . . Where the Big Three networks have been joined by Fox and The CW to become the Big Five. All are powerhouse media conglomerates. Add cable, SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand), and the internet to the mix and it’s easy to understand that, with so many players now in the game, traditional networks no longer rule the roost. If the Golden Age of Television occurred from the late 1940s through the late 1950s, many will tell you that the Digital Age ushered in a new Golden Age for the small screen. The first six months of 2019 alone, saw more than 320 scripted programs. Keep in mind, this is before the highly anticipated launch of Disney+, Apple TV+ and WarnerMedia SVOD, all of which promise oodles of—you got it—original content. With so many great shows being produced, it seems everyone and their great-aunt wants a piece of the action. What no one could have predicted is that many of the so-called “forces to be reckoned with” have popped up from wildly unexpected places. Take Amazon, for example . . . a company that started in a garage as an online bookstore. Or HBO, a subscription service that began by broadcasting commercial-free movies. Then, there’s Facebook, which launched as a social network. And of course, the giant among giants, Netflix—which started out renting DVDs via mail. All of these companies—and many more like them—are now in the business of successfully creating original content. With so much hype, it’s almost certain that even more so-called “unexpected” players will jump into the TV game with dreams of taking home a golden girl named Emmy. Believe me when I tell you, this is a very good thing. The more companies in the business of making scripted television, the more jobs for writers.
“Facebook has been a huge supporter of the show, and of the creative direction. We produce the show as we would for any other outlet. The one thing that is an added bonus is the ability to see the feedback from our Facebook group page. Facebook’s initial attraction to this show was they felt there was a community out there that could really benefit by being able to use the show to spark a common discussion of their grief and loss. It’s really wonderful to be able to be a part of that discussion.” — Franco Bario, co-executive producer, Sorry For Your Loss, on how producing a show for Facebook differs from producing a show for traditional networks
The catalyst for all of this change and upheaval has been technology. Look no further than your own TV. Gone are the bulky boxes adorned with cutesy rabbit ears. Today, American homes are filled to the brim with commanding flat screen TVs. Remember how back in the Dinosaur Age most people didn’t have TV remotes? Well, they do now. This puts yet another layer of pressure on writers to pump out characters and stories that are as addictive as M&Ms. If you don’t, viewers no longer have to make the exhausting trip across the living room to switch to another program. Thanks to technology, they just have to push a button, and poof . . . they’re on to someone else’s show.
In addition to watching television on state-of the art screens, we also now regularly catch our favorite programs on smart phones, computers, and tablets. The irony of all ironies is that a good chunk of us watch so-called “television” on devices that aren’t television sets at all. Technology has not only changed how we watch TV, but when we watch it. We have DVRs and Video on Demand, along with countless subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Showtime, Hulu . . . the list goes on. We watch our programs on our terms. We watch what we want, when we want. This means television shows are now much less of an event, and much more of a solitary experience. And, because people, are no longer tied to a traditional television schedule, it stands to reason that the vast majority of Americans no longer watch the same thing at the same time. Thus, the chatter about last night’s show no longer exists on the playground or at the water cooler. Instead, people use social media and have virtual conversations with family and friends, not to mention perfect strangers, about a certain show. If Norman Rockwell were alive today and opted to paint a picture that captured modern Americans’ love of TV, the image probably wouldn’t be a traditional family gathered around the television set amid a warm glow from the fireplace. More likely he’d paint some dude on a subway, earphones on, eyes glued to an iPhone.
The fact that Americans no longer watch the same bat channel at the same bat time has led to some complex challenges for executives and writers alike. An overabundance of interesting, quality television shows has resulted in what’s known as audience fragmentation. In the days of only three networks, the number of Americans tuning in at any one time was staggering as compared to today where audiences are no longer beholden to network schedules. Add to that, there simply are not enough hours in the day (or night) for even the most rabid viewer to watch every show that’s being produced. So, what ends up happening is that some people watch this show and some people watch that show and some people never get around to watching a certain show at all, no matter how much hype and fanfare. To illustrate this point, let’s compare two similar series with a little more than a decade between them: Friends, which was on NBC, and The Big Bang Theory, which aired on CBS. Both were network shows about a group of pals, both were considered big hits, both were on the air for at least ten years, and both had their series finales on Thursday nights. So almost apples to apples. Now, let’s look at the numbers. In 2004, more than 52 million people tuned in to say goodbye to the cast of Friends. In 2019, only 18 million viewers tuned in to wave good-bye to Sheldon & Co.. This is a perfect example of how audience fragmentation has affected television, making it extremely difficult for even the most seasoned producers to find an audience large enough for the show to be considered a runaway hit.
The good news is, in this current market, there are no expectations that any scripted show will bring in the kind of numbers that were commonplace in the olden days. This has kicked the door wide open for niche programming. Some shows are now specifically made for target audiences, rather than for the general population. As you may have noticed, a series based on the game Dungeons and Dragons isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. Simply put: if you can dream it, there is seemingly no reason you can’t do it.
Now that more than half of the world’s population has access to the internet, technology has made TV much more global, with widespread audiences eager to be entertained. Hollywood is no longer the only place on the planet to pump out compelling television. Critically acclaimed shows are popping up all around the globe, with scripted content being produced in six out of seven continents. Though not exactly a new phenomenon, TV’s import–export business is red hot these days. India, Spain, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa—it doesn’t matter where a show is born. If it gets good buzz in another country, someone will undoubtedly buy the rights and produce it in the U.S., hoping for similar success. Good examples of this are ABC’s The Good Doctor, which originated in South Korea and HBO’s Veep, which is based on a similar British sitcom, The Thick of It. By the same token, TV series that are hits in America will be sold around the world. Like Metastasis, which is the Columbian remake of Breaking Bad. Or, just for laughs, how about this one: It’s Always Sunny in Moscow. While these imports/exports can be wildly successful, certain shows can get lost in translation due to cultural differ...

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