Inside The Box, Part II
I began a series on what comics need to know about
the media industry before plunging headfirst and wide-eyed into
the latrine/ambrosia we call big time television. The hinge
paragraph (well, with a few changes) was as follows:
"...the idea that you do comedy for the American audience
is naïve. Between you and the audience are a whole set of people
for whom you also work, and you have to work for them before you
ever get to the great unwashed American audience all road dogs know
and love/hate so well. These people you will be working for include
the business executives at mega-corporate "parent"
companies, programming executives at television networks and cable
companies, development executives at production companies, production
executives at production companies, financing execs at the networks,
a catalogue of managers and agents, a host of casting agents, a horde
of stage bookers, a wide variety of producers, a set of budgeters, a
rotating panorama of directors, a select few star actors, a limitless
array of advertisers, and a maddening crew of marketers. If you
manage to get what you do past all of those people, you might get a
few weeks in front of a particular segment of the American audience
that wants to watch what you have to offer."
In Part I
of this opus, I dredged through some information about the
mega-corporations and programming execs. And while, in the long run,
I'm surely giving out far more than comics need to know-- "Hey, man,
just tell me how to get a showcase at the Improv"-- I just can't help
I now continue...
Outside of the corporate parent and the network programmers, there
exist two essential entities comics need to understand: development
and production. Simply put, the development side takes ideas for
shows and brings them to the point where they are ready for actual
production. Production shoots the show.
I'll come back to production later in this column. For now, let's
take a look at this weird animal called "development."
Development executives are perhaps the most elusive of all media
management. It's not always clear who they are, what they do, where
they come from, what their qualifications are, or even who they work
for. But make no mistake, if you want to get your own show into the
pipeline toward television you have to know about development.
Because everything goes through development. Before it goes anywhere.
Or gets anywhere.
The basic process of development begins with the fact that networks
need new shows. They need ideas that will actually work and become
cash cows and generate billions of dollars in ad revenue and
merchandising tie-ins. And so, at certain times, they are open to
being "pitched" new shows, or offered new shows that they
can buy. If they like the offer they will buy the rights to the show
and put up money for a pilot to be shot. After it is shot, the
networks will look at the pilot, test the pilot, and maybe even
put the show on the air if they like what they see. Last year
there were around seventy-something pilots actually bought and
shot by the six networks. For a list of them, go to
http://www.i2.i-000.com/~kk/tvpilots.htm. Take note that, of these,
only about fifteen made it to air, and almost none of them are still
around. There is apparently something about all of this process
that doesn't really work very well. But we'll get to that later.
How do you convince a network you have a good idea for a new show?
By bringing them more than an idea. You need to bring them a
Look at it this way: lots of people have ideas for television
shows. With comics it's usually this idea: My life is funny, it
would make a great show. Unfortunately, with comics that idea ends
about there; it's very rarely sketched any more fully than
"I've done some funny stuff that I can ramble about."
There is no pilot script, no show bible, no outline of episodes,
no treatment, no season or series arc, no developed side characters,
no advertising tie-ins, no audience segment, no easily promoted
star, no awareness of how it would fit into primetime or into a
specific lineup on a specific network, etc. In other words,
there is no "development" to the idea. It's just a
little idea dangling in the wind.
What you want instead is a fully developed, matured idea that is
ready to be shot the day you show it to the network (although in
reality the network will always give you their "notes"
on what they would like to see done on the show to make it more
attractive to advertisers). This is why 99 per cent of the time the
people who sell to TV are people who have actually worked in
television and have some clear concept about how it operates
(i.e., staff writers, story editors, producers, exec producers,
or actors). Often these people are offered "development
deals" where they are prepaid a certain amount of money
in return for agreeing to only give their ideas to a certain
network. Occasionally, someone outside of TV is able to give
a show idea (because they know someone's cousin, or are somehow
able to wrangle a pitch session with a development exec), but
not very often. Not very often at all. And when they do get
those rare opportunities, they often don't really know how to
pitch marketable ideas, and their pitch falls on deaf ears because
the pitchee knows the pitcher has no clout to help the pitchee ever
sell this idea to anyone who matters.
Be that as it may, wherever ideas come from they need to be taken
from the abstract and made into fully developed projects so that
they can be sold. What do I mean by fully developed? Lots of
things. A show needs a basic premise or situation that can hold
up over the course of one hundred episodes (one hundred or so
being the number needed for syndication). It needs a great
pilot script that sets the premise and establishes the characters
and starts ongoing conflicts and gets great laughs and has elements
that will get journalists humming and writing about the show, and
will generate some discussion or controversy in the general public.
It needs at least thirteen other script ideas that will be just as
funny as the pilot so the first half-season will be solid all the
way through as an audience is built. A great set of actors has to
be attached, meaning they are great both in their television acting
skills and in their ability to get free and extensive publicity.
The projected audience has to be established; how old are they,
what they will like about this show, how likely they are to watch.
Potential advertisers need to be located so it looks like the show
will be an easy money-maker.
To get everything to this point, development executives are
hired who supposedly can guide the project to a mega-attractive
place, either with their own instincts or by getting the right
"others" (writers, producers, researchers) to help out.
So the actual job of a development exec is to find stories, find
scripts, find characters, and once found, exert their own creative
muscle and contacts and help to bring everything along to the
point where the project seems extremely likely to be a success.
Development is there to make the project pretty; they are the
personal trainers getting the show ready for the eyes of all
those who might want to look it over.
All of which sounds logical, but none of which seems particularly
good for the creative process. Because what often happens is
that creative people have creative ideas and development people
water them down, re-direct them, make them more conservative so
they fit more closely to what is already "successful"
on television. From what I can tell, it is rare to find a development
person who is truly sensitive enough to both creative and market
forces to be able to guide things without perverting them.
I know there are good development people out there, I've heard
about them, but they seem to be few and far between. Maybe because
if they are really good they move into actual producer positions
where they can make "real" money. I'm not sure.
The last thing to know about development is that like all things
in L.A. it has a season, a cycle that repeats year after year.
From the best that I can tell development begins right after the
networks buy new shows and announce them in May. Right after that,
development people dump the shows they've been working on and go
in search of new game. They develop, develop, develop all summer
long, and they start to sell ideas and scripts in the autumn months
so the casting season can begin after December, and then the pilots
can be shot in March/April, and then the shows can be bought in
May, and then writers can be staffed and directors brought on and
crews booked in May/June/July. At least that's how it all looks to me.
So what lesson should comics take from all of this about
development? Maybe only this: You know humor in live settings,
in a monologue format, from your own experience. Often, you do
not know more than that. So if you want to get a show going for
yourself, either learn the stuff that goes into putting acted
humor onto tape and develop the show fully on your own, or find
someone or some company who knows that stuff already and is willing
to help you get your idea into a developed form. In other words,
understand the development process and be ready to go through it
willingly. If you know it is coming, and have some idea of how
it occurs, you're more likely to be one of the creative engines
instead of constantly mucking things up or just feeling frustrated
because they won't listen to your funny input.
Where do you find these development people? Well, they most
often work for production companies.
A production company is just what it says it is: It is the entity
that gathers a crew, builds the sets, rents the cameras, hires the
actors, writers, and directors, creates the episodes, herds an
audience, tapes the acting, and edits that son of a bitch into
a showable form. Some production companies simply shoot projects
that are brought to them already developed and ready to be shot.
Other production companies actually hire staff development people
who are always on the lookout for material to develop into shows
the production company will own and be able to shoot. The three
genres of developing/production entities are: a network's own
in-house production division (i.e., say ABC actually develops
and shoots its own shows), independent production companies
who have deals set up to develop and produce shows for networks
and cable (i.e., Carsey-Warner, which sends FOX such luminaries
as That 70's Show), and totally independent companies
and individuals who develop shows with the vague hope that they
will be able to sell these shows to some network or cable channel.
So here's the setup. If you have an idea for a show, develop it
as much as you can on your own. Think it through so it will work
on TV to the best of your ability. Then take it to a development
entity that will either tell you to go to hell, or jump in and
either mutate everything you've done or help to bring what you've
done to fruition. And they will then go try to either sell the
idea so they can get the money for a pilot, or they will put
the money up for the pilot and sell rights to the show after
they shoot it. Generally they don't shoot the pilot themselves
because the network they sell to will want to make changes,
which means they'll have to re-shoot it all, which means they
made a very expensive demo that is essentially useless beyond
being a sales tool. Which, on the other hand, is fine with
many of the wealthier productions houses (e.g.: WorldWide Pants,
So here we are. You've gone through development, you've got a
production house attached that procured money to shoot the pilot.
The pilot has to be cast. And then bought. And then staffed.
Two of which are junctures where comics come rushing in-- cast
and staff. And which is what I will turn toward explaining