Chapter 10: The Holy Grail: Creating Your Own Show


Spec Pilots for Real

The very best way to get the network to pick up your series idea is to marry the head of the network. The likeliest way is to write a spec pilot. A bible tells the reader what you want the show to be like. But it doesn’t prove that you can deliver a show like that. A pilot script is proof of the pudding.

It’s vastly easier to get network executives to read a spec pilot script than to read a show bible. Executives are often willing to read a spec pilot as a sample. So, many experienced writers spec a pilot from time to time as an alternative to speccing a current show. If the pilot doesn’t get picked up, it’s still a good sample and showcases the writer’s originality. If the pilot by some miracle gets picked up, mazel tov. Chris Abbott:

I never wrote specs of existing shows. I always write a spec pilot or a spec [feature] screenplay. And when I'm hiring writers, that's what I want to read. Can you write characters, can you write plot, can you write twists and turns, interesting dialogue ... all of that will be in a spec [pilot] more than in a spec existing show. Agents would call me, “Do you wanna see their CSI”? And I'd say “no!”

A pilot allows you to show off your own style more than writing someone else’s show. The risk is that it’s far harder to write an impressive pilot than an impressive “center cut” episode of a running show, whose actors have already brought the characters to life. But the gain is that if your pilot truly is outstanding, it is possible that someone at the network may buy it. Not likely, but possible. Bob Lowry:

My agent needed more material to start pounding the streets to get me a job. He said he either wanted a West Wing or new material. Going back to ... wanting to write in my own voice as opposed to Aaron Sorkin's, I chose to write Huff.”

There is a subtle difference between a spec pilot you write as a sample, and a pilot you seriously hope will get picked up. In a writing sample, you only have to show that there’s a show there. We need to get a sense of who you intend to be core cast, and what the template of the show is, but since they’re just reading the one script, you don’t have to have every creative decision nailed down. If you truly intend to create a show, then you need to know where the show goes after the pilot. What’s the second show? The fifth? The overall dramatic arc of the first season? What’s the 100th episode? What’s the season finale for the fifth season? Kay Reindl (Millennium, Dead Zone, Twilight Zone):

If you're writing a spec pilot to be used as a writing sample don't worry about a bible. Just worry about setting up the series in the pilot. I.e., you want the reader to see that there's a series here. It's a little different if you're pitching a pilot. It's always better, I've found, to go in over-prepared. Have three years of your show figured out. Chances are you won't talk about it, but knowing where your show is going informs the pitch. The most important thing in a pilot pitch is making the executive feel comfortable that there's a show there.

If you want to sell your pilot as a potential series, you need to know your show forwards and backwards — not every single thing that’s going to happen, but every aspect of the template. You need to know what is and is not your show, and what’s going to happen every week.

The danger of writing a pilot without knowing the show is that you can write yourself into a corner. Shows sometimes get picked up with superb pilots only for the writers to discover that it’s very hard to generate episodes. Either the pilot has torched the central question of the show already, or it hasn’t created one. A show can get a big audience for its pilot only to plummet in the ratings when later episodes don’t live up to it.

Such problems — you should be so lucky, to have such problems.

Should your pilot get bought, it’s unlikely you’ll get to be the showrunner on your own show unless you have a lot of high-level staff experience. Sad, but true. There are famous exceptions. Josh Schwartz wangled himself an executive producer slot on his first show, Wall to Wall Records, which never got past the pilot, and then he did it again on The O.C. Moira Kirland:

It's almost always the more experienced guy who gets put in charge of the show. I was surprised Josh Schwartz got to run The O.C. And he has had Executive Producer type people backing him up. That's a new thing. If it hadn't been him and hadn't been Fox... on another network they would have hired a giant ape. Josh would have got a Supervising Producer title and would be allowed to, well, comment....

I think it's an absurd way of doing things. Because the creator had the vision — they're marginalized. The person who's running it didn't have that vision. Doesn't have that passion. You should allow the guy with the vision to be a journeyman showrunner. Back them up. I can't think of any shows [where they put the creator under someone else] that were wildly successful, either.

The best show possible is when you have the creator involved and passionate about the show and do the show. They didn't want to let Joss Whedon run Buffy. He told them, no, you can't have the show. To have brought in another Executive Producer over him — the show would have failed. You've got to have faith in the people who bring you these ideas. Marc Cherry hadn't run a drama before. Now he's running Desperate Housewives. He had had no showrunner experience at all in dramatic TV.

In other countries, it’s often easier to set up your own show. In Canada, for example, shows by Canadians get substantial government support. That enables producers to give inexperienced creators a shot. I co-created Naked Josh when I had only one season’s staff experience under my belt. The tradeoff is that in Canada, show creators usually have less control of their own shows than they do in the States.