Creating a Prime Time Television Series

Kelly Edwards is an executive, producer and a writer who knows how to do that. In fact, you know here work: Girlfriends, Clueless, Malcolm in the Middle, and more. Her new book is called The Executive Chair: A Writer’s Guide to TV Series Development. It is published by Michael Wiese Productions, which is, hands down, the very best publisher of books about the making of movies. The book is only about 140 pages long, so you might think about as a private lunch with Kelly, not a textbook, though it serves that purpose, too.

She begins by explaining how the industry is organized–the role of, say, the Senior Vice President vs. the role of an Executive Vice President, who does those job, and how they work their way up from Assistant to Manager to Director to Vice President, and so on. She explains how the year works: shows are developed by the networks during Development Season, which runs from July to November. Pilots are produced from January through May. Series pick up orders happen in May–but not always. This is the entertainment business, after all, and rules are constantly being broken. Still, it is helpful to understand how things normally operate. She explains how the cable networks operate on a different schedule, and how streaming follows its own rules, too.

Most important, she explains how the executive’s mind works–not just seeking any show, but a show that will fill a specific time slot, for example. A show that will pull a scheduled prime time evening out of the doldrums. A show to pair with a hit series to build a stronger schedule. Netflix may not be thinking the same way networks do–it’s not aiming for a particular demographic so much as a “taste cluster.”

She jumps over to a chapter on breaking into the industry–which is nearly impossible, but someone, everybody who works in the industry has done it, and, if you follow her instructions, you can, too. She recommends internships, volunteering, and other good ideas. I would add: doing your own projects, meeting people along the way, especially in major markets where those people are likely to recommend you for a job in the industry. (This doesn’t work so well in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but it can work very well in Seattle or Chicago, and, of course, in Los Angeles–but don’t forget Miami, Vancouver, Atlanta, and other 21st century production centers.)

The heart of the book is a chapter called “Your Game Plan.” Now, you really are a writer, a serious writer, but you need a break. How many scripts do you write on spec (speculatively)? Do you try to demonstrate that you can write in lots of different genres, or do you choose one lane? How do you tell your own story in a way that executives, producers and other writers will pay attention–and recommend you for a gig?

The adjacent chapter is about pitching. This is a difficult process to understand because it seems so subjective. Kelly breaks it down. For example, you should know what the executive has bought in the past, and why. You should know the reference points–by now, you should be very familiar with the series that executives often reference in their wants and their criticisms. Homicide, but also How I Met Your Mother; Mad Men, but also Dawson’s Creek and Ally McBeal. The Handmaid’s Tale and The Queen’s Gambit, but also Ugly Betty and The Twilight Zone. If you’re going to write for television, you must watch a lot of television–and nowadays, a lot of YouTube, and a lot of old shows on a lot of different streaming services, too.

She talks about how to behave during a pitch meeting. She talks about the difference between having a good idea and being able to deliver an actual script, and a series of scripts, on time, in ways that match the buyer’s needs. A tight pitch should run twenty minutes. “Tops.” Also: reading the room, reading executive body language. Lots to consider besides the idea itself.

Also, how to actually write the pilot script. For example, limit the settings; open with a bang…

And then, there are the inevitable notes from the executive team. How you handle those notes may be critical to your success as a writer.

Finally, what happens if you actually sell the script…what happens next?

This is a very solid book about a difficult profession. If you’re going down this path, or you know someone with the dream, it is essential reading. And equally essential re-reading, especially the night before your first big pitch.

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