Lot 48: the anatomy of a tv show part II

September 29, 2014

the anatomy of a tv show part II

i am so overwhelmed and excited about the great readership i had for part I of "anatomy of a tv show" so thank you for twisting my arm into explaining the rest of this very complicated business!! i hope you find this as fascinating as the first part!! but also, disclaimer: i am not an expert.  this is just my knowledge of how the business works from working briefly in the business, so if i am wrong on any of these facts, i apologize.

so the first thing i need to apologize is for letting out an important part in part I of this whole learning experience.  the pitching is much more complicated than i led you to believe.  and after checking with my friend in LA who works for the CW and getting confused myself, i think i have untangled the knots.

in the first part, i said i went around pitching but i didn't say what i was pitching.  okay.  deep breaths.  we can explain this.  i said i had an idea right?  and that i first went to a production studio to pitch said idea?  well, this pitching does not include a document.  i am verbally going around telling people what my idea is.  it have helped make these proposals and from my experience, they include  poster board. 

okay.  now, i said in the first part that my idea went all the way to the network and my idea was purchased right?  this is when i start writing things.  writing a script?  not that unusual, but probably not.  what i am writing is a 3-4 page story area that describes in writing what i pitched, basically.  and then. after that, i pitch an outline which is longer usually 6-7 pages that describes in more detail what i want my show to be.  that goes through a lot of drafts and once my outline is approved, then i write the script.  okay?  do we understand?  (thank you collin for clearing this up for me!!)  

okay, now that i have cleared that up and maybe made your brain hurt a little bit, let's move on with the anatomy of a tv show, because we still don't know how a show gets aired!!

where we left on off in part I, i had just signed a deal with a production company, tv studio and network to make my sitcom. and as mentioned above, i need to write the story area and outline before i write the script.  once that is approved, now i actually write the script. but keep in mind, just because the studio and network have agreed to make my pilot does not mean my pilot will ever air. let me explain why.

you may notice that the diagram is a little different from the first post.  that is because we have more moving parts now. now that a network and studio wants to make my show, we need to make the pilot!! 

so now we do the usual things.  the studio (because the network has nothing creatively to do with making the show at all, remember?) starts contacting acting agents and the casting director starts auditions.  then i sit on my throne behind a very big table in a very intimidating pose while i watch actor after actor try to bring my words to life.  or not.  i actually don't know if the creator of the show has much to do with the casting.  granted, the network has final say on casting, but i am with the studio so i get to intimidate people.  the network needs to know who will make them money!

once everyone is casted and i have intimidated as much people as possible, production on the pilot starts.  the pilot of my show is made.  KAZAA!!! does this mean my show will air? no!! 

let's look at the timeline of all of this.  we know new shows premiere in the fall, and second tier shows premiere in the spring.  well, grey's anatomy appeared in the spring, so let's not use such a derogatory term.  let's just call them shows that couldn't quite make the cut the first time around.  so all the pitching that i mentioned in part I all happens in fall.  by january, the casting process starts and the pilot is shot, has to be shot by may.  

why may?  great question.  there is a big huge conference in NYC each may where networks pitch these pilots to advertisers.  as sad as it is, advertisers are the ones who pretty much decide which shows get aired, because shows make money off the commercials.  so if you have no advertisers that are interested in your show, no dice for you. your pilot will never be aired. you get to watch your pilot in the comfort of your own home with a big bottle of whatever alcohol you choose while you cry and cry and scream into the heavens "i was so close!!!!!"  

but since this is my imagination and in order for you to learn this, let's pretend that advertisers like my show and all come up to me and shake my hand and "say you are the next tina fey and mindy kaling and your show is going to be the greatest show in the history of everything and we will pour as much money into it as you need."  and i just laugh confidently and say, "oh, thank you.  yes,  yes, tina and i talk all the time."

you might have noticed, but shows are usually given chunks of episodes in threes. how it typically goes is, "okay, you get 3 episodes to convince everyone they should watch your show.  if you don't get good ratings, we will pull the plug.  if you get good ratings, you get three more episodes."  

so, depending on how much advertisers like my show, the network will tell me "you're so amazing, we are going to give you 6 episodes right off the bat because you are a genius."  if you do well, you get 12, (half season) then 21-24 depending on how long you want to drag out your season finale.  go back to your shows that have been canceled.  you will see they had 3, 6, (or 7 because you're realllllly important.  the first season of scandal was 7 episodes because its shonda rhimes and she can do whatever she wants) or 12 (sometimes 13 because we couldn't tie up all the loose ends in 12!) episodes.  

great! so now my show will be aired!! because the advertisers say so!! now.  we need to go back to the pilot and see if it really is as good as it might be. we might re shoot the pilot, a lot of studios do. and then because i got 6 episodes, i start writing the next episodes, hire my writing staff, aka, my new best friends, and everything else i need.  just kidding.  i don't hire people.  we will get that in a minute.  then we start making the thing.  we work hard all summer so that come sept/oct we are ready to give you 6 glossy episodes.  and then because my show is soooo amazing,  i get a full season.

now.  there is something called a showrunner on each show.  that is the boss of the show who runs everything creatively.  they choose costumes, sets, the script, and have either a producer or writer background.  the showrunner isn't always the creator.   i would not be the showrunner on my show  because this is my first rodeo and i have no idea what i'm doing.  you know toby on the office? he was actually the showrunner for the office.  depending on the creator's experience, they could be the showrunner of their show, but not likely.  greg daniels "created" (i put that in air quotes because it was an adaptation from the british version) but he was not the showrunner.  paul lieberstein (toby) was the showrunner.  

it all depends on ratings.  you know that.  we all know that.  at the end of the season, the network decides if they want to renew your show.  you could get renewed for a full season, or just half a season.  all ratings, all money.  the network give a &;@%$ about the creativity of your show, all they care about is if your show is making them money.  

the studio doesn't make a lot of money.  they make their money from selling DVDs, soundtracks, shirts, etc.  glee?? their studio made money from the concert tour they did.  the office?  their studio made money from the board game they sold (which i have). the biggest way they make money is through syndication. you know what syndication is right? friends originally appeared on NBC but is now like on every channel on your tv? that's syndication.  the studio is this poor little island that doesn't get taken good care of financially. but! if they have really successful shows, they can ride that money bank for years. 

but there are these pesky network execs that come in and change everything although they have no idea about creativity of a show or how to make a good show.  they just come chop everything and make changes if they think this thing or that thing won't make money.  ask any show creator.  they all hate network execs. they come and tell them how to do their job when they have no idea to do said job.  fun. 

and i think i covered everything!! i fully enjoyed writing these posts and teaching you how a show becomes a show! it is such a passion of mine, i was so happy to share my knowledge!

there has been some interest in the anatomy of a movie. it is completely different but is a bit simpler process and takes, much, much longer.  but, i am hesitant to write said post because i don't know the process as well as i do tv.  i have no desire to work in movies, so i focused all my learning on television while in LA. 

i hope everything made sense! ask questions in comments if you have no idea what i just said. 


  1. this is so fun! I honestly never knew SO MUCH went into just getting a show. Wow. Prop your feet up with some tea after writing that post, dear. lol. but seriously though, so cool!

  2. I know I said this on Part 1, but I LOVE THIS STUFF! I mean, I knew a very, tiny, little bit of this information, but you went into so much detail and explained so much more than I even realized went into a show! I would gladly just sit and read a million posts about TV and "the biz" all day long. I'm such a TV nerd.

  3. Thanks so much for this second post. It's amazing a show ever gets to the TV, and even more frustrating that there's so much garbage that makes it!

  4. I never realized that the studio doesn't make much money!

  5. Wow, I never knew half, no the majority of the things that happen behind the scenes when making a TV show! I think it's awesome that you are sharing all of this to help us that know nothing catch a little drift. A believe my mind is a little blown right now.

    ps. the part where the show doesn't make the cut gave me a good giggle!


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