Beginners Guide For Television

The following is provided as a general guide for writers who wish to write for New Zealand television.
Download this guide as a PDF.

Before You Begin

Starting out in this industry can seem daunting but there are some basic first steps you should take.

Watch TV: This sounds like obvious advice but many writers embark on writing for television without having actually watched the types of shows that are likely to be produced here. If you are writing for television you need to understand the medium, the way stories are told on television. Watch great shows. Watch not so great ones. Learn the difference.

Study The Market: Learn what types of shows are produced in New Zealand. The market in New Zealand operates on budgets far lower than those in the US and UK, for example. Most television is funded by New Zealand On Air.

Practise: Write television scripts for already existing shows or for shows that you have created. Create proposals for your own shows. Every writer working in the TV business has honed their craft and you will need to do so as well.

Reality Check – Can I Earn a Living From This?

Yes, although you will have to be prepared to work hard It also may take years before you are working full-time as a TV scriptwriter so don’t quit your day job! In comparison to other writing mediums, there is a range of paid television script work available and some writers manage to carve a career from simply writing for television. Most scriptwriters in New Zealand tend to write across mediums – including television, film, theatre, radio, prose, print, new media – as it provides a diversity of income and avoids literally putting all their income eggs in one basket.

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Reality Check – Creating and Writing For US Television

If your dreams are to create or write for a major US television show then you will need to pack your bags and move to Los Angeles (don’t forget your Green Card!) and get an agent. Breaking into the US television business is tough and, for the most part, cannot be done remotely. It is also almost unheard of for new writers to get a show on air in the US, networks will only take pitches from writers or producers with proven track records.

Even experienced New Zealand television writers would tell you it is difficult to get script work on US shows, let alone pitch a show to a US producer. And writing jobs on top-rating shows are exceptionally coveted, only A-list scribes will get these jobs – you’ll need a good track record before you land one of those gigs.

Although it may seem like it is difficult to get a show on air in New Zealand, in many ways it is a far more open market than overseas. You will not need an agent in New Zealand and producers will look at material from uncredited writers and if you create your own series it is likely you will get script writing work on it.

If you have your heart set on writing for US television you should invest in one of the books or courses that tell you how to do so.

First Steps

General Opportunities

Most producers of already existing shows will only hire writers with some script experience. Some shows do have open call policies – usually sketch comedy shows – where you can send in sample scripts. Networks may also hold open call policies, usually where they have negotiated an initiative with NZ On Air. Shortland Street is the only show that has a formal, ongoing structure for trialling new writers.

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Shortland Street

Shortland Street runs a test kit system. This gives writers a chance to try dialogue writing based on storylines from the show. All submissions are assessed and the best go on to join the pool of writers for the show. The kits are sent out every month or so and test kits can be obtained from South Pacific Pictures (contact details to request a test kit are here). Shortland Street also allows writers to come in and trial for the story table. Some relevant experience is preferred – this includes other script or writing experience, writers with useful life or work experience or a medical background. The trial lasts two weeks, writers take part in story conferences and write a shadow scene breakdown, which is then assessed by the story producer or story editor. Shortland Street tries to recruit new storyliners several times a year.

Creating Your Own Show

As an uncredited writer, creating your own show is a good way to catch the eye of a producer. As the creator you will often be hired to work or write scripts on the show or they may like your work and decide to trial you on another of their shows.

Producers and networks are always looking for something new, exciting, different and fresh (you’ll hear those words from them a lot in your career!). Aim to create work that captures their imagination, that tells stories not told before on television and that reflects life in New Zealand.

Most producers and some networks in New Zealand will read unsolicited material (this is uncommon overseas), which means you can send them proposals for new series at any time. Any producer or network will prefer to see a proposal for your show rather than just a verbal pitch. You should register your work before you send it.

Don’t expect anyone to pay you for developing formats – this is something you will need to do. However, this also means you own all the rights until such time as you sell them.

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Writing a TV Proposal

Producers will normally want to see something in writing, especially from a newcomer. You should not discuss ideas with anybody – ideas are impossible to protect when not worked into any concrete form.

Drama and Comedy

A proposal should at the very least:

  • Begin with a brief summary (two to ten lines). In addition a log line – the series encapsulated in one sentence – is useful.
  • Explain exactly what it is (e.g. a one hour action drama, a half-hour live action sketch comedy). It’s good to be specific here – a one hour romantic-drama, a half hour period children’s drama, an animated adult-oriented half hour comedy).
  • Give an idea of the audience for the show/the appropriate timeslot.
  • Give some character breakdowns.
  • Contain some story ideas/outlines.

A more detailed proposal might:

  • Outline the premise of the show in more detail.
  • Have detailed character biographies.
  • Contain paragraph versions of sample episodes.
  • Contain a treatment for the pilot script and/or sample scripts from the show.
  • Contain the pilot script and/or sample scripts from the show.
  • Include the underlying work (if it is based on a play, novel or film).

Documentary and Reality

A proposal should:

  • Begin with a brief summary (two to ten lines). In addition a log line – the series encapsulated in one sentence – is useful.
  • Outline the underlying concept for the documentary/reality show
  • Documentary – Should show that some research has been done
  • Should indicate how the story is to be told:
  • whether the show would be best with a presenter or driven by a narrative script revealing the story.
  • do we follow one character or one issue?
  • Give an idea of the audience for the show

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Formatting and Presentation

Proposals – Unlike film there is no set format for presenting television proposals. Production companies may have their own set requirements so it may pay to ask them if they have any special requirements.

Obviously work will need to be typed – don’t use Courier (that’s for scripts only) – use some easily read font such as Times New Roman, Arial etc. Some writers like to present proposals with spiral binding, a plastic cover and cardboard backing sheet. You might even include some images (on the cover and throughout) if relevant/useful. Ensure the programme’s title and your name/contact details are easy to find.

Scripts – If presenting a script(s) with your proposal you should format that as a script – television and feature scripts are similarly formatted. Typically New Zealand scripts are formatted in the following way:

  • A4 plain white paper
  • 12-point Courier font.
  • Two punched holes (standard).
  • Two brass paper fasteners – often called ‘brads’.

Writing programmes, like Final Draft, can assist greatly with formatting. Final Draft and screw type brass brads are available from the NZWG.

Where Can I Send My Work?

Before you send your work to anyone register it with the Guild. The most common places to send television proposals are:

  • Independent producers
    – a list of producers in New Zealand is available from the Guild for members only.
  • TVNZ
  • TV3
  • Prime

NZ On Air is a funder of television in New Zealand but you do not send work directly to them without a producer/network commitment.

When you send your work out you should send a polite covering letter and make sure your details are on the front page of the proposal/script.

It is usually best to send the work to one producer at a time. Can’t think where to send it first? Choose the producer whom you think will respond most favourably to the work or who produces work of a similar nature/genre.

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I’ve Sent Out My Work What Happens Now?

If the producer isn’t interested they will return your work.

If they are interested they may decide to option the work. They may also ask you to retool the proposal to better suit them/the network/funders or to do some more in-depth development work on the show. In the latter case they may engage your services to do that work by contract.

If the show is ‘picked up’ by a network and receives NZ On Air development funding the network may choose to develop the show with you. At some point they will likely bring a producer on board to work with you. They will then apply for NZ on Air production funding. If the show goes into production you may be engaged to work on the show as a writer, preparing storylines, writing scripts, editing.

The Guild can provide advice on contracts and rates

Code by Michael Bao