Saturday, September 17, 2005

Writing: The Pilot Pitch - Background

At some point, during your TV series/pilot pitch, I will bet you my grandfather's watch you will hear the question:

“How do you get to episode 100?”

As my college friend Ita answered – “Um, by being really funny for the first 99?”

Television has a particular problem. Set aside your ideas for characters, funny or touching situations … just do this. Think of someone you know really well, say – your spouse, your best friend, whatever. Think of one story about her. Something interesting, the sort of story you’d tell at a party – but it HAS to be entertaining enough to keep the interest of a group of drunken strangers, with a nice payoff. Seriously, take a pencil and a pad and jot it down. Nothing detailed. Premise, complication, payoff.

Good. Think of another.

Good. Think of two more.

Good. Three more. No cheating, write them down. Stories both entertaining and detailed enough to last a few minutes.

Good. Three more.

Good. Three more.

Good. Now, realizing that on average only about half the show ideas pitched in the room actually work out as full episodes – write thirteen more. I’ll wait.

… Congratulations. You’re now halfway through your first American television season. Only 87 more to go (or, with the same success rate, 174).

A little history. Skipping over early golden age TV, the working model for modern television * proceeded roughly thus: Networks paid a licensing fee to get the show, and then collected their filthy monies from advertising during the show. As the licensing fee was rarely big enough to actually cover the cost of the show, studios made shows at a loss – deficit financing – and then recouped their expenses when they sold the show into syndication. Syndication – for you real wee ‘uns – is when your favorite shows run in repeats at odd hours. Back in the three-channel days that meant on weekdays between 4:00 in the afternoon and seven-ish, then local news and then your local TV affiliate would pick up the network feed. With cable, of course, syndication is non-stop. But you get the idea.

Now, for a show to be worth buying, it had to fill a full year of weekday programming without too many rebroadcast shows. As the syndication business evolved, that came to mean five seasons, or roughly 110 episodes, with a bare minimum of 100. Hence, the historical basis for the mythical “Episode 100.”

Syndication money, by the way, was obscene. I have heard film directors with multiple mega-blockbusters under their belts say “Well, yeah, I’m rich – but I’m not Bochco rich.” Even lowly writers with our crappy deals would make enough off world-wide syndication to live off of for years. This also is the source of many rueful anecdotes about coming up juuuust short. There are even stories, told under dark glances, about a vengeful network exec canceling your show, or even more viciously short-ordering your last season, to deprive the exec producer of his hundred episodes and thereby render the entire previous 41/2 years financially moot.

This is, when you think about it, the creative equivalent of wildcatting. This means, spec-monkeys, that not that long ago a show could have great ratings -- allowing the network to clean up from charging advertisers more money for airtime --but wind up an unprofitable sinkhole of tens of millions of dollars for the studio if it didn’t go into syndication. Small studios could go broke with a few shows on the air, but none that went into syndication. Even more desperate can be the situation a major Hollywood studio found itself in a few years ago – wildly successful with many, many shows on the air, but not enough going into syndication to cover the growing deficits. It was literally succeeding to death.

With the advent of DVD and home-video, we are right now, and I mean right now, in the middle of a radical sea change. The vast amount of post-broadcast income on a show comes from DVD sales now – and a popular show can start selling big fat boxed sets from first season on. Luckily, we writers have cunningly ignored that our income model is changing, and decided to let DVD revenues slide negotiation after negotiation.

(Seriously. I have not just voted for a strike the last three times, I have written “STRIKE GODDAMMIT YOU LUDDITE MORONS!!!” in red magic marker on my union ballot. But that’s another column …)

So why still hew to developing shows that can run to episode 100? Well, other than tradition, it does not behoove a network to develop a show that’ll succeed for one year only. In the constant battle for ratings, execs need shows that consistently deliver, and the execs depend on building nights around these anchors, launching other shows under the protective wings of these hits. A successful show is a money geyser for all involved. They want a show to last.

This is linked to a creative issue. When you are pitching a TV show, you are asking the studio to invest millions of dollars and asking the network for a ferociously valuable piece of real estate. You need to prove that your wee idea can sustain itself for a considerable length of time. If the show is good, your audience wants you to go on making it, your network will want you to go on making it, you will want to go on making it – but the question is, will the premise support you, err, going on and making it? Because you’ll need stories to tell with that show. You need to tell a hundred stories. With the same characters, because characters are how the audience lock into shows. You don’t go tossing characters away willy-nilly. To be blunt, even developing 22 interesting stories is a bitch, never mind going the distance.

So, in order to see where you want to take your show, what you want to do with it, how you will sustain audience interest, whether your ideas have the depth to carry the show on with entertaining and original ideas – basically measuring both your creative testicular fortitude and how well-constructed the show idea is – all this is summarized in the largely traditional question of … “How do you get to episode 100?”

With that context, we will attempt to help you handle that question in the next post.

* (before the FCC fucked up big time and let studios own television networks)


Cunningham said...

You're absolutely right about how DVD is changing things, John. It's replaced reruns and revived shows back onto the network.

With first run syndication gone, TV DVD has made an impact to the tune of $3 Billion a year, which makes up for that lost revenue.

It's also changed our viewing habits - I generally don't watch 24 during the season, but pick up the DVD set.

I think we're going to see more shows that are shorter - more mini-series if you will - due to DVD. We'll also see more self contained seasons. (Check out Denis McGrath's blog on that).

TV is changing. Maybe it will change enough for a series to premiere on DVD...

david golbitz said...

I agree. I think "mainstream" American television will start looking a lot more like British TV, or HBO even, with thirteen, or even six episodes to a "season," followed by a year or two off, during which the DVD set will come out.

Which is totally fine with me. It's about quality, y'know? I'd rather have ten great episodes of something than twenty mediocre ones.

Anonymous said...

>>>Luckily, we writers have cunningly ignored that our income model is changing, and decided to let DVD revenues slide negotiation after negotiation.

I'm not a union member, but even back in the *VHS* days, I could see trouble afoot.

What I'd like to know is, if you're interested enough or informed enough to tell, is how the Brits can do it with just 13-episode series. It seems ideal (which is probably why it'd never be done *here*) -- no one gets burned out, the cast get to play in other venues and have a place to run back to (when their Dennis Caruso-like dreams of godhood crash back to earth), and viewers get more variety in a season (well, at least *planned* variety!).

You probably already know this, but the Firefly "Serenity" movie was greened on the basis of its *DVD* sales.

There is a dark side to DVDs, though. Once they cotton to made-for-DVD-only releases, I fear stores will traumatize me like local comic book stores do: I go in, have my head spun around by ALL THIS STUFF, none of which I know, and I flee w/o buying anything...

Even with a free lunch, you need to have $$$ for a tip!

Anonymous said...


I know film writers don't own the copyright to their creations (via artful writer) - does that hold true for television as well? If you sell an original show, are you selling the copyright?

And yes, you (and hopefully me, too, someday soon) in the guild should absolutely strike over DVD sales (and credit arbitrition also needs fixin') -

Thanks again for the postings!

Andy said...

Wait until the studios and networks wake up to the "DVD event." It won't work for every show, but future shows along the lines of "Buffy" and "The X-Files" with strong mythologies and a good fan following stand to make a bundle. The idea would be to shoot two extra episodes per year that will serve as straight-to-DVD movie releases the following summer, between seasons. Cleverly constructed, they would tie-in to the events of the regular season but still operate as stand alones so that anyone who misses them doesn't feel cheated once the new season begins. And the best part is, you get to amortize the yearly budget in preparation for the summer event, so the costs of shooting them are nominal. "24" already does this type of amortization in order to afford 24 episodes as opposed to the regular 22.

Anonymous said...

The idea would be to shoot two extra episodes per year that will serve as straight-to-DVD movie releases the following summer, between seasons.

Or worse, serve as bonus material in the Season [X] Boxed Set.

You are an evil, evil man for suggesting this where they could hear you...

Andy said...

What? You don't want to see bonus episodes of your favorite shows? The truth is, this is a win-win scenario for everyone. Fans get more of what they already like. Studios get more episodes produced for roughly the same budget as a regular season. Networks get an off-season advertisement for their show and can eventually recoup advertising revenue when they air the "lost episodes" at the end of the following season. And everyone makes out when the episodes are added to the extended box sets -- not to mention two extra eps per season for syndication. And like in the FIREFLY example, creators get to test the waters on how well the movie versions of their series are received. Best of all, a strong showing in DVD event rentals could potentially save a show that's on the bubble.

Anonymous said...

I popped into the Apple Store in SoHo yesterday to get a looksee at the new iPod nano. Then I went to their upstairs. And there was Neil Gaiman shilling Mirrormask. I didn't know the event was taking place.

I came in late, saw some clips, then was told it was made for less than $4M. Jayzzz... Hired CGI grads to do it; they were given entire scenes to do. As money dried up, it was left to the artist himself to finish it, alone in a large room with the "render backyard garden."

Gaiman coined a term I think is brilliant: "DVD Generation."

It hit home with me. Got the DVD of the movie "Strings" (brilliant movie!) and was disappointed that the only Extras were film lists of the four voice artists and a contextless narrationless and very abrupt ~2.5m BTS collage. DVD has set higher expectations for (how I hate this word!) "content" -- and this DVD failed. (BTW, I was also pissed there was no Director's Commentary for "Team America," while we're on this topic... or at least while I'm on this topic.) DVDs without good in-depth BTS Extras is like a website with just a home page and nothing else.

Anyway, maybe this "DVD Gen" idea will fit into Rogers' "5G Media" idea.

Anonymous said...

The notion of creating spin-off event mini-movies for popular Tv shows and then aiming them at the home video market has something of a history here in the UK.

In the 90's several Brit soap-operas and one or two on-going series created one-off specials specifically for the video market. Mercifully it's a tradition which seems to have died. The results weren't particularly impressive.

Personally there are several shows I will only watch on DVD. 24 and Deadwood, being Televisual novels to begin with, work better as boxsets than as weekly appointments.

Anonymous said...

The DVD market (including the periodic direct-to-DVD releases) has been the Anime business model for years now. Dead series get revived (sometimes years later) due to DVD (in years past, VHS/LD) sales. Dead series get capped off on DVD. Running series get side-stories on DVD. Series that ended decades ago live on via yearly TV specials (which do stunningly on DVD) and periodic DVD or Theater releases of stories made for those media.

Series are initially designed to run partially on broadcast (or sat) and partially as direct DVD releases. TV series get edited down into capsule retelling videos, as a primer for the upcoming movie.

So yes, the model works very well.

alkali said...

Small dumb question: I had thought the magic number for syndication was 65 episodes (one quarter of a 52 week year, Monday through Friday). Was this ever the case, or am I remembering this wrong?

Unknown said...

65 was an earlier variant, before the syndi business really, really blew up. But for the "Bochco rich" gold rush, it was five seasons.

Geoff Thorne said...

Couldn't have said it better myself.

With the available off-the-shelf technology and not very much start-up capital, one could produce a fairly high end, even competitive, ongoing series meant to be distributed in precisely the same way music and books are distributed.

Soon we will see sole authorship on photorealistic CGI films. One person with a pen and a box making what amounts to an entire film or TV show.

Hell is about to break loose.

Really. Just look over there.

Unknown said...

oh, and bill, what's the link to McGrath's blog?

Cunningham said...

Hey does a great post on how 24 has changed everything.

Anonymous said...

>>>Soon we will see sole authorship on photorealistic CGI films. One person with a pen and a box making what amounts to an entire film or TV show.

They'll have to be very stylized human beings or non-humans. Gerry Anderson's New Captain Scarlet -- an all-CGI updating of his original Supermarionation series -- was originally planned to be minimal MoCap, but they've had to go to 80% MoCap because otherwise people just move badly.

See this also:

Geoff Thorne said...

"Soon" is one of those non-specific descriptors that I pepper into my pronouncements that allow me always to be right without actually nailing me down to specific dates.

Capain Scarlet is coming back?

Fucking COOL!

Anonymous said...

You gave me an interesting idea. Thx.

Steve @

Kody Chamberlain said...

I'm really enjoying your behind the scenes posts. Great content and incredibly informative. Keep 'em coming!

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