HOW TO GET THAT WRITING JOB IN THE ERA OF PEAK TV
All hail the era of “Peak TV”! Long gone are the times when cultural critics referred to television as the “boob tube” and “idiot box,” when FCC Chairman Newton Minnow derisively described the broadcast landscape as “a vast wasteland,” when Tonight Show host Steve Allen quipped, “Radio is the theater of the mind; television is the theater of the mindless,” and when comedian Ernie Kovacs noted “TV is called a medium because it’s neither rare nor very well done.”
Today, most critics will tell you that the best dramatic (and comedic) writing is being done on TV, not in the movies. In the past, TV was the place for actors either on their way up or on their way down; today, Hollywood A-listers like Matthew McConaughey, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Nichole Kidman, Anthony Hopkins, Reese Witherspoon, Jonah Hill and Amy Adams effortlessly migrate between the big and small screens. TV writer/showrunners like David Chase (The Sopranos), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul), David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones), Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy/How to Get Away With Murder), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), and Tina Fey (30 Rock/The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) have become name brands as potent as Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Scott Frank, Akiva Goldsman, Frank Darabont, or Paul Thomas Anderson.
For writers trying to break into the business, opportunities have never been greater, while the barriers to entry have never been higher. When the Big Three networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — ruled the roost, networks famously fought for audiences by offering the “least objectionable” programming. Controversy of any type was to be avoided at all costs. Today, with viewers able to choose from hundreds of programming options on-demand, shows have to compete for attention by being more daring, edgy, and inventive than the last. Writers have to be just as audacious and inventive. Your benchmark is no longer “Friends,” “Sex and the City,” or “Dawson’s Creek,” but “Big Little Lies,” “Atlanta” and “Handmaid’s Tale.”
Before preparing an invasion strategy, it pays to survey the battlefield. To look at the current TV market the way we did even just 10 years ago will put you at a decided disadvantage. Today, the number of hours of original material now being produced for TV today is staggering. For comparison, in 1960, the number of scripted TV shows in Prime Time — not including game shows, sports, and news programs — numbered approximately 100. In 2017, there were 487 scripted series on broadcast networks, basic cable, premium cable, and on-demand streaming services. That’s an increase of nearly 400 percent. In 2015, this deluge of original programming caused FX president John Landraf to lament, “There is too much television.”
While the market for TV writers has exploded, the nature of series production also has changed radically. For decades, a standard series “year” was 22 to 25 episodes. (In the 1950s, a full season could run as many as 35 episodes.) Today, even popular series will produce as few as 13 episodes per year and, in the case of super-high-budget spectacles like HBO’s Game of Thrones, as little as six. (The contraction of the standard “season” was a key issue in the last Writers Guild of America [WGA] negotiations, as fewer episodes means less income for staff writers.)
With this is mind, here are four strategies for landing a writing gig in the era of Peak TV:
1. Choose Your Genre. Hollywood always has tended to pigeonhole writers, and for good reason. Ninety-nine times out of 100, writers excel in a very narrow range of styles. Vince Gilligan was a staff writer on “The X-Files” before he turned to writing equally dark, twisty tales about meth cooks and shady lawyers; no one is asking him to create the next hit sit-com. Conversely, Chuck Lorre, having survived a stint writing for “Roseanne” in the late ’80s, built a career creating middle-brow three-camera sit-coms like “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and “Mom,”; don’t expect his next project to be a gritty crime drama or sci-fi opus. You can easily recognize a Shonda Rhimes series by its urban, professional setting, large and racially/sexually diverse cast, and patented mix of melodrama, light comedy, and hormone-driven sex; what she doesn’t do are sit-coms, police procedurals, or reality shows.
To establish yourself in the television field, you, too, should play to your strength. Are you best at gritty dramas or fluffy comedies? Can you write witty dialogue or are you best at balls-out action? Do you excel at half-hour-long stories, or can you plot a single narrative over two hours? Do you have some particular, specialized knowledge you can turn to your creative advantage, such as a background in law, criminal justice, medicine, or military operations?
If you present yourself as a “comedy writer,” “police procedural writer” or “science fiction” writer, an agent or manager is going to have a much better idea of what to do you with than if you just say, “I just want to write for television.” All industries reward specialization; television is no different.
2. Target Your Market. Two decades ago, there was just one basic market for original TV writing: the Big Four Networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX.) All were basically homogenous in their styles and content. With shows like “Married with Children” and “The Simpsons,” FOX tended to be a bit raunchier than the other networks, but still, if you worked for a show on one network, there was no problem moving to a series on another.
Today’s landscape is very different. The Big Four Networks still tend to dominate in terms of audience size, and their styles and content remain pretty much PG. But you now have a wide range of other options to consider:
- On Basic Cable, which includes everything from TNT and AMC to Hallmark and Lifetime, you have dozens of networks, each with his own spirit and standards. Here you can find everything from G-rated holiday tear-jerkers to R-rated zombie hunters. Although free of FCC regulation (Cable doesn’t make use of public airwaves), Basic Cable channels still tend to set limits on their use of graphic sex and language.
- Premium Cable, which includes HBO, Showtime, Starz and Cinemax. Original programs on these platforms tend to justify their subscription costs by offering up shows that further push the boundaries of sex, violence, and language. They also tend to skew more urban in their content and style.
- Streaming Services, which include Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and CBS All Access, all of which offer original as well as off-network programming on-demand. These platforms are expanding rapidly; Netflix alone is reported to be investing $1 billion per year in original content. Here you’ll find the widest range of content, ranging from revivals of tradition sit-coms (e.g., “Fuller House,” “One Day at a Time”) to the weird and quirky (“Bojack Horseman,” “Mozart in the Jungle“) to the truly dark and disturbing (“Black Mirror,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”).
When deciding to write, consider who are you are writing for. Are you comfortable within the narrow confines of broadcast television, or do you demand the freedom of premium cable and streaming? Where are you likely to be the “best fit”? That should be your target.
3. Remember, TV Isn’t Just TV Shows Anymore. When we think of “TV shows,” we tend to just think of half-hour comedies and hour-long dramas. But today’s TV landscape is much, much broader than that. Thanks to cable and Streaming, we also have mini-series (2-4 episodes), limited series (4-10 episodes), and original produced-for-TV movies that need writers. This year, the Premium Cable and Streaming services will produce more feature-length films than Disney, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers and Sony Pictures combined. And don’t forget “niche” programs like the quasi-news/documentary series found on the Science, History and Discovery channels. Yes, even “Hitler’s Ancient Alien Ghosts” needs writers.
Again, study what’s already being done and then consider where you’re likely to be able to contribute most.
4. Write Original Sample Scripts. In years past, writers who wanted to break into the TV business were advised to write a sample script for an existing show. (But not necessarily the show you wanted to work for.) No more. With the creative demands of TV now higher than ever, showrunners are more likely to spark to original material than to specs for existing series. In this era of “Orange is the New Black,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisal,” “Barry” and “Master of None,” producers are looking for strong, original voices, refined story-telling skills, and unique points-of-view. They are looking for authenticity. They understand that a good writer can be trained to write for the needs of a specific show; what they can’t be taught is passion and talent.
For writers, this new emphasis on original specs offers several advantages over the old system. Your spec isn’t going to suddenly became “stale” if the show you wrote for is suddenly canceled. You have the freedom to play to your absolute strengths rather than conform and compromise to meet the perceived needs of others. (There will be plenty of time for that later.) And if your spec is really strong, who knows: In today’s anything-goes environment, it could be developed as a stand-alone or series of its own.
In your rush to express your originality, don’t forget: even in this era of Peak TV, skill and craft are still valued as much as boldness and creativity. Read as many current scripts as you can to get an understanding of today’s writing style, structure and formatting. Work continuously to polish your ability to plot a compelling story, create fully rounded characters, and write riveting dialogue. Creative freedom is not an excuse to ignore basic skills.
Never in commercial television’s 70-year history has the market for writing talent been so strong. For writers as well as audiences, this is, indeed, the new Golden Age. But taking advantage of these opportunities still takes talent, skill, creativity and persistence. Being a smart businessperson and marketer as well as a skilled artist remains your clearest path to success.
– Allen B. Ury
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