TV Writing Programs & Fellowships: Straight From the Fellows

With 2017 chugging along, and the first fellowship deadlines (Sundance, Humanitas and HBO to name a few) already behind us, many emerging television writers eager to push their television writing careers to that elusive next level are hard at work preparing their TV specs, original pilots and myriad essays for the coveted network television writing fellowships and programs that each year anoint – with the announcement of their selections – a new group of promising young scribes positioned to go from aspirant to professional. It has been said that any such television writing programs operated by the major networks is more difficult to get into than Harvard. It’s also been said that most of these programs – and particularly one that has been a consistent staffer year over year – can serve as something of a golden ticket.

The reality of these programs can be much different than the promise. For example, while every writer may hope that participation will lead directly to staffing, or in the very least representation, that is not the case across the board. In fact, over the years, I have worked with a number of writers to emerge from these fellowships with newly acquired pedigree and knowledge, but without a job. Equally, different writers learn different lessons and go through different experiences in these programs. As Deanna Shumaker, graduate of the WB TV Writer’s Workshop program and writer on BLINDSPOT, told me when I interviewed her for my BREAKING IN initiative

“Biggest takeaway for sure is the relationships.  I became so close with the other eight writers in the program — some of them are like family now.  We also got introduced to a lot of executives at WB, which is valuable for obvious reasons.  Being an alumni of the program puts us into a little club of our own. I was at a WGA event last night and the guy sitting next to me was a WB workshop alum, which gave us a ton to talk about.  Chris Mack and Rebecca Windsor who run the program really do a great job of cultivating an environment where we all feel a sense of loyalty to one another.  We know how hard it is to get into the program, how rigorous the program itself is, so it’s easy to feel immediate respect for anyone else who’s been through it.

Another thing that really helped me about the program, and this requires a bit of insight into my psyche: I’m hyper-prepared for everything.  I don’t go to a restaurant without deciding what I’m going to order from an online menu.  I get to work at least an hour early every day to read through the notes from the day before and think about ideas to pitch.  Spontaneity is not my strong suit.  I don’t want to get into too many details about what they did in the workshop to beat this out of me, but there’s a sense of unsteadiness throughout the program.  They’re sorta constantly looking for ways to pull the rug out from under you and see how you react.  As paranoid as this made me, it really, truly helped me out in the real world.”

With that in mind, I turned to clients and friends who have or are currently participating in the programs, in hopes of further illuminating for those applying this year or in the future what they might hope to learn, and what the writers who participated in these programs wish someone would have told them before they walked in the door.

A writer who was came through an invitation-only diversity network program and requested to remain anonymous told me:

“The thing that surprised me most about my television writing program is the lifelong friendships I would make with the other participants. The most valuable thing I learned during my time in the program was the importance of pitching an idea well and strategies to help you figure out which parts to focus on. And the one thing that they don’t tell you about the programs is that a writing program is not an end all be all by any means. Many people go through multiple ones without getting staffed— which is why it’s important to continue cultivating your own relationships (outside of the program).”

Daniel Hoh, who participated in CBS’s mentoring program and went on to staff on PURE GENIUS shared:

“The thing that surprised me most about my television writing program is the emphasis on what I call personal development. Learning how to analyze the stories in your life and how to present them to anyone in any situation or context. The program had very little to do with the actual craft of writing. Much more about learning to pitch yourself as an interesting A story and how to handle meetings with creative people. The best way to sell your idea is to do a fantastic job of selling yourself as a fun, collaborative, introspective, and life-experienced person.

The most valuable thing that happened in the program was that we got a lot of experience practicing mock showrunner meetings…With real showrunners who volunteered their time and offered valuable feedback on our “performance.”

The one thing that they don’t tell you about the programs that you should know is that these programs are helpful, but not a guarantee towards obtaining your first staffing job. I knew this to be somewhat true, but it turned out to be more true than I thought as I witnessed first hand the process of trying to get the first job for myself and others in the program. I was fortunate enough to be staffed after the CBS program, but definitely had my anxious moments awaiting decisions from studios, showrunners, and executives.”

Another writer who spoke to me under the condition of anonymity and who just completed one of the major network programs confided:

“The thing that surprised me most about my television writing program was how fast-paced it was. We had to break a new spec and go to draft in a week. Same with our original pilots. Though we had more drafts of the pilot to be written, it was a lot. If I you’re financially stable, I would quit your job. By the end of the program, the new pilot you write in the program is used for staffing (even if you already have other originals out there), the program uses this new sample to send out.”

Like Daniel, this writer asserted, “The most valuable thing I learned during my time in the program was that it isn’t a guarantee for staffing. You still have to push for a lot on your own. It certainly helps a lot but not a for sure thing.”

And finally, this writer shared, “What they don’t tell you about the programs that you should know is to be prepared to not get much done socially in your life and to not sleep much during those few months in the program.”

Jorge Rivera, who participated in the Fox Diversity Initiative and went on to staff on FOX’s APB, echoed what many of the other participants told me:

“The thing that surprised me most about my television writing program is that a gig out of the fellowship is not guaranteed. It takes a village. That village consists of the program’s efforts, your reps, and you calling in every professional reference willing to sing your praises to the showrunner and execs making the decision to hire or not hire you.”

Jorge also advised: “If you don’t have a rep going into the program, the moment you get in is the time to start looking for one.”

Finally, Jorge told me, “The one thing that they don’t tell you about the programs that you should know is that getting into one of the fellowships creates a spotlight on you that may never be duplicated in quite the same way. Take the fullest advantage while you have that “heat.” Of course there will be other highlights to your career…selling a pilot, writing on a hot show, winning an Emmy, showrunning, your first “first look” deal. But those will most likely be a few years down the line. So while you’ve got the “heat”…shop around for an agent or manager (if you don’t already have one), take as many generals with EP’s, showrunners and network/studio executives as you can. Network. Yes, of course there will be many other amazing milestones in your career, but you’ll only have that hot, rising star, new baby-writer smell on you for a short time— run with it!”

John Covarrubias, who came out of the WB Television Writer’s Workshop and went on to staff on TRAINING DAY said:

“The thing that surprised me most about my television writing program was how ruthless and supportive they can be all at once. They really ran us through the emotional wringer. The program’s definitely not for the faint of heart so be prepared to have your mettle tested. In my opinion, part of the experience is an exercise in will and courage. You will be pushed so it’s important to have a support system of friends and family to help get you through it. Otherwise, it can get pretty lonely pretty fast.

This sounds cheesy, but the most valuable thing I learned is to just be myself because writers will definitely sniff out the artificiality. If you come off as something you’re not, people won’t trust you and will keep you at a distance. That’s a death sentence in television. These same people in your program will be future showrunners and will remember you. Reputation is paramount.

The one thing that they don’t tell you about the programs that you should know is that they don’t coddle you — at least in my experience. Nobody tells you if you’re doing well or not. That can be disconcerting, especially when you start making mistakes (which you will). The important thing to learn is to live in the “uncomfortableness” of it all. Get used to it. That feeling only increases in the staff writing world.”

Another anonymous writer who recently completed a network fellowship offered:

“The thing that surprised me most about my television writing program is the bottomless support from the faculty. Yes, the pace is rigorous because they’re preparing you to keep up in a writers room, but they’re also on your side till the end and will work with you to ensure you do your best work at the end of the day. So as long as you keep lines of communication really open, you’ll have support no matter what.

The most valuable thing I learned during my time in the program was how background, culture, and upbringing can affect the way we interact with story. I realized how powerful and important it is for every audience member to have a character on TV that reflects their culture, influences, perspectives, and ideals.”

Finally, Greta Heinemann, who was awarded the Humanitas New Voices prize, participated in CBS’s Mentoring Program, and is currently a story editor on NCIS NEW ORLEANS told me:

“What surprised me most during my time in the CBS program was realizing how important the business aspect is to your writing career, and not just the writing. The fellowship really helped me understand that it’s 40% writing, 40% business, and 20% luck. That was probably the biggest surprise.

The most valuable thing I learned was all about giving a good showrunner meeting. Writers often under-estimate how important it is to give a good showrunner meeting and how important it is to be personable in the room, because if you get hired into the room you’re going to have to present well. So presenting well in those interview situations was probably the biggest takeaway that I had gotten.”

And lastly, Greta said:

“The one thing that no one told me when I went in that I wish I would have known… I wish someone would have told me that I would be meeting every single person I met through the program in my career. They did tell me this, but I just wish that I was more aware of just how important those relationships with executives and other writers were, because it’s such a small industry, so you’re gonna see them all again when you’re working and trying to get your next job.”