Help! Too much great stuff is on TV! I just went to my Netflix to see one hour of one show and up pops an announcement that they’ve added 35 more. Since lunch. And it’s the middle of the afternoon. No! I don’t have time. Still, a new show lures me because all I have to do is click and the whole season is instantly mine — all 12 hours — for free (except for the monthly subscription, but I pay that anyway). No, I’ll resist . . . for now. Even someone like me whose job involves knowing what’s current can’t keep up.
I’d like to thank Game of Thrones for the long hiatus between its final seasons on HBO, and then ending, so I could have my Sunday nights back. Of course I could have watched the Thrones episodes any other day, or even binged the entire series long after it finished, as many people still do with The Wire, more than a decade after its run. But who can wait? We’ve come to expect everything all at once whenever we want it. And the next great shows keep coming from everywhere. This is awful.
The sense of being overwhelmed laps over into daily life. Do texts clamor for replies on your iPhone? Do your hundreds of “friends” on Facebook and Instagram really need your attention? Do you react to “breaking news” all day long? Are you screaming for it all to stop?
We live in a time of irony. Parallel to the apparent abundance is stark reality, sometimes reflected in the content of the best television dramas. The often-quoted opening of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us . . .”
As I write the fourth edition of this book, madmen who have power threaten life itself while whipping up fear, hatred, greed, distrust, and denying science while at the same time scientific advances enable the blind to see, the paralyzed to walk, and we can go on missions off our planet that we recognize as our shared home in a photo of Earth taken in space. It’s our contemporary paradox.
From my travels to faraway lands giving lectures and seminars, I’ve realized how much experience is universally human. People everywhere want to tell their stories and learn how to shape them for television. That’s why earlier editions of this book have been published in translation in Spain, Germany, Italy, France, and China as of 2017.
Now with the international reach of streaming by satellite and the Internet, we are approaching the original definition of “television”: tele from Ancient Greek meaning “far” and Latin visio meaning “sight.” That ideal of distant vision goes back to the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris when a Russian scientist presented a theoretical device described in French as television. Decades later when Philo Farnsworth, an American scientist, developed electronic television, he declared it would bring peace to the world. He believed that when people everywhere could see each other, countries would abandon war. Clearly, we haven’t done well with that since the 1920s. But neither has television approached its global capacity until recently.
From my travels, I remember rows of one-room houses on the outskirts of an African city that have no electricity and no plumbing. For toilets they use “long drops” — extremely deep holes in the ground. Yet, each one-room house — every single one — has a TV dish on its roof. They run on car batteries, I was told, and satellite service costs the equivalent of $100 U.S. That may be a quarter of a month’s pay for some of these families. But it’s the way to access quality shows — mostly from America and (increasingly) China.
I asked my insightful African guide, “Why are they willing to pay for television when they can’t afford a toilet?”
“Priorities,” she answered.
So it isn’t just me in my American bubble trying to keep up. Experiencing 21st century television feels like witnessing the Big Bang. Maybe the explosion began when HBO launched original series with OZ in 1997 and followed with The Sopranos in 2000. Or it began when Netflix streamed House of Cards in 2013 and followed with Orange Is the New Black so all episodes could be downloaded at once, anytime, anywhere. Or it happened when Amazon that isn’t even an entertainment company surprised everyone with quality original shows like Transparent, followed by every other entity you can imagine leaping into the originals pool. Or was it really signaled when television lifted off from Earth via satellites and scripted series reached the entire globe? Does it all come down to “the great convergence” of broadcast with the Internet? Or is it something more that has to do with evolving human consciousness? It’s all those happening at once. So rather than a single bang, we’re in the midst of fireworks, one after another, and more are on the way.
I remember a simpler time when the first edition of Writing the TV Drama Series was published in 2005. The rules of TV were knowable and clear. Hour dramas had four acts with commercial breaks every 13 minutes or so. A network TV season was usually 22 episodes that ran from September to May. And viewers sat on living room couches to watch their TV sets, tuning in their favorite programs when they were scheduled.
Back then, I wanted to tell you how to get into this field and do good work once you’re here. That much remains.
By the second edition in 2007, many of the rules had changed — but the rules were still clear. On broadcast TV, hour drama shows went to five or six acts; basic cable was offering scripted series that followed traditional paradigms; on premium cable, HBO and Showtime always won the critical awards, and their commercial-free model had become a distinct form of its own. Pilot opportunities for new writers had blown open, but the pilots themselves were written and made the same way they’d always been.
Back then, I wanted to tell you how to use the new rules to write well and succeed. That remains also.
For the third edition in 2011, I discovered that almost everyone — from showrunners to struggling writers to industry executives to new media creators — was no longer merely adjusting the rules. Now they were asking basic questions: What is television? What is drama? What is a series? What are the delivery options? What are our obligations to the audience? Does a mass audience exist? Even what is reality?
And yet, after the smoke cleared, more remained than had first appeared. The writer’s skill at storytelling, understanding what drives human beings, the guts to touch the passions, fears, and aspirations of viewers, and honestly portray the universal issues of our lives — that content always relies on the art, craft, and insight of people who write.
Sure, particular shows came and went, but the basics were the same. I wanted to tell you how to write well and succeed. It seemed all right to leave it that way for a while.
But two years later, I was blindsided. I hadn’t seen Netflix originals coming or the streaming revolution. It became uncomfortable for me to advise my students to plan for television that consisted of the traditional networks and a few cable channels. Something had to be done.
So I wrote The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World. I had a delightful interview with Ted Sarandos of Netflix, and tried to delve into what was emerging at Amazon, and spoke with creators working on YouTube and in various new media. The excitement everywhere in television was palpable and it was fun to explore.
But in retrospect, calling any book “The Future of Television” was hubris when the industry was evolving so fast. By the time it was published in 2015, it might have been called “The Present of Television.” And another year later, some of it was “The Past of Television.” This was especially the case in underestimating Amazon Studios, not anticipating new energy at Hulu, and most of all not foreseeing that cable and even broadcast stations would turn to streaming. What had been described as the “New Golden Age” of television — as if what was going on was comparable to the old Golden Age — or some sort of “Platinum Age,” became known as “Peak TV,” having run out of precious metals, I guess.
Portions of The Future of Television are integrated in this fourth edition. You’ll get the best of some the research from that book. And I’ll be updating until we go to press.
This fourth edition features an extraordinary section on International Television and fresh analyses of some great writing. And of course, I want to tell you how to use the new rules to write well and succeed. That remains.
The abundance of today’s television can be good for you because it generates more opportunity. Now screenwriters who know how to create serialized scripts are in demand all over the world.