How a TV Series Gets Made
25 steps, from idea to air.
by Ken Aguado
If you’ve ever wondered about the timeline for how a TV series is created, wonder no more. While there are some variations to the 25 steps below, this is generally how it works. In the best case scenario, step 1 to step 25 will take about 12–16 months. The Writer in this timeline is a qualified, experienced writer/producer, usually called a “show-runner.” The Studio is usually the television production division of a large media company (Sony TV, Lionsgate TV, WBTV, etc). The Network or Cable Company is typically the domestic television distributor: the company that broadcasts the series, or airs it on cable (ABC, HBO, AMC, etc). But it could also be a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon, both of which now produce and distribute a huge amount of programming. Typically, the Studio will pay for the cost of making the series, but the Network or Cable Company will contribute to this cost by paying a license fee for the right to air the series. Sometimes the Studio and the Network are the same company. For example, when Fox TV Studio produces a series for the Fox Network. This is happening more and more, as giant media companies strive to have their various divisions become more “horizontally integrated.” Here are the steps:
1. A Writer has an idea for a series.
2. The Writer develops their pitch.
3. The Writer pitches to a television Studio, or sometimes directly to a Network or Cable Company. (In which case a Studio might get involved thereafter.)
4. If the Studio likes the idea, the Studio makes a deal with the Writer.
5. The Writer gets notes from the Studio, tweaking the pitch.
6. The Studio sets pitch meetings with Networks and/or Cable Companies.
7. The Writer pitches their series (with the Studio) to Networks and Cable Companies.
8. If a Network or Cable Company is interested, they make a deal with the Studio to develop and (possibly) produce the series.
9. The Writer outlines their pilot (or first episode) idea then delivers it to the Studio for review and feedback, and then to the Network or Cable Company for review and approval.
10. When the outline is approved, the Writer will be authorized to write the first script (or pilot).
11. The Writer writes for 6–8 weeks, then delivers a first draft to the Studio for notes.
12. The Studio gives the Writer notes. The Writer makes agreed changes.
13. The pilot script is then submitted to the Network or Cable Company.
14. The Network or Cable Company gives notes to the Writer and Studio.
15. The Writer makes agreed changes and delivers the “revised network” script to all. (The Writer’s agreement will require several writing steps.)
16. A month or two passes while the Network or Cable Company reads all the pilot scripts they’ve been developing.
17. The Network or Cable Company then announces which scripts will get a “pilot order,” or on occasion, go right to a series order.
18. The pilot is prepped: Director, Cast, budget, locations, sets, crew.
19. The pilot is shot.
20. The Network or Cable Company reviews all pilots they have shot, usually testing the pilots for audience reaction.
21. At the “Upfronts” the Networks publicly announce (and present) to advertisers and press which pilots have been given a “series order.”
22. The series is “staffed” with additional Writers (writer/producers) who will report to the head Writer (aka the show-runner, previously mentioned).
23. The series is Crewed and the production begins, lasting many months.
24. The series’ air date is set on the Network or Cable Company’s schedule.
25. The pilot or first episode premieres.
As I said, there are variations. For example, Netflix doesen’t order pilots, nor does HBO or Showtime. Instead they order a full season of episodes for your viewing or binging pleasure. In these cases, the pilot is referred to as the first episode.
“Script order”: The Writer is commissioned to write a pilot script.
“Put Pilot”: A deal to produce a pilot that includes substantial penalties (paid to the Studio) if the pilot is not made.
“Pilot order”: The Network orders the filming of the pilot, after having read the script.
“Cast-Contingent Order”: A series or pilot order that first requires casting that is satisfactory to the Network or Cable Company.
“Direct to series order”: The Network or Cable Company bypasses the initial pilot order and goes straight to series production. Network is typically 13 episodes. Cable is typically a 10-episode order.