Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Writing For TV: That 'Dear-God-Why-Must-I-Suck-At-Everything-I-Do' Feeling

My life being the continual string of disappointments that it is, I had little hopes that a teleplay I wrote and submitted to the producers of the CBS show "Numb3rs" would do anything noteworthy.

As usual, my low expectations were met with yet another rejection letter, so I can't really claim surprise or disappointment.

In addition to (or despite) whatever marginal skills I have as a writer, trying to break into the TV business is just plain hard, and has only gotten more difficult over the years.

First off, TV shows don't accept freelance scripts, especially from unknown newbies. Virtually all of the scripts written for any season are staff-generated, and the one or two that aren't are written by veterans whom the producers know or guys with really good agents.

This wasn't always the case. Before the last Writer's Guild contract, it was a little easier for freelancers to submit ideas to shows. In fact, the first three "Star Trek" spinoffs - "Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager" - all allowed pretty much anyone to submit a script, and a lot of writers broke into the business this way.

But that's no longer the case. Most TV producers are so worried about being sued they won't accept ideas because they are worried that someone who sent something in might sue down the line even if the producers came up with a similar idea independently. Usually, even if you are allowed to submit an idea, you have to sign a release stating you won't sue.

Here's another weird tidbit about TV: Usually when you submit work for consideration for some sort of job with a particular show, you never write an episode of that actual series. So, if you wanted to write for "The Office," for example, you might submit a sample work of "30 Rock" because the people who write "The Office" (or any show for that matter) feel very protective of their work and don't think a freelancer can do it as well as they can.

Anyway, there are plenty of books out there about writing for TV, so back to me, because I did none of the above with "Numb3rs."

When I was at the Austin Film Festival last year, everyone was talking about an article that appeared in "The New Yorker" about a computer program that critiques screenplays and tells the writer what elements to change to make it more successful. When I read the article, I immediately thought "this could be worked into a script for 'Numb3rs.'" (And the idea wasn't half-bad. Aaron Sorkin referenced the same idea two weeks ago on "Studio 60.")

So I did just that. The other OTHER way to submit ideas to TV series is to know someone who works on the show, or someone who knows someone who works on the show. About three years ago, I was able to submit a script to "Smallville" because I knew someone on the Warners' lot. This time around, I knew someone at Scott Free, which produces "Numb3rs."

I've never enjoyed writing for TV, because the structure is so rigid. For a one-hour drama, you have a teaser and four acts (the things broken up by commercials). The average TV script runs 45-55 pages. And, of course, your writing style must mesh with the style of the show.

With so many serialized shows on the air these days, it's even harder to come up with ideas, because the shows film so far ahead of the airdates, the writers have plotted way ahead of what you actually see. It'd be impossible to try to write an episode of "Lost," for example, because who the heck knows what's coming next? By the time your idea found its way to the producers, half the cast may have been killed off.

So, to wrap up this self-obsessively long blog, the producers didn't go for my idea. Or my writing. For whatever reason. Please don't mistake this for bitterness, because frankly, I'm just thrilled to have been read, which is better than about 97 percent of the people out there.

But this is why I'm probably better off just sticking to watching TV.

TUESDAY'S BEST BETS: Speaking of writers having their dreams crushed, another episode of "On The Lot" (Fox, 8 p.m.) airs tonight. Unlike most reality series, this one is not only a lot of fun, but you can still start watching it and pick it right up. Some of the filmmakers competing are terrific, and will hopefully get their shot no matter what they do in the competition.

Other than that, a pretty light night of TV, what with "The Shield" being done. Sports fans can check out Game 3 of the NBA finals (ABC, 9 p.m.)


zosin2008 said...

Wow, that was really depressing. Thanks. You are an excellent writer, although very biased at times, so you should continue to submit your TV and movie scripts--they are excellent and you know they are. They are not mediocre.

If you need a better pep talk, why not just re-watch an episode of "Friday Night Lights" and pretend Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is giving you a pep talk.

That aside, I will apparently be alone watching the NBA Finals tonight because once again, America has shown indifference to a bunch of good, classy good guys in my San Antonio Spurs.

And the people who are watching the finals, are probably rooting for LeBron James (outside of San Antonio and my tiny corner of Northern Virginia), but if the Spurs can win their 4th title, it will be another in the win column for some of the real good guys in pro sports.

Look, ESPN loves to voer way too many off field or steroids or drugs issues, way too often. So the reason America is supposedly bored of the Spurs, is their guys teach, give money back to the community through their foundations, and never ever get in trouble.

The hated Bruce Bowen? He has a Foundation and wants to teach high School when he retires in a few years.

Greg Popovich, much like Bobby Cox of the Braves, has never ever said a bad word about the Mavericks, Suns, Lakers or any other organization that has ever taken pot shots at the Spurs. Pop just says how great the other guys are, how much more his team needs to do, and then wins championships.

But everyone knows Mark Cuban because he's a nasty, opinionated big mouth. Fine. I will take my quiet, classy Spurs, every day of the week.

But back to Bobby Cox, when Tony LaRussa comes out on one of his many past press conferences and rips Cox (for basically no reason), Cox (just like my man Pop), keeps his mouth shut and says nothing.

I know Phillip this is a TV Blog, but you had your tangent, I have mine.

Oh, and GO SPURS GO!

Hotspur said...


You said that you should not submit your script to the program it was written for. How about submitting to other shows ? Just read a very depressing book on the TV industry. The writer,who wrote for many series, quit and now lives in Georgia.

This Girl said...

Did you get a critique as well, something telling you why they passed on the script?