notes from navigating the tv writers programs

last tuesday i went to a panel at the academy of television arts and sciences (atas) that had the directors of all of the main tv writers programs: ABC/Disney, Warner Bros, NBC, CBS, Fox, and Nickelodeon. i don’t think they’ve ever all been in the same room before!

i really wish the event had been held in a larger forum because there was a lot of great info. atas didn’t really promote it either. i only knew about it because karen (the director of the nick fellowship) was speaking in the panel so she added us to the guest list. since only 100 people were let in, i thought i’d share some of what i remember from that night. sorry if the tidbits aren’t well organized.

HAVE A GOOD SPEC
pick a good story. they gave accounts of specs they still remembered many years later because it was so original and so well done. one example was a spec of cheers that the panelist still remembered.

you want the spec to be as evergreen as possible. example: around season 2 of the office, everyone was writing specs of pam and jim kissing and getting together. that was too obvious of a story.

don’t do stunt specs. the point of a spec is to show you can write in the tone of an existing show. a stunt spec doesn’t show that.

your A story should feature the main character. don’t fall in love with a side character and do a spec where the main story revolves around that person. it may work, though, for an ensemble show.

shows that are old and they don’t want to read anymore – house, entourage. office. i think they said curb your enthusiasm. also, one of the panelists thought the tyler perry shows weren’t good ones to spec.

shows they like – modern family. don’t remember what other shows. i think this is less important than the shows they don’t like.

don’t pick a show that’s too obscure.

if you’re doing comedy, don’t spec shows like weeds or nurse jackie. those are more like dramas and are not true comedies.

besides getting you into one of these programs, your spec is also what they use to try to sell you to a show to get you staffed. make sure you pick a show that shows off your voice and talent and is also something that can get you work.

GETTING IN
number of people they accept.

nick takes up to 4 a year. (it’s been 3 for the past several years)

disney takes around 8. usually half comedy, half drama, but that’s flexible.

nbc took about 8 entities. writing partners, 2 people count as 1 entity. of the 8 this year, 3 were writing teams.

if you don’t get in one year, don’t give up. keep trying. they like seeing you improve.

don’t submit the same script. if you didn’t get in one year with that script, and you submit it again, they’ll question your judgement in addition to your writing.  personally, i wouldn’t bother rewriting a script that didn’t get in. i would write a whole new script.

have original material besides specs. it could be a pilot, short story, or a play. check the guidelines for each different program.

DIVERSITY
diversity doesn’t only mean skin color.

there’s no quota for age, sex, ethnicity. they’re all blind reads. good scripts make it to the next rounds.

sell yourself. what makes you unique? what experience do you bring to the table?

FIND OTHER WAYS TO BREAK IN
the odds are you won’t get into one of these writing programs. there are only a handful of slots, and they’re extremely competitive. but that’s not the only way in.

best path would be to become a writers assistant in the room.  to get that, you usually have to start as a pa and work your way up.

AGENTS / MANAGERS
at nick, you’re not allowed to look for representation while you’re in the program. they don’t want to lose you to another network while they’re investing so much time into grooming you for their shows.

the other ones help find you representation.

AFTER
the rate of fellows getting staffed on shows: warner brothers – i think it was like 80%? i don’t remember the exact number, but it was high. disney – 100% for the past 5 years or so. i don’t know how long those jobs last though.

some people end up doing one of these programs, then go through another.

– – –

i’ll add to this if i remember anything else. if anyone else was there that night, please feel free to leave comments with your notes.

  1. Cynthia left a comment on May 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Hi Kiyong! I had posted a comment here a few seconds ago but I think I was signed into someone else’s account. Anyhow, thank you for this writeup! I was hoping that someone who went would post something about the event, as I was one of the unlucky who didn’t get in. One question though, did anyone mention the biographical statements required with each application? I had read that Nick wanted something in the style of the bios on the Nick Fellowship site, so I did that, but do the other programs (NBC, ABC, etc.) want straightforward bios/statement of intents, or are they looking for something funny, out of the box? Thanks again!

    • kiyong left a comment on May 16, 2011 at 1:53 pm

      hi cynthia,
      oh thanks for reminding me about that. someone in the audience did ask about those bios, and whether they should be funny or not. the panelists said you should put some care into those because they also showcase your writing, but they don’t necessarily have to be funny. my bio was very straightforward.

  2. Rick left a comment on May 16, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    How many fellows are accepted into the CBS program?
    What about the WB?

    I hear fox and Disney won’t accept your application unless you have a reccomendation letter from a professional in the industry.
    Is this true?
    Thanx

    • kiyong left a comment on May 16, 2011 at 3:57 pm

      not sure about fox. their whole program is in transition. but disney, yes. starting this year, you need 2 letters of recommendation from industry people. plus you need industry work experience. their logic was it’s easier for you to succeed if you have industry experience (even if it’s being a pa). if you have people who will vouch for you with letters of recommendation, that means you’re already networking, which is a huge component to succeeding in the business. again, their staffing rate is 100%, so they want to make sure the people they pick are ready to work.

  3. Luke left a comment on May 16, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Hey Kiyong,

    I was just wondering if, when you got your specs back from Nickelodeon, you (or they) noticed any errors in spelling or punctuation?

    After telling myself that I needed to put my spec behind me and work on something new, I opened my spec I submitted up for the first time in months and noticed a couple errors (nothing major, but stupid little things I should have caught). I guess I’m just trying to get a feel for whether or not I totallly sabotaged myself.

    • kiyong left a comment on May 16, 2011 at 6:52 pm

      typos aren’t good, but they won’t be a dealbreaker.

  4. Jamie left a comment on May 16, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Great post. Thanks so much. My spec is polished and ready to go for Disney Fellowship. I’m waiting for my last letter of recommendation. While I wait, I’m writing my bio.
    Thanks so much for all the time and effort you’ve put into helping other writers understand the fellowship process. I wish the all the best in getting staffed when Nickelodeon is finished. Whoever gets you will be very lucky indeed.

    • kiyong left a comment on May 16, 2011 at 9:01 pm

      you’re welcome and good luck with disney!

  5. mentorless left a comment on May 16, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Thanks for the article Kiyong! Full of great tips and a useful complement to the scriptchat session.

    Couple of months ago I went to a small writers roundtable. Two of them get into the ABC fellowship. They got staffed right after on shows that both got canceled after the first season. They said they got representation thanks to the fellowship and were able to compete for jobs (and work!) but the hardest job to get was the second one.

    Thought I would share.

    • kiyong left a comment on May 16, 2011 at 9:05 pm

      yeah, i heard that can happen regarding shows getting cancelled. same at nick, and i’m sure everywhere else. that’s why those networking skills are so important!

  6. Lynn left a comment on May 17, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Hey, Kiyong!

    Great post. Thanks for sharing this info. One question – You mention “Shows they like – Modern Family.” Was that a suggestion to write for a popular show as a spec, or to avoid it because they know too much about it already?

    Just checking.

    Thanks again.

    Take care,

    Lynn

    • kiyong left a comment on May 17, 2011 at 11:00 am

      they said modern family is a good spec to have because 1) it’s a good show 2) industry people watch it 3) it isn’t too old yet. however, i know a lot of people are writing specs for it. for the nick fellowship this year, about 20% of the submissions were modern family specs.

  7. Rick left a comment on May 17, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    In my humble opinion the moderators have contradicted themselves.
    They say Modern Family is a “good” show to spec. But they also say we shouldn’t spec dramadies because they aren’t true comedies nor drama.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I always thought Modern Family was a dramady It’s not that funny (in my opinion) and it’s not as good as the true comedies (big bang, community, parks and rec etc)

    I’m glad I stayed away from Modern Family, it wouldn’t be hard to spec, but I just don’t like the show.
    Anyway to each his (or her) own.
    Peace to all the artists and writers out there.

    • kiyong left a comment on May 17, 2011 at 2:27 pm

      i would classify modern family as a comedy and not a dramedy. i think something like parenthood would be more in the middle. but either way, i think it’s important to spec shows you really like.

  8. kiyong left a comment on May 18, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    something i just remembered: these writing programs ARE NOT training programs. they will make you better, but you should already know how to write. they want people they can staff.

  9. ron reid jr. left a comment on May 18, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Thanks for your chat the past weekend and now this roundtable discussion. To date: I have a rough draft and an outline for Hawaii Five-0 and Community(close to finishing now).

    I have completed:

    5 finished scripts,
    with 16 films completed,
    and with 4 IMDB credits.

    I continue to go to LA to pitch and my pitches are requested by Akira Goldman’s company and Ridley Scott’s
    production people.

    my background in either acting and directing has helped me pitch in a room.

    I have a pitch session via skype this weekend with maybe 8-10 producers, who are hungry for material.

    Any advice in either me presenting myself or working strongly on my material you would advise.

    My goal for television is too get staffed. I met and interview lawrence from cougartown and rossio from pirates of the caribbean when I came in town.

    For film, I wanted to have my script get in the right hands, but that takes time. So, I am revamping and trying to make films in the meanwhile to get noticed.

    When I met executives I leave them with outlines of my scripts and copies of my previous work.

    Any advice you would give would be appreciated.

    Cheers,

    Ron-Tokyo survivor

    • kiyong left a comment on May 19, 2011 at 11:31 am

      hey ron,
      i don’t really feel qualified giving you advice, but i was planning on writing a post that may help you based off of advice that i was given. check back in a week or so.

  10. ron reid jr. left a comment on May 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Oh Kiyong,

    You are modest. I think I will keep capitalizing on what you are seeing at the roundtables and your script breakdown of shows. It was very helpful for me to look at the shows differently then I had. And going through shows, one-by-one is a labour of love. I found one or two of the shows had a recap episode that had clips from favorite parts of the shows. And this gave me a lot of insight over just having my notes. The review episode had info on how the characters see each other and themselves.

    Keep your advice coming!!

    I will be pitching producers this weekend in LA, so, I feel more confident with this hard work I’ve started already from your posts.

    Keep them up!!!

    ron

  11. Sarah left a comment on May 25, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Hi Kiyong,
    Thanks for the informative post. How does someone get staffed as a PA? Do you sort of have to know somebody? Also, do you think networks take out-of-state (or, out-of-L.A.) applicants less seriously?

    • kiyong left a comment on May 25, 2011 at 3:41 pm

      i think you have to just make calls to production companies and ask if there are any openings, and ask if you could send your resume. knowing someone would help but for a pa job, i don’t think it’s necessary. about your out of state question, if you are talking about being a pa, then i would think it would be a disadvantage. if you are asking about being out of state for a fellowship, i don’t think it matters. one of the nick fellows this year is from out of state, and they paid for his flight and a month’s rent at a corporate housing apartment complex.

  12. ron reid jr. left a comment on May 25, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    hey kiyong,

    just taking many ways to come to LA has been fun and creative. there is always a way that might not be through your way-doing well in fellowships.
    i am out of LA but now through my scripts and postings on youtube
    (my numbers jumped 3000) since this year because of creative ways to post. but i am having fun. thank you for earlier post because i took more time detailing my spec tv shows and making sure i am paying attention to detail. every way has it’s pluses. I was even able to talk with producers from the HANGOVER 2 and then got more hits on youtube and CNN (where I also post also).

    just saying there are many ways to make it and i am still trying.

    cheers,

    ron in Asia

    • kiyong left a comment on May 25, 2011 at 11:31 pm

      hey ron,
      yeah the fellowships are only one way in. even the people at the panel suggested trying to get in through other means. good luck with all your work!

  13. JeanPierre left a comment on May 31, 2011 at 11:30 am

    hey Hiyong,

    I was working hard on getting one letter of recommendation, but failed. Will they absolutely disregard my script because I have no recommendations?

    • kiyong left a comment on May 31, 2011 at 11:40 am

      unfortunately, 2 letters are part of their requirements and if you don’t have them, i would assume you would be disqualified. disney is the only one that requires letters of recommendation. you can apply to the wb writers’ program and the nbc writers on the verge program. the deadlines for nickelodeon and cbs have already passed for this year.

  14. Taheerah left a comment on May 31, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Hi Kiyong,

    Thank you so much for all of your insight! You have been very motivational to a writing novice such as myself:) I have submitted specs to both the Nickelodeon and Disney Fellowships this year and I was wondering how open would either company be to reading a spec for a cable network show like Archer? It is currently my favorite show on television but it’s also a little risque’. I am finishing up my Archer spec. I have not submitted it anywhere but It will be one of my writing samples. Any thoughts?

    • kiyong left a comment on May 31, 2011 at 10:10 pm

      i think archer is slightly risky because it’s a newer show and i’m not sure how many industry people watch it, but the people that i know watch it really like it. however, it was one of the approved shows on the list to apply for the wb program, so i think you might be fine. i don’t think it being risque is a factor. if anything, your spec should be just as risque or more so than the typical episode. if you love the show, go for it!

  15. ron reid jr. left a comment on May 31, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    thanks for your continued updates.

    recently, an actor i filmed passed on and my youtube with the right positioning spiked by the 1000’s. It is more just hitting a large number by timing.

    what do you think of using youtube and social media to get the attention of hollywood?

    it seems making films are getting my 20K hits and now a recommend on youtube.

    this popularity is so unusual for me. i like it but what you recommend to continue this?

    should i pass on this info to producers i am talking too?

    cheers,

    ron

    http://www.youtube.com/user/ronreidjr

    • kiyong left a comment on May 31, 2011 at 11:13 pm

      sure, i think the web can be a great tool to get your name out there. here’s an article about showing your film at festivals vs showing it online – http://www.shortoftheweek.com/2011/03/23/how-we-launched-our-film-online-the-thomas-beale-cipher/

      but once you get the attention of people and get meetings, i think the goal would be to have something ready to show them when they ask “what do you want to do?” or “what else do you have?” you know what they say about only having one chance to make a first impression. whatever you show them should be amazing.

      • ron reid jr. left a comment on June 2, 2011 at 5:40 pm

        i hope my other 16 films will help. but it has sometimes be a film that gets their attention. i hope that my scripts will help as well.

  16. ron reid jr. left a comment on June 1, 2011 at 1:39 am

    Greetings Kiyong,

    I heard the old saying…”what else do you got?” And I have two trailers to go. one is a spin of Arnold as viewed by some of my sci-fi actors at Venice beach talking about how the lines between acting and politices get blurred and my short for the INCEPTION-inspired short that will blow away people we shot in Toronto.
    and i was going to splash the guy who attracted the 2000+ hits and earned me my first recommend on youtube to start this new upload.

    what a strange turn of events.

    cheers,

    ron

  17. MHasnaM left a comment on June 2, 2011 at 12:43 am

    Hi Kiyong, I was one of the people turned away at the door that night, so I’m dying to hear about Fox’s program. Every time I check their website, they only have last year’s information up, so I have no idea when the deadline for this year’s submissions is. Please help! 🙂
    Thanks,
    Hasna

    • kiyong left a comment on June 2, 2011 at 1:52 pm

      hey hasna, the rep from fox at the panel said the fox program is in a period of transition. i think the person running the program was retiring or something. i would just apply to the other programs and see what happens next year with fox.

  18. Fonda Fair left a comment on June 2, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Hi Kiyong,

    I hope all is well! I was wondering if you heard any buzz about the Fox Diversity Writing Program for 2011. The website still hasn’t been updated and I emailed inquiring with no luck.

    ~Thanks

    • Fonda Fair left a comment on June 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm

      Nevermind, just read the post before mine 🙂

  19. ron reid jr. left a comment on June 2, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    yes, any update on fox’s diversity program. i love to just go and shot something myself and bring that to their attention.
    but any fox updates or will you tell us what was said in the room?

  20. ron reid jr. left a comment on June 2, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    hey from what your earlier post about Fox. i should think apply if i could qualify to head the diversity program.

  21. ron reid jr. left a comment on June 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I FOUND SOME INFO ON THE FOX DIVERSITY PROGRAM. AND THIS ARTICLE IS NOT VERY FAVOURABLE TO THOSE APPLYING!!
    http://www.deadline.com/2011/04/20th-century-fox-starts-emerging-writers-program-to-incubate-original-script-ideas/

  22. kiyong left a comment on August 19, 2011 at 3:16 am

    i just met someone from the new fox tv writers’ program.
    check their website in september – http://www.fox.com/audiencestrategy/
    unconfirmed – 10 or so writers will be chosen, about 6 months long.
    not sure if they want specs or pilots.

  23. […] read my post from the panel i went to, where all the tv writing program directors talked about what they were […]

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