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Why the assistant path to becoming a TV writer is broken

And how assistant jobs can help you anyway...

TV Writers' Room

There used to be a clearcut path to rising through the ranks of assistant-dom and becoming a TV writer. You could become a production assistant on a set. You could become a writers' PA in the writers' office, you could make it into the writers' room as a writers' assistant, you could get real hands-on with the script as a script coordinator. And then, finally, in the right environment and with the right showrunner, you could become a TV writer. Those jobs are still there and that jump can still happen, but it almost never does. Why is that?

In one word... streaming.

The Streaming Revolution

So, there's tons more TV, there's all these new streaming services. You know the deal. Here's why that matters for those trying to break into TV writing. Streamers, and now cable channels too, have decided to try a different model than traditional network television, in which they wanted to produce the most episodes per season and the most seasons per series. Now, shows often are 6-8 episodes long. And a series, if it's lucky, will last for maybe three years. Great for viewers, right? Shows are rarely getting beaten into the ground with plots that have run their course. But for the assistants, that means it's very difficult to move up.

Assistant-ing in TV Today

One prevailing myth is that working as a TV assistant automatically paves the way to becoming a TV writer. While it's true that being immersed in the industry provides invaluable insights, the rapid turnover of shows in the current TV climate complicates the linear progression from one role to the next. Unlike the era of long-running series, contemporary shows often face uncertain fates, making it challenging for assistants to secure a stable foothold in the industry.

The Short Lifespan of TV Shows

If you were to get a PA job back in the day on a show like The King of Queens, there were many years you had to prove yourself to everybody. You could be a great PA and show yourself to be useful for 22 or even 24 episodes (about nine months), and then the next year, assuming some people left or things shifted around, you could be promoted to writers' assistant. A year or two could pass and you could be bumped up again, and again, and make it to a Staff Writer position, officially becoming a TV writer. With all these one season or even three season shows, that jump is far more difficult. People are not getting promoted within the season and, therefore, the shows get cancelled before you're able to make the jump. And starting on another show, you're back on the ground floor proving yourself again. Maybe you can start out as a writers' assistant instead of a PA. But you're still needing to ingratiate yourself with a whole new crew on a show that's likely only lasting a few months with the lower episode orders.

So, are these jobs still good for anything? The answer is yes, in the right environment.

What are TV assistant jobs good for?

The short answer is networking. Your script is essentially your calling card. But lots of people have good scripts. The people who make it are those who have been around long enough to meet a shit ton of folks and get that lucky break somewhere in there. And assistant-ing helps you make those connections that, if you're like me or most people who have tried to break into TV, you definitely don't have.

There's also the fact that being in the writers' office and particularly the writers' room teaches you how TV actually works. I saw an enormous improvement in my writing once I saw how professionals craft a TV show and put it together. There is invaluable info in there to learn that you just can't get by writing scripts at home (which you should also be doing).

The Problem TV Assistants and TV Writers Face

With all these quick TV cancellations and the short length most TV shows run, this presents a much bigger problem than simply trying to move up the ladder. How do you make money while still pursuing this career? These days most TV assistants and even TV writers have to find another way of making money. Sometimes this means the typical entertainment industry jobs like bartending or being a server. Sometimes people are able to find part-time or flexible remote work. It can be really difficult. And many people find that they can't keep up this hustle for long enough to make any progress.

But the truth is, you can make it work. Just know that getting a TV assistant job is not THE route to becoming a TV writer. It's one tool in a multi-faceted toolbelt that you need to have in order to make it in an increasingly difficult industry.

It Takes Time

When starting to break in, you come in with a lot of people who are starting out just like you are. And many of those people will fall away and find other pursuits. And that's a good thing for those who decide they'd rather do something else, and it's a good thing for you who is now more seasoned than the next class coming in. You are not competing with your fellow TV writing pursuers, but the biggest difference between those who make it and those who don't are the ones who make it keep at it for longer. It's not necessarily a "best script wins" scenario. I can tell you that from personal experience with many highly paid writers.

So, even though the transition from being a TV assistant to a TV writer is not the linear trajectory it once was, aspiring writers can still start adding to their network and learning about the writers' room with these jobs.


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I'm Anton, a TV writer and author of Breaking Into TV Writing, a book about the business of TV writing and how to get your foot in the door.


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