Why Spec? 3 Reasons to Write a Spec Episode for an Existing TV Show
For many a hard-working, eager-to-break-in TV writer the question comes up sooner or later: Should I write a spec for an existing show, or should I just focus on writing original TV pilots?
For years, TV specs (as in spec episodes for existing shows) were expected to be found in every writer’s body of work. After all, it was what most showrunners wanted to read in order to make a decision on which writer to add to the writing staff. And one spec episode was rarely enough: A 1-hour writer was expected to have a procedural spec, and a non-procedural spec, while a 1/2-hour writer could have specs spanning both network and cable, or multi-cam and single cam.
But in the last 5-6 years, if not entire decade, all of this has changed. Showrunners, co-EPs and network executives started looking to original pilots to see what the writer’s instincts bring to the table, what unique point of view the scribe would add to a given room. It became all about the original pilots (ironically known as TV specs, i.e. spec pilots), rather than the episode spec, to get the hiring executive excited about the writer they were considering for any particular in-the-room writer level.
Rumor has it that still today, on rare occasion, when being considered for a job, writers (or their reps) are still requested to submit a spec for an existing show as a writing sample, but those are generally requested by more old-school showrunners; I can tell you that none of my writers who broke into writing television while working with me did so submitting a spec episode for an existing show as a writing sample. An exception could potentially be the TV writing programs, who, at the end of the program when it’s time to line up staffing opportunities for their program participants opt to submit what they consider to be the writer’s best sample written within the program. But in the “real world” no writer of mine was ever asked to submit a spec episode when in contention for a job. Only one of my writers ever got representation with a spec episode as one of her samples. And no writer of mine ever got into a general meeting with just a spec episode as his sample.
However, having said all this, I am still a firm believer that there are good reasons to write spec episodes for existing shows. They are:
It’s easier to learn TV structure on a spec episode than a spec pilot.
Writing a spec pilot is no small feat: The writer is tasked not only with writing a “grabby” first episode, but also with world and character building, thematic choices, and overall show template determining. On top of which, there is structure to learn. In general, I am a big advocate of jumping into the deep end, but for some, jumping straight into a spec pilot can be overwhelming. In fact, some academic TV writing programs start their writers on spec episodes long before they ask them to take on a spec pilot. For some, it is easier to first figure out the mechanics of structure and architecture, to cut their teeth utilizing somebody else’s character, world and thematic framework, to adhere to someone else’s format and overall structure (flashbacks or no flashbacks? Teaser +3, 4 or 5? End on a tag, or no?) before taking on the creation of those.
Additionally, when modeling a spec pilot after an existing show, I’ve known writers to write a spec for that show if only to ensure that they have a clear understanding of the underpinnings of what makes that show great.
The TV Writing Programs.
For many years, TV spec episodes have been the premiere requirement for submitting material to the renowned TV writing programs, which have become the primary mechanism in the industry for discovering the next generation of writers. A few years back, CBS made it a requirement that the writer submit both a spec pilot and a spec episode as part of his submission materials; in 2018, the ABC/Disney writing program allowed its submitting writers the option of submitting two originals, or an original pilot and a spec episode. However, the Warner Bros. Television Writers Workshop, and NBC’s Writers on the Verge continue to require a spec episode up front. For those writers fortunate enough to impress with said spec episode and graduate to the next round in the selection process, they would then be requested to submit an original pilot, which would determine whether or not they would then move on to interviews. And, for the record, say what you will about the programs: They are super competitive. Harder to get into than Harvard (according to The Hollywood Reporter, though I certainly don’t dispute it https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/tv-diversity-programs-launching-pad-831880). Articles have been written on what to spec and how to spec (https://www.tv-calling.com/all-about-specs/). But the inarguable bottom line is this: For most of those writers lucky enough to be accepted, they offer an almost-direct path for getting staffed.
As manager Jeff Portnoy, recently featured in Variety’s The New Leaders: Agents and Managers told me when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:
“They’re great because you’re working with people who are working in the TV business. A lot of times people come out of those fellowships and get staffed on TV shows. That will definitely help you get an agent or a manager, if you don’t already have one. They are very very hard to get into but if you get into them then it’s definitely a ticket to getting representation, I’ll tell you that much. It may not be a ticket to getting a staff-writing job immediately but it’s definitely a ticket to getting representation.”
Learning to write in (or “extend”) another writer’s voice. When you break in and get staffed, that will literally become the job you are hired to do.
While an original pilot might get you the job, the task in the room itself is to write episode after episode for an existing show, so writing spec episodes can become great practice for the job you one day want to have. Once you are hired onto a show, not only do you have to develop a firm grasp of the structure and choices made in the show you’re writing for, you also have to write, as closely as you can, in your showrunner’s voice. After all, with slight deviations, the scripts are going to be expected to be more or less uniform so as to appease the network by delivering uniform work. The reality is that the showrunner, or the #2 in the room, often rewrite every draft before it’s sent up the chain of command. But learn your showrunner’s voice and preference, and you are likely to be rewritten a bit less. Therefore, learning how to spec, how to model an episode after others that came before it, in structure, concept and on the page, learning how to analyze and then mimic set structure, how to balance emotional beats with story beats in accordance with the established show standards, is fantastic practice for when you get staffed.
Don’t get me wrong: I never want my writers to spilt their time equally between originals and specs. At the end of the day, I have learned that an original pilot can deliver its writer a much more powerful impact. Therefore, and for those writers not submitting annually to the TV writing programs, writing a TV spec is not something they should take on with any regularity. But I recognize the benefits that writing a spec can offer the writer, whether you’re doing so as part of a submission packet, or as practice just for yourself. For any writer aiming to one day staff on a TV show not their own, writing a spec episode can become important practice.