Seven Weeks

UK-based Writer/producer Stephen Gallagher takes you step-by-step through the seven weeks between the initial conception of an ELEVENTH HOUR episode idea and the start of filming. His experience is typical of American episodic television production…and very, very different from the way things are done in the UK…where the same process can take months, if not longer.

Here’s the nub of it. It looks fast and scary. But for the writer, the actual amount of work in turning out an hour-long script for American TV barely differs from that involved in creating script for a UK hour. The difference is that the US system edits out the soul-destroying longueurs between stages, while your script sits on someone’s desk or some executive disappears on holiday. It’s the same act of writing, but you get to do it in real time; and because of that, you don’t run the risk of anyone – you included – falling out of love with what you’re doing.


Writer/producer Lisa Klink, elaborating on Bill Rabkin's great essay on crafting spec scripts, passes along some important advice to aspiring TV writers. Yes, creativity is important. Yes, writing skill is important. Yes, people skills are important. But all of that won't move you forward in the television business unless you possess the most important talent of all: flexibility.

Which isn’t the same as spinelessness. You have to be willing to fight for the key elements which make your script work. You also have to be willing to change or even throw out elements you love if they’re not really crucial. Or affordable. Want to make yourself indispensable to a showrunner? Be the writer who can take any mess of an idea, stupid studio notes or ridiculous budget restrictions and still crank out a gem of a script.

Jutting Breasts and Willing Hips

I prowl by night James Reasoner has posted a terrific article by Brian Ritt about pulp author Orrie Hitt. Here's an excerpt: 

His women were too hot to handle, ex-virgins, frigid wives, sin dolls, wayward girls, torrid cheats, easy women, frustrated females, inflamed dames and, most often, trapped. Their names were Sheba, Sherry, Honey, Candy, Cherry, Betty French, and Lola Champ. They used what they had to use to make a buck–limited opportunities left them few other choices. They were duped and deceived, approached and abandoned.

Meet one of Hitt's women: "Jutting breasts, a flat stomach, willing hips, anxious thighs and legs that demanded all of the man in me, bringing to both of us an ancient pleasure which never grew old."
Man-Hungry Female, Novel Books, 1962, pg. 127

Hitt wrote two novels a month (a pace James Reasoner could certainly appreciate, if not match), writing from 7 a.m until the late afternoon, stopping only twenty minutes for lunch. He wrote 145 books from 1953-1964. Most of his books were "sleazy" paperback originals, written under a variety of pseudonyms.  

His research allowed him to write convincingly enough so that author Susan Stryker, in her book Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback, says, "Only one actual lesbian, Kay Addams, writing as Orrie Hitt, is known to have churned out semipornographic sleaze novels for a predominantly male audience." Stryker actually thinks "Orrie Hitt" is a pseudonym, and "Kay Addams" is a real lesbian author! I'm sure Orrie'd be laughing his ass off about that one.

I really enjoy reading about hard-working pulp authors like Harry Whittington and Orrie Hitt — both of whom were far better writers than they were given credit for because of the genres they toiled in and their astonishing productivity.

Fewer Commuters Kills Audiobook Sales

The Los Angeles Times reports that revenue from audiobooks sales has plummeted 47% this year as a result of unemployment…not because people have less to spend (though that's part of it) but because they aren't commuting.

The fewer people who work, the fewer people who drive to work. More than half of audio customers listen in their cars, said Chris Lynch, executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio.
[…]"We got hit pretty badly last summer when gasoline prices were so high," Lynch says. "And then the stock market crashed in the fall and we got hit again."

The Mail I Get

I got this email from an aspiring model who wants to create a reality travel show about herself and is worried about somebody stealing it.

I am in the process of trying to write a treatment for a travel show I'd like to pitch to networks, but I am afraid that even if I have my stuff registered with WGA and have it copyrighted that my idea and/or ideas will get stolen. I am just starting out in the business so I am a little naive as far as what exactly I should do. Everything I've found so far seems so negative towards beginners and isn't exactly the most helpful as far as what to do when starting out (other than to hire a show runner or give your idea to someone else, but I want to see if I can do this myself as opposed to having someone else have all the credit).I am also wondering if there is a different process regarding a travel show, since it will only follow my life and is not a sitcom.

You have nothing to worry about registering your idea with the Writers Guild. No one there will steal it from you. It is completely safe. But registering it with the WGA doesn't "copyright" it…it only establishes when you wrote your treatment and holds a copy for safekeeping.

You can't copyright an idea…only your unique execution of it. For example, how many shows have there been about cops in Los Angeles solving murders? It's not the idea that makes each of the shows different, it's the execution and the unique characters.

You may be leery of getting involved with an established producer but let's be realistic. You are a complete unknown and have no experience writing or producing television programs…so what makes you think that any network would buy a travel show from you, especially now, in this terrible economic environment? That's like sketching a car on a napkin and expecting Ford to manufacture it.

One way around this would be to do the show yourself on the cheap on the web. If you can generate some buzz with the webseries, you might attract a cable network to your idea.

Cool Desperation

I read two interesting takes on the new fall TV season. TV Writer Kay Rendl sees more vertical integration on the business side and the continued pursuit of cool on the creative side. 

Think about it — what drama do you watch on network TeeVee that features uncool lead characters? Even my favorite network shows featured cool people. The Gilmore girls were cool. The politicians on the West Wing were cool, even when they were policy wonks because they would still sleep with prostitutes. And even Buffy, with her outcast-ness, slayed vampires. Willow became a cool lesbian witch. Xander married an ex-demon and lived in a weird 80s condo.

There are two ways to be an outcast: You either hide your weird qualities (Buffy), or you showcase them (Glee). It wasn't until I watched the Glee pilot that I realized what had been bothering me about the pilots, and it's that cool factor. Even when a pilot tries to make a character less cool, they invariably balance that quality out with a cool element: Mary Sue's a mousy librarian, but she's also a witch who looks GREAT with her hair down and her boobs pushed up. Cool is the safe zone for networks.

Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazines sat through the network upfront presentations and saw something else — fear and desperation.

With buyers still shaken by the economy, this is the first upfront season in which it’s become impossible to ignore the troubles that riddle the television industry—financial, technological, creative. Automobile ads have dissolved. Cable is ascendant. And none of the default settings are holding: NBC—which skipped the upfronts, giving “infronts” two weeks earlier—has gone rogue, scheduling an hour of Leno every weeknight at ten, touting an “all-year” schedule.

[…]CBS’s “we’re No. 1!” sell is compelling, if in a depressing way: People love our dullest shows! They cheer their purchase of Medium, which NBC dumped. The reality pilot Undercover Boss strikes a chord with this audience of people terrified of being fired.

The after-party—at Terminal 5 instead of CBS’s old venue, Tavern on the Green—is sweaty and miserable, with chocolate fortune cookies containing the unsettlingly fascist message “Only CBS.” It occurs to me that all this branding is itself oddly dated, to viewers if not to marketers—how many television viewers are loyal to one network anymore, now that the very concept of a time slot has nearly dissolved?

The sad truth behind the hype, the booze, and the chilled shrimp fed to the advertising reps who attend these things is that 90% or more of the new fall shows will fail. Miserably. And everybody knows that…but deny it to themselves, something Jimmy Kimmel's comedy schtick at the ABC upfront presentation made perfectly clear. 

"Everything you’ve heard today, everything you’re going to hear this week, is bullshit. […] Every year we lie to you, and every year you come back for more … You don’t need an upfront, you need therapy. We lied to you, and then you passed those lies along to your clients! Everyone in this room is completely full of shit.” 

Everybody laughed. They should have cried.

What You Need to Know about Bookscan

Alison Kent pointed me to this excellent post about the influence of Bookscan on an author’s career…and how the sales tracking system actually works:

BookScan numbers are like an author’s credit rating.

All book publishers (and some savvy authors) subscribe to Nielsen BookScan. The very first thing an acquisitions editor does is check a published author’s Nielsen numbers, when considering a new submission.
Nielsen BookScan tells the naked truth about how many copies a book sells. It produces weekly tallies via electronic links to thousands of cash registers across the country. This is no guess or anecdotal report. It’s all ka-ching, straight from the till.
The numbers may as well be carved in stone.

Always Change the Names

All writers take some inspiration from their own lives for the stories they tell in their books and screenplays. But it looks like CSI writer/producer Sarah Goldfinger may have gone too far (or, at the very least, was sloppy about it). The Los Angeles Times reports:

When married real estate agents Scott and Melinda Tamkin read about an episode of the hit crime drama "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" that featured dirty-dealing, S&M-loving real estate agents named Scott and Melinda Tamkin, they didn't need to consult a forensic expert for an explanation.
A house sale involving the Tamkins and a "CSI" producer had fallen apart four years before, and the producer was listed, in the same online description, as the co-writer of the episode. On Friday the Tamkins filed a $6-million defamation and invasion of privacy suit against the producer, Sarah Goldfinger, saying she humiliated them and cost them potential business…

I don't fault Goldfinger for using the couple as a jumping-off point for her story. There's nothing wrong with that. Series often use real-life events and people as inspiration (that's why they run a legal disclaimer on certain episodes of LAW & ORDER that are obviously "ripped from the headlines"). Goldfinger's mistake was actually using their real names in the script. Although the names of the characters were changed before the script was shot (undoubtedly after the standard legal script clearance process uncovered that there were actually real estate agents with the same name as those in the teleplay), the damage was done. The early draft was used for casting and initial network publicity. 

It's a surprising mistake for someone of Goldfinger's experience to make.  Every TV writer knows better…and probably cringed when they read about this. Look for this lawsuit to be quietly settled before it goes to court.


Brimstone It's a lousy book, a dull compendium of Robert B. Parker cliches… including the endless discussions about "men who are men doing what they have to do" and still more bland iterations of the Spenser & Hawk/Jesse Stone & Jenn relationships, only this time played out in the old west (there's even a chapter that ends with a character saying "We'd be fools not to," something Parker manages to put in at least once in every book). What's really tiresome is all the filler talk about how wonderful and invincible gunslinger Virgil Cole is, especially whenVirgil himself keeps saying it.  The banter between Virgil and Everett is witless and dull, and feels more like typing than writing. I was a big fan of APPALOOSA and RESOLUTION, the earlier, and much better, books in this series, but this one is an aimless, lazy, clumsy mess…difficult to enjoy even for diehard Parker fans like myself who have stuck by him even as he continues to disappoint. 

International TV Buyers Want WalMart Prices

This week is the LA Screenings, when buyers from networks worldwide come to Los Angeles to see pilots and buy the broadcast rights to new series for their countries. These sales are important to the U.S. studios. They help the studios recoup the difference between the network license fees (what CBS, ABC, etc. pay to air the shows) and the actual production costs (which are considerably more). The problem is, networks worldwide are in deep financial trouble. Although it's usually cheaper for foreign networks to buy U.S. stuff rather than produce their own, home-grown fare, they still don't have the cash to spend on a shopping spree. Variety reports:

Twentieth global TV head Marion Edwards said she's concerned that the U.K. market, after years of high spending and bidding wars, is scaling back in a big way, especially after a weak 2008 Screenings.

"Sky buys a lot of shows, as do Channel 4 and Five, but not last year. ITV is the wildcard," she explained. "They've all announced they'll slash programming budgets and won't buy U.S. programming. We'll have to take the temperatures. The market has gotten very tough."

The Los Angeles Times reports that 1400 buyers came this year…one hundred less than last year. And those who've shown up have a lot less money to spend.

Asked where the most challenging markets will be, Jeffrey R. Schlesinger, who oversees international television for the studio, didn't even need a pause. "Unfortunately, the answer is everywhere." The Canadian buyers had already passed through the lot Sunday with much smaller wallets than usual. "Prices were not at the level of the past two years," Schlesinger observed. The United Kingdom and Australia are also challenged. While lots of new buyers have emerged recently most don't have the deep pockets of the entrenched networks.