by Larry Brody
For all practical purposes, teleplays come in three formats. There’s one-hour film, half-hour film, and half-hour tape.
The hour film format is used for dramas, action shows, and primetime soaps. It looks a lot like typical screenplay format.
These days, most broadcast network and basic cable hour dramas run about 50-55 pages max but some – those incorporating a lot of fast-paced dialog – can be a few pages longer.
Scripts in this format usually start with a 3 or 4 page “Teaser,” which is followed by four or even five “Acts” and, sometimes, a 1 page “Tag.”
Sometimes the teaser is actually part of the first act. And sometimes the tag is actually part of the fourth or fifth act. The first act is usually longest, with each succeeding act a little shorter than the one before it. In an action show the last act often is just the “chase,” or climactic sequence.
The half hour film format is for broadcast network and basic cable sitcoms. It too looks like typical screenplay format, except that the scripts run about 30 to 35 pages. These teleplays also usually start with a three page teaser (also called a “Cold Open” and end with a short tag, but in between those two book ends are only two or three acts.
The half hour tape format is also for sitcoms. It looks a lot like stageplay format, including double-spaced dialog and uppercase stage directions. Tape format shows run about 40 to 50 pages in length and also have short teasers and tags and two or three acts.
Traditionally, half hour tape format was used for sitcoms that were taped before an audience while half hour film format was used for sitcoms that were filmed on a soundstage, but nowadays just about everything is filmed so it’s merely a matter of prodco or network preference.
As for premium cable and streaming shows, they’re a whole different breed, subject to various act breaks – or no act breaks at all – depending on the transmitting entity (as the say in South Africa) and the level of interruption or lack thereof that each viewer is paying for. The best way to handle those is to use film format only with no act breaks and let nature (AKA executive meddling) take its course.
Well, what’re you sitting there for? Now that you’ve got the format “Don’t just sit there. Write!”
Another in what I hope will be a long run of helpful hints for TV writers here on TVWriter™ every week. Which brings up a point: If you’d like to share some writing tips with your fellow TVWriter™ visitors, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to make a guest post happen.