Getting Staffed on TV: Setting Realistic Expectations

With pilots due to be delivered in the next month and May Upfronts to be announced shortly thereafter, I am getting the same question from almost everyone I come across: How do I get staffed on a TV show? With the fall season looming, it’s natural to assume that many a writer will be picked for new and returning shows. But more often than not, making it into that room is dependent on the foundational groundwork you’ve put in long before this moment.

For many, the end-all of screenwriting is getting staffed on a TV show. Who wouldn’t want a steady, respectable paycheck and an ongoing opportunity to learn and grow, working intensely with other writers just like you? After all, a TV writer’s room is where many a show runner and TV creator were born. It is, for many, the foundation for a long, prolific career writing for television. But in this day and age, TV staff position are highly competitive, and for many a writer out there – represented or otherwise – can be hard to come by.

First thing first: Let’s talk about the TV season coming up. I hate to be a party pooper but… If you are reading this in the first half of the year have not gotten yourself and a particular screenplay or pilot script some much needed attention, it’s far fetched to expect to get staffed in the coming season. The reality is that, as you read this, show runners and executive producers are reading screenplays and TV pilots in their search for potential scribes for their returning shows and currently-shooting pilots, just in case their shows get picked up. The scripts they are reading are cultivated from agents, managers, production and development executives who’ve said “you’ve got to read this!”, from The Black List (2012’s list) and other trusted sources through which to find great writers. In all reality, they are likely not looking at contest winners unless those have come highly recommended by someone they trust. They simply don’t have the time. They are looking for skilled, unique voices that fit the voice of their own material in order to give their shows the best chance.

For everyone looking for an exception here, in terms of getting staffed NOW, there is one: If you know someone on a show, new or returning, this is the moment to play that card. Of course, you’ll have to have the material to back any networking efforts up, but if you have someone you can call, than by all means, this is the time to get them on the proverbial line. Here is a real-life example from one of my working clients: Joe (fake name, so for my two Joes, this is clearly not about you as neither one of you harbor TV aspirations at this point and time) just just found out that an old friend’s show got picked up for a limited episode run. Lucky for him, they had drinks on the books for a while as I highly advocate continuously reaching out to your network so that the relationship is there when the time comes. So it was only natural that, when they met, Joe raised the possibility of getting staffed without seeming opportunistic. The conversation turned from “this is what I’ve been up to” to “hey, congratulations, if there might be an opportunity there for me… ” And just like that, the door opened before my client.

While everyone would love the idea of getting staffed come TV staffing time, the reality is that the groundwork has to be done, consistently and effectively, in advance. My friend Marissa Jo Cerar, who generously did an interview with me in the past, got staffed on “The Fosters”, which has a 7-episode pick up to start. She did it on the merit of her screenplay, “Conviction”, which placed on The Black List in 2012. The screenplay was written some years back, and had been working for her for a long time; It might look like overnight success for this talented writer; in fact, it’s been in the works for a long time.

So if you want to get staffed in TV seasons to come, you have two real options to make this dream come to life:

  1. Write. Write great. Write all the time. Get your stellar scripts out there. Get repped. Get your work on the industry radar. Good work does rise to the top, so you have to believe that whether it takes one year or five, it will get into the right hands in time.
  2. Work your network long before opportunities arise. You never know who will end up where – people you went to school with, writers you met in groups, other creative execs you’ve come across in your life. So keep working those relationships if only to ensure that when those opportunities arise, it won’t be such a stretch to get front-of-mind. And as always, never forget to repeat option 1.

And then there are TV fellowships and diversity programs, that feed directly into the TV shows produced by the networks which run them. This is not a sure thing by any means, but once in a while you do hear of a writer who got discovered and quickly rose through the ranks and assistant positions to become staffed. Considering that it takes time to apply, to go through the program, etc., this too is not going to be the type of thing one can expect to have happen overnight.

No matter what, remember this: Working in TV, more so than in Film, is a long-gestation game. You have to put in the work, with the faith that things will transpire not in the immediate future, but a year, or two, or five down the line. As Michael Hauge likes to say, this is a game of tenacity. While this is true for every format you are trying to write in, in TV those words ring true every time.