Thursday, September 15, 2005

Writing for Doctors

Doctors is a daytime BBC1 medical drama series (oh all right, it’s a soap) broadcast daily Monday to Friday at 2.05pm (right after Neighbours). The main characters are a group of GPs, which makes up the soap element, while their patients get a look in as the ‘story of the day’. The writers of the show pitch this ‘story of the day’ in a two page outline and, once approved, they develop and write the episode to include the soap elements as provided by the script editors and producers.

Because of the high turnaround, the series requires a lot of writers and a lot of ideas, and because of its daytime slot, the show has an open door policy for new writers to strut their stuff. It is widely regarded as a place to breed and encourage fresh talent and is the place to go, usually via the BBC's writersroom, to see if you can get an appointment with the Docs. The series is based and produced in Birmingham, the midlands of Britain.

There are alternative, circuitous routes to the Doctors’ door however. In March 2003, I sign with Micheline Steinberg and my agent sends my script to a BBC producer in London who is in charge of scouting new talent. She likes my script and I go to meet her where she explains that Doctors has a ‘New Writing Scheme’ where they hold a writer’s hand through the process of writing an episode. Am I interested? Hell yeah. A visit to the set in Birmingham has to be arranged but I think finally, I can start earning regular money with my writing.

September 2003, six months later, the set-visit is confirmed and I go along with a few other writers to chat with the producers and amble through the sets. They encourage us to pitch them ideas for the show. I develop two ideas with the producer in London and she approves them to be sent off to the Doctors’ team in Birmingham.

As part of the ‘New Writing Scheme’, our scripts are to be ‘lifesaver’ episodes, which means they are stand alone eps that contain no serial element whatsoever but must include one of the main characters in the ‘story of the day’.

February 2004, five months later, one of my ideas gets rejected, the other one gets accepted. I am to write a step-outline, also known as a scene by scene breakdown, of the episode. You do not get paid for this work. I write a few drafts with the London producer before she sends it to Birmingham. After a few weeks, they come back with notes. I incorporate them into the step-outline and they commission the episode. I write a first draft and get paid half the writing fee for the trouble.

August 2004: I write another draft of the script, incorporating notes. It gets sent to Birmingham. The script producer has notes. I do a third draft. The script gets ‘locked off’. I get paid the second half of the writing fee. It’s Christmas. I no longer have to go through the London producer and can pitch ideas to the Doctors’ team directly. I am anxious to know when my episode will be filmed and broadcast but in the meantime, I tinker on a few more ideas and I am assigned a script editor on the Doctors’ staff.

Since my episode is a ‘lifesaver’, it can drop into the schedule at any time so it becomes a low priority. I pitch three more ideas, two get accepted. One idea is ‘banked’ for later, the other I get to work on after a brief wait. What they do is assign the writers' stories to the ‘weekly blocks’ that they feel are relevant to the drama involving the various doctors. So once you get your idea approved, you’re not guaranteed to write it straight it away. You have to wait to get the go-ahead once it’s assigned to its block.

It’s now May 2005 and I write my second episode. My script editor leaves for a job on EastEnders. He tells me that my first episode is scheduled for February 2006, two years after the idea got accepted. The funny thing is that it’s going to be broadcast two days after my second episode which I have yet to complete. The script editor also advises me not to expect to make a living out of writing for Doctors. I know what he means. I am assigned to another script editor, just to complete this second episode, and I do three drafts before it’s signed-off.

August 2005: a new script editor joins the team and is to be my point of contact. She encourages me to send in more ideas while she waits for my other idea, that was banked earlier, to get assigned to its block. A slight revision is needed in the story for this to take place.

Which brings us pretty much up to the present. This is meant to give you a flavour of what it’s like. Writing for Doctors is great - it’s got challenging dramatic parameters because of its budget and turnaround - but I find the commissioning process a bit frustrating and demotivating because it takes so long. However, with so few genuine opportunities to break into TV, Doctors is the perfect playground for new writers to make their mark. But be prepared… be very prepared.


Lee said...

I love The Writer's Room; it's the epiphany of public service. Want to write for TV? Well send a script to the BBC. Simple!

You could probably write up a whole post singing the site's praises. It's one of my favourite writer's resources.

Doctors, I'm not so sure about, though having said that I did catch an episode once which was a spectacular two hander featuring an elderly lady and her nurse. It put many of Eastenders' recent event shows to shame, so the format is certainly pretty flexible. But three years! No wonder they have a high turnaround.

Thanks for the always enlightening posts.

Lee said...

I really think I meant epitome there, not epiphany.

Darn malapropisms.

Anonymous said...

How much do you get paid per episode?

And how long do you think you spend on each episode in total?

Scott the Reader said...

Cool. I don't think there is any U.S. equivalent to this at all. Damn it.

Danny Stack said...

As a new writer, you get £2785 per episode.

I can't honestly tell you how long I've spent on an episode because the process has been stretched out. Each of my two eps took three drafts to write. Coming up with a good story line that they'll approve can take up to anything from 1 hour to a day to a whole week. And then there's the step outline, which has to be approved before you get paid and that usually takes at least two drafts. So you work for your money but that's the way it should be...

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny

The "New Writers Scheme" is no more, I think. Certainly, it doesn't exist in the form you knew.

I've now been assigned directly to a script editor in Birmingham. She's had seven of my ideas for a while now. Surely they've got to commission at least one!

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

Mmmh - only had a brief experience with TV writing. I realized that the time and effort required to break in seems to be the same as with features or plays - no short cuts. Although I guess when you're a regular on a soap you can knock out episodes quickly. I know a couple of guys who are earning good steady money writing for soaps, River City, Byker Grove, Hollyoaks etc

Do you find it creatively satisfying writing for a daytime soap? One writer I know who lives on TV writing finds he has no time or energy left to write spec scripts.

Danny Stack said...

Writing for Doctors is actually quite good as you get to do your story of the day but the commissioning process is very slow and frustrating. I've had two episodes "banked" now forever (well 6 months or more) so it kind of demotivates you from submitting more ideas to them.

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

Hey, Dan - great blog by the way - very extensive and informative - another great excuse to procrastinate! By "banked" do you mean aired or shelved for ever?

Danny Stack said...

Banked means they spike your approved two page outline and wait until they think it'd be a good time to slot that episode into its appropriate "block" of eps (weekly schedule etc).