5 Tips from a Seasoned Television Writer

By  · Published on June 23rd, 2014

5 Tips from a Seasoned Television Writer

Producers Guild of America

This post is in partnership with Cadillac

Cadillac and the Producers Guild of America recently launched Make Your Mark, a short film competition that challenges producers to create compelling content with limited resources. Contestants will make a short film over a single weekend in late June, and the 30-second Cadillac spot featuring the grand prize winner’s film will air during the 2015 Academy Awards.

Probably the biggest disappointment of The Produced By Conference was the “Courting the Female Audience” panel. Not because of its quality, but because of the fact that it didn’t take place in the biggest theater on the Warner Bros. lot. Since it was in one of the smaller venues, more than a few people must have missed out on what turned out to be an excellent conversation.

Panelists Mara Brock-Akil (Being Mary Jane), Marc Juris (President and GM, WE tv), Amy Lippman (Masters of Sex) and Matt Warburton (The Mindy Project) quickly developed a fantastic rapport that made for a highly entertaining exploration of their experiences in television, their female audience and more.

Lippman, in particular, delved into the nitty gritty of her highs and lows in television production. The writer and executive producer shared some advice that anyone hoping to go into television should know.

Don’t Expect an Audience Right Away

“A few years ago I had a heartbreaking experience with Fox. I produced a show called Lone Star for them. I don’t think I had ever gotten a response to a pilot the way we did on that. I would say we were cancelled within 20 minutes. We were done by the first time we aired. It was so shocking, because they put a lot of money behind it and premiered the night of Dancing with the Stars. That happened about four years ago, so I’m hopeful a decision like that wouldn’t be made today.

The first year is where you get your audience. There’s no longer a world where the future of a show is determined from what it does on its premiere date. It was such a disheartening experience that I knew I was done with network television. I can’t invest that amount of time being cheered on by a network and then have it canceled like that. You have to nurture and cultivate an audience, which doesn’t happen in two episodes. It takes time to build a hit.”


Immediate Feedback Isn’t Useful for Every Show

“I do think people have a misconception about how responsive you can be to immediate feedback. Speaking for our own production, in the instance of last season, we were finished before the first episode aired. The time to respond to any feedback was with the second season. There was no time to turn that boat around. We were heading where we were heading. When you’re doing over 20 episodes a season, you can be more responsive. For us, it’s very hard to react in an immediate way. It’s almost an impossibility.”

What to Expect from the First Note

“You know your first note is going to be about hair. You’ll get a call and hear, ‘We’re calling about her hair.’ It’s so out of proportion. Honestly, I would add on a year to my life if I recounted all the conversations I’ve had about hair. It’s always about women’s hair, never about men’s hair. There’s a huge preoccupation about how women look. I look at Kerry Washington and think, ‘She’s beautiful! Look at her!’ I am also aware of what a beautiful woman looks like on television and how that draws people in. It’s very tantalizing, but I haven’t seen that preoccupation change in the two decades I’ve been doing this. It’s always, ‘Is she pretty enough? Is she pretty enough to carry a show? What are we going to do to her hair?’”

Never Judge a Logo By Its Cover

“I’m fine for a network to say, ‘We’re concerned about this element. Are we emasculating this character? Are we telling a story too complicated for people who watch every third episode?’ I’m fine with those responses, but that hasn’t been the case with Showtime. They’re very respectful over differences of opinion with their show runners. Ultimately, it’s how they choose to promote the show.

The logo for Masters of Sex has the ‘E’ turned upside down, so it looks like a woman’s nether regions. On the show we thought it was the worst thing we had ever seen in our lives. We thought it was cheesy, but we were just wrong and prudish. They were right. They knew they had an advantage with a titillating title, but they knew they had a responsibility to bring an audience to the show where our work alone [wouldn’t].”

Steering Away

“I wrote a pilot for a network a couple of years ago. It was sort of a high-minded pilot that looked at black-and-white issues in the contemporary South. I was very excited about this pilot. I won’t name the network, but I remember turning on the television and watching a show on their network. This show had a young woman waking up in the morning with these false eyelashes on, and it looked like spiders were sitting on her eyes. I actually called them and said, ‘I can’t do the show for you.’ It seems kind of petty, but I thought if that was a successful show for them and the model for what they wanted to do, I just wanted to prevent going down that path. I thought what they were doing had its value, but I just thought I can’t…I just can’t.”

Learn more about the Make Your Mark competition.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.