Friday, May 21, 2010

How does a regular Joe Schmo pitch a pilot to a network?

Here are some more Friday questions and answers sent in by you, the loyal or occasional readers.

Heidi Germanaus starts us off:

Ken, I have a pretty damn good idea for a t.v. show. How does a regular Joe Shmo get in a position to pitch something like that?

Heidi, I wish I could be more encouraging but the truth is unless you have a track record it’s almost impossible to get a network to hear your pitch. They’re more concerned with who’s going to execute the show than who brings in the best ideas. Generally you have to be on staff of a show for a few years or have a screenplay credit or two (and even then they’d want you paired up with an established show runner).

You might take your idea to a studio or producer but the best you can hope for is that they’ll buy you out – give you a nominal sum and politely ask you scram. If the project doesn’t go forward you still have a few thousand bucks. But if the project does go forward and becomes FRIENDS everyone winds up a billionaire but you.

I suppose you could make the pilot yourself and put it on Youtube and if it becomes a huge viral hit a network might take notice but that’s the longest of longshots.

In any event, write your pilot and use it as a sample. Maybe it will get you on staff of a show and two years later the networks will be coming to you asking “what ya got?”

Best of luck. I know it’s hard and frustrating.

From Dana Gabbard:

I just caught the pilot for Cheers which reminded me of a question I have long had. John Ratzenberger's Cliff during the first season or so seems to have a much more pronounced New England accent. Is the change to being less nasal deliberate?

It sort of evolved. Part of the problem with a pronounced NE accent is that it’s sometimes hard to decipher and that can be death for jokes.

Same on MASH. David Ogden Stiers originally wanted to do a thick Boston accent. We expressed our concern and he said, “Okay, how about this then?” He backed off of it just a smidge and it was perfect. For his entire run on the show he kept that accent at that exact same level. He’s amazing.

Stephen wonders:

Do commercial breaks ever irritate you as a writer? Like,"Okay no matter what's going on with the story we have to get it to a mini-cliffhanger by the act break so the audience will come back!". I watch a lot of BBC shows where there are no breaks so the stories can develop at their own pace and I would imagine it is far more freeing for the writer.

The breaks bother me in that they take the audience out of the show. No one wants to be interrupted when engrossed in a story.

But if you have to have breaks, I don’t mind the two-act formula where there’s a spot break in the middle (we’re talking sitcoms here). You build to an act break at the midway point then set about resolving the story in the second half. That’s good storytelling, commercials or not.

I’m less enthusiastic about the three-act formula, which networks are insisting on more and more. Then you’re just going through hoops. A lot of shows deal with it by not worrying about building to an act break. They just tell their story and break along the way. It depends on the story obviously but I think dramatically the two-act structure is preferable.

For hour dramas it used to be a four-act structure and now it seems they have long first acts to get you sucked in then a bunch of breaks the second half hour. That’s got to be maddening, even for Jack Bauer.

And finally, from sophomorecritic:

Ken, my question is with pushing daisies, dollhouse, firefly, my name is earl, arrested development, commander-in-chief, aliens in america, ugly betty, and a number of others being cancelled so early in their run when they're clearly good shows, it's hard not to admit that the entire system is broken.

Why doesn't it discourage smart people to enter TV when the good shows don't get rewarded?

Unfortunately, those shows you cited all had disappointing ratings. At the end of the day it’s a numbers game.

But smart people keep coming back because some good shows do get rewarded. LOST, MODERN FAMILY, MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, DEXTER, DAMAGES, GLEE – these are just a few of the good shows that have captured the audiences’ imagination. It’s hard. And it usually requires cable or a SOPRANOS credit. But it can be done.

Also, you can make a lot of money in television so that keeps smart people coming back because they like to eat.

One more question, which I'll post later today. Some photography is involved. What’s your question??? Leave it in the comments section. As always, thanks!


David said...

Typo: sited -> cited

Here's my question:

What's currently a typical day / week for you? Are you still consulting, meeting with execs, agents, etc.? Does announcing take up all of your time and you just relax in the other hours? How much prep work does announcing take?

That seems like a lot of question in one, but I suppose they are all summed up in the first one. Thanks!

Ryan Paige said...

"My Name is Earl" ran for 96 episodes. Hardly an early exit.

"Ugly Betty" ran for 85 episodes.

Even "Arrested Development" got 53 episodes over three seasons.

"Breaking Bad" will have to run another five years (at 13 episodes per season) before it passes "Earl" in the episode count.

MBunge said...

"a number of others being cancelled so early in their run when they're clearly good shows"

Being good is not the same thing as being entertaining and vice versa. 30 Rock is a great example of that. It's an extremely clever show which also demonstrates that being clever is not the same thing as being funny.


Unknown said...

I am the death of TV shows.

If I like a show and watch it week in and week out, it will be cancelled.

The shows that I've killed:

Tales of the Golden Monkey
(ironically enough, but Stephen Collins vehicles)
Reasonable Doubts
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

I could make a mint from people paying me NOT to watch their shows.

Corinne said...

I have a request.

I think my favourite post of yours is The National Anthem. In fact, I dug it out last night to show a friend after a discussion on our Canadian Anthem last night. Though written for the US anthem, the sentiments could easily apply here as well.

In honour of Canada Day, July 1st, (and, of course, the US celebrations July 4th) could you please repost The National Anthem on July 1st?

By Ken Levine said...


I will repost it on July 1.

blogward said...

Re pitching: I work (shortly not to be) at a major UK TV producer. A couple of years ago they invited backroom staff to submit ideas, then pitch them to company heads of drama, comedy, etc., with a view to getting the idea on their pitch list.
My sitcom was accepted for the pitch-to-heads, and I gave it my best. The head of comedy hadn't read it, and told me why my script wasn't as good as the sitcom he had written and was in the stages of getting commissioned (UK for picked up). His show ran for two episodes, I think.
FWIW, my concept was 'Cheers' meets 'My Cousin Vinnie'.

Nat G said...

I hate to pile this right on the heels of another Cliff question but it's always gotten at me. In the early Cheers, Cliff was a bore who knew a lot of accurate information. Later, he was a bore who made up a lot of stuff. I've always wondered if this was a conscious change, or whether some later writers just never picked up on the fact that Cliff had known what he was talking about.

Steph said...

Wow Ken, thanks so much for answering my question even if the truth does suck big monkey balls.

My idea is for a non-scripted reality show that I could really only see being on SPIKE or something anyways.

I always have like a million killer t.v./movie/commercial ideas. Alas, they do no good coming from a cubicle in Georgia.

But seriously, you're a helluva writer and just an all around classy dude.

sophomorecritic said...

Yeah, 96 episodes is short of 100 which is the magic syndication number. They also didn't bring the whole plot to a conclusion.

Also, Studio 60 was a flawed show but one with a lot of promise that deserved a little bit of a better chance. They did agree to air the whole season, fortunately.

Heidi, just get involved in the film industry anyway you can. Practice writing or whatever.

Troy said...

Typo -> You listed "GLEE" as a "good show".

Abie the Fish Peddler said...

What is ironic about Stephen Collins being in both TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY and TATTINGERS?

I mean, I have tried hard to see the irony here, but I am completely missing it. Neither by the actual definition of the word, or by Alanis Morrisette's, can I see anything resembling irony here. Can you please point it out for me?

Janice said...

My question:

Ken, have you ever been called upon to spontaneously entertain at a party, a la Rob Petrie?

Max Clarke said...

About Cliff's accent on Cheers, some of the accents were a little too authentic.

There was a season 10 episode when Cheers reopened after the fire, and I had to use the closed caption feature to find out what Bernard said when he entered Cheers. He said, "Phone company!"

bevo said...

What is a commercial block? In my household, we only watch television shows on DVD or on DVR.

Oddly enough, I have not noticed the interruption problem that you mention.

WV: rednene - a rare event that portends problems with Hawaiian weather.

Michael in Vancouver said...

The query about how does a regular joe pitch a script relates to my question. Once in a while you hear about some mechanic or bartender who sues a studio and says "I wrote Avatar" or "I created Lost" or whatever. Their stories always seem to lack credibility. They wrote an idea or a script, mailed it to Steven Spielberg, and lo and behold, their idea is "stolen". But regular Joes DO mail in scripts, and maybe sometimes they're good. And I have to wonder, are there ever cases where a spec script comes in, somebody says, "That's pretty good," and finds "inspiration" in it?

When I was in high school, a friend wrote in to Star Trek Next Gen with a story idea. We'll never know if it was coincidence, but his plot appeared the next season. Fortunately he didn't care about credit or money -- he just thought it was awesome. But since then I've wondered how many TV shows and movies are professional re-writes of unsolicited ideas.

Trinity Moses said...

Michael in Vancouver: The answer to your question is "none." Producers and studios do not read unsolicited manuscripts, precisely in order to protect themselves against the sort of claims you describe.

Trinity Moses said...

Oh, and Michael in Vancouver: The example of your friend reminds me of someone who wrote to John August's site, to complain that the producers of GREY'S ANATOMY had swiped the plot of her spec script. Her proof: her script had been about two of the regular characters being romantically involved, and that week the two characters had become romantically involved. August dismissed this by pointing out that the show was about "young doctors hooking up," so the fact that both she and the regular writers had come up with scripts about young doctors hooking up meant absolutely nothing.

I do not remember any stunningly original ideas on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. The episodes were pretty much all built around standard science fiction ideas, and logical development of the premises on which the series was built. So, it is easy to believe that two people could separately come up with the same idea for a story for that series. It is much easier to believe that, than to believe that Paramount would have risked an expensive lawsuit and a lot of bad publicity for the sake of an idea it could have bought from your friend for a few thousand dollars. If you are still having trouble accepting that, please look up "Occam's Razor."

Ryan Paige said...

"Yeah, 96 episodes is short of 100 which is the magic syndication number."

And yet, like Newsradio (another show with only 90-some-odd episodes), it plays in syndication (and on cable).

And lots of shows don't get to wrap up their plot lines before being canceled, even ones that run longer than 4 seasons.

The point is that 96 episodes is plenty of time to find an audience, if the audience isn't there after that amount time, they're not coming (plus, in my opinion, Earl was an inconsistent show)

Mike Schryver said...

I've seen interviews with the producers of Star Trek where they talked about the fact that they were just about the only producers that accepted and read non-solicited submissions. So, it is possible that they saw Michael's friend's idea, although I imagine they would have paid for it if they had.

bettyd said...

I've always like the M*A*S*H episodoes with the psyciatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman. I have always wondered if psyciatrists were actually stationed in Korea or even that popular in culture in the time of the war, or was this a relection of the time of the wrting in the 1970s?

Baylink said...

Ken: David is indeed an excellent actor; so much better at staying on the knife edge between love and hate.

And I'm always impressed with people who can carry a non-native accent so well that when you hear them pressing, you can't imagine it's them; he was like that, as are James Marsters from Buffy, Hugh Laurie from House, and Yvonne Strahovski from Chuck.


> I always have like a million killer t.v./movie/commercial ideas. Alas, they do no good coming from a cubicle in Georgia.

*One* word: Dilbert.

Baylink said...

And on the topic of unsolicited scripts: I believe inspection would demonstrate that every production company in Hollywood employs a non-creative person in their mailroom whose job is *specifically* to note unsolicited incoming scripts in the mail, and shred them before they can pollute the building.

Generally, as a matter of law, being able to demonstrate an established business practice with a contemporaneously kept log is sufficient as a defense in such cases.

So if you've ever sent a script to a studio cold, your name and address are probably in a logbook somewhere. ;-)

Foleatch: what they use your script to nourish, after it's done composting.

tesolly said...

A Question:


Do you or your readers know why U.K sitcoms only seem to have 6 episodes per season (The Office, Peep Show, Outnumbered) in comparison to the 24 or so that American sitcoms have (Two and a Half men, The Office, Community, Frasier etc etc)?

Thanks, Tom

Ben In Melbourne said...


I think you'll find that UK comedies (and dramas) are normally written by just the single writer, or sometimes two two partners, as opposed to a team of writers as in the case in US. To expect one person to pump out 24 episodes in a year is one big ask, in my opinion.

Michael in Vancouver said...

Tesolly: The British place much more value on quality over quantity. Not that quality can't be done with a ten-year stretch of 20 episodes a year, but it's rare. The Brits would rather do something really, really well in a short burst rather than risk burning out a good idea and overstaying the welcome. Call it a cultural difference.

Stephen said...

The writers of 24 are planning to write a feature film version, but is it easy for TV writers to suddenly knock out a great feature script? I've heard television is a writer's business, but in film the director has the last say.

tesolly said...

thanks michael and ben. that all makes sense!

Nathan said...

It is possible to write and produce your own independent pilot outside the system and release it online -- in fact, that's what I just did. You can check out the trailer here: