I teach a class at Savannah College of Art and Design where students write original television pilots. Lucky me, I get to read exciting material from writers who are just finding their voices and have something to say. As a teacher, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Oh, and just as an aside, having pitched my share of series to both network and cable executives, and having watched or sampled at least 80 percent of all new series over the past umpteen years, I can say without reservation that a lot of my students’ work is better than most of what makes it on the air. I am not being hyperbolic here. That is my sincere belief. And you know what? I’m sure that any professor who teaches a similar class at a college with a student body as talented as SCAD’s feels the same way. And they’re right, too.
That’s both the good news and the bad news.
The bad news: the odds against a writer making his or her way into an office to present an idea for a new show to an executive who can actually make that show happen are astronomically high. Maybe 10,000 to 1. Really.
The good news: those executives’ very lives depend (nope, that’s not hyperbole either) on beating those odds. So they take meetings and meetings and more meetings—which are only a fraction of the meetings their assistants take.
And what comes out of those meetings? The great Ernie Kovacs once said: “Imitation is the sincerest form of television.” We get shows we’ve already seen before. By the way, that quote was from about 60 years ago. Some French guy once said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose,” which roughly translated means: “Hey, Betty White was hot in the 50s, and here it is 2014 and she still gets ratings. Give her another show.”
Do I blame the executives who are charged with making money for their studios and networks and thus go after shows and stars that have worked before and therefore will hopefully work again? Not a bit. That, after all, is their job. And I’m a smart guy. I know how to work a remote.
Let me tell you who I admire, though: the executives who said, "Let’s take a chance on shows like Mad Men, and Orange is the New Black, and The Walking Dead, and Justified." You get the idea. Shows that are different, shows that have made television great again.
So what do I tell my students? Be bold, take a chance. At no time in the history of television has there been such space and appetite for originality. Go ahead, create something that would have made Ernie Kovacs puff on his cigar and say, "Must've been written by one of them SCAD kids."
Chris Auer is the chair of film and television as well as dramatic writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His career as an Emmy-nominated writer and producer for sitcoms, dramas and soaps spans more than 25 years. Meet Chris at aTVfest (Feb. 6 - 8), where he'll moderate Q-and-A sessions with cast members from Justified, The Walking Dead and more.