Diana Black on Targeting Your Spec TV Script

Enjoy this cool visual metaphor found on the interwebs

 by Diana Black

Is there such a thing as, ‘The’ definitive television series? Perhaps once, in relation to narrative form and length of ‘season’. But gone are the days when series television originated solely from broadcast networks. Now thanks to Cable subscription and the Internet, not only has the viewing platform changed, but also the nature of what constitutes a ‘series’.

In other words, episodic storytelling has evolved. Does it matter? Well it kind of does – to us, as writers of content. You need to know from the outset, what ‘form’ of series you’re writing – Limited, Mini, or Regular series – because that will have a bearing on the narrative arc and on the number of episodes you envisage in your outline. If the objective is to sell it – duh, you need to determine who you’re going to pitch this ‘calling card’ to.

In relation to the narrative arc, think about what you’re trying to say, the intended media platform, and who’s likely to comprise the audience. Hazy generality won’t work here – specific tailoring is ‘mission critical’ if you expect a warm reception… unless you’re into just throwing it against the wall to see what sticks…for shame.

Let’s distinguish between the ‘Limited Series’, ‘Mini-series’ and ‘Regular Series’ – all of which tend to be found on cable and other streaming platforms; as opposed to the typical ‘Network Series’ aired on big networks, which many go on for years.

A ‘Limited Series’ is less than the regular 18ish episodes (network) or 13ish episodes (cable). It’s a way of ‘testing the waters’ – the potential the series has to develop longer legs (more episodes), which of course depends on the ratings. From the suit’s POV, it’s a safer bet regarding expenditure than purchasing its bigger cousin.

A ‘Mini Series’ is a finite entity with a set number of episodes, an ensemble of characters and written with a clear and contained narrative arc in terms of plot. Examples include British productions like the four episode, The Night Manager, and the three episode series And Then There Were None.

A ‘Regular Series’ sometimes known as an ‘Anthology Series’ generally takes the form of 18 or so episodes (network) or 8 to 13 episodes (cable) – often over multiple seasons, in which the lead characters are maintained and new characters introduced into an established setting. The plotting is either ‘serialized’ or ‘procedural’.

Serialized plotting entails a narrative arc across the season such as Breaking Bad and Twin Peaks. In procedurals the regular family of crime solvers deals with a new plot every episode, as on Bones and NCIS.

Are web-series different again? If the narrative is compelling and the characters lovable and worthy of following, it may well run into the ‘20+’ episode range – then it may get picked-up by a 3rd party with lots of moolah.

Of course, there’s one way to determine that whatever you go to market with will be looked on
favorably. Have the property already associated in another form – such as a successful novel.

There isn’t a TV executive alive who can resist the siren call of a project another executive somewhere else has already loved. In fact, sometimes all it takes the knowledge that another professional outlet is courting your work.

Previous success equals leverage. And leverage means power. So get your work out there, and do everything you can to get the word about it out into the showbiz wild as well.


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer who frequently contributes to TVWriter™. (She used to contribute more frequently, but then she moved to Hawaii. Go figure.)