Tuesday, April 01, 2008

How TV Development Works

I'm listening in on a call about a pitch for a TV series as I type this. This is about the seventh call/mtg about this pitch that has happened so far, and the last mtg that will take place before the pitch goes to the network.

How does this work? TV is complicated. Let me explain.

First, you have the writer. The writer is hired by the studio (in TV land that means generally ABC/Disney, Warner Bros., Fox, NBC Universal, CBS/Paramount, Sony/Columbia and a few other places) and sent to work with some producers. The producers will be experts on developing scripts for television that have an overall deal at the studio. Often these producers are former studio or network execs, writers, or agents.

So the writer goes off and comes up with a general "take" on the idea he's working on.
(To back up a little, she can either come up with this idea herself, pitch it to the studio, and they agree. Or the studio takes an idea to the writer - often an idea based on a book that a network has expressed an interest in, or an arena (a noir cop show, blended family dramedy) the network likes.)

The writer discusses her take on the idea with the producers. They give notes.

The writer reworks the idea, discusses with producers, and gets more notes.

The writer reworks the idea, discusses with the producers, and hopefully by now it's ready to go to the studio exec.

The writer and producers discuss the idea with the creative studio execs. (These are the development execs you may have heard of). But now you may have up to six people listening to the writer and giving their opinion. The studio execs give notes.

The writer reworks the idea again, talks to the producers about how they've reworked it, and may have to rework again just for the producers. Then writer and producers come back to the studio with the idea, incorporating those notes, or explaining why the notes were not incorporated.

The studio gives more notes.

I am not kidding.

The weird thing is, often the idea does get better and more focused and fleshed out through this process. I swear. Good writers take feedback and make it work for them, one way or another.

The same thing happens again. And probably again. And perhaps again.

Finally, the writer, producers, and studio go over it all once again, prepping the pitch, organizing everything, so that it's ready to go to the network.

Enter the network. For newbies, the network is NBC, ABC, TNT, HBO - the channel that you watch. Thanks to vertical integration, the network is now often owned by the same corporation as the studio, but the executives are different than the studio execs, regardless.

The writer, producers, and studio execs go to the network execs and pitch the idea. At this point, the writer is talking to up to ten other people in the room, trying to convince them their take on this idea is the right one. The network gives notes. At this point the writer either reworks the idea or goes to outline.

You get the idea. Being a television writer requires infinite patience and a talent for pleasing others while keeping your integrity. It's very difficult. And it helps explain why many TV shows feel like many other TV shows. The more cooks you have throwing ingredients into the soup, the more watered down the taste becomes. It takes a writer of great talent and adaptability to survive this process with not only something that will succeed on the air, but that will actually be good.

That said, I've seen writers steered away from disastrous ideas by talented execs. I've seen mediocre ideas shaped into wonderful ones. And I've seen execs give no notes at all when they encounter an idea they think is perfect. And nobody knows their network "identity" better than the network execs. They are the only ones who know what audience they'd like to attract.

But it's minefield.


A said...

Hmmm...it sounds almost like how an entrepreneur gets a new business idea funded. He creates a great idea and seeks angel investors. They make comments and refinements (often several rounds) and then agree to fund. The business starts, but needs more money to grow, so the founders seek VC (venture capital) funding. More rounds of discussions, refinements, and hopefully the VC provides funds. That's all in the ideal world. Often someone doesn't fund a stage and the idea dies. Lots of great business ideas have been left aside as I'm sure many TV ideas have been too.

Nina Berry said...

What an interesting parallel! I hadn't thought of it that way, but you're right on the money. So much money is involved with TV ideas, that few make it to the screen, just like business ideas. HA! Very cool.