Dispelling Screenwriting Conspiracies: TV Writing Programs

Every year, around this time, as the prestigious television network writing programs, labs and workshops begin to announce their crop of writers selected for participation, the rumor mill starts to bubble and stir. After all, everyone wants to know: Why was someone else selected and not me? If I submitted a strong script, a strong essay and a strong TV spec, how come I am not among those being named to these career-making programs? How come someone else is being granted this life-changing opportunity? There must be a reason, and it must be other than the writing.

For the record, I’ve seen wonderful, talented, hard working, magnetic writers not get accepted into these programs over the years. I’ve seen them not even get a request for a follow up script, not even an interview. Every year, it hurts. And – I admit it – I, like everyone else, have been baffled at times by the occasional lesser writer (in my humble opinion) who did manage to get through. But for good or bad, the selection process is subjective. I can’t begin to pretend to know exactly what program directors are looking for when they are making their selections, and I trust their judgment and experience to choose the strongest crop of writers for the needs of that year’s program. While we all can agree on what is good writing and what is not, at the end of the day much of the determination of who is selected has to do with the reader’s sensibilities and taste level, and the balancing of the group of writers that is being brought into any given program.

Over the years, as news started to permeate about who got through and who did not, I’ve observed many a writer seeking out explanations for their lack of placement, and if an explanation was not readily available, they often times turned to the all-too-common excuses that can be found in online discussion boards: You didn’t get in? Well, of course! You have to be really REALLY well connected to get into one of these programs. You have to already have an agent for them to pay any attention to you. Even better if you were in consideration for staffing by the network running the program. The programs only want writers who have worked in the room as support staff, and are therefore positioned to get a writing position in the room, and soon. If you don’t have a direct line to the program directors, you shouldn’t even bother. And unless Shonda Rhimes is writing your recommendation letter, trying to get into these programs is of no use.

So as a champion of writers and an observer of this industry, let me go on record and share with you what I know: None of the above rumors are in any way, shape or form, true.

In my work as a career coach, I have been fortunate enough to have writers that I worked with accepted into these amazing, career-making mentoring programs pretty much every year. Over time, I’ve worked with dozens of writers who have gone through them, who’ve gotten staffed through them, who have landed representation because of them. And rarely, if ever, did any of these rumors and assumptions hold even a smidgen of truth. Only a few of the writers were with agents, or deeply connected in the industry or the program. Yes, some have come out of support staff, but those, in my experience, were very much a minority. And there were certainly no Shonda Rhimes recommendation letters.

For the sake of total transparency, let me break it down for you:

2017: Four of the writers I work with are accepted into the various programs that have announced their participants for the coming cycle or year. One is with an agency that doesn’t return his call. Another is with a manager. The third is unrepped at this time. The forth has an agent. All four have submitted applications over a number of years. In 2017, I thus far have no first timers, though ABC/Disney has yet to announce.

2016: Three writers I work with are accepted into the network programs. One of the three submitted that year for the very first time. She has neither manager nor agent, nor does she know anyone who knows Shonda or the like. Just a great writer, on the page and in person. One has a no-name manager – someone on his way up, but yet to make a splash. This was not her first year submitting. She never surfaced in the previous years she submitted. Another did come out of support staff, but was not repped at the time that she was accepted into the program.

2015: Three writers I work with are accepted into the program. One knows practically no one, except for the university professor who wrote his recommendation. Another one has been working physical news production. Again, no writerly contacts. No representation for either of them. The third, who was an assistant in the room, has no representation.

2014: Two writers I work with are selected. One is a first-time submitter, and a complete unknown as far as the industry is concerned. There is a hip-pocket situation with an agency at best, but even that is stretching it. The other gets into not one but two programs. There is a no-name manager in the picture, who is entirely ineffective. The writer did place in a major screenwriting competition prior.

I can go on and on and on, but hopefully you get the point: All different kinds of writers, in all different career building stages, are selected for these programs. While even I have heard stories that didn’t sound entirely kosher, the reality is that casting doubt on the integrity of the selection process does a huge disservice to the writers who have worked hard and were able to fight their way into the programs. Questioning whether their entry was rightfully gained insults the hard work they have done – often again and again over a number of years – to earn their spots. Is the selection process always 100% fair and even? I don’t know. But what I do know is that my writers who have gotten into these programs have put in the hours, the blood sweat and tears, and have worked their booties off to earn their spots. Anyone who tries to take away from that needs to give it another thought.

While this time of year can be difficult for many who did not get any traction with the programs – not even a call for a second script or a request for a phone interview – despite what they know and trust to be a strong submission packet, it’s important to learn from it as best you can, then keep on pushing forward. I myself have “lost” some of my writers (or at least their productivity) when the realization dawned that they were not getting the call. It’s understandable. But pursuing a screenwriting career is a 12-month-a-year endeavor. It’s up to you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and figure out what you can do even better when it’s time to start on working on next year’s submissions.