One of my first attempts at screenwriting was a spec, or sample episode of South Park. In mine, both Cartman and Eminem are put on antidepressants and lots of weird, crazy South Park stuff happens as a result. My focus has shifted mainly to writing features, though when I heard about Ellen Sandler's TV-Pilot Writing Workshop, I figured this would be a great event to attend. The more I've been talking to other writers, the more I've come to realize that managers and producers aren't just looking to read spec episodes of shows already on the air. They want to read original content in which the writer's most passionate voice really shines through. After all, Matthew Weiner used his pilot episode of Mad Men to solidify his spot as a writer on The Sopranos.
Ellen Sandler is impressive. Best known as a writer and co-executive producer on "Everybody Loves Raymond", she's had a long, successful career writing and producing for TV. In a town in which many people like to sugar-coat and plaster on fake smiles, Ellen Sandler is no-nonsense, and I hung on her every word. I have much respect for how seriously she takes the craft of writing in an episodic format. She's also written an excellent book, The TV Writer's Workbook, that I highly recommend reading if you're interested in writing for TV.
From attending Ellen's workshop and from reading her book, it's become clear to me that a lot of screenwriters don't realize the stark differences between writing in an episodic format vs. writing a feature-length screenplay. It's not as simple as writing a 30-page comedic script and calling it a "pilot." (Hell, nowhere near as simple.) I don't want to give away too much, as I highly recommend consuming as much of Ellen's content on your own via her workshops, book, and consultation services -- that is, if you're serious about wanting to write for television.
Regardless, here are some takeaways that have been lingering in my brain since Ellen's workshop re: the differences between writing a pilot vs. a feature:
Repeatability is key. What happens, or could potentially happen in episode 2, 3, or 9? What about in season 2 or 3? If you have absolutely no idea what your characters could get into beyond the first episode, then your idea probably isn't meant for television. Think about it from the perspective of a network executive who'd love nothing more than to produce as many quality episodes as possible and see the show live on forever (and rake in big $) in syndication.
Character arc and growth ... not as emphasized. With writing features, so much is about character development. It's important to think about how your characters change from the beginning to the end, and how the events shape who your characters ultimately become. Sure, characters on television aren't meant to be static, but there's a familiarity that lends itself to television. On Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray is constantly caught between his wife and his mother. If he sides with his wife, there's sex. If he sides with his mother, there's delicious cooking. (His wife is a bad cook.) If all of a sudden, Ray were to become a celibate, raw vegan, the show would take a dramatically different turn. It's more about your characters (who are familiar) getting into new, interesting, conflicting situations each week than your characters growing and evolving. (After all, how could Agent Skully on The X-Files still really be a skeptic in season 5?)
Don't overdo backstory. With writing pilots, it's almost as if you want to start off on episode 2. Think of the pilot as the introduction to character, situation, conflict, and setting. It's the template for all of the shows to come after. It is the series, not the "origin story" of how everyone came together. Granted, many shows' first episodes are more like origin stories, but don't worry about writing that until your show gets picked up and someone in a suit decides that that would be the best way to kick off the series.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg. For more (great) info about TV writing, I highly recommend checking out Ellen Sandler's web site at SandlerInk.com. If you're in the Los Angeles area, she'll be speaking at the Great American Pitchfest on June 4th and at the TV/Film Summit on June 25th.