PRIMETIME: How Do I Submit My Scripts to TV Shows?

Sign up for our newsletter and get a Free TV Pilot Kit to help create our pilot!

Originally published in 2011

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Today’s question comes from … well … lots of people. Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several questions which all seem to relate to the same topic: how to submit your scripts to various TV shows.

So let’s start with Anna, who asks …

I have been trying to submit my scripts without an agent, and I’m finding it’s very difficult. Most places require that a submission be made by an agent, production company, or entertainment attorney. What do you recommend?

Well, the truth is, Anna, it’s not just “very difficult” to submit to your scripts to TV shows without an agent … it’s downright impossible.

And not just because you need an agent, but because …

TV shows don’t accept submissions from outside writers.

Most TV shows — from sitcoms and dramas like Raising Hope or Hawaii Five-Oh to sketch, talk, and variety shows like The Colbert Report or The Tonight Show — are written by staffs, groups of (usually) five to 10 writers hired to architect the season and write every episode … so they’re not actively looking for new scripts, writers, or story ideas.

… Which leads me to a question from Jim, a loyal reader who’d e-mailed me a few weeks ago with a similar question. When I responded, he asked:

Are you saying shows NEVER buy spec scripts in “singles” for a season? That every single show is written by staff? What about simply running out of ideas? Is that why so many shows seem to look alike and soon get tired? Will they buy a single episode spec as long as no major tenet of the overall plot line for the season isn’t violated?

Sadly, Jim … YES — that is exactly what I’m saying … and no, they won’t buy a single episode spec. Ever.

And sure — that may be part of the reason why “so many shows seem to look alike” and “get tired.” But there are other reasons for that, too …

Networks are often hesitant to try new types of shows, so they stick to what’s familiar: shows about marriage, family, groups of single friends living in a city, etc. (Last year, there were about 6,748 different pilot scripts about groups of male friends at different points in their lives.) And while it’s not usually a show’s topic that makes it interesting — it’s how its storytellers look at that topic — fresh takes on familiar areas, like Modern Family, don’t come along all that often. And when they do, they often fail, even if they’re wonderful (case in point: Arrested Development).

A TV writer trying to get his episode to air.

Even when a brave new show does make it to TV, it’s up against an army of forces threatening to warp or dilute its vision. As I said in my post, “I Can Write Better Than the Crap on TV (… Can’t I?),” writers aren’t unaware when their show is struggling. Ignorant viewers love bitching about a show’s writing as if the writers don’t know what the problem is; but I promise you … the writers know. They’re trying to write great stuff … but they’re battling many influences out of their control: budget, time crunches, network notes, etc. A TV writer’s job, after all, isn’t to write and produce the best stories they can; it’s to write and produce the best stories they can … in the allotted amount of time, for a certain amount of money, with a particular cast, while catering to the network and studio’s wants. (You can read more about this HERE.)

And lastly … yes — the world of professional TV writers is, ultimately, a fairly small pool … so even when shows hire new writers, or new shows put together a staff, they’re hiring from the same well of writers that’s been circulating for years. This isn’t to say those writers aren’t talented. Far from it … I find that most TV writers, especially the veterans, are A) incredibly passionate and talented, and B) absolute experts on structure, character, joke-writing, etc. But even the freshest voices can become un-fresh, and the true geniuses — the Larry Gelbarts and the David Chases and the Louis C.K.’s and the Joss Whedons — only come along once in a blue moon.

Even when you have a genius writer, putting together a staff is like putting together any other type of team. You don’t just hire the best people; you hire the best people that work well together. Sometimes, a showrunner hires brilliantly talented writers who don’t gel as a group. I’ve known writers who bounced from show to show to show, never quite fitting in, gaining a reputation as being “good, not great,” “just okay” or “hacky,” until … one day … they land somewhere where they’re a perfect fit — and suddenly they blossom. Likewise, I’ve known brilliant writers who have landed on a series where their voice is stifled … or “noted” to death … or simply wrong for the particular show. It doesn’t mean the writer (or writers) isn’t great; it just means the situation isn’t great.

But also to your point, Jim …

Thirty or 40 years ago, TV shows would often hire freelance writers or accept outside scripts.

No more. Each show’s staff does almost all of the writing every season.

Having said that, the WGA, the Writers Guild of America (the labor union governing professional screenwriters), in an effort to inject new blood into the writing world, does require TV shows that have been on-air for at least a year to farm out 2-3 freelance episodes per season to writers who aren’t on staff.

Most of the time — and by “most” I mean “pretty much all of” — these freelance scripts are given to either:

  • The show’s writers assistant
  • The assistant to the show’s showrunner or executive producer
  • A personal writer-friend of the showrunner, often someone who’s already an established professional writer

… Which is another reason why, as I repeat loudly on this blog, it’s essential — if you want to be a TV writer — to be in Los Angeles, networking and building your base of contacts.

Now, TV shows and showrunners do accept script submissions when they’re hiring new writers, but there are some important things to know about this:

How ancient Druids timed out when to submit their staffing samples.

1) Network TV shows only hire writers once a year: during staffing season … which lasts from April/May through June. Showrunners, producers, networks, and execs begin reading scripts and meeting with writers in March and April, then hire new staff members just after the May Upfronts. (You can read more about Upfronts HERE.) Cable shows don’t necessarily follow the exact same annual schedule, but they usually still hire only once a year.

2) Most shows only accept scripts through an agent or manager. Aside from providing some level of legal protection, agents and managers provide showrunners and readers with a filter. Networks, studios, shows, and producers receive thousands of submissions a year, more scripts than they could ever possibly read. So execs and producers must prioritize, accepting only scripts they believe have a realistic shot of being valuable. And those tend to be scripts from reliable sources, professional colleagues whose tastes they know and trust. In other words: agents and managers. (To learn more about how producers or execs prioritize submissions, click HERE.)

3) You can’t submit a spec of a show to that same show. In other words, you (or your agent/manager) can’t send your CSI spec to CSI. They won’t read it … and you shouldn’t want them to. This is partly for legal reasons, in case someone submits a script with a storyline similar to something the show’s staff is already writing. Showrunners aren’t in the business of stealing ideas, but every once in awhile, a naïve young writer believes their idea has been stolen. While this is almost never the case, the ensuing legal headaches can be costly, time-consuming, and distracting … so it’s better to avoid it altogether. (You can learn more about protecting your work in my post, “The Truth About Protecting Your Work.”)

But this also helps the writer. After all, no one knows — or thinks they know — the tone, voice, and structure of a show better than the writers making it every week. So no matter how great you believe your Cougar Town spec to be, the bar is infinitely higher if you send it to Cougar Town itself. Plus, the Cougar Town writers sit in a room all day dreaming up — and often rejecting — every possible Cougar Town story. So the notion that you’ve thought up a brand new, never-before-thought-of Cougar Town story is slim … and it’s even slimmer that you’ve executed better than they would’ve.

Thus, agents submit specs of other shows to series their clients want to write on. For instance, a CSI spec might go to Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds. How I Met Your Mother could read The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men. This allows showrunners to see how you’d tell narratively or thematically similar stories, without trying to use the same characters and structures.

Just like that “Desperate Housewives” spec … desperately out of style.

4) Right now, sample specs seem to be out of fashion. Traditionally, TV writers looking to get staffed have needed specs (sample episodes of airing shows, like True Blood or Royal Pains) and original material (pilots, screenplays, stage plays, etc.). Lately, however, execs and showrunners have been less inclined to read specs, leaning more toward original pilots. Eventually, the pendulum may swing back the other way (a few years ago, for example, execs and showrunners refused to read pilots, wanting only specs!), but right now, you’re best armed with a great pilot script.

5) A show must be hiring at your level in order to hire you. When shows hire new writers each staffing season, they don’t always hire “staff writers,” the lowest rung on the ladder. Some shows are looking for upper levels … others need a story editor or producer … others want a part-time consulting producer. So getting hired doesn’t just mean being the best writer … it means being the best writer at the level they’re hiring.

And finally …

6) Showrunners tend to promote their assistants or hire friends. Like with freelance scripts, showrunners frequently hire new writers by bumping up their assistants or writers assistants, trusted colleagues who already know the team, its processes, its shorthand (and who have already invested hours of hard work into the show). When they don’t promote their assistants, they hire friends and former co-workers, people they already feel comfortable with and believe will mesh well with the team.

So what would I recommend, Anna?

As I preach constantly on this blog, I’d recommend moving to Los Angeles (if you’re not already here), and getting a job in the industry. You’ll probably begin as some kind of assistant — a P.A., an administrative assistant, an agency mailroom worker, etc. — but you’ll be in the mix, meeting other young writers, assistants, execs, producers, agents, etc. Only when you’re meeting and building relationships with these people will your career take off. (All the while, of course, you’ll be writing new material and getting better, better, better.) No agents will sign you … and no showrunners will read you … simply because you send them your script — no matter how brilliant it may be. They’ll read it because they know you personally, or know someone who knows you personally, moving your script to the top of their stack.

Here are some other blog posts to help you out:

Anyway, I hope this helps, Anna, Jim, and everyone else!

If you have more questions, please post them below, Tweet me @chadgervich.

Get tips on writing a TV Pilot in Timothy Cooper’s webinar
Creating a TV Pilot that Grips the Audience from Page 1

12647_500x500_mediumSaturday, June 4th – 1:00PM PT (4:00PM ET)

  • Whether you’re writing a comedy, a drama, or anything in between, you’ll learn the insider techniques Hollywood writers use to create gripping pilots that readers can’t put down.
  • We’ll analyze classic TV/streaming pilots to discover time-tested character-building secrets and story-generation methods.
  • Take this course if you’re serious about creating a powerful, personal TV pilot that gets you noticed in this competitive industry.



Download Your TV Pilot Kit

Start writing for television today!




15 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: How Do I Submit My Scripts to TV Shows?

  1. Articiahilll

    Hi Chad!

    Thanks for the information, however while reading I didn’t see anything that actually targeted the question of how to successfully submit a script, unless you are already “connected” or “reside” in Los Angeles. Are stating that “networks” are that closed minded? Could you provide a positive method for upcoming screenwriters…just forward ? thinking. Not to be morbid…but those in place won’t live forever…and there has to be some format or method to get upcoming tv writers heard…right?

  2. asad

    And lastly … yes — the world of professional TV writers is, ultimately, a fairly small pool … so even when shows hire new writers, or new shows put together a staff, they’re hiring from the same well of writers that’s been circulating for years. This isn’t to say those writers aren’t talented. Far from it … I find that most TV.

  3. Ron2BSure

    There is an interesting and quite funny interview with Brian Overland about peddling your screenplays in Hollywood along the very same lines as Chad’s article above that is worth reading. Here is the link:
    Most of the TV writer wannabes don’t have the talent to make the grade, although they are quick to bash the quality of what’s on television these days. Yes, the stuff is way too formulaic. But my gripe is, and has always been, that most television writing, indeed screenwriting in general, is plot- rather than character-driven. Hollywood has always had difficulty creating characters that possess emotional depth or resonance. That’s the real crime in all of this. They don’t know how to do character. The don’t have it in them. This is something you can’t create by the numbers and you can’t fake. I wish them luck.

  4. Theblackpen

    This article is from 2011 my point being it’s old content. Film, TV shows and even a writers store article become old news fast. Most comments state wow you burst my bubble but if you work in the biz you know how fast projects are hyped, packaged and quickly forgotten. Writers don’t give up. Keep writing, your project will find it’s place in the vast sea of produced content just make sure it stands out in a unique way so it has legs in secondary digital distribution.

  5. Peter Carr

    Chad I always get a kick reading your blog; It’s so damn depressing. Although you give excellent advice AND with that said…. you’ve discouraged me to the point that I’m no longer going to read it. I’m going to kill myself.

    I don’t want to live in L.A. I don’t want a job on some lame ass series Writing Staff and I certainly don’t want to work in a studio Mail Room hoping to land a job as a Production Assistant. Hell no, it took me 5 years before being promoted to a 2nd A.D.!.

    I’ll try not to ramble and if I do?, please forgive me because I don’t know how else to ask my question I’m sure you are tied of hearing.

    I’m 49, film school grad., passionately driven by creativity, understand the business better than I should and have worked professionally in Canada’s series television/feature film production industries for 27 years. Then I asked myself “What are you doing?. You didn’t want to work in film, you wanted to make film” so I quite and now focus on developing older youth audience, animated, comedy series television. What I want to do is what I’ve always wanted to do – be a Creative/Development Producer.

    Chad, sincerely, what do I do?

    Peter Carr
    Vancouver, B.C.

  6. Anthony L Griffin

    Introducing the New All in One Golf Shoe That Speaks For Itself, the V-Groove Tool Golf Shoe
    The new V-Groove Tool Golf Shoe is a one of a kind golf shoe that’s original in its design. It has been listed as one of the most talked about golf shoes of the 21st Century. Those who really want to turn heads and start conversations on the golf course must try the new V-Groove Tool Golf Shoe.

    “It’s About Time” to bring about a change in the patterns, colors, and design of the golf shoe. The nationwide launch of this new golf shoe is aimed at an audience that enjoys this uniqueness and change of style.

    Here’s one golf shoe that is going to make a difference in the golf shoe industry and provide a service to the golfer. The inventor of this new golf shoe was raised in Thomson, Georgia and he currently lives in Augusta, Georgia, home of the Masters and the birthplace of the golf cart. This new V-Groove Tool Golf footwear is the brainchild of Anthony L. Griffin, a former military man and devout Christian and CEO of Griffin Athletics International, Inc. The patented invention is also known as “The World’s First Multifunctional Golf Shoe.”

    The old traditional style golf shoe is slowly fading away. Today’s players are looking for a different and unique style and versatility in a golf shoe. The new V-Groove Tool Golf Shoe is “just that.” It is a very stylish golf shoe and is not like the traditional-looking golf shoe which is on the market now.

    At one time it may have seemed like the golf shoe industry had reached their stylistic limits, but that’s not so. The V-Groove Tool Golf Shoe is the golf shoe that will get the golfers back in the groove and on the move again turning heads on and off the course.

    The new V-Groove Tool Golf Shoe is lightweight and very comfortable, and the shoe provides an added service for the golfer that no other golf shoe has ever provided. The new golf shoe makes a golf round less stressful and allows the golf game to flow better by providing every tool a golfer needs during a round within easy reach. We ask that you take a look at this all in one unique golf shoe that is being introduced into the golf shoe industry.
    When preparing to play a round of golf, some golfers carry a bag full of clubs and all the gear they need to play their best. However, many of their smaller tools may get lost in the side pockets or fall to the bottom of the bag. The new product receives its name from its unique design and functionality. Griffin Athletics International, Inc. is introducing the “first multifunctional golf shoe” that will be every golfer’s “personal caddie.”
    The V-Groove Tool Golf Shoe is designed to hold the tools and tees that golfers need while playing a round of golf. The invention resembles a standard golf shoe with the exception of the secure compartment pockets that hold all the golfer’s tools and tees directly on the outside of the golf shoe.
    On the right shoe, there is a secured pocket for a divot repair tool and an embedded ball marker. On the left shoe, there is a secure support pocket that has three individual slot compartments that hold three golf tees and an additional embedded ball marker.
    The golf shoe has a full leather upper and all stitching is double-stitched. The sole of the shoe is made with molded rubber material fashioned in a unique v-pattern design and is equipped with Champ brand soft spikes. The shoe is available in a variety of colors that will suit any golfer’s tastes and is priced at the cost of the traditional golf shoe.
    It’s the little things that can make a difference between having a good golf round and a bad golf round. We believe that this new all in one golf shoe, which gives you quick access to your golfing tools, will allow you to play a more enjoyable and a more efficient round of golf.

  7. William

    Interesting. Yet, all over the internet there are these sites that are saying submit here, submit there. Submit your spec script for review by industry professionals. Honestlym, after reading this article, what is the real point of submitting ANYTHING if no one is going to read it or even take the time to consider it? Especially spec scripts, which honestly could be used to help the show. But, if there’s no real intention on consideration, why even take the time to write and submit? With or without an agent?

  8. Shimon HaLavi

    ?*?•••? Geulah Manifesto: Everyone’s Vital Role in the Multiverse and Merit Currency;
    Doomsday is huge business, so we are guaranteed to see much more of these dire predictions for 2012/5772. The reality of having an Infinite and entirely One G-d is that not only is 7 billion not a particularly challenging number of people to sustain, but 7 trillion or 7 trillion trillion aren’t really a challenge for Him, either. Any number under Infinity is still exceedingly small and as we look out and reach farther out into the Multiverse around us, we will realize all of our material needs are extremely small in comparison to what is waiting and available in the Great Frontiers of virgin material waiting for us to Elevate it in Divine Service.

  9. Pingback: Play the Situations, Not the Words

  10. Pingback: How To Get A Staff Writing Job « Hollywood University

  11. Cathy Shueey

    I don’t want to write scripts etc, I just want to give the writers of NCIS 2 ideas that a police LT friend (now deceased) of mine gave me years ago for a murder type show.

    All I want in return is idea submitted by my name in loving memory of the person who thought of them.

    I want NCIS writers to do their thing.

    How hard can that be. There has never been anything close to these ideas on any shows that I watch.

  12. M Rod

    Thanks for the insight that truly will help writers who don’t know a lot about the process after you write a script. I appreciate it. My only comment is I, although humbly, don’t think that anyone can deny you if you simply write an incredible script that can’t be ignored. But, what do I know?

  13. Veronica Page

    wOW cHAD…I think you’ve just burst everyone’s bubble. It’s almost as if you would have to buy your very own TV station. One thing you forgot to mention, or perhaps it was not on your agenda…just like the publishing industry losing to “self-publishing”, I believe the same will have in the TV industry…it’s just a matter of time.

    Thanks for your honesty.


  14. Pingback: Q&A on submitting TV scripts | writewhatyoudontknow