How To Choose a TV Show to Spec
It’s the greatest time of year. No, not Christmas. It’s fellowship season!
For you TV writers out there, it’s time to start writing yet another spec episode.
And that begs the age-old question… what TV show should you spec?
Never fear. I’m here to help.
Imagine this post as a process of elimination to whittle down your options for what series to spec. We’ll start with the big, obvious cuts and work our way until you’re left with a few good options.
But first, let’s go over what a spec is.
Got a great TV spec script? Enter it into the ScreenCraft TV Pilot Competition!
What Is a Spec Script?
What is a spec script, anyway? When it comes to feature scripts, “spec scripts” refer to scripts written on spec or “speculation.” Writing something “on spec” in Hollywood is just code for “free.” No one is paying the writer to work on the script, nor is there any guarantee that the script will get made. Most of the time, no one’s actually expecting the script at all.
Read More: What Is a Spec Script (and Why Should You Write One)?
So, What’s a Spec TV Script?
Spec scripts for TV are similar, and they come in a couple of flavors.
- Sample episodes of an existing TV series
- An original TV pilot wrote on spec
Now that we’ve nailed down what a spec script is for TV let’s go over how to choose a TV show to spec. There’s one guiding principle regarding what shows you can spec and which are totally off-limits.
The Show Must Be On
Unfortunately, you can’t spec a show that has already concluded its run or been canceled. We’d all love to write a spec of The Office. Or The Sopranos. Or Friends. The list of great shows of days past goes on and on.
I know what you’re going to say. Wasn’t there a guy who wrote a Seinfeld spec about 9/11, and it got him staffed?
Yes. In 2016, comedian Billy Domineau wrote a Seinfeld spec about Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer in the days following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and put it online for the world to see. And yes, he did write for Family Guy a few years later, and then Saturday Night Live a few years after that.
Like everything else when it comes to screenwriting, there’s always one exception to the rule. And Billy is that one-in-a-billion exception.
So, when choosing a show to spec, just stick to what’s current — a show that is currently airing (or in between seasons) on a broadcast network or streaming platform.
That still leaves a lot of options, though. How do you choose from all those current series?
Stick to the Warner Bros. List
Every year, the folks behind the Warner Bros. Television Workshop publish a list of Accepted Shows for their spec script requirement.
Given that Warner Bros. is the biggest TV fellowship program that still requires a spec for its application, it’s typically safe to assume that if it works for WB, it’ll work for other contests and fellowships too.
You want to get the most out of your spec as possible, so it’s best to write something that will be eligible for most, if not all, of the programs you’re applying for.
The Warner Bros. Accepted Shows list is fairly large and always has a wide variety of shows to choose from.
Spec a Show You Know and Love
Take that list of possible current shows and cross off anything you haven’t seen or don’t like. It could be the most critically acclaimed, award-winningest, most popular series on the planet, but if you don’t like it, that will come through in your writing.
In this case, there’s no reason to justify why you don’t like a show. If you can’t stand adult animation, you’re obviously not going to write Bob’s Burgers or Archer. If you don’t like superhero stuff, Legends of Tomorrow, The Boys, and Batwoman, all get the boot.
This is part of the spec-choosing process, where you can eliminate with abandon, so cross things out to your heart’s content.
Not the First or the Last
With the list of possible series you have left, there are a few other extenuating circumstances to consider.
First, try to avoid any show in its very first season. With freshman shows, the risk of cancellation and the reader must know the show itself is high. And, if the show gets canceled, your spec is useless. Unless you know that the show will be renewed for season two, my advice is to stay away. Similarly, avoid any show that’s in its very last season. Once the show is over — you guessed it — your spec is useless.
The sweet spot for shows to spec is those in their second, third, or fourth seasons. They’re new enough so that readers will know them, but they’re not so long-running that everyone’s sick of reading specs for them (*cough* Grey’s Anatomy *cough*).
Read More: The Fastest Way To Give Your Spec Scripts a Killer Hook
Go for the Good
The next thing to consider is the toughest to define. You want whatever show you choose to spec to be GOOD.
For a spec, you want something fairly popular — enough in the zeitgeist and cultural conversation that a reader, even if they weren’t up all night binging the latest season, will know if your script captures the show's essence.
You want something that is generally well-regarded in Hollywood. It doesn’t have to be the critical darling that no one actually watches, but you also don’t want it to be the show critics have universally panned and written off as a lost cause.
The show you pick will likely be more of one than the other — slightly more popular than critically acclaimed, or vice versa — that’s okay. Just keep those elements in mind when making your decision.
Build Your Brand
Finally, the last thing to consider is your personal brand as a writer.
If you write half-hour comedies, you’ll probably not want to choose Stranger Things, no matter how much you ship Steve Harrington. If your thing is medical dramas, it’s probably not wise to choose Emily in Paris, no matter how quickly you watched season three.
That said, you also want your spec script to show your range.
Keeping with our last example, if you write medical dramas, a Grey’s Anatomy or The Good Doctor spec would seem the easy choice. But, paired with your original scripts, those aren’t going to show anything new about you as a writer. Instead, try another hour-long procedural drama like 9-1-1 or Evil. Something in the same vein as your originals but isn’t exactly the same.
You want to choose a show to a spec that will complement your writing (and your current samples). This goes for the genre, format, subject matter, and overall tone.
Read More: How to Watch a TV Show You Want to Write a Spec Script For
Choosing a TV show to spec can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. There are a few key factors to consider before making a decision. Firstly, you should choose a show you are passionate about and deeply understand its themes and characters.
Secondly, it's important to consider the popularity and longevity of the show to ensure it will be relevant in the industry for some time. Additionally, you should research the show's production company and its track record to gauge its potential interest in new material.
Lastly, make sure to review the show's writing style and structure to determine if it aligns with your own strengths and preferences. Considering these factors, you can confidently choose a TV show to spec and create a winning script that showcases your writing skills.
Now that you’ve chosen which show you’re going to spec, it’s time to grab a snack and a notebook and do the thing we all love — watch a lot of TV and take notes.
Read More: The Literary Manager's Process of Selling Your TV Spec Pilot