Kellye Garrett

The Big Picture: An Inside Look at TV Writing

I’ve always loved television almost as much as I’ve loved reading. So, in retrospect, it wasn’t that surprising that I eventually became a TV writer—and later used that experience as the basis for my debut mystery novel, Hollywood Homicide. I thought it may be fun to share some interesting facts about working on a TV show.

It Takes a Village: It takes a lot of people and man hours to produce something that is only 60 minutes long. Television shows are like small companies. You have the boss called the showrunner, who is normally a writer and often the person who created the show itself. Like any job, there’s different departments with their own budgets and staff, including finance, casting, lighting and perhaps the most important group of all—craft services, aka the caterers.

Get a Room: Unlike writing books, writing a TV show is a group effort. A typical show normally has around 10-plus writers who all sit in the Writers Room—think a small conference room with lots of candy and whiteboards everywhere—and spend a week discussing what happens in an episode. Once the writers all figure out the episodes plot, then one writer will go off and actually write it.

Get Commercial: Like any business, the goal for a TV show to make money and that’s usually in the form of commercials. If you think you’re favorite television shows have gotten shorter, they have. Today’s hour-long shows have just 42 minutes of actual air time, compared to 48 minutes years ago. There’s also been a relatively recent change in how shows air. An hour television show used to have four acts. Now many shows have five. Why? So they can squeeze in more commercials, of course.

The Cliff Hanger: Every notice that the most exciting part of your favorite show always happens right before the commercial? That’s on purpose! They want you to be so excited for what happens next that patiently sit through all the commercials for toothpaste that you’d probably buy anyway.

Bottle Up: In 2015, an episode of your fave show cost an average of $3.5 million. Where does the money go? You have your standard expenses that don’t change every week like salaries, but other costs can vary per episode. So if a show’s has a special episode that goes over the weekly budget, they’ll later make up for it with what’s called a bottle episode.

You can recognize them because there aren’t a lot of guest cast members (who cost money!) and the main cast spends a lot of time inside. Most shows usually have one or two bottle episodes per season. You can find some examples here: http://www.avclub.com/article/tv-in-a-bottle-19-great-tv-episodes-largely-confin-42284.

Hope you enjoyed that inside peek at working on a TV show. If you have any other questions, ask them in comments.

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20 thoughts on “The Big Picture: An Inside Look at TV Writing

  1. Very on spot. Where it gets crazy in sitcoms is production. You have three trains running – a story train, the episode in production, and the episode in post-pro. If you don’t have a showrunner who’s super organized and not afraid to delegate, you never leave. Seriously. I once worked an entire month without a day off, and leaving at midnight was an early departure. Not. Fun.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. This is fascinating! I didn’t know that one writer would go off and write the whole episode after the others collaborated on the ideas. Do they bring back the draft for input from the other writers later?

    ps: 3.5 million per episode? WOW.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thanks for a peek behind the scenes of the small screen, Kellye! Only 18 minutes of commercials? I watch so much on Netflix and Acorn now, I do get impatient sometimes when I watch network TV.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Loved this, Kellye!! I’m fascinated by everything TV–even (maybe more so) really awful shows. For some reason, I really enjoy speculating on
    what goes on behind the scenes.

    Liked by 1 person

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