PAMELA DOUGLAS is an award-winning writer with numerous credits in television drama. Previous editions of WRITING THE TV DRAMA SERIES have been adopted by network mentoring programs and published in translation in Germany, Spain, Italy, France, China, Taiwan and Korea. She has lectured internationally on creating for television.
She has been honored with the Humanitas Prize, multiple Emmy nominations and awards, and awards from American Women in Radio and Television. She has also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, west. At the School of Cinematic Arts of the University of Southern California she is a tenured professor in the John Wells Division of Screen and Television Writing where she teaches writing TV drama.
MICHAEL WIESE PRODUCTIONS has just published Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV - 4th Edition. Pamela spoke recently on the fundamentals of drama, where the rapidly-changing TV landscape is headed, and the one moment that stands out for her in a mega-hit TV series.
Order Pamela's book and visit Michael Wiese Productions online here.
Dave Watson: Congratulations on a 4th edition. To borrow a phrase, what's new?
Pamela Douglas: Experiencing 21st century television feels like witnessing the Big Bang. Maybe the explosion began when HBO launched original series with OZ in 1997 and followed with The Sopranos in 2000. Or it began when Netflix streamed House of Cards in 2013 and followed with Orange Is the New Black so all episodes could be downloaded at once, anytime, anywhere. Or it happened when Amazon that isn’t even an entertainment company surprised everyone with quality original shows like Transparent, followed by every other entity you can imagine leaping into the originals pool. And Hulu transformed from re-running traditional network shows to an astonishing political voice with The Handmaid’s Tale. Or was it really signaled when television lifted off from Earth via satellites and scripted series reached the entire globe? Does it all come down to “the great convergence” of broadcast with the Internet? Or is it something more that has to do with evolving human consciousness? It’s all those happening at once. So rather than a single bang, we’re in the midst of fireworks, one after another, and more are on the way.
The Fourth Edition set out to present the dazzling opportunities of this moment to those who will write our future.
DW: TV appears to have stayed the same and yet changed, mostly around streaming services. Aside from obvious long form implications, how has TV changed since the previous editions of your book?
PD: I remember a simpler time when the first edition of Writing the TV Drama Series was published in 2005. The rules of TV were knowable and clear. Hour dramas had four acts with commercial breaks every thirteen minutes or so. A network TV season was usually twenty-two episodes that ran from September to May. And viewers sat on living room couches to watch their TV sets, tuning in their favorite programs when they were scheduled.
Back then, I wanted to tell readers how to get into this field and do good work once they’re here. That much remains.
By the second edition in 2007, many of the rules had changed — but the rules were still clear. On broadcast TV, hour drama shows went to five or six acts; basic cable was offering scripted series that followed traditional paradigms; on premium cable, HBO and Showtime always won the critical awards, and their commercial-free model had become a distinct form of its own. Pilot opportunities for new writers had blown open, but the pilots themselves were written and made the same way they’d always been.
Back then, I wanted to tell readers how to use the new rules to write well and succeed. That remains also.
For the third edition in 2011, I discovered that almost everyone — from showrunners to struggling writers to industry executives to new media creators — was no longer merely adjusting the rules. Now they were asking basic questions: What is television? What is drama? What is a series? What are the delivery options? What are our obligations to the audience? Does a mass audience exist? Even what is reality?
And yet, after the smoke cleared, more remained than had first appeared. The writer’s skill at storytelling, understanding what drives human beings, the guts to touch the passions, fears, and aspirations of viewers, and honestly portray the universal issues of our lives — that content always relies on the art, craft, and insight of people who write.
Sure, particular shows came and went, but the basics were the same. I wanted to tell readers how to write well and succeed. It seemed all right to leave it that way for a while. But two years later, I was blindsided. I hadn’t seen Netflix originals coming or the streaming revolution. It became uncomfortable for me to advise my students to plan for television that consisted of the traditional networks and a few cable channels. Something had to be done.
So I wrote The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World. I had a delightful interview with Ted Sarandos of Netflix, and tried to delve into what was emerging at Amazon, and spoke with creators working on YouTube and in various new media. The excitement everywhere in television was palpable and it was fun to explore.
But in retrospect, calling any book The Future of Television was hubris when the industry was evolving so fast. By the time it was published in 2015, it might have been called "The Present of Television.” And another year later, some of it was “The Past of Television.” This was especially the case in underestimating Amazon Studios, not anticipating new energy at Hulu, and most of all not foreseeing that cable and even broadcast stations would turn to streaming. What had been described as the “New Golden Age” of television — as if what was going on was comparable to the old Golden Age — or some sort of “Platinum Age,” became known as “Peak TV,” having run out of precious metals, I guess.
Portions of The Future of Television are integrated in the Fourth Edition. It includes the best of some of the research from that book.
The Fourth Edition adds an extraordinary section on International Television and fresh analyses of some great writing. And of course, I want to tell readers how to use the new rules to write well and succeed. That remains. The abundance of today’s television can be good for writers because it generates more opportunity. Now screenwriters who know how to create serialized scripts are in demand all over the world.
DW: A big section of your book is on how shows get on TV and the TV season. That seems to be still changing. Would you agree?
PD: A detailed roadmap from concept through a show’s second season has been the second chapter in this book in all editions, updated each time. A practical guide to all the steps of creating for television applies to any platform because writers will always need tools to present their creative work and will always have proposals, outlines, drafts, and considerations about schedules and production. The Fourth Edition encompasses both the traditional network model – still useful for many shows on both legacy networks and basic cable – and also discussions of how shows evolve on premium cable and streaming platforms. These include an account of how House of Cards came to be Netflix’s first original series, and insights into Amazon’s evolving process. Interview excerpts with Ted Sarandon of Netflix, and executives at HBO, as well as a look at the uses of web series on YouTube helps bring the chapter as current as possible within an ever-changing environment.
DW: You also say TV shows have specific structures. Is this centered around long form?
PD: The book is about writing television drama, which usually has episodes around an hour long on any platform, though on platforms without advertising breaks (act breaks) the exact timing can be flexible. In serialized television (in any form) the “long narrative” creates storylines that may extend for a full season, as in so-called anthologies or limited series. American Crime (ABC), American Crime Story (FX), True Detective (HBO), the Genius bio-dramas (Nat Geo), and many others are examples. Imagine a movie that lasts eight or twelve hours. More frequently, series evolve their characters over years, as in Game of Thrones (HBO), Orange is the New Black (Netflix), The Walking Dead (AMC), Big Little Lies (HBO), This Is Us (NBC), and almost anything else on any kind of television. You might think of The Wire and Breaking Bad as continuous movies that last 60 hours over five years. Closed procedurals still occur on some traditional outlets, but they’ve become rare in today’s television.
DW: You also discuss International television. Why? Is this market booming?
PD: Previous editions of this book have been read all over the world. I know the readers are there because various editions have been published in translation in Spain, Germany, Italy, France, China, Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere, and I hear from readers by email. I’ve taken that audience to heart in considering this Fourth Edition. Writing the TV Drama Series has been America-centric, and to an extent that’s useful because American shows are known worldwide. But many countries are making drama series now. Increasingly, the global marketplace influences what shows are produced and – of special significance to writers – how they’re written and the kinds of characters and stories they contain. Though tensions may rise between nations, universal human feelings and relationships travel across time and space, and television is our way to connect.
Whatever a writer’s circumstances, global television is affecting you, sometimes as an opportunity for show creators and sometimes as an international financial colossus too vast to interact directly with an individual writer, but influencing any show you imagine. No matter where you are, it’s smart to have a sense of the big picture.
DW: One great part of your book is profiles in progress. The industry seems pretty fluid. Would you agree?
PD: This chapter introduces readers to five working writers at different stages of their careers. Often, writers who are on the outside looking in ask me how to start and what it’s like, day to day, working on a television series. In past editions I’ve presented interviews with celebrity writer-producers and executives – and their interesting quotations still appear throughout. But for this edition I thought hearing from an array of “real people” might be more practical.
Yasemin Yilmaz had just started her first week as a staff writer when we spoke; it was her first paid job in television soon after school. Joe Peracchio has written on a number of shows that were cancelled after a season, like many other writers who move from staff to staff sometimes with months between jobs. Taylor Martin was an assistant for several years before being promoted to the writing staff on the same show where she is now a Story Editor. Akela Cooper, eleven years out of school, has climbed the ladder working on both network and streaming series, steadily improving her title, and is now a showrunner on her own original series. Finally, David McMillan, fourteen years since his MFA, is Story Editor of a Hulu show, and has sold pilots, while writing feature scripts.
They come from different places and have different life stories. Yasemin’s family emigrated from Turkey when she was a child, a Muslim family arriving in the U.S. right before the 9/11 attacks. Joe previously had a fifteen-year career as an actor and ran a theater company that toured the world. Taylor grew up in a suburb of Chicago and taught in Teach for America. Akela grew up in a small town called Hayti, Missouri and won an NAACP scholarship. David was a drama major at Yale and worked for YouTube/Google before launching his television career.
All are former students of mine, alumni of the USC School of Cinematic Arts with MFA degrees in screenwriting. That may seem exclusive to those who are not able to attend a great film school, and certainly the craft and connections they got at USC have mattered. I do recommend that everyone take classes or workshops somewhere. But each of these five writers has drive and talent, and I believe they would have found other ways to succeed if they hadn’t gotten MFAs.
DW: What's next for you?
PD: I can’t talk about other writing projects, but I am continuing as a Professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where I teach writing television drama. I am also a visual artist with a thriving career and gallery shows. To see some of my artwork please visit PamDouglasArt.com.
DW: Your last favorite moments were in The Wire for its honesty and Breaking Bad for showing personal strength. What shows, moments, characters, or values are standing out today?
PD: So much is extraordinary. More than 700 shows are in production in Los Angeles at this moment, and I keep hearing about the latest great offering from Netflix. It’s difficult to choose one or two favorites since each is special in its own way now. The increasing inclusiveness of people of all backgrounds on premium TV stands out today as well as willingness to experiment and break all previous boundaries once set by the legacy networks.
Trying to select individual moments that stand out, I was struck by the monologue in Game of Thrones when Tyrion Lannister argued for his life revealing what it had meant to be a dwarf. In The Handmaid’s Tale, so many shocks rang true as metaphors for today’s political demons, selecting one moment seems wrong, but certainly the finale when Serena relinquishes the baby to June to save it was stunning. None of these moments stand alone, and their impact is built on the entirety of the show’s creation. That’s also true of the fresh honesty in Atlanta, and the characterizations of Latina and Black women rarely seen on TV in Orange Is the New Black. I wouldn’t compromise the immense array of great work in today’s television by limiting anything to one moment. It’s truly an extraordinary time.
Clip: Game of Thrones
Dave Watson, author of Walkabout Undone, is a writer and educator. He lives in Madison, WI.