Breaking Into Writing for TV

A major difference between writing as an unknown for the feature market and for the television market is the matter of timeframes and scheduling. Whereas an undefined number of film studios are constantly looking for new material, television networks are restricted by the season schedule and the few hours of primetime per station per night. These structures circumscribe hiring prospects and define the way each looks for new writers.

Although film studios do not have a predetermined amount of time to account for, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re open to reading anything that comes along. The higher profile the company, the less likely they are to so much as glance at unsolicited material. Executives here typically use existing contacts through agencies and the like to make the search for new screenplays more manageable and reliable. Nonetheless, there are still more avenues toward getting one’s spec screenplay read by someone than there usually are in television.

In contrast, television has a tighter focus. In TV four major networks and a handful of cable channels are seeking to fill their primetime slots, and that’s it. And those primetime slots are, for the most part, occupied. When space becomes available, the networks nearly always favor familiar and proven talent over emerging writers. There are exceptions, but it’s good to build your writing credits in any way available to you in the meantime, through film, theater, or even prose. Getting your work noticed is difficult because no matter how good your ideas are, you’re trying to break into a field where everyone else has good ideas of their own. Anything that makes you stand out will help.

One of the most important steps in television is to build your portfolio and make yourself diverse. If you have your eye on a specific series you’d like to write for, prepare a sample of work not for that exact show but for one with a similar style. Your script is going to be read by the people who know the show the best, and if they’re reading material intended for the series they work on every day, then it needs to be flawless. They’ll be able to pick out every false character trait, every line that isn’t quite what they’d envision, every subplot that doesn’t exactly fit in with the story.

Even when you know the series inside and out as a viewer, you can’t know where the story is about to go, and if your ideas conflict with what is already in your readers’ understanding of the story and its development, then it can work against you. Much safer is to market a script for something in the same vein, with which they can judge your ability to adapt to existing material and emit the same style of humor, drama, quirkiness, etc., that their own series requires.

Simultaneously, you want to be able to show you have a voice and vision of your own, and so having a few original spec scripts in your pocket can work to your benefit, as well. This is where diversity becomes particularly useful, even for obtaining staff positions. Be not just prepared, but over-prepared, for any opportunity that arises by producing work from multiple genres or formats. Show your range.

If you’re able to write anything from a family comedy to a legal drama, do so. From agents and managers to producers and executives, any might want to see your ability to write for a particular audience or for any audience at all. Your versatility can be your gateway to building your credits and perhaps, eventually, launching that series of your own.

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