Your Great Idea for a TV Series

I got this email today…then again, it seems like I get it every day:

I have a great idea for a TV cop show but I’m not a writer. How can I sell it?

I can’t remember if I’ve posted this before, but here goes anyway. This is a column I wrote several years ago for Mystery Scene  about an experience I had with a woman who wanted me to sell her Really Great Idea For a TV Series. Parts of it will be familiar to those of you who’ve read my replies to this question before…

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 NYPDBlue, 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 my best friend’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!

11 thoughts on “Your Great Idea for a TV Series”

  1. Please tell me that this link will live forever.
    The only downside is that it will keep me from recommending your book to people — and your book is pretty fabulous.

  2. “You just don’t get it,” she said to me. “I’ve got a great idea.
    Gads. Someone who is convinced that her own opinion of her “ideas” is the only thing that matters and if others disagree, there’s something seriously wrong with that.
    Sounds like someone we all know whose initials are T.R.
    Seriously, I can understand a completely-uninitiated person in the writing world making the mistake of thinking their idea is worth something. Particularly if they know nothing about the BUSINESS of writing–it makes sense that you could sell an idea.
    But once a veteran of the business has explained the ins and outs to them, there’s absolutely no point in persisting that they are RIGHT and the veteran with years of experience in the business should be persuaded by this person with no sense of the field at all.

  3. I wrote this over there in response to David Montgomery, but I’ll post it over here, so Montgomery doesn’t become that second-to-last comment. The claim was made that newbies often work with experienced people in Hollywood; the challenge was made: Name them.
    A guy at my wife’s office recently quit his day job in tears of joy after signing a seven-figure deal for a script he cowrote with an established writer. A very well-known producer bought it. As far as I know, the wife’s-coworker had little to no experience previously. The established guy just liked working with him.
    It happens. Lightning strikes. The ball lands on 23. God smiles.
    The problem is, you can’t plan for it, so asking for advice on how to do it is useless. Advice has to be geared toward how things usually work–if you’re going to make recommendations, it’s irresponsible to recommend anything that aims away from the big part of the bell curve. Exceptions do exist, but they aren’t teachable.
    What Lee says makes a lot of sense, but it’s not a physical law. Some people–a very few people–will succeed doing it the wrong way. That doesn’t mean Lee should change his tune. It also doesn’t mean Moffett’s right. I’m not even really sure what it does mean–except maybe that if you’re going to break the rules, fine, go break them. Arguing with someone who’s successfully followed them isn’t going to get anybody anywhere.

  4. RE: Trackback (above), I “time bombed” my referential blog post to appear at 7am tomorrow (central time). I was not aware that WordPress sends out trackback pings prematurely (sounds like a personal problem). Sorry for the would-be trackback spam!

  5. When you get right down to it, the ideas behind “NYPD Blue” and “Barney Miller” aren’t that different. The execution, however…
    On the other hand, I can think of several shows that should be executed.

  6. I think this idea of the execution of an idea being the most important thing is a perfect spot for shameless self promotion of a project I’m involved with called the Blog Short Story Project. Essentially what myself and co-editor David White did is send the same idea (a very simple, random idea) to a bunch of diverse writers and let them execute the idea how they saw fit. We got everything from comedy, to suspense, to tragedy, to hyper-text.
    You can check out the results at

  7. Annoying. Thats what you get from continous repitition. Though I like this whole skipping work and getting to the money deal. Therefor, I accept the offer. So could you write me some sort of script and send it to some big television company? We will call the show “Shortcuts” and in this show we will give people a chance to prove themselves to the world, or sink.
    Who’s with me?


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