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The Future of TV Drama Series

By Pamela Douglas

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Any prediction about the future of television will be wrong. This is not because shows come and go each season, or genres fall in and out of favor, or new gadgets arrive on the market, new technologies are invented, new business models and entire industries take over TV distribution, or even that viewers are transformed by their personal lives and world events – though all those do happen and they may influence what you write for TV.

Any prediction will be wrong because predictions are based on the notion that the future is linear. Now, bear with me a moment – I’m not veering off into some sci fi-fantasy realm. I’m leading up to advice that might be helpful long after the shows currently on TV have all become history.

Some theoretical physicists have deduced that the Time/Space continuum does not favor going in any particular direction, such as forward rather than backward; and for centuries mystics have invited us to experience Time as a single infinite moment. Of course, the mathematicians and philosophers could have saved their trouble by watching episodes of Lost, Flash Forward, Fringe, and anything on the Syfy channel. You are already familiar with flashbacks, flashes forward, simultaneous events told from various perspectives, and time travel in modes from silly to provocative. Personally, I think of Time as a spiral in which experiences and choices repeat, though never in exactly the same way, sort of like the DNA helix. To us in Flatland, that three-dimensional spiral would look like a pendulum swinging.

Here’s my point: Television has swung widely in the past few years. Sitcoms were “dead” at the start of the 21st century, but by 2010 half hour television comedy was on the forefront of story-telling. Quality drama series were supposedly “killed” by cheap “Unscripted” shows, but as the mistake of moving the Jay Leno show to 10 PM revealed, the audience hungered for scripted series, and hour dramas actually grew instead. Broadcast networks themselves were “dead,” with the rise of cable and internet viewing; but, guess what, broadcast audiences increased while cable also grew after 2009.

Now that camera and editing equipment is inexpensive and easy to use, and anyone can post an opus on the internet, some observers have claimed that professionally produced full-length shows of any kind will become rare (if not “dead”), replaced by thousands of home-made productions. Right. Everyone really wants to see Junior’s horror series in which he bursts out of a closet in a zombie Halloween mask rather than tuning into AMC’s The Walking Dead. Uh huh. I even hear that television itself is the walking dead, a zombie killed by internet fever. Gimme a break.

Of course, some industries really do die out with the advent of technology. After paper became available, very few scribes preferred to carve into rocks. If you are a computer or technology specialist, venture capitalist, or an entrepreneurial independent producer with your own film-making equipment and aggressive energy, then yes, you probably should pay attention to the momentary swings of fortune and invention. But if you are primarily a writer, and you are interested in writing real television drama, I advise you to take a breath and stop spinning.

No matter what happens with “Google TV” or Apple apps or hulu or DVRs or the number of act breaks or different financing models – you are what everyone needs. You bring the content. If you can continue to create credible characters with enough depth to develop long narratives, if you can be insightful in telling the stories of our times and our relationships, if you can acquire the craft to make the world of your script compelling on screen, then it doesn’t much matter what platform people use to view it.

So my advice to you is to find the center of the pendulum, the spot that doesn’t move (or the vortex of the DNA spiral if you prefer). Just let everything swing around you. And write your story.

In his 1967 book, The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan envisioned a world where people were connected not just by what they watched but because they were watching it together – a modern “electronic hearth” that replaced the neighborhood front porch. His idea of television – especially prime-time storytelling – as the heart of a “global village” still resonates.

But most American households now have some form of personal choice when they watch through recording, or watching on demand or online. McLuhan’s vocabulary has morphed into phrases like “time shifting” and “appointment viewing.”    Beyond choosing when they watch, people are choosing how they watch, and directly influencing what they watch. Ron Moore, who ran Battlestar Galactica said, “It’s going to just become ‘media,’ and it will stop having distinctions that no longer mean anything. TV and computers are going to become the same thing. You’re just going to have a box or boxes at your disposal, and you’ll put everything on this box ranging from blogs to what we know today as TV shows and movies.

“I think fracturing the audience into various niches is a good thing. When broadcasting meant broad broadcasting when only the big three existed, they had to appeal to a gigantic swath of audience. To hold those huge numbers they had to make the stuff that had the most common denominators.

Now, when you break it up into smaller chunks, Galactica and shows like The Shield can appeal to specific audiences. Critics say it’s the golden age of TV because of the quality of the shows, but I don’t think any of them could have survived in the three-network era. Now the high quality shows can sustain themselves with dedicated fans who are interested in their particular kind of material.”

So where does that leave writers like you? If you hope to create a series of your own, special opportunities lie in narrowly-defined new markets. But for all good writers, opportunities abound. A spec script that has guts and passion and the skill to deliver them professionally will always be useful. And storytellers will be as valued in the coming age as we’ve been throughout history. Actually, we may be needed even more to define and link cultures that have fractured.

No matter what the delivery system – broadcast, premium cable, basic cable, cell phones, Internet - the creative process starts with you. So once you learn how TV development works, how a script is crafted, and how to approach writing your own episode – all that adds up to just one moment: when you sit down and start to write. And now that time has come. It’s your turn.

About Pamela Douglas

Pamela Douglas is the author of the best-selling screenwriting book WRITING THE TV DRAMA SERIES (third edition). She has numerous television credits, and her work has received awards and nominations including Emmys, The Humanitas Prize, American Women in Radio and Television, and the Writers Guild of America. She is also a professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Screenwriting Article by Pamela Douglas

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