Why Do So Many “Greenlit” TV Shows Never Appear on TV?

Charlie Jane Anders shines her illuminating prose on this seemingly paradoxical state of affairs:

pilotgutter

Terrific illo by Tara Jacoby

by Charlie Jane Anders

Right now, it’s pilot season — which means you’re going to be hearing about a lot of TV shows getting ordered. And then, nine months from now… most of those shows will not be on television. What is this mysterious crucible? Here’s our step-by-step guide to the process of pitching a brand new television show.

Right about now, we ought to be in the middle of watching the first season of Hieroglyph, a show about gods in ancient Egypt that was “ordered to series” by Fox. But Fox pulled the plug on Hieroglyph, even after ordering a full season in advance, and we never even got to see it. That’s just one extreme example of a more common phenomenon — to casual observers, it looks like things are getting ordered all the time, then never showing up.

So as the image above indicates, the process of getting a TV show through the studios and networks, and actually getting it on television, is much like what that piece of legislation goes through in the classic Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just A Bill.” Except with more filibustering, and constitutional crises, and vetos, and probably more government shutdowns. [Full disclosure: A TV show based on my story “Six Months, Three Days” is in development.]

To find out more about the many stages of the TV development process, we talked to some seasoned TV professionals — some of whom are quoted below, and some of whom asked to remain nameless. So here’s a painstaking guide to the various stages of the TV development process, and all the jargon you’re likely to hear. (This is slightly more geared towards the broadcast networks, because the cable channels have a less rigid annual schedule.)

So here goes:

1. The Pitchening

This begins in June or July, for the broadcast networks. In a nutshell, you pitch a studio, and once you have studio backing, then you go to the network. Often, you’ll pitch a producer first, and the producer will have a deal with a particular studio that he or she will bring the project to. On occasion, a producer can go straight to the network, skipping the studio — but networks like to know that a studio is backing a show, because that makes it more likely they’ll actually get the show they ordered.

This process, from producer to studio to network, can take weeks — or it can go incredibly fast, if you have J.J. Abrams or Steven Spielberg on board as a producer, or if your show is based on a well-known comic book or beloved property.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, creator of The Middleman and writer for Helix, explains:

It helps if you think of the studio as a bank. What they do, in the broadest and most essential sense, if advance a showrunner/show creator the money and resources to actually make the show in advance of the network paying their fees (networks basically “rent” shows for a premiere showing and a number of repeats. They also get a creative oversight because the fees they pay cover most of the show’s cost. That much said, if the show costs more to make than what the network pays — which is most of the time — then the studio has to deficit finance those costs, so their interest is to make sure the show stays around long enough to be sold into syndication, which is where they bounce back from the deficit.

Sometimes a studio has corporate affiliation with a network (like Warner Bros. and The CW) which means they might try to place shows with that network. (Although Warner Bros. also makes Person of Interest, which is on CBS right now.) Sometimes a studio will give the “right of first refusal” to an affiliated network, before pitching elsewhere.

Also, sometimes a producer will have an exclusive deal with a particular studio, called an “overall deal,” which means you only pitch to that studio or get assigned to work on that studio’s projects.

With cable TV networks and things like Netflix, the process is much less standardized — some of them have a schedule that’s similar to broadcast, while HBO is famous for taking years and years to develop a single show.

2. The Notening

Everybody will have notes on your pitch. The studio will have stuff they want to see changed, and then the network will have its own concerns. Sometimes they disagree.

Read it all

Kevin Spacey Reminds Us to Pay It Forward

…And we’re right there with him. Not just cuz he’s Kevin Spacey either. Cuz he’s smart – and right:

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Um, anybody else notice how strange Kev looks when he smiles? Or is it just that we see him like that so seldom?

Oh, nevermind….

Robin Reed Sees American Horror Story: Freak Show

Not Horror, Not That Freaky
by Robin Reed

Don’t read this if you don’t want to know details of “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” which recently ended its run.freakshow-a-creepy-poster-collection

I am usually right there and ready to be scared when any horror film, book, or TV show comes out. When the word horror is in the title, you know I have to check it out. So when “American Horror Story” started a few years ago, I watched it. For a while. I liked it at first, but then it just got dumb. It was set in the current day (as of several years ago) so the internet existed. How hard is it to enter the address of a house you are looking at into a search engine and find out that it is internationally famous as “The Murder House” and a tour passes by every day with people who want to see it? There were some shivers and cool stuff near the beginning, but I lost all interest after a few episodes.

So I skipped the next two seasons. The only reason I decided to watch “American Horror Story: Freak Show” is that I find the circus/carnie culture interesting, and I have been treated like a freak often enough to feel some kinship to the people in such shows.

I watched every episode, with many characters I liked, and an atmosphere of dread, at least at the beginning. Many people on the internet loved to hate “Twisty the Clown,” (though that name was never mentioned in the show itself.) I thought his character was too easy for a show that was supposed to be groundbreaking. He was the show’s Freddy Krueger, or Jason. But at least he was scary. As the show went on, the scariness drained out of it.

The characters I liked best were the freaks themselves. Some were the product of special effects and makeup, but some were real people who are different. Jyoti Amge, the smallest woman in the world; Mat Fraser, who has floppy arms because his mother took thalidomide when she was pregnant with him; Rose Siggins, who was born with useless legs that were amputated so she could move herself around; and Erika Ervin, a six foot eight inch tall transgender woman.

These characters were all written as real people and had their moments in the story. As did others such as Kathy Bates as a bearded lady with a strange accent, (which I researched, finding out that it is a Baltimore working class accent.) Her son is the Lobster Boy, with hands that look like flippers. Michael Chiklis is a strongman, and Sarah Paulson is conjoined twins who look like one woman with two heads. (This really can happen, twins like that had a short-lived reality show not too long ago.)

There are also dwarves, and actors playing pinheads. Pinheads are people with microcephaly. They have small brains and thus small heads.

There were interesting characters, and interesting plot twists and turns, but the show as a whole was too long, and the decision to kill off Twisty may have seemed clever to the writers but it’s like making a Nightmare on Elm Street movie and removing Freddy Krueger less than halfway through. After he is gone we get a variety of villains, included a man who wants to kill the freaks and sell them to a museum of anatomical oddities, the strong man, who kills Ma Petite, the freak everyone loves, because he is being blackmailed by the man who wants to sell her to the museum, and of course Dandy, the local rich kid who is a blossoming serial killer.

None of these have the focus and intensity that Twisty did, so while the show might be called a drama about horrible things, it really isn’t horror. Horror makes you feel scared and uncomfortable and stays with you long after you read or watch it. American Horror Story: Freak Show was a pretty good drama about these people, but not horror.

I usually like Neil Patrick Harris, but he was brought in seemingly to showcase hoary horror concepts such as a ventriloquist dummy which may or may not be alive, and a magician really sawing a woman in half. His part in the show killed a couple of episodes but had no real effect on the story.

Jessica Lange is in every season of “American Horror Story” and she is good as Elsa Mars, the owner of the show. Her German accent sounded right to me, for someone who has been in the US for many years. Her big secret is that she is a freak too. She has two prosthetic legs. She walks on them so well that no one knows unless she rolls her stockings down to reveal them. The legs are wooden, carved to look like human legs, so I’m not sure it’s possible to walk that well and to keep them secret, and even become a TV star with the public none the wiser.

The best episode was about Pepper the pinhead. Another pinhead who she loved dies and she is inconsolable and unable to perform. Elsa takes her back to her sister, who does not want her. This ties in with an earlier season that I didn’t see, with Pepper in an insane asylum. Pepper was largely background in “Freak Show” until this episode, but becomes a character who makes us feel for her, though she can’t speak and is mentally handicapped.

I don’t know why several songs in a show set in 1952 are performed several decades before they were written. Maybe it has something to do with the overall connections between the seasons.

There are a lot of good things, but the whole doesn’t add up. There were thirteen episodes, and some were longer than an hour. I think they could be edited down to six or seven hours, and would be much better.

“American Horror Story” has a lot of fans, and they trace the connections and characters that appear in different times and locations. Personally, I have done my time and will let those fans continue to watch without me.

A Writing Staff Newbie Let’s Us In On Her New Success

Further proof that no matter where you come from and who you are, you can make it as a TV writer. All you need is…is…oh, hell, just read and see if you can figure it out:

Susan Morris on set_for State of Affairs

Susan Morris with the star & director – in the middle even

by Trelle Kolojay

A woman from Saskatoon has a hand in shaping the new thriller TV series, State of Affairs, as one of the main writers.

Susan Morris is from the Bridge City and now lives in Los Angeles, where she is working on the show following the life of a CIA analyst, played by Katherine Heigl, responsible for briefing the president of the United States on security threats.

“Coming from Saskatoon, I honestly didn’t have an idea that I’d end up in Los Angeles writing for television. It’s been fun, it’s been a great journey and also I really feel Saskatoon is a great place to come from,” she said.

Morris started her post-secondary studies at the University of Saskatchewan before moving to Toronto and interning with a small film company. When she fell in love with film, she went to film school in Los Angeles.

The State of Affairs show found her after a pilot she wrote for a different project fell through but one of the people involved in that failed project, Joe Carnahan, wanted her help on a new one.

“That project fell apart for a number of reasons and in January of last year, Joe (Carnahan) gave me a call and said he was getting this NBC gig and wanted me to come on and write with him.”

The show also draws on the experience of two executive producers who are ex-CIA agents.

“They always thought it would be a great idea to do a show about the person who briefs the president of the United States, so they brought in Katherine Heigl and another producer and it originated with them. We came on and wrote the pilot script.”

TVWriter™ Top Posts for the Week Ending 1/30/15

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Here they are, the most viewed TVWriter™ posts during the past week:

2014 SPEC SCRIPTACULAR Finalists!

2014 SPEC SCRIPTACULAR Winners

Peggy Bechko: Tighten It Up

Peggy Bechko: The Unnatural Museum

2014 SPEC SCRIPTACULAR Semi-Finalists!

And our most viewed resource pages were:

Writing the Dreaded Outline

THE SPEC SCRIPTACULAR

THE PEOPLE’S PILOT

THE SPEC SCRIPTACULAR: Prizes

The Teleplay

Big thanks to everyone for making this such a great week, and don’t forget to read what you missed, re-read what you loved, and, most importantly, come back for more soon!

2014 SPEC SCRIPTACULAR Winners

20th Spec Scriptacular Winners

For contest ending December 1, 2014

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

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1st Place: RICK AND MORTY: CRIME AND PUNISHRICK by Michael Kellner

2nd Place:THE JETSONS: POOR WIDDLE WABBIT by James H. Kelly

3rd Place: NURSE JACKIE: EVERYTHING I TOUCH IS FUCKED by Cara Rothenberg

ACTION/DRAMA/DRAMEDY

1st Place: HANNIBAL: BREAD & WATER by Angela Berliner

2nd Place: SUPERNATURAL: WISH UPON A STAR by Zoé Denis

3rd Place: SCANDAL: THE GOOD SHEPHERD by Jeane Wong

TV MOVIE/SCREENPLAY/SPECIAL

1st Place: CONSEQUENCES by Robert Frostholm

2nd Place: ERASED by Scott M. Richter

3rd Place: DRIVEN by Gerald Cote

The only way to describe these nine scripts is: Wonderful. Fully five of them scored over 9 points on our 10 point scale, and the others were in the very high 8s. All three of the 1st Place finishers, in fact, and two of the 2nd Placers, finished in the top ten All-Time Spec Scriptacular Top Scores. Which makes them part of the ten best in the decade and a half this contest has been held.

A showbiz old pro might give a little smile and say, “Not bad” to all this. But that would be because they were masking the absolute awe such an achievement brings.  To put it another way, LB and the rest of the TVWriter™ Gang consider every one of the scripts above to be, simply, brilliant. And brilliance is what they needed in order to finish ahead of another remarkable pack of entries which, overall, has been the best yet.

In the next few days LB will be contacting all the Spec Scriptacular Winners to tell you how to claim your prizes, and he swears that in about a week (well, maybe a bit more depending on, you know, all the things meeting deadlines can depend on) he’ll post his personal observations about the results.

After that, all entrants should start receiving your free Feedback, but please remember that the operative phrase here is “start receiving” because of the volume of people to be contacted. Please give us a few weeks before emailing TVWriter™ in panic because your Feedback hasn’t arrived yet, okay?

Speaking of timetables, we’d like to remind you that the 2015 People’s Pilot will be opening for entries in mere days. The exact date is February 1st, and if you’d like to receive a substantial discount on your entry fee – 30% – February would be a very good time to send in that fee. You can always finish and polish and upload your People’s Pilot script any time after that till the Dread Deadline date of June 1st.

Congratulations to all the Winners for their outstanding work and to everybody who entered for coming so very, very close. Your friends here at TVWriter™ want you to know that you’re the best!