Part of trying to get work as a TV writer (or any writing job) is having an excellent writing sample. A writing sample is a script you wrote that shows off your skills. It shows off your voice. It’s your calling card. You need a strong writing sample to get a writing job (and you should preferably have two, in different genres). But should you write a TV Pilot or Spec Script?
When it comes to television, you have the choice of writing an original pilot episode (the first episode of a television show) or a spec (speculative) episode of an existing show. This doesn’t mean you should write a spec episode of the show you want to write for (because many shows legally cannot read spec episodes of their own show), but instead, you should write a spec episode for a show that is in the same genre you want to write in. For example, back in the day, you could write a spec X-Files episode to try and get a job on Buffy or another genre show. Now, before you start cooking up the perfect “Game of Thrones” episode — just STOP. Because no one wants to read spec episodes of existing shows anymore.
I shouldn’t say NO ONE, because I’ve heard many interviews with writers and showrunners who WISH people still wanted to read specs for existing shows, but that is not the case anymore. The reason these few writers and showrunners wish this is because when you’re a writer on a TV show, you’re working for a SHOWRUNNER. And in most cases, that showrunner is the person who created the show. Your job is not to write your vision in your voice, your job is to write FOR the showrunner’s vision and emulate the showrunner’s voice. Writing a spec sample for an existing tv show will give the showrunner a sense of how good you can emulate an existing shows voice. How well you can capture existing character’s voices. But alas, that is not the world we live in today.
There has been a shift over the past few years, and now everyone (and by everyone I mostly mean agents and managers) only want to read ORIGINAL MATERIAL. That means if you’re trying to become a TV writer, you need to write an original pilot episode. This is much harder than writing an existing show. You have the create everything. Characters, Setting, Plot, Theme. You’ve got to do it all. And it has to be great. It has to be engaging. And it has to have LEGS. That is to say, the reader has to see the potential for this single episode to turn into multiple seasons.
There are multiple reasons why people want to read original pilots these days. First, they want to see what YOUR original voice is. They want to see if your voice lends itself to their TV show. And because writing a pilot is so much harder, it also sets the bar for quality much higher. Another big reason is that agents and managers can not only use an original pilot as a writing sample, they can try and SELL IT (and I think this is probably the biggest reason this trend started).
So there you have it. Writing a spec of an original show is a complete waste of time because nobody gives a shit anymore. So go off and write a pilot! Good luck! You’re gonna need it.