Despite all the criticisms heaped upon the medium, television is still capable of nurturing some of the finest writing talent in the entertainment industry. Based on sheer volume alone, the regular writers for a network television show work 6 or 7 days a week approximately 11 months a year.
Yet, while the pace can be grueling, the rewards are often substantial in terms of big salaries and major recognition. Some of the finest television writers, such as James Brooks, occasionally make the leap to writing for the big screen.
How does an aspiring writer get in the door? Unfortunately, it is difficult to submit spec scripts to television shows without an agent. Some shows do accept un-agented submissions, but they are in the minority. Many shows have intern positions which can provide valuable experience and access for the aspiring writer.
In any event, the most important initial advice for any writer is to actually watch the show to acquire an understanding of the relationships of the characters. It is important to think like a producer when you write for television - budget considerations are crucial.
A writer must focus on the series regulars and the existing sets. Remember that hiring extra actors and building new sets costs money for the series producer, who will toss your script in the trash after reading the Ben Hur-type spectacle you have written into the second scene.
Many television shows publish submission guidelines. These guidelines set forth not only the backgrounds of the characters, but also tell the writer how to format the script.
Unlike movies, television shows have a very specific format which is largely dictated by the insertion of commercials. Therefore, television shows are broken up into a series of "acts," sometimes starting with the "teaser" before the commercial, and the "tag" at the end.
Most television production companies employ readers to evaluate the scripts that are submitted by outside writers. The readers provide "coverage" to the producers. The coverage is a written synopsis and evaluation of the script.
Even with shows that accept unagented scripts, it is important to know that in most cases a script will not be bought outright. The story idea might be purchased and turned over to the staff writers. Some shows allow writers to come in to the office and pitch one or two story ideas to the producers.
All writers should become familiar with the Writer's Guild of America. Writer's Guild registration provides a record of the writer's claim to authorship of the written material. Registration establishes the content and completion date of the work which can be used in the event of a dispute.
The WGA also offers a book on accepted script format called Professional Writer's Teleplay/Screenplay Format Guide. There are also a number of other books on the subject.
It should be noted that the WGA is a separate organization from the Screenwriter's Guild (SWG), which deals with theatrical motion pictures.
The WGA provides several different contract forms depending on the nature of the production. The Standard Form Freelance Television Writer's Employment Agreement is the most commonly used.
The contract should specify with great particularity the show length and script length In the case of a variety show, there may often be more than one writer contributing different portions of the script.
In this case, the script length, rather than the show length determines the Writer's compensation. The WGA provides a minimum payment schedule depending on whether the Writer has contributed plot outline, story, teleplay, rewrite or final polish to the script.
The contract will provide that the material is granted to the Producer on an exclusive basis. However, this exclusivity should be made contingent on the Producer's obligation to broadcast the material at least once.
For all filmed programs, the contract will provide that the grant of rights to the Producer is for the duration of the copyright. In connection with additional broadcasts of the material, the WGA provides a schedule of re-use fees for each subsequent broadcast of the program after the initial use.
The Producer will always seek a warranty and indemnification clause from the Writer stating that the material is original and will not infringe upon the copyright(s), trademark(s) or other rights of any third party.
However, the Writer should seek to limit the Writer's liability, if possible, to the extent of the Writer's compensation and only to the material provided by the writer.
In general, any contract negotiations will hinge on the Writer's reputation and clout in the entertainment industry. Obviously, a new writer who is seeking an entry into the highly competitive medium will be equally attracted by the credit as by the compensation.
Ultimately, the best advice which might be offered by an established writer to a novice is to be ambitious and persistent at the craft. Writing technique and structure must be developed like learning to play a musical instrument.