TV Writing Fellowships: To Spec or Not to Spec?

Every year, around this time, writers approach me wanting to know: Should they spec an episode for a current TV show (in its most current season) for the prestigious TV writing programs? Do they have to? Or is the entire fellowship application process a colossal waste of time?

This year, this question has only become more complicated.

There are currently four active TV writing programs operated by the networks, all of which open for submissions in Q2: CBS’s Writers Mentoring Program, WB’s TV Writers Workshop, NBC’s Writers on the Verge, and ABC’s Walt Disney’s Television Writing Programs. The program previously operated by Fox was ended once the Disney purchase of Fox Studios went through.

And before I go any further, let me go on the record: Over the years, I’ve had numerous writers in each of these programs. And each one of these writers went on to get staffed out of them. These writers weren’t necessarily connected prior to their acceptance into the program, and on occasion didn’t even have a significant industry recommendation to speak of, but each of my writers that was able to get in translated their fellowship participation into a meaningful career writing television.

In the not-too-far-gone past, if you wanted to submit to these programs the answer for whether or not you should write a spec episode for a current TV program was simple enough: If you wanted to apply to these highly regarded fellowships, whose endgame is discovering the next generation of TV writing talent and getting them staffed, then you had to spec. No two ways about it. And the decision was easy enough when you had five different programs, totaling in as many as 40+ possible spots, to apply to.

But times have changed. First, the Fox program, as mentioned above, was discontinued. Then, Disney’s program changed its requirements from a spec episode and an original pilot to two original pilots. And just a few weeks ago, NBC announced that they will only require original pilots as writing samples for their 2020 application season, which was confirmed by my dear friend Jen Grisanti via her twitter account. Which means… There are now only two TV writing programs, WB’s and CBS’s, requiring those spec TV episodes as part of their application materials (and because WB already released their 2020 accepted shows list – I am expecting this to hold true through the end of this submission season, at the very least).

So what’s a writer to do? Write a spec episode and compete for one of roughly, say, 14 seats up for grabs through the CBS and WB programs, or bypass those altogether and instead focus exclusively on the development of original content, opting to submit only to those TV writing programs who don’t require a spec TV episode, i.e. NBC and ABC/Disney, that have roughly 20 spots between them?

The answer might not be as simple as you think. Let’s break it down:

First, it’s important to remember that TV writing, despite the popularity of the format and the fact that in 2019 we had as many as 526 original scripted programs go to air, continues to be a challenging field to break into. To put it quite simply, everyone wants into the room. And even though there are significantly more TV writer’s rooms today, rooms are also significantly smaller now than they were 10 years ago, utilizing significantly less writers. This means that the competition for a seat at the table is more intense than ever. And in a world where there are no sure things, breaking in through the TV writing programs has become one of the two sure paths into the room, with the other being rising up as an assistant (i.e. support staff) in the room, and eventually earning enough good favor to graduate into a writing position. So with that logic in mind, it would seem that taking the time to write spec TV episodes for those programs that require them would be a no brainer, right? Yes, but again… it’s not quite so simple.

The CBS Writers Mentoring Program is a 100% diversity program. What this means is that each one of its program participants traditionally has some diversity to speak of. Therefore, if you are not diverse, you are really talking about speccing for a single opportunity: A seat at the table with WB’s TV Writers Workshop, which each year accepts roughly 8 writers, and is not exclusively diverse.

But there’s more: If you are not a diverse writer, and you are submitting your application for NBC’s and ABC/Disney’s programs, which historically heavily favor some diversity, you are NOT competing for each one of these program’s roughly 20 spots. If you are not a diverse writer, you are competing for one of roughly – and historically at the most – 1 to 2 spots with each of these programs, so 2-4 spots at most. Therefore, while submitting to programs that require only original pilots may be simpler, submitting to a program such as WB, specifically for those writers who are not diverse, gives the writer double the odds, as the writer is then competing for one of 8 spots, rather than 1 or 2 or, at the most, 4. 

If you are, on the other hand, a diverse writer, then you are able to compete for every available spot with each of these fellowships. Opting against submitting to those programs that require a spec TV episode as part of its application materials is giving up the ability to compete for as many as 14 spots. While, between them, ABC/Disney and NBC offer roughly 20 spots, those 14 spots that you would not be fighting for by deciding not to submit to spec-requiring programs signify 40% of available spots that you can opt to fight for. In other words? You give up 40% of available opportunities if you opt to not to submit to WB and CBS.

Of course, there are further intricacies of available comedy spots vs. available drama spots, but… you get the point. 

All of that said, it’s important to remember that writing a spec TV episode is not just about producing the required application materials for these prestigious and sought-after programs; there is an important exercise to be had in the practice of writing spec episodes for existing shows. After all, this is the one practice that prepares you for the job in the writer’s room, where every writer is expected to pitch ideas and storylines for any given episode, as well as learn to write in the showrunner’s unique voice. So in some ways, writing a spec episode for an existing TV show is some of the best practice you can get for doing the actual job, which, in my experience, makes this a critical skillset to develop long before you set foot in the room.

One thing that remains true is that breaking into TV writing today can be quite difficult. Don’t get me wrong: While it is trying, it is also very much possible. Just this fall, two of my previously unstaffed writers staffed in their first writer’s room. The point? If your goal is to get into a writer’s room, then you should take every action possible and make every effort  in order to make sure, within reason, that would bring you closer to that goal.

If you opt to spend time this spring writing a spec episode for a current-season, approved-list show in order to submit applications to these programs that require them, be sure to do it in a fashion that is focused and efficient. Whether speccing for one fellowship application or four, I prefer that my writers not spend months and months developing their episode; in keeping with the practice of the room, budget a specific amount of time for the various development stages of your episode (story area, beats or grid, outline, outline revisions, and then drafts), and get it done on schedule, much as you would be expected to do in the room. It’s up to each writer to determine which programs and opportunities are worthy of their efforts. Consider everything that I explored here, and decide based on what you think would be most productive for moving your unique screenwriting career, complete with its specific goals, forward.