PrimeTime: Pilot Page-length and Pitching to News Shows

Today’s first question comes from Susan, who writes …

I’m working on a script that I’m hoping to submit to an agent as a pilot for a potential cable TV show like the ones (Burn Notice, White Collar) on USA. I can’t seem to find any information on how long this script needs to be. I know pilots used to be two hours long but that doesn’t seem the norm any more. How many pages should I be aiming for and should it still follow a three-act formula?

Most pilots are, and always have been, the same length of running time as the show’s actual episodes. So if it’s an hour-long show, like Sons of Anarchy or Breaking Bad, the pilot is one hour long. This means the script is about 50-60 pages.

Now, occasionally, a creator’s vision for a pilot episode stretches beyond the expected time limit. When this happens, the network must decide whether it wants to shorten the script or produce and air a longer pilot.

The pilots of NBC’s The Playboy Club and ABC’s Private Practice are both hour-long shows that had hour-long pilots.

USA’s Suits, however, is an hour-long show where the script ended up being longer … and because the execs believed the extra pages were valuable — and their airing schedule permitted some wiggle room — they let the pilot stretch beyond an hour.

Having said this …

Most networks don’t set out to have a 70 or 90-minute pilot.

Occasionally, networks order a “backdoor pilot,” a TV movie or mini-series which — if successful — they use as a springboard for a series. But most series don’t come from backdoor pilots; they come from traditional pilots that have the same running time as the show’s regular episodes. (And if you want the best chance of getting your pilot picked up, you should do your best to keep it within the expected timeframe parameters.)

As for the second part of your question — following a three-act structure — most one-hour shows don’t follow a three-act structure at all!

Most of today’s hours follow a five-act structure … or sometimes four acts and a teaser. Some even have six acts!

My advice is: Study the shows you most admire, shows you feel are most similar to the show you’re trying to create. Do those shows have five acts? Four acts? Six acts and a teaser? Learn how those shows organize and tell their stories, then use them as models when creating your own show.

Today’s second email comes from Garner, who asks

There is a show entitled What Would You Do?, and I want to pitch an idea to for this show to ABC. How do I go about pitching my idea to a producer of the show?

Sadly, Garner — you probably don’t go about pitching your ideas to the producers of this show. Although I can’t speak specifically for What Would You Do, these types of shows are usually not produced by a network’s entertainment division, the division which develops traditional scripted and reality shows, but by the network’s news division.

Either way, these shows — like all shows — have their own staffs of hired writers and producers whose job is to come up with the segments, situations, and short pieces these shows use. Thus, they rarely hire or consider outside input or consultants.

So … if you want to write or produce for these shows, or even pitch ideas, my best advice is:

Get a job in a position that allows you to network or interact with shows’ producers and production teams.

If you want to reach out to the big network shows, this probably means moving to Los Angeles and getting a job at one of the networks.

Wanna break into network news shows? This is a great place to start…

But if this isn’t feasible, you could also start by getting a job at your local television station, where you’ll have access to local news shows and producers. Also, the news departments at local stations usually have very close ties with the news divisions at their network headquarters, so you’d be positioned to begin meeting some of the folks who may have closer ties to shows like What Would You Do.

In fact, many local stations have news shows, even investigative shows, similar to What Would You Do; so perhaps instead of aiming immediately for the broadcast network shows, you could first target more accessible local shows — like ABC15‘s Sonoran Living in Arizona or Political Radar on Indiana’s WPTA-TV. (These shows would also probably be more open and inviting to pitches from inexperienced locals and amateurs, especially if you’re able to bring to the pitch a unique local angle.)

Ultimately, Garner, in order to pitch the network shows, you need to put yourself in a position that allows producers to take you seriously as a legitimate and professional source of creative content. This usually means working in the industry, or in some related capacity that validates you (e.g., if you were the editor of a legitimate newspaper, or the host or producer or a successful radio news show, that would also give you some traction).

Anyway, thanks so much for the questions, guys! Keep them coming … and if you, or anyone else, has more please email me at chad@chadgervich.com, tweet me @chadgervich, or post them in the Comments section below.

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