The Market: TV & Radio
Many new writers dream of breaking the broadcast market – some even before they’ve broken the print market. A surprisingly high number of people still believe that broadcast can offer you a large audience, a national profile and great riches, to boot. This assumption has little to do with the reality for most established writers, let alone the beginner, however. How many arts programmes have you seen or heard this week? Arts programming has significantly slimmed down since the 1970s. But, even then, there was no fortune to be had. Standing outside of popular culture arts programming was, and still is, a ‘niche’ market. And it was only very, very rarely a starting point for writers. The late lamented classic arts programming of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, such as BBC’s Monitor and The Poet Speaks, featured published novelists and poets of significant standing – or published novelists or poets well on their way to achieving that. The scene has not materially changed much since then.
Today, arts programming on TV – in programmes such as Newsnight Review, The Culture Show and The Southbank Show – is generally limited to comment on, and interviews with, leading writers in their field or newly published writers who have already started to make significant waves with both the critics and the public. Alongside these ‘regulars’, a small amount of one-off ‘specials’ or seasons are produced and broadcast by BBC2, BBC4 or Channel 4 during the year, featuring novelists, non-fictioneers and, occasionally, poets, declaiming and discussing their work or the work of classic writers. Sometimes, this may incorporate specially commissioned original creative material from writers as well. But all the writers approached to appear in these programmes are established writers whose work has already attracted significant critical acclaim and/or commercial attention. Most of those featured will be very familiar names to those who engage with contemporary literature. If you’re an aspiring creative writer working in the fields of fiction, non-fiction or poetry and you want to appear on TV, then, with the exceptions of drama for TV and radio, you’ll have to make your mark on the critics and the public through print first.
If you’re a dramatist, seeking to see your script developed and produced for TV, then be aware that almost all one-off dramas commissioned by the BBC or commercial channels are the work of leading screenwriters. And drama serials these days are very often the result of the combined efforts of a number of well-established writers for TV.
That said, there are potential opportunities for highly talented, driven and original screenwriters who are prepared to suffer the slings and arrows of a highly competitive market, and who would like to join the writing teams of drama and comedy departments in the BBC and Channel 4. But writers need to be realistic. Thousands upon thousands of aspiring screenwriters approach these channels every year, hoping to get their foot in the door – it’s not a business for the faint-hearted or the sensitive. The openings are few, but they are there for the very best and most committed – and, most importantly of all, those who take the time and effort to learn about the market before they submit work.
If you’re interested in writing drama for TV, then visiting the BBC Writers’ Room is a great place to start. It’s an excellent, user-friendly website, which offers practical tips and advice to develop your techniques. The site also encourages unsolicited submissions from aspiring screenwriters, and includes guidelines on how to present your work to the BBC, as well as the lowdown on the kind of material it’s looking for. Channel 4 offers opportunities to gain work experience through its 4Talent arm, and very occasionally produces and showcases the cream of new writing talent. Its site also offers information on how to progress your work and an insider’s view of what it’s like to work in the business. Both BBC Writers’ Room and 4Talent also run occasional competitions on the scout for new talent, so visit their websites regularly and stay in touch with what opportunities may be out there.
Aspiring screenwriters should also check out Fiction Factory. Over a decade, this Welsh-based production company has been responsible for eclectic, innovative and award-winning short drama and drama serials in both the English and Welsh language, and welcomes unsolicited submissions from talented and distinctive screenwriters.
For more information on screenwriting for TV or Film click here.
General arts programming on the radio, as with TV, focuses on leading contemporary or classic writers, incorporating fiction, non-fiction and a limited amount of poetry, through Radio 4 programmes such as Book of the Week, Book at Bedtime, Front Row, Open Book, Woman’s Hour and Poetry Please. On Radio 3, The Verb is hosted by poet Ian McMillan.
If you are an unpublished writer or a self-published writer, don’t waste your time by petitioning these programmes to showcase you or your work. You’ll get nowhere and will simply be considered a pest. If you’re an unpublished writer, you should be putting your efforts into achieving print publication before trying to break into the broadcast market, such as it is. If you’re a self-published writer, you need to be aware that broadcast radio and TV producers, as with the arts broadsheets and literary magazines, are highly unlikely to be interested in self-published work or their authors – another very good reason why potential self-publishers should familiarise themselves with the pros and cons of self-publishing before they proceed.
Short Stories for the Radio
Short stories for radio are, in almost all instances, specially commissioned from exciting, current writers, many of whom, these days, are better known as successful published novelists. And some ‘short stories’ are, in fact, abridged material from longer, published works. However, the BBC is always on the lookout for exceptional new talent, yet to have published a collection of short stories or a novel. But before approaching the BBC (and, of course, carefully following the guidelines set out for unsolicited submissions on the BBC Writers Room website, it’s important to ask yourself honestly whether you are ready to submit your work. As a rule of thumb, you should have achieved at least some track record of publication in print through literary magazines before attempting to place material for broadcast. While an individual literary magazine does not have the last word on quality writing, if you’ve submitted to a variety of magazines and they are all unwilling to publish your work then it’s fair to say that you are probably not yet ready to enter the even more competitive arena of radio broadcast. Being ambitious as a writer is highly commendable; being over-ambitious will generally only lead to great disappointment – and valuable time and effort wasted. Before you send to the BBC, develop and hone your work. Join a writer’s workshop or group to get objective, critical feedback. Take an intensive residential course at Tŷ Newydd. Read extensively – books and literary magazines. Listen to short stories broadcast on the radio.
Successfully placing a radio play with the BBC is no mean feat. The openings are few and far between for new writers. Many radio dramatists have already established stellar reputations in theatre, while some work exclusively in this medium and have built up many decades of experience and expertise. And as, increasingly, creative writers ‘cross over’ into other genres, many successful short story writers and novelists are now also commissioned to write plays for the radio. Competition is staggeringly high. The chief outlets for broadcast for new writers are through BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Play, Friday Play and Saturday Play. While most of the output is entirely original, some plays may be adaptations of previously published fiction or creative non-fiction.
Writing for the radio can be exciting and liberating. Without the constraints of the physical and visual, the imagination can run riot on the radio; unlike theatre, absolutely anything is possible. This perhaps explains much of the appeal of the art for its practitioners – there are few barriers. On the other hand, without the physical and visual constraints of theatre, a radio play requires very skilled handling to ensure audience involvement and excitement, to maintain believability and, of course, to ensure clarity. As with all other genres in the field of creative writing, cultivating a deep enjoyment and understanding of the art as an audience before you seek to become a practitioner is absolutely crucial. Long before you put pen to paper, you should be listening avidly to radio plays. Next, you should start to read the scripts – and start to examine some of the mechanics behind the magic. The BBC Writers’ Room offers a number of previously produced scripts free to read online to help you gain an insider’s understanding of the techniques and tricks of the trade, as well as to show you how work should be correctly presented to the BBC for submission. Study these well before you embark on your own creative work.
Though some writers develop their work alone, you’re strongly encouraged to seek support and critical feedback. As a rule, all writers progress far quicker with the encouragement and insight of their peers and the guiding hand of professionals. Tŷ Newydd and the Arvon foundation regularly run residential courses which focus on writing for the radio and are led by distinguished practitioners in the field. Residential courses give you the chance to work intensively over a week with other similarly focussed individuals, developing your work, receiving constructive criticism, as well as handy tips and hints, both in groups and one to one tutorials, in a creative, informal and fun atmosphere. Click here for further information on the residential course experience. In addition, some creative writing degree courses now incorporate writing for radio on their syllabus. Click here for further details on creative writing degrees and what’s involved.