“There are a lot of people out there who have great ideas, but they don’t know what to do with those ideas,” says Lorne Frohman. He’s the founding instructor and program coordinator for Humber College’s Television Writing and Producing program, where students spend one year learning how to get those ideas down on the page and navigate the producing landscape.
After working in American television for 40 years, Frohman has seen the industry undergo a number of changes. But while Netflix and other streaming services have supported an overall trend of cord-cutting that has splintered the traditional TV-viewing audience, he thinks very little has changed when it comes to the craft of writing for this medium.
It still comes down to putting in the work and developing solid story instincts.
“People think that with Netflix and the internet that things are changing, but that’s just the equipment,” says Frohman. “As far as writing, things are arguably pretty much the same. You need great characters, great environments, great writing.”
He says all of the same qualities that went into creating a great TV script 25 years ago still apply today, regardless of where viewers might be watching their favourite shows. Even if Netflix gives way to another trend, writers will still need to be there to create character journeys that draw audiences into a series.
Recent Humber graduates like Gabe Jenkinson are still using some of the tried-and-true ways to build up a network of contacts and climb the industry ranks. After graduating this spring, he leveraged one of the professional connections he made during the program to set up an internship at a local literary agency.
“The big thing you get out of a program like this is the contacts,” he says. “We met tons of people – you name it, there was a person who came in and talked to us about it.”
All of that knowledge sharing could be overwhelming if, like Jenkinson, you’re heading out on a new career path. He previously went to business school but felt that TV writing would offer a better fit.
One of the things he has going for him is a clear notion of where he wants to end up in his career: to become a TV comedy “showrunner” (a writer-producer who’s in charge of a series). Larry David of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame is someone who provides a bit of inspiration. Knowing where you want to fit in within the industry, or how you might want to reshape it, can help clarify more immediate goals.
Frohman says that one of the best ways aspiring TV writers can make progress in the industry today is to develop scripts for original series.
“For 100 years, readers at networks and production companies only wanted to read spec scripts [sample scripts for existing TV shows],” he says. “Now they just want original scripts. Producers are looking for original voices above everything else.”
Over their year at Humber, students have plenty of opportunities to create portfolios to demonstrate their voices – while also helping their classmates develop theirs. Some of the most important contacts a student can make are the people they work closely with each day.
The campus features a writers’ room environment similar to what students would find in the industry if they are hired on staff for a TV series. “They learn that in a writers’ room, 90 per cent of what you do is work on other people’s material. You flex that muscle by sitting in a room together and trying to be creative,” says Frohman.
“We tell students to treat this year like it’s their first in the entertainment industry.”