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How to Write for TV: 15 Most Popular Television Genres

By September 25, 2020 No Comments
how to write for tv genres

Most of us are familiar with the major film genres and subgenres. But what about television genres? Television is a large — and growing — space with room for dozens of niche genres alongside network broadcast staples. We’ve entered the “Golden Age of Television” with hundreds of scripted shows on dozens of streaming services. Here’s a look at 15 of the most popular genres in television right now to help you plan your next TV screenplay.

15 Most Popular Television Genres (and how to write each one)

popular genre television scripts1. Sci-fi and Fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy are both incredibly popular genres of television, largely thanks to the runaway success of Game of Thrones. Sci-fi and fantasy shows take viewers out of grounded reality and explore the possibilities only our imaginations can create. It’s worth pointing out that while these two genres are often lumped together, they each have distinct tropes and formatting notes. Just an FYI.

If your goal is to write a sci-fi or fantasy TV show, check out these hit shows for inspiration:

  • Westworld (sci-fi Western)
  • Snowpiercer (eco-fiction)
  • Dr. Who (time-travel fantasy)
  • Lovecraft County (fantasy-horror)

You can even download the Game of Thrones pilot script to see how to write and format sci-fi and fantasy scripts.

2. Hour-long Drama

The hour-long drama has nearly an infinite number of subgenres. Some are serialized and have a story arc that lasts the entire season. Others are procedural dramas where the main conflict is resolved by the end of each episode (i.e., a crime is solved, or a judge makes a ruling in a court case). It’s a big genre.

Procedural dramas include police shows like CSI and NCIS New Orleans. Serialized dramas include the rebooted Perry Mason (a courtroom drama) and Succession (family drama).

Download this Succession episode script for an example of how to write and format a one-hour serialized drama script.

best genre television shows3. Fictional Crime

Another subgenre of the hour-long drama, crime shows are the bread and butter of network television. Often told from the point of view of the police or other investigators. shows like FBI, Chicago P.D., Bluebloods, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit are classic TV crime genre mainstays.

More recently, cable channels and streaming services have found success creating fictional crime shows from the point of view of the criminals, such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Animal Kingdom, and Ozark.

Here are some free television script downloads to help you write a fictional crime show:

4. True Crime

Every once in a while, an event or true crime will take place and capture our imaginations. Remember Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco? Between 1992 and 1993, there were three docudramas that aired on TV about that story:

  • Amy Fisher: My Story
  • Casualties of Love: The “Long Island Lolita” Story
  • The Amy Fisher Story

More recently, the show Dirty John told the true, deception-based romance of Debra Newell and John Meehan. Other recent true crime shows include The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.

Download the script for The Assassination of Gianni Versace to see how to write and format a true crime episode for tv.

5. Period Drama

Technically, the period drama is part of the hour-long drama genre. But this genre is so popular right now it deserves its own category. The biggest (and really only) criteria for a period drama is that it takes place in a very specific time in history. This often means that the show is centered around amazing costumes, historic locations, and painstaking attention to detail to avoid anachronisms.

Popular examples of period dramas include the smash success Downton Abbey, The Crown (currently the most expensive TV show of all time), The Alienist, and Vikings.

Download an episode script for Downtown Abbey to see how to write a period drama for television.

popular television genres6. Horror Genre TV

American Horror Story has really reinvented the television horror experience and will be returning for its 10th season, employing incredibly talented actors like Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates.

Other popular TV horror shows include The Haunting of Hill House, Penny Dreadful, We are the Walking Dead, The Terror, and new show Ratched, which is an origin story of Nurse Ratched from the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Learn more about writing a horror TV show here or download a script (PDF) for an episode of American Horror story to see how to format tv scripts for horror television.

best television genres7. Television Sitcoms

Ever since I Love Lucy debuted in 1951, Americans can’t seem to get enough of television sitcoms. Still popular today, the classic three-camera sitcoms are still shot in front of a live audience on a soundstage. And while many sitcoms haven’t changed much in 50 years, there have been some recent innovations to the format and style of the television sitcom.

Single-camera sitcoms, like Young Sheldon, Malcolm in the Middle, and Emmy award-winning Schitt’s Creek avoid traditional three-camera formatting and blocking. Shot without an audience or a laugh track, these one-camera shows have almost become a subgenre in their own right. Especially with the way that a single-camera sitcom impacts the pace and style of the screenplay.

Single-camera sitcoms feel closer to reality and allow for varied locations and shifts in tone from comedy to drama, depending on the show. But despite their stylistic differences, both single and three-camera sitcoms typically run 22-minutes per episode.

Download the pilot episode script for Schitt’s Creek to see how a single-camera sitcom is written and formatted.

8. Spin-off television shows

A spin-off is when a minor character becomes so popular on an established TV show, that they leave to star in their own show. The 1970s and 80s saw lots of sitcom spinoffs with popular spin-offs that included:

  • Mork and Mindy was a spin-off from Happy Days
  • The Facts of Life was a spin-off from Diff’rent Strokes
  • Frasier was the popular long-running spin-off from Cheers

And while many spin-offs flop, sometimes the spin-off can be more popular than the original tv show that spawned the character.

More modern-day spin-offs include Young Sheldon, a prequel of the parent show The Big Bang Theory, and The Good Fight which emerged from The Good Wife. Even reality shows have spin-off potential. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo that came from parent show Toddlers & Tiaras.

Download the pilot episode script for Frasier to see how to write a spin-off show.

9. Musical comedies

When a musical TV show is done well, it’s often a huge hit. That’s because musicals and musical comedy television shows hit viewers hard. They encompass heightened emotions that get expressed through songs and dance that tell the story in a stylized way. And people like it. No, they love it.

Popular musical genre television shows include Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Glee, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Fosse/Verdon.

Download an episode script of Fosse/Verdun to see how to format a musical comedy television screenplay.

genre television10. Soap Operas

This genre of TV gets its name from the dishwashing soap that advertisers used to market to housewives in the commercials between scenes. And while a lot of things have changes since those days, daytime “soaps” are still a big part of the television landscape.

Several classic soap operas like General Hospital and Days of Our Lives still exist, but have the soap opera genre has largely been replaced by reality TV shows. What’s become popular are so-called “evening” soap operas like Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Riverdale, and Gossip Girl.

The new generation of primetime soap operas is full of romance, breakups, and characters who can’t resist meddling in other people’s affairs. Sounds a lot like classic soap operas to me. But no matter what you call it, soap operas are still one of the most popular genres on tv.

Download an episode of Scandal to see how the modern soap opera has evolved.

11. Animation

Animated TV shows tend to be comedies simply because anything is possible. And that opens up a lot of comedic opportunities — for viewers of all ages.

Animated tv shows have exploded in popularity with legacy programs like The Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants, and South Park giving way to modern classics like Bob’s Burgers, Samurai Jack, Archer, Bojack Horseman, and Rick and Morty. Animation isn’t for kids anymore, and television studios have definitely taken notice.

Learn more about writing for animated television and feature-length films.

12. Reality-TV

While most reality TV shows do employ writers, they are mostly concerned with mining the drama between the characters and not writing actual scripts. Shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians have deeply permeated American culture, influencing make-up and fashion trends, and even plastic surgery. Other popular reality TV shows include:

  • The Real Housewives
  • The Jersey Shore
  • Project Runway
  • The Bachelor
  • Survivor
  • Big Brother
  • Naked and Afraid.

Reality television has become so popular that there is even another subgenre of reality game shows where contestants compete for prizes or money. It’s a booming tv genre with some room for certain creative writers and producers.

13. Sketch Comedy and Variety Shows

Sketch comedy has been around forever. But the most recognizable sketch comedy show currently on the air is, of course, Saturday Night Live. SNL is entering its 46th season this fall! A hallmark of sketch shows like MADtv and The Carol Burnett Show is that they were performed in front of a live audience and often include musical guests and guest hosts.

More recent takes on sketch comedy shows include Inside Amy Schumer and Portlandia, which blend scripted comedy with improvisation, and are shot without a live audience.

14. Talk Shows

Everyone has a favorite late-night talk show, (I miss you, David Letterman!), but daytime talk shows like The Dr. Phil Show or The Ellen Show are still one of the most popular tv genres. Luckily, these shows employ a lot of writers!

Writers on both daytime and late-night talk shows typically write jokes, monologues, and segments for the host. This content also features interviews with celebrities or troubled individuals that are not scripted and usually shot in front of a live audience. As more talk shows expand into streaming platforms and YouTube writers are creating more digital-friendly content to bolster the writing for television. It’s an exciting time to write for tv talk shows.

15. Children’s TV Shows

Animated shows like Dora The Explorer and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are favorites for children. Live-action shows like Sesame Street are often educational and always popular with parents. But in my humble opinion, nothing will ever take the place of the totally crazed H.R. Pufnstuff that ran from 1969 to 1970. Go watch an episode if you’ve never seen it. It’s wild.

How to write for tv: Most popular television genres

Now is a great time to write for television. Streaming platforms are exploding, content is expanding, and explored niche television shows are finding their audiences. And these shows need good writers. Learn how to write for any genre of TV and jumpstart your screenwriting with a career in television.

write for genre tv