Saturday, June 27, 2015

How to sell a one-hour drama to USA, FX, A&E, TNT, or whoever

It's very simple.  I have discovered the basic cable one-hour formula.  Follow these steps and you premiere right after BURN NOTICE. 

Start with a handsome likable actor. Heavy on charm, athletic, has a dimple, and can deliver a joke without needing a stunt double. For background, he was in some branch of law enforcement. Cop, U.S. Marshall, CIA, secret service, security guard at Warner Brothers.


And we learn he’s a real rogue. Does things his own way. Often gets in trouble with his superiors. He’s just incorrigible. But he’s the best cop/Marshall/CIA agent/gate guard at Warners that has ever been. Lightening fast draw, sharp shooter, explosives expert, Mensa candidate. He’s absolutely fearless but super cool. He drinks beer. He sleeps with any woman he’s assigned to protect.

As the pilot begins his rogue-ness gets him in trouble. He’s fired or reassigned. If fired, he’s trying to get his job back. If reassigned, he’s sent to the most fish-out-of-water locale you can find. Let's say he's from Chicago. Ship him off to the Everglades.

If possible, set the show in some sun drenched city. Miami, San Diego. Great excuse to show hot girls in bikinis, bright beauty shots, and easier to duplicate when you shoot in San Pedro, California.

Also, try to set him in a town where he has ties. Give him a hot ex-wife or ex-girlfriend that he still sort of loves and still sort of loves him. They broke up because of his rogue-ness or some fault that he has that every woman in America would ignore in two seconds to snare a prize like this.

He has a dark past that he needs to work through… when it’s convenient. Former lover died.  Former partner died.  Steve McQueen died.

 
For good measure, throw in an eccentric parent (preferably one who was hot and starred in a show his or herself in the 80s).

He also has to have a partner who’s either crazier than he is, or the total opposite. Someone has to say, “You’re going to get us KILLED!” at least once an episode.

It’s very important that your hero have a moral code. He only kills bad guys. He has a soft spot for innocent downtrodden saps who are in trouble. Yes, he’s tough but he’s empathetic, and don’t you dare make a big deal of thanking him. He’s adorably shy.

In addition to solving crimes, and dodging ten thousand stray bullets an episode, there’s always a larger story arc. Some secret to uncover, or an elusive nemesis he needs to catch… when it’s convenient.

Throw in some action sequences, chase scenes, explosions (at least for the pilot), and there has to be a helicopter in at least one scene (I have no idea why but you do). Then mix in some "character" scenes so we see the hero is sensitive as well as strong. 

Give the show a snappy title that’s no more than two words. JUSTIFIED, TERRIERS, THE GLADES, BURN NOTICE. And you’re good to go.

Best of luck. Give me shared creator credit when you sell your show. And you better hurry. Other writers have figured out this formula too. And John Corbett is not going to be out there forever.

This is a repost from five years ago, but nothing's changed.  

33 comments:

Gerry said...

Hey, you're right! I could do that!

Scott Cason said...

"This is a repost from five years ago, but nothing's changed.

Indeed.

Douglas Trapasso said...

He doesn't have a kid? There's no petulant daughter from a past relationship he is only now meeting?

Hun said...

It was like "house" until you mentioned the soft spot...

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Remember when A&E used to be just that? Arts & Entertainment? With shows like BIOGRAPHY and such? Now it's pretty much DUCK DYNASTY Dynasty.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I agree with Joe S. And what used to be science programming on cable has devolved into "shiny" - the glitter of hype in the interest of attracting men 18-34. Instead of reasoned explanation of phenomena, we're served shows about guys building motorcycles and cars, or people chasing animals characterized as "The Deadliest," "Wildest," etc.

My idea for them: "Orgasms and the Young Woman - Fact or Fiction? Better Yet: What Difference Does It Make? Let's Watch!"

Mike Barer said...

Have him narrate and explain every element of his plan.

Geoff with a G said...

Well, one thing changed. People generally admit that Terriers wasn't a good name for that show.

Jim said...

Whatever happened to private investigators? They were a staple of TV schedules in the 70s and 80s, now it seems as if they are extinct. I, personally, would rather watch a repeat of The Rockford Files or Magnum, P.I. than another procedural crime drama that we see too much of. DO you think that these shows would ever make a resurgence?

Igor said...

Ken, while you may know this story, I think this telling of it is especially engaging -

The Mets gave Koo Dae-Sung a baseball bat
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f6owc3O_gY

MikeK.Pa. said...

Saw SPY with Melissa McCarthy and she nailed it. Not all the jokes worked, but plenty of sight gags to fill in the gaps. Running joke about her ID paid off again and again. The only person laughing more than than me was a guy a row down and over. Couldn't believe it was only 2 hrs.

Tammy said...

I love that this is a repost and still so relevant. But hey, if it works...

Also, I know hot guy no. 2 there is Timothy Olyphant, but who's hot guy no. 1? I might check out his show :p

Dimitris Sakaridis said...

Hot guy #1 is Matt Massmore, Australian star of "The Glades". Not a bad show really.

Dimitris Sakaridis said...

Passmore. Not Massmore.

Matt said...

Holy God I feel stupid.

I liked Burn Notice and Justified is just brilliant. Especially the first season when they had Elmore Leonard as a consultant.

Maybe formulas aren't all bad.

mrwipple said...

And he needs a cool hobby in his leisure time to round out his character: he plays ragtime piano; he races speed boats; he croons with a big band in a night club; he's a chef; he collects postage stamps - a running gag being that he is continually searching for a certain rare, elusive stamp; he does crossword puzzles in Russian, etc etc etc ... you get the idea

Aaron Sheckley said...

I have two "Most Loathed" formula TV characters. One is the twenty-something super agent (maybe it's the FBI, or CIA, or NSA) who is already the top agent in his/her field, and is either the leader or a star member of some super elite law enforcement or spy agency. If you're 25 years old and in the FBI, it means that you've just finished your educational requirements and went through Quantico, and you're most definitely not heading up "Task Force Alpha"; you're junior agent in Miami, or New York, or Kansas City, and you're following up on calls from people who think their neighbor is Al Queda because he has a beard.

The other is the 110 pound female super spy/hero who can kick everyone's ass no matter how big they are. I'd be more inclined to suspend disbelief is she looked like Gina Carano, but certainly not Scarlett Johansson.

BruceB said...

Ken, I've been a fan of your blog for years and never told you this, although I've thought it many times, reading you. Ken, "lightening" is throwing a sandbag off your balloon to stay aloft. "Lightning" is an electrical discharge in the sky, followed by thunder. You seem to have a lot of characters move with the speed of falling sandbags. Phew! I feel better.

Terrence Moss said...

as soon as "blue bloods" ends -- freeing tom selleck for a revival of "magnum" with some kid that appeared sometime after 1988.

Elizabeth Prata said...

TERRIERS< please come back.

Aaron Sheckley said...

I'm one of the misguided viewers who snubbed Terriers during its initial showing. I caught a few minutes of the pilot and thought "ugh, another PI show" (I've been both a cop and a private investigator, and I can rarely watch any show in either genre).

I caught Terriers recently when it was on Netflix, and now I kick myself for missing it the first time around. No one plays sweaty, flawed humanity like Donal Logue; Terriers became one of those shows that I watch more for the characters than the plot.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

He doesn't have a kid? There's no petulant daughter from a past relationship he is only now meeting?
Is the daughter between five and thirteen, thus adorably geeky yet wise beyond her years? In this case, her mom is dead and she lives with our hero, maybe takes care of the finances. 14-18, then estranged and sarcastic, but once an episode we're reminded that she's still his little girl. The older she is, the more creepy and threatening the inevitable kidnapper.

I liked Burn Notice and Justified is just brilliant. Especially the first season when they had Elmore Leonard as a consultant.
I'd argue the 2nd ( Mags Bennett) season was better, but, yeah.

Oliver said...

I was thinking this was five years out of date until I read the last line...

Tammy said...

Thanks Dimitris! :)

jcs said...

I'm not a native speaker, so please forgive my ignorance, but shouldn't it be "whomever" in the title?

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. It's true. Nothing has changed at all.

peabody nobis said...

Here's another vote of appreciation for Terriers. It was a terrific show, with incredible chemistry between Logue and his partner. It deserved a better fate and a much longer run. It does, however, make me appreciate the faith shown by Brandon Tartikoff in one of Ken's babies, Cheers. Without him, NBC likely would have cancelled it in mid-season.
Also, I think it's really time to stop blaming the title for it's failure. People just didn't find it in time to save it.

Donald Benson said...

Double Rogue: A band of rogue troubleshooters expel one of their members for being too rogue, and from then on he's competing with them for the jobs governments and armies are too wimpy to do themselves. And he always wins, because he's the rogueiest of them all.

The Six Pack: A supersecret team of antiterror agents who identify each other by their perfect abs.

We Got the Pilot Funded: A network development executive is secretly a superhero who helps starlets overcome their stage fright through sex/

Anonymous said...

I love when I can hype the type up to 150% and the text drops DOWN instead of running off the page to the right and up the tree and then I have to call the Fire Department to get it down and back on the page.

Anonymous said...

Apologies are in order: The previous comment was sent in by a Don Reed, who forgot to add his name. He was sent to bed without his supper after the FD got him down from the tree.

ScottyB said...

Ken: It occurred to me that a show in reruns aired on Ion-TV that sometimes follows 'Burn Notice' (and follows cop-show formula) is 'Flashpoint', which starred Enrico Colantoni, who was a comedy stitch on 'Just Shoot Me' and impressed me as a dramatic actor in that show.

Which brings me to a Friday question of sorts: Enrico Colantoni is obviously equally capable as a comedic actor. How often do you see actors who can do both comedy and drama equally well, and does that make your job easier given that actors like that walk around with both sides of the coin on their pocket, and maybe know a bit more more than other actors? And how often does that fact maybe help your production?

Still, I realize there are probably a lot of actors who cross over between comedy and drama and do very well because they're just really fucking good at what they do. Does this make your as a director easier, or maybe not?

ScottyB said...

When I said "impressed me as a dramatic actor in that show", I meant 'Flashpoint', not 'Just Shoot Me.' Sorry.

Jon B. said...

Terriers!!!!

What a great show.