READER QUESTION: How do I Know What TV Spec to Write?

Hey, screenwriters—

First of all, thanks for all the emails… I’ve got a nicely full mailbag, and I’ll do my best to get to all your questions over the next few days.  In the mean time—keep the emails coming (they make me feel really popular)!

With the WGA strike over and staffing season only a few weeks away, many of the questions seem to be focusing on TV spec-writing.  The first comes from loyal reader Pam, who also took one of my mediabistro classes a few months ago.  Pam writes…

“I am a spec-writing neophyte.  You mentioned in your 2/12 posting those shows which you felt were this year’s best bets.  My question then is, how exactly is a show deemed ‘spec-able?’  Those that are established?  Fan favorites?  Critic favorites?  You also mentioned a few shows to keep an eye on for the future.  Does this mean shows that just finished their first season generally aren’t spec-able?

“And what’s your take on the debate over writing a show you actually want to submit to?  Will the writers scoff at your attempt to write THEIR show?  A show with stories they are already familiar telling and characters whose voices they know?”

This is a question many people have, Pam—how do you know what specs are spec-able? 

Basically, you want to spec a show that the industry (execs, agents, showrunners, etc.) likes, follows, and respects.  But knowing what these shows are isn’t always obvious, and there’s really only one good way to figure it out each year: ask.  Talk to agents, execs, showrunners, etc.  They can tell you what writers seem to be writing, and—more importantly—what readers (agents, execs, showrunners, etc.) seem to be reading.  Very often, shows that seem like they should be spec-able aren’t, and vice versa.

Having said that, here are some rules and hints that can help you figure it out…

•  Shows in their first seasons are usually risky specs.  This is for three main reasons:

One: there’s no certainty they’ll come back, and if they get canceled, your spec is useless.

Two: first-season shows, even hits, usually need several weeks to find their feet and figure out exactly how they work.  They’re playing with stories, testing out characters, etc.  An actor who was supposed to play a pivotal role may turn out to be too weak and have his part diminished.  Another actor may “break out” and become a show favorite, so writers boost up his character.  Certain kinds of stories may turn out to work better than others.  Thus, while you may love a certain show right out of the gate, it hasn’t necessarily solidified itself to the point where it has set patterns and rules that make it spec-able.

And lastly: if it’s a new show (again—even a hit), not everyone may be watching it on a regular basis… so you may find that many people simply don’t know the show well enough to appreciate your spec.  And if people don’t have the knowledge to read your script, it reduces your chances of impressing a reader enough to get a job.

•  Older shows are also risky specs.  This is for a couple reasons:

One: the show doesn’t feel sexy, and while you definitely want to spec a show that’s solid enough that everyone understands it, you also want to spec something that feels fresh and exciting and edgy.  Law & Order may still be a successful franchise, and a few years ago every procedural writer in the world had a Law & Order spec, but it’s now been replaced by newer, more contemporary-feeling shows like CSI, Dexter, and Criminal Minds.

Two: agents and execs get bored of them.  This is possible even with hot specs… last year, for instance, everyone and their mother wrote an Office spec… and while it was certainly last year’s “hot spec,” people got sick of reading them.  So speccing an older show simply increases your odds of writing something people are already tired of looking at.

•  Don’t spec something too serialized.  Shows that are super soapy are tough to spec because their stories and characters change dramatically every week.  Try something that has at least some element of “standalone-ness.”  Even shows like Grey’s Anatomy, which loves to get wrapped up in its kaleidoscoping love triangles and relationships, does mostly self-contained episodes; each week not only has two or three “patients of the week,” but it’s bookended by Meredith Grey’s thematic voice over.  (Having said all this, there always exceptions.  I’ve heard that Gossip Girl may turn out to be a pretty hot spec next year… not necessarily this year, but next year… maybe.)

•  Monitor reviews in industry publications.  If you don’t know execs, agents, or showrunners to ask about current specs to write, you can get a sense of it from reading reviews in trades and magazines frequented by the industry.  Obviously: Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.  But also The New York Times and The LA Times.  Check out the top shows on iTunes.  These will help you identify the “watercooler” shows (shows people talk about around the watercooler at work) that may be speccable.

As for Part II of your question, Pam:  sending a spec to its own show…

This is usually a bad idea.  Many shows won’t even read specs of their own show for legal reasons.

For instance, let’s say you write a spec of 30 Rock in which Liz Lemon adopts a dog.  You send it to 30 Rock.  But what you don’t know… what you couldn’t possibly know… is that they’re working on a nearly identical story in which Liz Lemon adopts a kitten.  A few weeks later, you see this episode on TV and immediately believe they’ve stolen your idea—the story is nearly the same, jokes are the same, story beats are the same.  You sue the show.  Now everyone’s embroiled in a long and unnecessary legal battle that never should’ve happened.  So not reading specs of their own show protects both you and the show itself.

But it’s also not usually smart to send a spec to its own show because—while the staff may not “scoff” at the spec—they certainly feel they understand their show better than anyone out there.  And, for the most part, they’re probably right. 

For instance, let’s say you send your Liz-adopts-a-puppy spec to 30 Rock.  But what you don’t know… what you couldn’t possibly know… is that several months ago they talked about—and even worked on—a Liz-adopts-a-pet episode… and it didn’t work.  Maybe it wasn’t funny.  Maybe the network hated it.  Maybe they just got bored and scrapped the idea.  Regardless, you may have written a brilliant spec, but to them it’s an old, tired idea.  And trust me—most writing staffs have thought of almost everything you could think of.  If a show has 22 episodes a year, and e
ach show tells 3 stories, that’s 66 stories a year.  But in order to get 66 good stories, the staff brainstorms well over a hundred stories.  So the odds of you impressing them with something completely original—and executing it better than they could—are slim.

You’re better off writing a brilliant spec of a different show, then wowing them with that.

Anyway, hope that helps, Pam…

Keep the questions coming, guys!  Talk to you soon…


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