There once was a time when the formatting and structure of TV scripts came with three possible choices:
1 — One-hour drama, procedural, thriller, etc: Basically a non-comedy show that takes up an hour of air time. Minus the fifteen minutes for commercial space, each episode runs a strict 45 minutes, split into five acts that run about eight to ten minutes each. It’s highly desired, and frequently even required by the network, that each act end on some sort of cliffhanger in order to hopefully pique the audience’s interest into sitting through commercials to see how the conflict would get resolved. A common example of this can be found in almost any episode of Law & Order. Since the first act of a Law & Order episode usually focuses on a suspect who turns out to be a red herring, the act will end with the officers realizing that they got the wrong guy, and that the real perpetrator is still out roaming the streets. Dun, dun, dunnn! Cut to commercial. Going by the universal “one page roughly equals one minute” rule of screenwriting, one-hour TV scripts usually end up at around 45-50 pages.
2 — Half-hour, single-camera sitcom: A comedy show that’s not filmed in front of a live audience, which means it’s basically shot like a drama, using various sound stages and exterior locations (and no canned laughter). The length of the episode itself is 22 minutes, with eight minutes allocated for commercials. There are three acts this time around, but their length is on par with the one-hour drama. Single-camera sitcoms also use cliffhangers at the end of an act, but they’re more related to the protagonists’ inner conflict than a highly dramatic external one. A good example can be found in the pilot for Arrested Development, where Michael (Jason Bateman) realizes he’s stuck with his toxic family. Since single-camera sitcoms are dialogue heavy, and dialogue is paced a bit faster on the page, a script per episode usually ends up at around 30 pages.
3 — Three-camera sitcom: This is the traditional sitcom filmed in front of a live audience. The “three cameras” refer to the usual multi-camera set-up that’s meant to capture the scenes in real time. Since the scenes are performed in their entirety, the camera set-up allows for a liberal choice of angles for the final product. Consider it a theater play with frequent forced laughter. Once again, we’re dealing with three acts and 22 minutes, minus the commercials. However, the cliffhanger after each act is more situational than personal: “What do you mean my roommate is hiding a hooker in the apartment the same day I invited my boss over for dinner!?” Cut to commercial. Since three-camera sitcom scripts use double space, the page count usually matches the 45-50 for a one-hour drama.
This set of choices still applies to all network and basic cable programming, which used to dominate the fictionalized entertainment the audience consumed in front of the TV. The one rare exception used to be shows produced for premium cable channels like HBO or Showtime. Since those channels rely on subscriptions over advertising for funding, their shows don’t need commercial breaks. This means that a comedy show can run for 25 minutes, and a one-hour drama is clocked in at around 55, with five minutes allocated for promos of other shows on the channel. This way, each episode can let the characters and plots breathe across a uniform arc, without having to worry about building to cliffhangers every ten minutes. That’s partly why general audiences usually praise the “organic development” and attention to character that premium cable shows can deliver.
When I stated, “there once was a time” when these were the only options available to TV writers, I wasn’t talking about the ‘80s or the ‘90s. I was referring to the ancient period known as 2012 A.D., which is when I began work as a script reader for one of the major screenplay coverage services in Hollywood. My job consists of reading a feature or TV script, grading it in sections like structure, character, formatting, and plot. I provide extensive feedback on how to improve the work, and finally give the script a pass, consider, or recommend rating. The scripts that get a recommend end up being sent to various producers and executives around Hollywood. But don’t rest on your laurels if you’re a budding screenwriter; earning a recommend is extremely rare, so you better toil away at your passion project until it’s pitch-perfect in every way.
Back when we thought a Mitt Romney presidency represented a threat to the republic—how naïve we were—almost all of the spec scripts I received fit into the network or basic cable mold. (Side note: Spec is short for “speculative,” meaning the writer wasn’t hired for the work, and is working on the project with hopes of optioning it in the future. 99.9% of screenplays written around the world are spec scripts.) On the rare occasion I got a TV script without act breaks, it meant that the writer was marketing it for premium cable. This becomes more evident with the use of graphic violence, sex, and curse words that would never fly on network or even basic cable. In those cases, I’d usually recommend the writer to also prepare a network or basic cable formatted version. If getting your own show produced in any format is like winning the lottery, accomplishing the same with only a focus on the extremely narrow premium cable market is like winning the lottery after leaving one of the six numbers blank.
But this all changed over time, as we experienced the rapid rise of streaming platforms during the last decade. Nowadays, the ratio of “act breaks vs. no act breaks” spec scripts I get for coverage is reversed, with scripts meant for streaming platforms far outweighing those written for network, basic cable, or even premium cable. Even though premium cable doesn’t need act breaks, the episodes should nevertheless fit the 25-55 minute runtime. Since a streaming episode is basically a video file the audience can choose to play at any given time, it doesn’t have to abide by the strict schedule of TV airtime: one episode of a show can be, say, 35 minutes, while the following episode is 90. So receiving a script without act breaks doesn’t automatically mean the writer is aiming for the premium cable market, especially if the script is a whopping 100 pages. (Yes, I do get those a lot, and yes, I do charge more for them. And no, please don’t write a TV script on spec that’s longer than many features.)
With a new streaming platform pushed on the market every hour, everyone is chomping at the bit for a piece of this lucrative business currently benefitted by the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. This format got so popular that even traditional networks like CBS are producing streaming-only content for subscribers via CBS All Access. Like many revolutions in entertainment that are going through growing pains, there are many advantages and some disadvantages that writing for streaming shows pose for spec writers.
The biggest freedom is of course the aforementioned lack of act breaks or page restrictions. The pilot script can be as long or as short as the writer believes the story requires. The elimination of forced cliffhangers every eight to ten minutes means that the characters and the plot can develop in their own pace, without the stress of having to artificially inject conflict for the sake of holding onto the audience during commercial breaks. The first major plot point of the episode can occur at the 35-minute mark, and executives wouldn’t immediately dismiss the script because “nothing happens” during the first two acts to keep the audience from flipping to another channel. By allowing the characters to breathe into their own before they’re forced to begin their hero’s journey, the audience can form a stronger and more relatable bond with them, leading to the “organic” feel that many praise about premium cable shows.
Whether or not the freedom of length is an advantage or a disadvantage over the premium cable format can be examined on a case-by-case basis. On one hand, an episode that can easily be wrapped in 40 minutes don’t have to add a bunch of filler to reach the one-hour length, or cut a bunch of important scenes to fit the half-hour format. On the other hand, a lack of oversight in pacing can result in bloated episodes and seasons where self-indulgent writers are enabled, and sometimes even encouraged, to fall victim to their narcissistic impulses. An episode that can easily wrap up in 45 minutes balloons up to an interminable 90, simply because the head writer can’t bear to cut up their precious work. On regular TV, that writer would have had to implement the cuts, often leading to a tighter and more enjoyable experience.
As much as I love the guy’s creativity, the worst offender of this is Charlie Brooker and his seminal sci-fi anthology show, Black Mirror. One of the main reasons for the streaming seasons being uneven and sometimes downright disappointing in comparison to the first two seasons, which were produced for TV, is the puffy runtimes of each episode. Some of them reach 90+ minutes, when the story could have easily been relayed in 40. Sci-fi anthology series rely on high-concept speculative fiction, which get old when the premise outstays its welcome. I predict that showrunners will eventually realize that freedom of length doesn’t always require longer episodes, and will scale back depending on the narrative needs of their show. Right now, we’re at the stage where the toddler has just reached the cookie jar and is going to town on the unlimited cookies on offer. Soon, the toddler will get sick, and hopefully learn the lesson that moderation is key to enjoyment.
The most exciting prospect of the streaming market dominance, though, is the eventual erosion of the established and strict choices of genres that are outlined above. Without having to adhere to the one-hour drama or the half-hour comedy format, writers can now experiment with different structures and paces to establish brand new genres. How about a tense action show where each episode is only 10 minutes? A dramedy that’s 40 minutes, finding that sweet spot between the one-hour drama and the half-hour comedy? The possibilities are endless.
So, if you’re a writer who aspires to get into the TV business in this changing landscape, what do you do? Do you write a traditional network script with acts, or go buck wild with a streaming script that pretty much doesn’t have any limitations? Preparing two drafts for each market would be ideal, but if you only have time for one, first look at the genre of your project. If it’s a procedural, or a prime-time soap opera like This Is Us, those are mostly still under the domain of network TV. If it’s an offbeat show that needs a lot of dry character development to get settled, or material that involves a lot of violence, sex, and profanity, then perhaps streaming is the right target. Either way, the basic rules of screenwriting still apply: Serve the characters and the story, not yourself. And once again, if you’re a spec writer who might get ten seconds of a producer’s time if you’re lucky, DO NOT write a pilot that’s a 100 pages long. (Editor’s Note: Because nobody wants to watch it).
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Oregon, with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.
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