Hollywood is always looking for the next big thing. They strive to create unique and interesting scripted series that will appeal to a worldwide audience. But since television shows can cost tens of millions of dollars to produce each season, they need to be sure that there will be an audience before they commit to funding them.
As a result, writers are always looking for ways to deliver compelling pitches to studios and networks that will get made. Let’s look at what writers need to do to turn their ideas for a scripted television show into a reality.
Deciding What to Develop
In television development, there are two main ways to approach a show: find an idea and then decide what genre it fits into; or find a genre and then find an idea within that genre. And ultimately, the way writers and studios decide what to develop is by taking a look at what genres are already working.
After years of sitcoms dominating the airwaves, dramas have taken over in popularity:
- Medical dramas such as The Good Doctor, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Resident are known for exploring the personal lives of their doctors and patients.
- Police dramas feature teams of detectives who attempt to solve crimes for their city. Examples of such shows include NCIS, The Rookie, and Criminal Minds.
- Legal dramas focus on the law and courtrooms, using these settings as the backdrop for their stories. Examples include Bull, Law & Order, and The Good Fight.
- True Crime dramas include shows like The Staircase, Dr. Death, and Inventing Anna which create fictionalized versions of real-life crime stories.
- Science Fiction dramas such as The Walking Dead, Squid Games, and Westworld, use fantasy elements to drive their narrative.
Of course, there will always be room for comedies and other shows that don’t fit into these categories, but if writers want to get a show made, dramas are always the most likely to make it to air.
Developing Original Ideas
A good television show needs to be rooted in strong characters and a compelling story, but it also needs to be based on something that people can relate to and want to watch. People watch television for entertainment but also want to see themselves reflected on the screen.
Writers and executives come up with ideas for television shows by using their own experiences and those of the people around them. They’ll see what’s happening in the world and then imagine how they could twist it into something exciting or funny: conversations with friends, arguments with their partners, or odd things their children say. It can mean taking an existing idea and adding more elements or making things more complicated:
- Shonda Rhimes created Grey’s Anatomy based on her experiences working as a hospital volunteer in Chicago.
- Inspired by his love of horror movies and haunted houses, Ryan Murphy created American Horror Story.
- Taylor Sheridan, a screenwriter and horseback rider who grew up on a ranch in West Texas, created the hit series Yellowstone.
If you’re a fan of science fiction, maybe your show will revolve around time travel or the future of space exploration. If you love cooking and food, maybe it will focus on restaurant drama in an urban setting. Maybe you live in a small town with an animal shelter—this could make for an interesting sitcom about the staff and volunteers.
Developing From Intellectual Property
When conceiving a TV show, writers often use existing intellectual property (IP), which is any idea, concept, or property that isn’t tangible but still has value. This could include characters, storylines, settings, or even the name of a previous show. Utilizing IP, a writer might decide to write a series based on an existing book, graphic novel, or foreign television show.
- A good example of this is The Office. The show was based on Ricky Gervais’ British version of the same show, called The Office: An American Workplace. NBC purchased rights to the show, on behalf of writer Greg Daniels, who created the series and ran it for nine seasons.
- The creators of Game of Thrones licensed the rights to George R.R. Martin’s book series, “A Song of Ice and Fire” to create their worldwide smash on HBO.
- In Cobra Kai, the writers revived characters from the 1980s classic, The Karate Kid, for a new series set in the present day.
Licensing existing intellectual property can be more time-consuming and expensive than creating original ideas. Nevertheless, Hollywood studios are big fans of licensing established IP because audiences are more likely to watch movies and TV shows that already have a proven track record.
Hollywood Secret: Some intellectual property is available for use at no charge because it is in the public domain. This refers to creative work not protected by copyright or patent laws, including expired copyrights, forfeited patents, and licenses, or works for which the creator has waived their rights.
If a piece of IP is in the public domain, writers are free to use its characters and stories any way they like. Examples include “Wuthering Heights,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “The Three Musketeers”.
Once you have an idea for a new television series, it’s time to start pitching it to studio executives who decide whether they want to buy the idea.
Pitching a television show is a lot like pitching yourself to an employer. To sell your idea, you have to let the executives know what they’re getting and how successful it will be.
Here’s a breakdown of what every pitch includes:
CONCEPT – The writer will develop a one- or two-sentence pitch that will instantly grab the studio executive’s interest. For example:
- “A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine in order to provide for his family.” (Breaking Bad)
- “After a bad break-up, an “adorkable” teacher moves in with three bachelors who think they understand love but turn out to be equally clueless.” (New Girl)
- “A New Jersey mob boss seeks professional psychiatric counseling after a string of anxiety attacks.” (The Sopranos)
CHARACTERS – Next, the writers will mention some of the show’s most lovable characters, who serve as protagonists and are going through some kind of problem. The audience will want to see how these characters get out of their problems and get closer to achieving their goals.
In the show examples above, you can see that Walter White, Jessica Day, and Tony Soprano were all rich characters with many problems to explore.
STORY – This is the premise of the show—what happens in each episode? An example from Friends, “Rachel Green, an eager runaway bride, finds shelter with her old school friend, Monica Geller, a tightly wound chef. Rachel lands a job as a waitress at Central Perk, moves into Monica’s apartment above the coffee shop, and befriends her group of single friends in their 20s.”
A typical pitch lasts no more than 30 minutes. If the decision-makers like what they hear, they will consider the writer’s reputation and the market’s landscape. If they decide to buy the idea, they will make suggestions to improve the pitch, and then take it to networks to try to sell it.
How Networks Decide What Shows to Greenlight
Broadcasters have a rigorous evaluation process for new shows that starts with a pilot episode and goes through several rounds of cuts based on an evaluation of whether people will like the show enough to tune in every week, whether they’ll get advertisers onboard, and whether it fits the network’s brand identity.
The first step is to make a pilot episode. The goal is to create an episode that closely resembles what the show will look like once it’s on air—a rough draft of sorts that gives viewers an idea of what they can expect from the series as a whole.
Once the pilot has been made, networks send them out to test audiences who are asked questions about how much they enjoyed watching it, how likely they would be to tune in every week, what kinds of ads would work best within that show’s context, and so on. This data helps networks decide which shows pass muster and which ones don’t—and what areas need improving before making a final decision about whether it should go forward as an official series.
The pilot process is very important for the network. If a show doesn’t test well, it can mean that a lot of time and money has been wasted on something that will never see the light of day, which is why it’s so important to get the pilot right.
Once a pilot has been picked up and made into an official series, networks want to make sure that they’re getting the most bang for their buck. They need to know what kind of ratings are needed in order to justify renewing or canceling shows at the end of each season. For example, if a show only gets 250,000 viewers but costs $10 million per episode, it may not be worth renewing.
The entertainment industry has evolved over time as viewers have moved from YouTube to TikTok to hundreds of other platforms. However, scripted television series will always be a part of the entertainment landscape.
In the end, it’s about finding that perfect balance of artistry and business. It takes a lot of trust on both sides to collaborate. The studio has to trust that this creator can deliver something exceptional and unique, while creators are hoping the studio will maintain their vision. But when it works, it’s magical.
Odyssey Studios continues to evolve along with Hollywood studios in terms of development practices. We bring similar methodology and practices to our own scripted endeavors, while adding more complexity with brand-driven stakeholders at the table with us and networks/distribution platforms. At the core of our values is creating meaningful and memorable stories that resonate with audiences while authentically and organically integrating brand presence.