I’ve gotten this question many times over the last couple of months:
“I have a great idea for an original television series. How can I sell it to a television network?”
I want to start out by saying that I have zero experience in television writing. I wrote one Seinfeld episode for a sit-com writing class in graduate school but I never sent it anywhere. It wasn’t very good. That’s the extent of my television writing experience so I may not be the best person to ask about this. I have known several television writers over the years and I do know the basics about how a television series is created so I’ll take a shot at answering this question even though my experience is fairly limited.
Creating a successful television series is the most lucrative thing a writer can do. A hit television series that runs for 3 to 5 years (around 100 episodes) and goes into syndication can net the producers/creators hundreds of millions of dollars. When you hear about the astronomical sums of money that actors are paid on hit television shows it pales in comparison to what the producers and creators are making.
I’ve never heard of an unknown writer being the creator of a television show. I’m not saying it’s never happened but if it has I’ve never heard about it. If anyone knows of a show that was created by an novice writer by all means let me know by posting it in the comments section below. It would be inspiring for all of us. It’s easy to research this. Just think about your favorite show, look it up on IMDB, and then look up the show’s creator on IMDB and see what she did before she created that show. In most cases you’ll see that she was a writer on other shows for many years before creating her own show.
This makes sense, too. When a network or production company decides to produce a new show it’s a huge financial investment and is very risky. So to try and mitigate the risk as much as possible they try and use ideas from people who have experience creating shows or at least have written for television for many years. If you were putting together a project of any sort you would try and get the most experienced people you could afford, too. It just makes good business sense.
Unlike feature film writing, a writer who creates his own show is involved in many levels of production. So a network is not just buying the idea they’re hiring that writer to oversee the show for years to come and they need someone who knows how to do it. No matter how brilliant your idea is for a show there’s a lot more to being a show’s creator then just having the idea. The show’s creator is usually a producer and they often become the “show runner” which literally means the person who runs the show. It’s not a job for beginners.
So the bottom line is that there is no market what-so-ever for original television shows from new writers. With that said, I’m a big believer in thinking outside the box and not listening to conventional wisdom so if you have your heart set on trying to create your own television series go for it. I wish you luck and I hope you succeed. But realize what you’re trying to do is probably the most difficult thing in the entertainment industry and may be flat out impossible.
If you take a step back and look at this as a long term goal (which I highly advise that you do) there are some basic steps you can take to slowly work towards creating your own television series.
Since most shows are created by television writers you need to become a television writer on an established show. While this is not going to be easy it is possible for an unknown writer to get hired on an established show. You should write several spec scripts for successful shows that are currently on the air. Then send query letters to agents and producers using these scripts as samples of your ability to write. In the Hollywood Creative Directory (HCD) you’ll find production companies listed that produce television shows. You should target these companies with your query letters. Again, you’re not pitching your original show idea you’re trying to get hired to write episodes of an already existing show using your spec scripts for similar already existing shows. As an aside, it’s usually bad form to send a spec script for a show to that show. They usually won’t want to read it for legal reasons (they think you’ll sue them if they air a similar show). So if you’re trying to break into sit-com writing write an episode of Two and a Half Men (or whatever popular show you’re familiar with) and send it to production companies that produce other similar shows. Two and a Half Men has been around long enough and is popular enough that most television producers will be familiar with the characters enough to gauge your writing ability from reading your Two and a Half Men spec script.
You should read my post How to Sell Your Screenplay (in a nutshell). It explains how to write a query letter and find companies to send the letters to. You’ll have to adapt some of the information for television writing but overall it should be pretty much the same.
If you’re serious about turning your idea into a television series you should move to Los Angeles and try and become a television writer’s assistant.
Here are my posts about moving to Los Angeles:
Becoming a writer’s assistant is a great stepping stone to breaking into television writing. John August had a good post about being a writer’s assistant here: http://johnaugust.com/archives/2009/showrunner-asst
Whether you want to be a feature writer or a television writer you should always be writing and always be trying to get your stuff produced, even if it’s on a shoestring budget. If you have an idea for a television series why not try and produce a few episodes yourself? Living in Hollywood makes finding other aspiring filmmakers easy – use that to your advantage. Once you’ve produced an episode or two submit them to film festivals as a short. After that has run its course post them on YouTube and promote the hell out of it. This probably isn’t going to result in you selling your original idea but it will add a credit to your writing resume and at least on paper you’ll no longer be a complete beginner. These small projects will add up over time.
Once you’ve been living and working in Hollywood for a few years you will eventually stumble into an opportunity to pitch your show idea. Make sure you’re not a beginner when it happens. If you’ve done everything you can to advance your writing career for a few years you won’t be a beginner for very long. If you have a little bit of experience, a great idea for a show and it is executed well over several completed scripts it will be an impressive package and when you finally do get your chance you just might be able to make it happen.