No Act Outs? Horrors! - Complications Ensue
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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Q. I recently started work on a spec pilot. I've been conceptualizing, outlining, and writing it with a network-model, teaser-and-tag five act structure in mind. A coworker recently advised me to ditch the act structure, at least at the script level. His claim is that putting act breaks in a spec pilot will set off 'amateur hour' alarms in the heads of prospective agents and showrunners, that an undivided script will read as more versatile and professional.
WTF? No. If you are writing a spec pilot for network drama, it darn well better have five acts -- and great act outs. Network drama is all about the act outs. You need to show that you know how to structure a story so that it has the right number of act outs, and roughly even numbers of pages in between. That can be a real bear. And it's what separates TV writers from those who are only qualified to write movies.

If you are writing a spec pay cable hour, of course, no act outs. (Though, inexplicably, I've read David Milch Deadwood scripts with three act outs.)
Q. Is one also obligated to raise the profanity, violence, and nudity quotients, and the page count, in line with the standards and formats of premium cable series?
Again, are you writing a pay cable spec, or a broadcast spec? If you are trying to get a job writing for broadcast, maybe you should be speccing a broadcast pilot, not a cable pilot.

If you are speccing a pay cable pilot, then you are allowed to raise the profanity, nudity and violence. But what you are obliged to do is write things that would not appear on broadcast TV. These might be profanity and nudity, or they might be transgressive in other ways. The cable pilot I'm writing right now does have some casual nudity where it feels appropriate to the story. But it is also cable because it pushes the darkness much deeper than broadcast will. Network TV is usually about families that fundamentally work -- whether families of blood or of choice. Pay cable is often about fundamentally disfunctional families. On broadcast, the heroes usually win; if they don't, it's special. On pay, the hero may be morally compromised.

I sometimes wonder if Firefly would have flown on pay cable. Joss Whedon would have been free to delve into the darkness that he so loves. And the pay cable audience would have been more tolerant of his unexpected plot twists; they might have been sophisticated enough to dig them the way writers do.

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3 Comments:

Question: is it possible that act outs are a good idea even for pay cable?

Thinking about the Sopranos syndi deal with A&E... wondering if maybe the producers had more control over how the content was cut post-HBO since they not only simultaneously shot "clean" versions of scenes along with the originals, they also built in natural act breaks... any thoughts?

By Blogger tgrrlily, at 12:14 PM  

Obviously, a spec writer should stick to the convention, which is to do strong act outs, but I wonder if there is any chance that the convention either will be or should be reconsidered.

The common explanation for act outs is that you want to hook viewers so they won't change channels or turn off the TV during the commercials; in other words, you have to give viewers some strong dramatic motivation to want to stick around and finish watching the show.

Fine. But that doesn't at all jive with my personal viewing habits. In the past five years, I think I've turned off a TV show in the middle about zero times. With the shows I watch regularly, once I sit down on the couch to watch, I'm there to the end, no matter what, primarily because these are shows I'm invested in, usually because they have a season-long arc going or, more rarely, because I've just learned to trust that my time will be rewarded with sufficient entertainment value. (Secondarily, of course, there is the TiVo effect -- I speed right through commercials.)

Maybe I'm just weird, but at least for me, TV shows could cut to commercial at pretty much any time they do a camera cut, and it would have absolutely no impact on the likelihood that I would continue watching the show.

By Blogger Walter, at 6:24 PM  

I don't know if it's because I've seen a show before syndication, but when syndicators mess with the act out, I can sense it. . .and it just always annoys me so much. Why do they have to cut to commercial half-way through a scene so arbitrarily?

I know they probably don't care so much and want commercial time, but can they at least try to make it look like they've put some thought into editing it for syndication?

By Blogger The_Lex, at 12:35 AM  

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