The TV Fellowship Season Survival Guide

by Carlos Cisco - updated on September 16, 2019

It’s no secret that TV Fellowship season is upon us. Some like Nickelodeon have come and went, but right now there are seemingly more opportunities than ever.  Many of us were recently disappointed by the technical shortcomings that hampered the unveiling of HBOAccess, but bigger obstacles await.  As the season rapidly descends upon us, it's easy to get overwhelmed. So just what exactly are we supposed to do?

Well instead of ranting on Twitter like many (including myself) spend their time doing, a better use of your palpable rage would be putting that energy towards writing that spec script you’ve been putting off. Why? Because in just a couple short months CBS, WB, ABC, NBC, CAPE, and the NHMC will all open the gates to their submission portals and you need to be ready.

Do you have a pilot that needs to be read? Enter the ScreenCraft Pilot Launch TV Script Competition here.

 I can speak from experience that these submission periods can be a ton of work for what ultimately may just be a very discouraging bit of nothing in return. But you can’t frame it like that. If you think these executives aren’t watching and tracking people who submit year after year, you’d be wrong. Each submission helps get you a little bit closer, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. You didn’t get in this year? Damn. Time to take the lessons learned from this spec and apply it to the next.

So what are some things I wish I knew before I submitted for the first time?

Know your show:

This seems like a no brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t even bother to read a script for the show they’re speccing. Yes, capturing the character’s voices is probably the most important aspect of a spec script. But knowing the locations and mastering the structure and tone is only a hair less important. The best way to familiarize yourself with a show is to read it. Not just watch it. But you should watch it too. All of it. Probably several times.

The bulk of television writing is not about learning the rules so you can break them; it's about executing someone else’s vision to the best of your ability. Knowing a show back and front can only help your spec. And who doesn’t love binging on their favorite show?

Know the Market:

That’s a great resource for checking out what’s being read and what people are just sick of. It’s important to know what’s on, what’s being picked up or canceled, and what is killing it in the ratings. Take for example a show like Party Down. If you were speccing in the 2009-2010 season, you might have thought this was the perfect show to spec. But I’m certain I was one of six people watching as it aired. This is where you can run into a problem of your reader not knowing your show.

That’s why it’s wise to pick a show that has some legs, but isn’t worn out from all the running. Typically a show in its second or third season tends to be a strong choice, as they haven’t exhausted all the possible storylines, but they aren’t so fresh that you run the chance of stepping on the creators toes.

I’d like to add a bit of a personal note here...a cautionary tale, if you will: avoid adapting anything. Don’t visit the wall. Don’t hang out with Morgan. Don’t delve into Ra's al Ghul’s backstory. Trust me. When I was a part of the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s TV Writers Program, I wrote a spec for The Walking Dead. I was a huge fan of the comics, so I plucked a storyline (from what I assumed would be around two to three seasons later) and injected it into the midst of the third season. It was a Morgan-centric (the man who rescued Rick in the pilot) episode drawing parenting parallels between him and Rick. Quite literally the next week after finishing they aired “Safe.” I. Was. Crushed. So take it from me. Don’t adapt. It’ll come to bite you.

Know your Story:

As writers, there is nothing more paralyzing than having to pitch yourself. Even writing personal bios feels a bit bilious. But this is an essential skill that every writer needs. The most valuable takeaway I learned from the NHMC (other than that I could pound out a spec in a week) was learning how to pitch myself. As a TV writer you are trying to sell yourself as much as your writing. If you’re an abysmal human, no one is going to want to spent 8+ hours in a writers room with you every day. If you’re not an abysmal human, but you can’t articulate what makes you that special, unique snowflake, no one will give you a chance.

Practice pitching your story. Practice pitching it with a minute-long time limit. Can you do it? No time like the present to start practicing.

Here are the deadlines for the fellowships. CBS is open for submissions so stop wasting time and get that spec written!

CBS Writers Mentoring Program: March 2, 2015

NBC Writers on the Verge: May 1st – May 31st

ABC Creative Talent Development Program: May (unspecified)

WB Writers Workshop: May 1st – May 31st.

CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment): January 7th 2016

NHMC (National Hispanic Media Coalition): Opens in April (unspecified)

Guest post by Carlos Cisco


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