Selling Your Dramatic Television Series

How to navigate the world of serialized television and sell your pilot

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in AMC's "Breaking Bad"Credit: AMC

The original dramatic television series is the new Great American Novel. Right now, television is experiencing a cultural expansion beyond anything expected from critics of the "idiot box" twenty years ago. HBO's The Sopranos changed everything. Hour-long films with an ongoing (serialized) plot took hold of our imaginations and brought us into an exciting new landscape of human expression. The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Deadwood are just a few of the game-changing programs to emerge from behind the door HBO kicked open with Tony and the gang. So, you think you've got an idea for a television show that can hang with the likes of those mentioned above? Well, here's what you need to get it sold in today's market:

Do You Have an Original, Compelling Main Character?

Is your main character a complex, contradictory portrait of a man or woman never before seen on television? It better be. Otherwise, don't bother. Executives at studios and networks are some of the smartest people in the business and they can tell if your character is fresh, original, and going to succeed or not within the first page of you pilot, or the first twenty seconds of your pitch. All the great serialized television dramas have a compelling main character as their foundation. Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Walter White carry their shows. Everything happens around them, as a result of their actions, and in spite of their actions. So, make sure you've got a main character that is going to hold our attention and keep us coming back every week.The main difference between main characters in film and main characters in television has to do with likeability. For the most part, successful main characters in movies are "good guys". Ben Affleck in Argo, Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. On television, however, good guys are dead on arrival. Today's television's main characters have to have a secret, a war within, a darkness that they are trying to overcome. Watching television is a very intimate experience: we invite these characters into our homes each week (or thirteen times in one sitting) and they arrive on a smaller, more intimate screen than those at the local movie theatre. Therefore, we expect an honesty from them we subconsciously don't insist upon while watching a film on the big screen. Television characters today are damaged, real, and working through the world the best way they know how. They are human. They are us. And they're great television.

Does Your Series Idea Uncover a Subculture?

If you want to write for cable tv, as opposed to network tv (NBC, CBS, ABC), your series idea better expose a subculture. I was in a pitch meeting with a very powerful head of scripted development at an award-winning cable network and she said something that summed this idea up perfectly. "If it can go on network," she said, "then it should be on a network." Shows about cops, detectives, and doctors are not shows about a weird subculture, they are shows geared toward attracting the most viewers possible. Cable, as the thinking goes today, is for shows that can't possibly exist on network tv. Networks like Showtime, HBO, and AMC are looking for "noisy", "cutting edge" shows that uncover an aspect of the human experience we've never seen before: mormons in Big Love, the world of advertising in the 1960s in Mad Men

What is "The World" of Your Series?

The world of your series is a character unto itself and should excite networks and studios. The location should inspire storylines and generate fertile ground for supporting characters over the course of the series. Where does your series take place? Be specific.

Stay tuned for Terry Walton's How to Sell Your Cable TV Drama Pilot (Part 2).