How TV Drama Series Are Made
Pamela Douglas (Screenwriter) gives expert video advice on: Where do I start working in a TV drama?; Is a drama shot on location or in a studio? and more...
What is the role of the 'director' in a TV drama?
Directors on television don't have the clout of directors in feature films. Someone once described a TV director as a traffic cop, because directors need to follow the script exactly, and the time of pre-production, preparation, rehearsal, and script development does not exist on television. You've got to get that done. There are creative directors on television and there are some directors who are the main directors who stayed throughout the show and helped give the texture, the tone, the feel of the series. But they are not in charge the way they are in features. The person in charge of TV drama is the producer.
What is the timeline of making a TV drama?
Most dramas go from the initial concept and outline all the way through the final shooting within two months. The time it takes to deliver that first draft script is only two weeks. You might spend a week or two on the outline, two weeks on that first script, one week on fixing it, and you are off to production. One week after that you are producing, and there might be another week of post. TV drama is fast.
Where do I start working in a TV drama?
The ladder from the bottom to the top of a TV series is: freelance writer, staff writer, story editor, producer, supervising producer, executive producer, show runner. A creative consultant fits in there sideways, around the area of the supervising producer or executive producer.
What is a 'freelance writer'?
A freelance writer is a writer who is not on the staff of a show, but is an outsider who has done one episode that is produced, or may not be produced. There was a time that freelance writers were abandoned, and because freelance opportunities were abandoned, staffs were small and show runners would bring in outside writers whose talent they liked, to do one or two episodes. That does not exist any more. Right now, anybody who is not on the staff and is writing for show, has been probably been invited to do that as an audition for staff.
What are the responsibilities of a 'staff writer'?
If you are fortunate enough to get on the writing staff of a television drama, you will be what is called a staff writer, sometimes a baby writer. That means you are probably right out of film school, or just maybe a year out of film school. This is your first job on a staff, which you got by having wonderful writing samples, and you will be there learning from the more experienced writers for one year. If your work is good, the next year you will no longer be a baby writer or staff writer. You will be a first-rung story editor.
What is a 'story editor'?
A story editor is a writer who has probably done other writing for other shows and is now elevated from that first wrung of staff writer to being given two guaranteed episodes usually during the TV drama season, and may work with other writers polishing their scripts or rewriting.
What is a 'creative consultant'?
A creative consultant is a vague term, which usually applies to a very experienced writer who is not on the regular staff ladder. This is often because they are brought in to help, and to give their experience to a less experienced show runner.
What is the format for a TV drama?
TV drama series used to be written in four acts plus a teaser. The act breaks would occur roughly every 13 or 14 minutes, and that would be how you would fit them in a 60-minute cycle. That is rare now, as many networks' shows have gone to five acts or six acts, and those act breaks are real breaks marked by cliffhangers.
How many cameras are used in a drama?
Most TV dramas are one camera. The three camera idea that was pioneered brilliantly by Desi Arnaz in the days of I Love Lucy. They were often used by sitcoms and are not usually used by even sitcoms anymore. Most TV shows of any kind are one camera shows now.
Is a drama shot on location or in a studio?
TV dramas may be shot anywhere that the budget and the nature of the subject permits. Normally, our dramas have at least some location work, and don't have the enclosed sets and the limitations that are common to sitcoms. But there are some shows that do a great deal of interior material, such as Big Love, which has so much happening inside the household because it's a family drama. The household and Bill's workplace are standing sets. With a show like Battlestar Galactica, we're inside a space ship, and so except for the CGI stuff outside, of course, you're interior all the time on standing sets.
How do you end a drama series and keep your viewers happy?
There has been much controversy about series endings after the famous Sopranos blackout. Actually, to keep your viewers happy, you only need to fulfill the quest, or premise, of the show. In other words, the character does not have to win, but they have to come to the end of the long arc. They have to fulfill the promise of what you were going for. That's why the Sopranos blackout was so controversial. However, it could be analyzed as very well fulfilling that promise, and that's why it was, in a way, quite brilliant. I don't think killing Tony, or having him become an agent for the Feds would have been nearly as satisfying as wondering about their lives continuing.
How many drama pilots get accepted or declined?
A very small number of pilots ever go on to get accepted. Roughly, 1% of every one pitched manages to even get shot. Of the ones that get shot, maybe one will succeed. It is a very poor attrition. There is a diagram in the book that comically show how bad it is.