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Television conventions

A quick look at television writing for drama. How scripts are prepared and how the format differs from film.

Television production

Making television has historically been a rather different process from making feature films. To a great extent this is no longer true, but there are still differences that are worth remembering. In television the producer is in charge much more than in cinema. A series will usually have one or more showrunners who are executive producers responsible for the overall direction of the programme including both the creative and business operations.

Drama on television is sometimes split ito series and serials, but that definition is a little stale these days. Originally a series was a collection of stories linked by common locations, characters and objectives, but each story was a separate entity and often took a single episode to tell. A serial was a single tale told episodically, like chapters in a novel. In recent years the definition has been muddied by the introduction of a comprehensive series arc, not to mention the fact that a serial may run over several seasons with a single tale per season or it may run over several seasons but tell only one ongoing story.

When we talk about a series, confusingly, we often use the term to mean either a series or a serial. If there are a set of episodes produced for broadcast together, weekly or whatever, then that is known as a season. An episode is the correct term for all possible variations on a theme. If the company wants to test the water or see what the finished product will be they may call for a pilot, a single episode to show the concept. Usually the pilot isn't broadcast as part of the first season in drama shows, but it sometimes is in sitcoms. When producing a show it's not uncommon to shoot several episodes together as a group. This is called a shooting block.

The anatomy of an episode

There are a few essential differences between a television script and a fim script. In a television script the titles, credits and any breaks for advertisements are incorporated as entries in the script. Television scripts are also shorter, in the main, and sometimes put special marks to indicate which scenes can be shot in the sound-stage and which will require location work.

The episode script will contain some sections that differ from the feature script.

Commonly these days there's a short sequence at the beginning of the show to entice the audience to watch. It has another purpose as well; it sets the tone for the epsode.
Not to be confused with credits. These are the introduction to the episode and the principal cast. Commonly the principal guest cast is then shown as subtitles over the beginning of the episode after the teaser.
Main script
Often broken into blocks based on the advetising breaks.
In a feature film these would include eveyone who appeared, in television it usually names only those who were not mentioned in the titles or at the beginning of the show.
The post credits sequence is not all that common. Sometimes it offers a sneak preview of where the story goes next, sometimes it wraps up a loose end or two. Even though it's uncommon it's terminology you should know.

"My dentist said to me the other day: I've enough problems in my life, so why should I see your films?"

David Cronenberg