It's getting harder for new TV writers to enter the game. This is something I've heard from a lot of writer friends, some of whom have been working since the mid-1980s. In the Jan. 2011 issue of Written By, the member magazine of the Writers Guild of America, veteran TV writer Marc Scott Zicree says it's tough out there for new and old writers alike. I'd link to that article but it's not available online. I'd quote from it but I've misplaced my copy. I'd draw a picture illustrating my frustration here but I really can't draw. So let me try to summarize a couple of troubling key points from the piece as I remember them.
Once upon a time, nabbing a gig as the writers assistant on a TV show put newbies in the pipe to land a script assignment. It's never a sure thing, of course -- a good writers assistant might not be a good writer -- and even so, it may take a year or more for them to prove themselves worthy of the shot. But if the show is going smoothly, sometime in the back half of the season a showrunner might decide to take the writers assistant off the bench and let them pitch an episode. It's a generous and smart move, since the assistant has been living in the writers room and paying close attention to which stories work and which don't. And it's a golden chance for that writer-wannabe to nail a pitch and land a script credit that, in most cases, kicks them up to Staff Writer status.
It looks as if this practice is slowly being phased out at some shows. One pal recently interviewed for the writers assistant position on a top-rated cable TV show. He was warned by the showrunner: "We don't promote from within," and told explicity that, if hired as writers assistant, there was no chance of ever pitching and writing a script. In other words: All those long hours and crappy paychecks better make you happy, because short of increasing your list of contacts, this job will do practically nothing to further your career as a writer.
Given that many of today's top writers and showrunners got their start this way, I'm really dumbfounded by this. Without that path of entry, it's incredibly hard for anyone to land their first gig as a TV writer. It's a bitter Catch-22: some studios won't even look at new writers with no staff experience. Paying your dues as a writers assistant was once a reliable course of action.
Zicree points out the studios get most excited by new writers coming out of the various workshop and fellowship programs like the ABC/Disney Fellowship and the NBC/Universal Writers on the Verge Program, The one that made the difference in my life is accepting applications from May 2 - June 1 of this year: the Warner Bros. TV Writers Workshop.
So crank out the best spec you can. Kick everything up a notch: dialogue, characters, plot, and even just the sheer economy and impact of each sentence. Almost anyone can write a spec that feels like an average episode of a show. What you must do is write the best episode of that show, the one that would air during sweeps week (but not the one that relies on stunt casting a guest role that eclipses the regular characters).
Apply to all of these programs. And if you don't get in, don't give up. Regroup, keep writing, and try again. It took me many tries to crank out the spec that got me into the game. It was a long and frustrating journey that required a lot of sacrifice but if I'd quit, my big chance never would've happened.
These programs aren't the only way into the industry. But if you're a wanna-be writer looking to break in, you cannot afford to ignore the opportunities they present.