Typing Faster

January 5, 2010

Television Spec Questions

Filed under: Specs — petertypingfaster @ 12:27 pm

Rachel, a friend of mine, has a post up asking some good questions about writing a spec episode of an existing series. I started to post some answers in the comments section, but it was getting long and unwieldly, so I figured I’d move it all over here and expand on them a bit.

All suggestions are rules of thumb. There are always exceptions. Your mileage may vary.

So, without further ado, here we go!

5 Questions About Spec’ing A Series

It’s a Tuesday morning, I have my coffee and exactly 17 minutes and I’m going to milk you for answers. Here are five questions I have while preparing to write a spec (or two?) of an existing television show:

1. How old is too old? I realize the show needs to be on the air, but is there a limit to what season it should be in? If its running into a fifth or sixth is it nearing an expiry date?

The sad fact is that specs have a shelf life. Once a show goes off the air, specs of that show are essentially dead. Showbiz doesn’t like to look back at the past, it’s always looking for the “next big thing.”

Spec’ing a show that’s coming towards the end of its run has some drawbacks.

  • The older a show, the more specs of it floating around.
  • The older a show, the less new and shiny it looks. The less buzz it has.
  • The older a show, the more likely it is to end its run, go off the air, and be useless as a spec.

So, basically it comes down to two rules of thumb:

  • Don’t spec a show in its first year. A pickup is never guaranteed, and the show is still finding itself.
  • Don’t spec a show that’s more than four or five seasons old. Five seasons is the magical syndication number, few shows go past it.

Whatever’s leftover in the middle is the sweetspot.

2. How do you avoid bad buzz? Every source I’ve pestered for answers so far has used the word “buzz” in relation to a successful spec. “The show you choose needs to have the right kind of buzz.” The problem is that the geek world in which I so lovingly exist buzzes about a lot of things that the mainstream world doesn’t. How can I be sure I’m following the correct stream?

The only buzz you need to worry about is the industry buzz, drawing a slight distinction between writer buzz and business buzz, everything else is just useless noise. That holds especially true for internet fanboys (and girls). Don’t listen to these folks, they’re perspective is so biased as to be useless.

Writer buzz is basically whatever shows writers are talking about with other writers. Mad Men probably the quintessential example of a show like this right now.

Industry buzz is similar, but you expand it to include shows that are tearing up the ratings as well. Using this metric you’d add shows like NCIS to the list.

Best way to figure out what show’s have good buzz is to start reading the industry rags. Spend some time looking at the TV coverage on The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, some of the good television critics, or websites like TV By The Numbers.

3. Where should my story fall? Is it imperative that my spec fall chronologically in time with the show’s most recent episodes? Are there any downsides to writing an episode that fits into, say, the second season instead of the fourth? How do you choose the acceptable time to insert your spec?

Serialized shows are a pain in the ass for a variety of reasons. They’re tough to spec, because you have to fit the story into the existing chronology of the show. They go out of date a lot quicker than a straight procedural does, because the show’s evolving season to season. If you spec a serialized show those are the challenges you’re going to be going up against.

Now, relating it back to your specific question: Where should my story fall? Make it as current as possible. If you set it earlier in the show’s chronology you’re just dating yourself and your script. People will assume you haven’t been keeping up with the show. Also if the show’s changed dramatically between seasons your spec won’t be current.

4. How much leeway do I have? I’ve been told that creating a new character is a no-go unless they are restricted to the one episode. How much leeway do I have with other creative devices? Ex: Using a narrative VO when the show doesn’t usually have one?

DO NOT CHANGE THE SHOW. I can’t stress that enough. If the show doesn’t use voice over, then don’t use voice over. If the show doesn’t feature a character, then don’t introduce that character (obvious exceptions would be a murder suspect in a procedural).

The point of a spec is to show that you can write the show as it is, not your own version of said show. The more you change it, the further away you get from that goal.

Writing a spec around a guest star is probably the most common example of this mistake. Usually a writer does it because the guest character’s a lot of fun to write. The problem is that the character often winds up taking over the entire script, regular characters disappear, and you wind up with a spec that looks nothing like the show you’re trying to spec.

In other words, you have no lee way.

5. How important is genre? Drama is my passion, and therefore I am choosing to spec a dramatic series. Is it arrogant to also write a comedy spec as a fallback? Some forums say choose a lane, others say try everything. Am I shooting myself in the foot by appearing undecided with a mix of genres?

I think this really depends on what you’re trying to do, and what your immediate goals are.

If you’re trying to land an agent, then having a drama and a comedy spec would be an asset. It means that you can write both genres, shows your versatility, and thus there are that many more jobs they can put you up for.

If you’re trying to land a writing gig right out the gate, then showing a lack of focus might be detrimental. Say you’re up for a drama, they read your first drama spec and want to read something else. Unfortunately you only have a comedy to send. It’s may not be a deal breaker, but it’s probably not the greatest thing.

Personally I usually recommend a focused approach when choosing what to spec. If your primary goal is to be a one hour writer, but you want to show off your comedic chops, then I’d write a one hour drama with a lot of comedic elements (Chuck, Bones, etc). But the answer to this one is really kind of up to the individual.

Anyways, hope those answers help!

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1 Comment »

  1. This helps a lot. Thanks Peter!

    Comment by Rachel — January 5, 2010 @ 5:43 pm


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