What to Spec – Finding Your Genre

You can read all about conceiving, writing and selling your spec pilot in my new book, Writing the Pilot, currently available through Amazon.com for the Kindle and Barnesandnoble.com for the Nook, soon in the rest of the known universe…

We left off last time wondering how to choose what kind of spec pilot to write. It’s a big question, because this script is going to eat up a big chunk of your life – there are so many specs you’re going to be able to write. So you want this one to do you some real good – to be bought and shot, ideally, or at least to show studio and network executives and agents that you are a writer they all need to be in business with.

So the big question remains: Of all the ideas you have, which one is going to grab these people?

Or, to narrow it down a little bit, which genre is going to show you off the best?

Because TV is a medium of genres. There’s no room for anything that’s unclassifiable, the way there is in fiction. Cop show, courtroom drama, family dramedy, procedural, sci fi, doctor show; just about every series starts with the genre and grows from there. You’ve got to pick your slot and make your stand.

Over the next few posts, we’ll talk about individual genres. But now I want to take a broader look at the four types of genres.

I’m not talking about the Big Four TV genres here – cops, docs, lawyers and “quality.” I mean something a little more practical: the levels of popularity of any given genre. And here are the three:

Genres that are currently succeeding.

Genres that aren’t working, but networks keep trying.

Genres that don’t work anymore.

Genres nobody cares about.

Let’s start with the first category: Genres that are currently succeeding. This includes the Big Four mentioned above, which are the meat and potatoes of network programming. The rise of some new hit will lead to a brief imbalance between them, but they will always dominate the airwaves. (You might think it’s strange to list “quality” as a genre, but in TV drama it always has been – that’s the well-intention, serious show that draws a smaller audience, but one that’s almost exclusively made up of the educated, affluent viewers that advertisers will pay a premium for. Think of any Zwick/Herskovitz show, for example.)

Outside of the Big Four, genres wax and wane into this category. Police procedurals – a separate genre from the standard, character-based cop shows – dominated the networks for most of the last decade. Vampire shows have been growing for years. Right now high school shows and/or performance musicals look to be a growth industry as long as Glee stays huge.

You’re always safe choosing from this category, because if a genre is working across several shows, networks will want more of them. And even if no one wants to buy your series, the script itself should serve as a strong writing sample for the ones they do buy.

The downside, of course, is that there are already a lot of these shows out there, and there are going to be a lot more in development. How do you come up with a new take on a doctor drama when so many aspects of the field are already covered by other projects? Granted, true originality is not something networks always demand – or maybe you don’t remember that series whose pitch could only have been “It’s House. but instead of a diagnostician, he’s a brain surgeon!” – but you’re looking for a way to stand out. When you’ve got networks coming to you asking for yet another iteration of everything they’re already programming, you can stop worrying about originality. Until then, you need to find a way to leap off the slush pile.

Next time:  Genres that aren’t working, but networks keep trying.

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