Broadcast, Cable, or Streaming Networks: What’s Best for Your Idea?
So you have an idea for a television series. This is good. The “television” writer today has a myriad of options regarding the platforms available for their television ideas. Now, how do you know if that idea is best suited for a broadcast, cable, or streaming network? Let’s take a look at the differences between these types of networks.
ABC, CBS, and NBC broadcast networks continue to thrive today, having originated in the late 30’s and early-to-mid 40’s. FOX joined them in the mid 80’s and The CW debuted broadcasting in 2006. These networks have an established audience — skewing in their fifties and upward for the three original networks— and have been broadcasting entertainment, sports, and news content consistently since their beginnings. Broadcast networks are governed by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and have always had rules managing these broadcast networks in the interest of public safety and national security. Bad language, sexual and adult situations, and questionable political and societal motives are scrutinized within the networks’ content to assure that certain segments of the viewing public are protected — mostly children and sensitive viewers.
Networks like ESPN, MTV, TBS, Bravo, Comedy Central, and all networks that are part of the basic cable and tier line-ups are not under the jurisdiction of the FCC, although there are some cable networks that have sponsors who represent the establishment and for that reason they tend to follow some of the basic FCC content rules. HBO, Showtime, and the other premium (no commercials) ‘movie’ channels are not governed by the FCC and that is why content on these networks tend to emphasize obscenities, nudity, sexual situations, and other alternative topics of exploration within our society. Additionally, with the Premium cable networks — HBO, etc. — the consumer pays extra to view the content. That payment means that the consumer is aware that this content could be questionable for sensitive viewers.
Digital and Streaming Networks
Digital and streaming networks are available at any time to anyone who is willing to pay for the services and this content is not governed by the FCC. There are no rules. Series developed for these networks such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, along with original programming for Hulu and other newer streaming networks, are developed with specific audiences in mind. The development departments know what their audience wants and they continue to produce that content directly, no matter what the level of obscenities, nudity, sexual situations or social implications and movements that are explored. In fact, the more outrageous, unique, and niche-oriented, the better.
That said, your choices of venues for your TV idea involve staid, established entities versus free-flowing, without-any-rules sites, meaning you could develop a traditional idea or a contemporary idea as every one of these platforms offers varied opportunities.
Another element to consider is that broadcast networks — being somewhat forced to staying within their traditional guidelines — tend to look for content that appeals to all demographics. This is why sports events, news, and many series events involve family programming, biblical topics, and Americana or historical programming. These topics appeal to all viewers.
As we move through the cable networks it is obvious that if you are developing a children’s series you would contact all of the Disney-related networks and any family programming sites.
Comedy appeals to Comedy Central and TBS.
Romantic and women-orientated programming would be for WE, Oxygen, Lifetime and Hallmark and so on and so forth.
But know if you are pitching to broadcast and cable nets you’ll need to work within their framework and rules. Your idea will need to fit their formats along with pleasing their marketing departments so sponsors will not be offended. Consider these networks if your idea is a good, solid idea for a traditional sit-com or dramatic series. In most cases you’ll be pitching your idea to producers and showrunners who have worked with these networks and together you and the established producer or showrunner will put together a deal as you proceed in the production of your series for said network.
HBO and Showtime take a few more risks with their programming — think Game of Thrones, Homeland, Girls, and the most recent Billions. These networks tend to look for projects that will shock and take risks to involve and sometimes tantalize the pulse of current society. They will explore all of those topics listed above without any restrictions — nudity, sexuality, alternative worlds, anti-heroes, etc. They are interested in pursuing new forms of entertainment, news, and sports. Here once again, you will more than likely be pitching to producers, showrunners, and other writers who have worked with these premium networks with your “edgy” material.
The scenario is completely different with streaming and digital networks. Netflix has become a bit more traditional in accepting submissions, however, Amazon Prime will accept your submission online. These networks have had spectacular hits with House of Cards, Making a Murderer, Transparent and other binge-worthy series. This trio of elements — no governing body regarding content restraints, exploring niche topics, and the fact that viewers can consume these series as quickly (or slowly) as they would like to — add to the appeal of pitching to a streaming network. You’ll need to be sharp and authentic with your proposals, but this is certainly an exciting new arena for potentially new talent to enter this world of “television series” writing.
In all cases stated above, do your research. Know what each of these networks feature on their schedules. Follow the daily industry newsletters where you’ll learn of ideas in development for all of these platforms, and have an awareness of the types of series that are trending. It is a rule of fact that if a series is doing well, those net execs will be looking for similar programming. The wildly successful 10-part documentary Making a Murderer on Netflix has already promised that there will be more episodes on Netflix AND many new crime-investigation and justice-system stories are being developed on ALL networks as a result of its success.
A major resurgence in interest in writing for television is now underway. At an industry conference last fall my usual “Writing a TV Bible and Pilot” session played out to an overflow audience — and it is true, there are so many new platforms available to you now. Take them. Prep your idea, do your research for the best distribution platform for your idea and begin your marketing and pitching plan. There has never been a better time to continue or begin your career as a television writer.
Read Laurie's excellent television writing-related posts 5 Ways to Make Sure Your Television Idea Will Sell and 4 Steps to Developing an Idea Into a Television Series.
Laurie Scheer has been a television industry d-girl, producer (ABC, Viacom, Showtime, and AMC), and network executive (former Vice President of programming for WE). She is currently a media consultant, author, and director of a major writers’ conference. Her latest book The Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre addresses storytelling and pitching for our 21st century transmedia marketplace. Learn more about her HERE.