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Hey Chad Gervich, How'd You Write The Book On Breaking Into TV?

'The industry has changed in massive, cataclysmic, and unimaginable ways'

By Jason Boog - December 1, 2008
During his action-packed rise from graduate school playwright to television producer, Chad Gervich has worked in nearly every genre the boob tube has to offer. In fact, this Los Angeles-based producer and author literally wrote the book on breaking into television -- boiling down years of television wisdom into his new book, Small Screen, Big Picture.

During his industrious career, Gervich has worked on countless classic shows -- Love, Inc. (UPN), Malcolm in the Middle (FOX), Like Family (WB), Time Tunnel (FOX), Star Search (CBS), and Do Over (WB). In addition to those scripted shows, he's done reality television and talk shows: developing and producing Foody Call for the Style Network and executive producing the pilot Celebrity Drive-By for E! Entertainment Network.

He's also carved out a name as a writer: His columns have appeared in Daily Variety, Fade In, Moving Pictures, Writer's Digest, and Orange Coast, and he has written a number of plays that were produced at theaters around the country. In recent years, Gervich has moved into the Internet realms of television production, joining the writing staff for Warner Brother's Web show, The Daily Grind, and developing FOX's Web soap opera, Dirty Laundry.

Earlier this week, Gervich sat down for an exclusive telephone chat with to give readers a sneak peek at his new book and some practical advice about the television business.

How did you break into the television business?
I actually moved out to Los Angeles right after college, in 1996. I went to graduate school at UCLA's graduate playwriting program. It was a two-year program. In the second year, they had a mentor program for theater and television students. They would hook up graduate students with working professionals. I ended up with Warren Littlefield, who at the time was president of NBC Entertainment. He was president for all of the '90s -- he put on classic shows like Friends, Frasier, and Seinfeld. He worked his way up the ladder with shows like The Cosby Show and Cheers. He was the best mentor you could ask for. Shortly after that he started his own production company, the Littlefield Company. He gave me a job as an assistant. I got incredibly, incredibly lucky.

How has the television industry changed since you first arrived on the scene? What challenges do aspiring television folks face today? What advantages do they have?
I think the industry has changed in massive, cataclysmic, and unimaginable ways. One change was the advent and explosion of reality TV -- it totally changed the landscape of television. There was this format that was very cheap to make that was just as entertaining (or just as popular) as regular shows -- all of a sudden it was hugely, hugely popular. The three shows that broke the mold were: Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, Survivor, and American Idol.

"Developing and actually producing is like the difference between a military executive sitting back in his office helping to strategize a war, rather than a general actually fighting in the trenches."

Another massive change was the rise of cable. Cable was always the redheaded stepchild, but now, thanks in a large part to reality TV, it is nipping at the heels of mainstream channels. There's literally a channel for every interest. In a short time there won't be any differentiation between cable and broadcast television. There will simply be 500 channels.

The other massive change, which is still happening, is the rise of the Internet -- not only as a distribution mechanism, but also as a creative and artistic format. Nobody knows how this going to pan out. This is a marathon, and we are only at mile three.

So you've written a book of practical advice for breaking into the television business. What will your book offer to the uninitiated reader?
When I wrote the book, I wanted to begin at first giving readers a bird's-eye view of the entire industry. There are six or seven media conglomerates that control everything. They are making the financial and commercial decisions that affect the shows that get on television. I begin by explaining life in television at the top of the food chain, and I slowly go deeper and deeper into the system.

We talk about how networks function, then studios, then production companies, and finally, how production companies and writers create shows. After that, we literally follow a show from the moment it's pitched through production. We follow it from doing the deal to developing the show as a pilot; through the pilot pickup to shooting the pilot. We watch that show get picked up, as the show runner hires his crew, what happens in the writers' room, how the show is physically produced every week, and how the show is marketed.

"Many executives think that Internet shows are just shrunken television shows. I think that couldn't be farther from the truth."

After, we bring all that to life, showing how the aspiring writers take all that information and use that to break into the business.

You produced and developed Foody Call for the Style Network. That's a big job -- can you describe that experience, from the early days of development to the time when the show actually aired? What would you do differently?
That was a big step. I wasn't the show-runner, but I worked hand and hand with the show-runner. I developed that show as an executive at Littlefield, and I left to work on the show. It was a huge learning experience. Developing and actually producing is like the difference between a military executive sitting back in his office helping to strategize a war, rather than a general actually fighting in the trenches.

Looking back at it, I made tons and tons mistakes. For example, I had to do my first firing on that show. It was one of the most horrible things I ever did, and I did the worst job of it. In my head I kept thinking, 'I want this to be gentle, I want to maintain a relationship,' but this firing should have been a swift dropping of the axe. It became a long drawn out 45-minute experience. It was the worst firing ever.

You were working on Internet soap for FOX. How is this kind of work different or related to straight-up television work?
The thing that makes an Internet show so different from a television show -- this is why television executives haven't been able to crack it yet -- is that it is an entirely different medium. People go to the Internet for a totally different experience than television. It's a highly interactive medium.

Many executives think that Internet shows are just shrunken television shows. I think that couldn't be farther from the truth. People go to the Internet because they want to interact and chat with other people. You have to build some interactive component into the fabric of the program. That might be allowing audience members to chat and interact with characters or allowing the audience to connect with other viewers.

When you look at the tiny handful of successful Internet shows, the ones that put themselves on the map -- they all had some sort of interactivity. LonelyGirl15 was so thrilling because the producers made it feel like it was interactive. In her videos, LonelyGirl15 would supposedly respond to readers. It was all fake, but it felt very real -- that's what made the story so compelling.

You've worked with numerous pilots. What's that nerve-wracking process like?
Working on pilots is simultaneously nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing, and a complete blast. First of all, you are creating something from scratch. It's not like you're coming on the third season of Scrubs. You are experimenting with jokes and styles, that's what makes it so fun. You're thinking this could be the next Seinfeld, but you also know everything you are doing could all be for naught. You could be crushed, heartbroken, and out of a job.

How did your playwriting experience help or hinder your work in television? Any advice for playwrights looking to move into television?
I don't think having an MFA in playwriting impressed anybody. Having said that, being a playwright can help. The other day, my boss told me that my background in playwriting gave me stronger storytelling skills. Telling a story is a craft. You work hard to get better at it. My skills of being a playwright have been helpful, but I don't think the degree itself was helpful. At the end of the day it's all about storytelling and writing.

What differentiates Small Screen, Big Picture from other TV-related books on the market?
I think there are a lot of good books that focus on the actual writing of television. But there aren't any books that explain how the business of television works. At the end of the day, television is a business with very unique corporate structures. I meet so many aspiring writers who don't have the first clue about how television works as a business.

The unique way the television industry works affects how you create develop and write a television show. In order to be successful, you need a roadmap to navigate the maze that you are entering. However, the roadmaps are all in flux now; they are changing in massive ways -- thanks to Internet, cable and the economy.

How is the economy affecting the TV business? In light of contraction across a number of industries, what would aspiring TV writers do well to pitch/keep in mind as they're striving to enter the industry?
Advertising is down; product placement is down -- especially at the broadcast networks. When there's not as much money coming in, the companies can't spend much money on new shows. Fewer new shows will be bought, and fewer riskier shows will be bought. Networks are going to buy less from new writers, and buy more from proven veterans. NBC has already told all their shows that they have to cut their budgets by 10 percent. The good news is no matter how bad the economy is, people will still be watching television. Cable, because it's cheaper for advertisers, I think may be less affected by the recession than the broadcast networks.

How to break into the television business:

1. Move to LA.
2. Get a job in the industry, whether it's a PA job or an assistant job. Use that job to move to the next job.
3. Meet everybody you can and forge really strong relationships. The industry is based on relationships.
4. Never, ever under any circumstances, stop writing. The real writers get up at five in the morning and write and then go to work.

Jason Boog is editor of GalleyCat.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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