WRITERS’ ROOM 101: The Fall TV Bloodbath

Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.

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As I write this (and, probably, as you read this), 2015’s fall television season has just gotten underway. A bunch of shows – both new and returning – have already premiered, while several others are still waiting in the wings, ready to unveil their season (or series) premiere. It’s an exciting time for lots of people, including writers waiting on the edge of their seats to see how the show they’re staffed on will fare.

WRITERS' ROOM 101: The Fall TV Bloodbath by Eric Haywood | Script Magazine

Unfortunately, history has proven that many of the shows on the air right now or debuting over the next few weeks won’t survive until the end of the season. Others might reach the end of the season but won’t be back next year. In reality, only a lucky few will meet with sufficiently high ratings and/or cultural buzz to warrant a coveted “back nine” or renewal for next season, while dozens of other shows will get yanked from their respective networks and disappear so fast, we’ll hardly remember they ever aired in the first place. That’s why I’ve come to think of this time of year as the “fall TV bloodbath.”

Okay, so what’s all this have to do with you, the up-and-coming TV writer? Well, in a word: everything.

Obviously, if your show gets cancelled, you’re out of a job. And even though getting a back nine or season renewal is no hard-and-fast guarantee that the show you’re staffed on will bring you back to keep writing for those episodes, the odds are very high in your favor once you’ve already gotten a foot in the door, especially if you’ve done a good job and nurtured healthy relationships with the rest of the staff.

Much like staffing season, the first few weeks of a show’s fall debut can be pretty nerve-wracking. Will the show be a major hit? An embarrassing, high-profile flop? Or will it squeak by with just enough of an audience to warrant staying on the air and keeping you gainfully employed? As legendary screenwriter William Goldman famously said about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” It’s completely out of your hands, so you just have to wait and see how your show will fare.

Side Note #1: Although I’m putting the fall TV season under the microscope in this post, I’m assuming anyone reading this is well aware that the very concept is already on the verge of becoming obsolete. Some broadcast networks have tried moving into a year-round schedule, hoping to avoid the annual logjam of dozens of shows premiering around the same time. Meanwhile, many cable networks circumvent the broadcast timetable by airing their shows in the spring or summer. And lately, streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix have completely obliterated the whole idea by releasing entire seasons all at once for your binge-watching pleasure. Despite all that, the fall TV season remains a fixture in the industry, and one thing remains constant regardless of when a particular show happens to debut; every single show is under intense pressure to deliver as many viewers as possible despite the fact that far fewer people are watching TV as opposed to, say, ten years ago.

Speaking of which, many years ago – 2004, to be exact – I got staffed on an NBC drama called Hawaii (you probably haven’t heard of it, and trust me, that’s okay). It was actually my second job in the business, but my first working for a major broadcast network. I was convinced that I’d finally hit the big time; being an honest-to-goodness employee of NBC was a huge deal for me, both professionally and personally. Anyway, as the premiere date for Hawaii got closer, the show received a huge promotional rollout from the network, all the writers were flown to Hawaii for a big series launch party, and because NBC had the American broadcast rights to that year’s Summer Olympics, Hawaii was heavily advertised all throughout the Games. With all that marketing muscle behind the show, it was certain to be a sure-fire hit. I mean, what could go wrong?

In a word: everything.

Hawaii failed to generate ratings anywhere near the level of its pre-release hype, critics hated it (I still have a clipping of the merciless Entertainment Weekly review), and after premiering on September 1, 2004, the show was cancelled after only seven episodes. In fact, it had the distinction of being the very first scripted show to get cancelled that season.

Side Note #2: Another document I’ve kept stored in my files all these years are the Nielsen ratings from the night of September 29, 2004 – that’s the night Hawaii’s sixth episode (which I wrote) aired. Just to give you an idea of how much audience size has diminished over the past decade, Hawaii earned a 2.7 rating in the key 18-49 demo that night, and was watched by eight million viewers. These days, there are a ton of shows that would kill for numbers like that, but in 2004, they were a one-way ticket to an abrupt cancellation. By contrast, another network drama that was also filmed in Hawaii aired that same night. It was called Lost (you probably haven’t heard of that one, either – again, it’s okay), and it got a whopping 6.8 rating and 18 million viewers, so yeah…even by 2004 standards, Hawaii was toast.

I say all that to say this: if you’re currently staffed on your first or second TV show, and you’ve spent the past several months in the room, pitching ideas and cranking out scripts, it’s perfectly understandable to be filled with a bit of anxiety right now. Hopefully, whatever show you’re writing for will succeed in the ratings, get renewed, and you’ll enjoy a long stretch of steady employment. But even if the opposite happens and your show ends up being this season’s first casualty, it might feel like the end of the world, but I promise you it’s a setback that’s survivable. Trust me, I’ve been there.

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