I'm a former Syfy exec who left the network to co-create and write a new TV show called Z Nation, which debuts on Syfy and Space Channel this Friday, Sept. 12, at 10/9c. So how does a genre TV show get on the air? Here's what I've learned from this process, starting with how you get your show greenlit.
Most TV shows start out life as a pilot script. The idea is a network exec can read the script and enjoy a kick-ass hour of TV while intuitively understanding what the show will look like week-to-week and season-to-season. A pilot establishes the world, the tone, the setting, the characters, their relationships... everything someone needs to "get" the series.
If the network likes the script, they make a pilot episode. That lets them dip their toe in the water. They can see what the show will look like while keeping their cost commitment to a minimum. If they don't like the pilot, that's the end of the line for the show. In the TV world, most pilot scripts never become pilot episodes and most pilot episodes never go to series.
Z Nation didn't have a pilot script or a pilot episode.
It was greenlit under a newer economic model of TV. where the network picked up the show for 13 episodes based on an in-depth treatment.
This kind of pick-up isn't unheard of, but it's rare. As the TV business continues to change due to DVR viewing, fragmented distribution platforms, etc., it'll probably happen more often. Similarly you increasingly see shows getting picked up to series from a pilot script with no pilot episode being made. Making shows this way has some advantages:
A huge benefit of having a full-season order for a show upfront is that it lowers the per-episode cost of making it. The most expensive part of any series is getting it up and running in the first place. You have to hire writers, actors and crew, find studio space, build sets, create props, design wardrobe and pay for all the other things a TV show needs. Imagine doing all that for a pilot episode then not getting a series order. You've just wasted a lot of money on an episode no one will likely see, or that at best will air as a stand-alone movie.
The bigger networks tend to make and then not air a lot of pilots, so those costs pile up quickly. And to compound (ha ha) the issue, pilots are usually much more expensive than regular episodes, because they're meant to both hook the network on the show — and hopefully hook viewers as well, if the show makes it to air. So the expenditure can be immense.
A full-season order means you can spread a portion of the start-up costs for a show across 13 episodes instead of just one. That makes everything cheaper (like buying in bulk). It's less risk for the production company since they're guaranteed fees for a full season. It can also attract more cast and crew to work on the show because they'll be guaranteed 13 episodes worth of work. Everyone in the TV world is essentially a freelancer, and if the pilot isn't picked up they'll have to look for another job. This way they'll have at least one season of stability.
The network benefits from a straight 13-episode season because it pays less per episode than it would otherwise, in the form of a lower license fee. It's also an alternative to the expensive and time-consuming process of finding, buying and developing many pilot scripts that may never be filmed. This reduced financial cost helps offset the risk/fear of failure, which in the TV world is always extremely high. (The TV industry pretty much operates in a constant state of Defcon 1 due to the insanely high costs of producing shows combined with a high failure rate.)
On the other hand, picking up a show without a pilot episode has drawbacks. First, the network has to trust that the treatment or script can actually be turned into a good series. That's no small thing. It's hard enough to make a good show based on a really great pilot, let alone one that has no pilot at all. And while the network is paying less per episode, it's committing a larger sum of money in total than it would for just a pilot. So if the show fails to get ratings early on, it will ultimately be more expensive than making and discarding a pilot.
Z Nation got greenlit under this newer model of TV because everyone felt confident the core idea could be turned into a good show. In particular it had the key elements a genre show needs for success:
A simple, compelling premise: It's hard to get anyone to watch a TV show to begin with and harder still if you can't easily explain to potential viewers what your show is about. In an ideal world you can sum up your show in one compelling sentence (called a log line) that will differentiate it from other shows while explaining what it will be about week to week. This is usually a little easier with a cop show or a hospital drama than it is with other kinds of dramas. It's also easier if the show is based on existing property like a movie, book or comic.
In the case of Z Nation, the premise is simple: A group of survivors in New York has to transport the only person who's survived being bitten by a zombie to a CDC lab in California in order to find a cure for the zombie virus.
Most viewers can read that sentence and understand immediately what the show will be about and if it will appeal to them. They know there's going to be a long journey, there's a goal that carries substantial stakes, and there's gonna be zombies. Simple, clear, compelling.
A story engine: What makes TV unique from other forms of entertainment is that shows are meant to run week after week for years on end. Many great movies and books might not work on TV because it's hard to figure out what, say, episode three of the fourth season will look like. When I was on the network side, I'd say that was the biggest thing missing in what were otherwise good pilot scripts. You could see how they'd make a great episode, but not see what would happen in season two. So a good TV pitch needs to have a reliable story engine that drives the narrative week in and week out and season after season.
For Z Nation, the story engine is movement. Each week the characters need to get one step closer to the CDC lab in California, but each step also puts them into increasing peril. Not only is the engine easy to understand, it's different than most other TV shows where the engine is often something like solving a crime (called a procedural).
The reason you see so many cop shows and medical dramas on TV is because they have built-in story engines: There is always going to be a new crime to solve or a new patient to save.
World building: In a genre series you need to not only create a great story and interesting characters, you have to build a compelling world for them to exist in. The world can't just be slapped on; it needs to be the underlying fabric of the show. Some genre series are nearer to our own reality than others and may need more or less world building accordingly. In Continuum, the world building is less intensive than in Game of Thrones.
For Z Nation, the world building revolved around not only zombies but what the world would be like three years into the zombie apocalypse. Would roads be passable? Since it's a road show, it's an important question to answer. How many human survivors are left? How do they survive? And so forth.
Internal logic: This is probably part of world building but I'm pulling it out separately because genre shows need more emphasis on internal logic than other forms of TV. A zombie show in particular needs a consistent set of zombie rules: Who turns into a zombie and under what circumstances? Are the zombies fast or slow, or can they be both? How do you kill a zombie, and how do zombies kill humans?
In the case of Z Nation we also addressed nuances like does anyone ever use the word "zombie"? Or when there's no monetary system left, what becomes the currency of the zombie apocalypse. Bullets? Morphine? You get the idea.
The treatment included lots of other stuff as well (some things I can't share because SPOILERS). There was a mission statement about the look and feel of the show, an obligatory bit about how it would be different than other zombie series, character sketches, sample episode ideas and more. Hopefully after season one I can share it with you, but you get the idea.
Now you know how shows get pitched and greenlit. Next time I'll talk about what it's like to go into the writers' room and start making the show in earnest.
Note: This is my personal perspective on both this show and the TV business. Other people will probably have different experiences and insights because no two shows take the same path to the screen. If you work in TV and have anything to add to the discussion, leave a comment below. Also feel free to ask me questions on Twitter. I'm at @craigengler.