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  • Creating a Series Pilot—Newcomers Welcome
  • Evan Smith (bio)

One of the most exciting recent trends in the field of screenwriting has to do with television series development, and this trend is largely the result of three seemingly unrelated things: homegrown Web videos, the Writers Guild strike of 2007, and the current economic recession.

In the world of television programming, it used to be a waste of a new screenwriter's time to develop ideas for an original fiction series. True, almost any writer could land pitch meetings with actual development executives at networks, studios, or production companies, but what was the point? After coffee and a gathering of somewhat creative minds, the executive would invariably respond by passing on the neophyte's project. The quality of the pitch was not a factor. In a business that yields a success rate of one or two hit shows for every thousand pitched,1 few television executives would consider risking their job by backing unproven talent. They would still take the pitch meetings—as part of demonstrating productivity to their superiors and sometimes just to be courteous—and they would even spring for the coffee, but that was as far as the new writer got. ("Sorry, we're moving in a different creative direction"; "I love it, but my boss just doesn't get it"; "If you can get [top box-office star of the day] to play the lead, we're in!")

True, writing a pilot script was not always a waste of time. Some television producers like to use fully original work to gauge a person's talent when doling out episode assignments or hiring staff writers. But those producers are few, and many still want to see a traditional spec script (e.g., a typical episode of an existing series) before offering up a job. Bottom line—the rules of the television-development game were such that new writers were better off just writing spec episode samples if they wanted to get a foot in the door.

But then the world of television programming began to undergo important changes, and suddenly doors started to open for unproven talent.

Newcomers Welcome

In 2005, three ex-PayPal employees launched an Internet site called YouTube, a central viewing site for homegrown videos posted on the Internet, and millions of people started tuning in to watch. It did not matter that often the production quality of these videos was poor and the content inconsistent, because much of the material was fresh and relatable and very entertaining. Plus, the offerings were pleasing examples of this newish thing called digital media, in an era when all things digital and Web-related were becoming the rage.

Commercial television networks took notice, impressed—or more likely, stunned—to realize that many of these videos drew a huge audience despite having been produced by amateurs, and at a fraction of the cost of a typical television episode. Executives and producers tuned in to the new medium, revised their assumptions about what constitutes watchable [End Page 56] video, and began experimenting with the development of series projects spawned by the Web. (Ironically, this has often resulted in fresh Web ideas being forced into ill-fitting, traditional, prime-time television molds, as happened with failed series "Quarterlife" [2007; Gorman] and "Shit My Dad Says" [2010-11; Hale.])

Then in 2007, in what might seem like an unrelated event, the Writers Guild of America went on strike for fourteen weeks, partly to lobby for fair compensation related to the creation of digital content. The networks and studios had anticipated the move and had prepared for the worst by earlier stockpiling scripts and reducing development goals (Gentile). As the strike progressed with little promise of a quick resolution, the companies responded by cutting development budgets even further and canceling a number of production and talent overhead deals, as allowed by the force majeure provisions that are standard in such agreements (Grossman).

At the same time, the recession hit the US economy, including the segment involved in making television shows, causing the networks to slash expenses even further. NBC led the pack; anticipating the turndown, it cut production budgets by $750 million and...


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pp. 56-61
Launched on MUSE
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