Creating a TV Series

I was a guest at Sleuthfest in Florida a few years back and after one of my panels, a woman approached me saying she had a great idea for a television series. Even better, she already had 22 scripts written and a list of actors she felt were perfect for the parts.

All I had to do, she said, was sell it and we’d both be rich.

I get this a lot.

So I asked her, what if I was an engineer from General Motors? Would you approach me with a sketch of a car and expect me to manufacture it?

“No, of course not,” she said. “That would be stupid.”

So was her suggestion that I run out and try to sell her TV series.

And I told her so. Politely, of course.

The thing she didn’t understand is that networks don’t buy ideas. They buy people.

Or, as the old saying goes, ideas are cheap and execution is everything.

Take NYPD Blue, for example. It’s about a bunch of cops in a precinct in New York. Not the greatest, most original idea in the world, is it? But that’s not what ABC bought. They bought Emmy winning writer/producer Steven Bochco doing a series about a bunch of cops in a precinct in New York.

The network was buying Bochco’s track record and experience in television. The idea was a distant second.
When the network buys a series, they are investing $50 million. They aren’t going to hand the kind of cash to somebody who hasn’t proved they can write, produce and deliver 22 episodes a season.

So, that’s what I said to her.

She told me I wasn’t listening. She already had the idea and the scripts. All she wanted me to do was sell the show. And produce it. And send her the big bags of money for her great idea and brilliant scripts.

I could see it from her point of view. She wanted a short-cut into television and finding a producer to hitch herself to seemed like a good one. A lot of other people have had the same idea, which is why I get pitched series all the time. From my mother. My gardener. My pool guy. The rabbi at Bill Rabkin’s wedding.

I even got pitched during a proctology exam. In middle of a very delicate procedure, the doctor started telling me his great idea for a TV show: the thrilling story of a proctologist who’s actually a suave, international jewel thief.


The truth is, it’s highly unlikely that any TV producer wants to hear your ideas, whether it’s after a panel at mystery convention or while you’re shoving a camera up their rectum.


Well, for one thing, it’s rude.

For another, television is a writers’ medium. The majority of TV producers are writers first and producers second. Every one of us wants to sell a TV series of our own. It’s the dream. It’s the chance to articulate your own creative vision instead of someone else’s. It’s the chance to not only write scripts and produce episodes, but also have a piece of the syndication, merchandizing, and all the other revenue streams that come from being an owner and not an employee. It’s the chance to become the next David E. Kelly, John Wells, J.J. Abrams, Stephen J. Cannell, Dick Wolf, Aaron Spelling, Donald Belisario, Glen A. Larson, Steven Bochco, or one of the other members of that very small, very elite, very wealthy club of creator/owners.

Getting to the point in your career that networks are interested in being in the series business with you isn’t easy. You have to write hundreds of scripts, work on dozens of series, and build a reputation as an experienced and responsible producer (Or you have to write and produce a huge hit movie, which often leads to an invitation to work your same magic in television). The point is, you don’t work that hard just to share the success with someone else who didn’t have to work for it.

Which brings us back to the basic rule of television: ideas are cheap, execution is everything. We want to sell our own ideas to the networks. Producers like me aren’t interested in your idea unless, of course, you’re asking me to adapt your best-selling novel or hit movie into a TV series. But that’s different, because you’re bringing something valuable to the deal, a pre-sold commidity with commerical and promotional value.

I told her all of that, too.

She just glared at me.

“You just don’t get it,” she said to me. “I’ve got a great idea. I’ve got 22 terrific scripts. You won’t have to do any work.”

No, I said, you’re the one who doesn’t want to do any work. You don’t want to learn the craft of screenwriting. You don’t want to struggle to get that first freelance script assignment. You don’t want to compete to get on a writing staff. You don’t want to work for years on a series, moving up from staff writer to producer, gaining experience and skill and becoming someone the networks want to be in business with. You want to bypass all of that and go straight to having your own series on the air.

“Well,” she said. “Yeah.”

At that point, I gave up. I did what anybody in my position would do. I pointed across the lobby at Jeremiah Healy.
“Go tell him your idea,” I said. “Maybe there’s a book in it.”

And then I ran away.

Forgive me, Jerry!

16 thoughts on “Creating a TV Series”

  1. Speaking of Healy, I know he was shopping his Cuddy series of books around to TV people. In an interview on his website, he said a TV deal would be incentive to continue writing Cuddy (a favorite series of mine).
    Have you heard anything about the status of the deal, Lee?

  2. For the sake of argument- assume you do have an excellent idea/script/series planned out. How would you, going from nothing, get to the point of having that on the air?
    Is it possible for a person to just hand it over to a producer and let them take the lead? Or is it completely necessary to do everything you did? Would it be possible to pass up the producing/directing/writing part, and just become the voice behind the show. The show-runner, as one may call it. As in “I say what happens” and “You make it happen”.

  3. I know that is not fair for people that have tried really hard to get where they are to see others not have to try at all and succed.
    Some people are just born with great talent. Some people are born writers and have the best ideas in the world that would make tons of money.
    It is sad to see that the ones that dont have that much talent and just know certain people can get everything in the world just because they walked a long way.
    Nobody likes to see anyone who did not work like them get ahead even if they did think that the idea would work. Why is that? People are selfish.

  4. As an amateur/hobby writer, I find the whole process of acceptance for T.V. and film scripts appalling. Whilst I agree that a good personal track record will open doors, there must be an awful lot of good scripts written by ‘outsiders’ that get overlooked and never put into production. One only has to look at the horrendous number of repeats and second rate remakes (Pearl Harbour for one) being shown to prove my point. With literally 24 hour TV being broadcast worldwide, surely production companies can begin ploughing through and picking out some of the better scripts for possible production. I, like many others I’m sure, are sick to death of ‘fly on the wall’ episodes, and the endless cooking and gardening series, its enough to make one literally throw up. Whatever happened to imagination. David Lean come back…..

  5. Please forgive us. All we see it the endless crap of mindless shows such as Princes of Malibu, a Denise Richards show ( WTF ? )Paris Hilton, etc. and people feel that if they can do it that so can I.
    The problem is that people keep building these ” celebrites “up and they keep selling so they are in demand even though they have zero talent ( sorry Kim Kardashian )and they keep getting more & more. There are a lot of people that do break in but I can see how difficult it is.
    But nothing good comes easy right Paris ?

  6. I’m a 40 year old guy who has traveled the world and even used to work at enron. I have what I think is a good idea for a show but I’m a realist in that I don’t think I could get it noticed. So, I think I’ll do it on the web (youtube) and see if people like it or if it sucks. The story line isnt based on Enron – too much of that.

  7. Kill off those GD reality shows! Please. And why would anyone want to be a writer-you glorify what everyday people have actually done-soldiers, police house wives. just give me a show with a good looking cast and a easily digestible plot line that does not involve singing dancing or competition of any kind. Maybe something with a monkey.
    PS No offense to you writers out there…

  8. The thing is that it’s not even clear how you get into screenwriting the hard way. The battling for places, the working on teams – how do you get there in the first place?
    Because I’d love to be a writer. Even if it doesn’t pay well or it’s hard (well I know it’s hard) or whatever, it’s the dream for me. And I’d be willing to work for years at it, but I don’t have a clue where I’d even start.
    It seems everyone successful either has contacts, or has started in another area of television, or has just fallen into it somehow.

  9. Just out of curiosity, does it help to be a film-maker of sorts? Reason I ask is because I know that JJ Abrams not only wrote the pilot for Alias, but also directed it. (Yeah, I know, he’s had a heft resume even before that… but imagine he didn’t)
    So what I’m asking is, if indie film-makers shot a low budget pilot (nothing too swank, just enough to get the point of the show across) – would that get more notice then your generic orthodontist with a nice idea and a sloppy pilot treatment?

  10. Television is a business. As with any other business, the point is to make a product and sell it. Since the product costs – and will be sold for – a high price, it’s important to make as sure as possible that the product will sell effectively. If you want a new house built, do you go with the sweet guy who has the cool ideas, or with the experienced architect and builder whom you can trust to make it right? Believe it or not, there is a lot more to making a series actually happen than having a great idea. It would be like making really cool drawings of your house, and then trying to build it. At some point, you’d have to knock out the wall you just put in because you didn’t know to put the wiring and the plumbing in it (ok, I’ll stop with the analogy).
    There are those few people – Alan Ball, Diablo Cody… – who didn’t have any TV experience. They won Academy Awards for their writing. That means they wrote something that got made. And it was really great. Even though they didn’t climb the corporate network ladder, they proved themselves.
    Here’s the deal, guys: GET SOMETHING MADE! These days we have video cameras in our phones. There’s no reason you can’t make SOMETHING. Put it on YouTube. Write scrips and get them out there to people who can make them.
    I challenge you: In the next year, write and produce 10 things. They can be as short or as long as you want. One can be as easy as a scene with two actors talking to each other to work-on/show-off your dialogue skills and ability to work with actors – all things you’ll need to know if you want to be at the helm of a series.
    And if you really want to be the next JJ Abrams, move to LA or New York, and work your way up the ladder.

  11. Can someone, please, answer me?!
    What happens if the idea is really great? If the creator is really a genius with a few peculiarities (like skipping the whole career process)? What if the creator really has it all?
    What would happen if someone had the idea for the next hit show, with all development done (professionaly, not amateurish), but the creator is really far from the television business? How could someone have a chance in television (even with a great idea in his hands)?

  12. Thomas on Downton Abbey, anyone? Sure, it’s tiresome listening to others pitch their ideas. But honey, it’s part and parcel of fame. Great ideas and sharing expertise needs a place. Maybe crotchety sentiment like yours is what keeps regurgitated unoriginal shows like NYPD Blue in motion.


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