The truth is, the idea of a show bible, as many people talk about it today, is total fiction. But like many fictional ideas, it's become a reality that we now need to deal with as TV writers.
If you ask Jerry Perzigian, who teaches our TV Comedy Classes, he'll tell you that in his entire thirty-some years career as a showrunner on The Jeffersons, The Golden Girls, Married With Children, and about a dozen other hit shows, he never once made a bible.
Wondering if it's different in TV Drama? Ask former Showtime Executive and Pulitzer Prize nominated writer Steve Molton, who teaches our TV Drama classes, and he'll tell you the same thing.
In fact, on these shows the bible's weren't made by the writers at all. The show bibles were made by the assistants. And only after the show was up and running for a good long time, when the old staff writers were moving on, and the new staff writers started coming in to replace them.
Since new writers joining the writers room likely wouldn't have had a chance to see every episode, and even if they had, they certainly wouldn't know them in the same detail as the original staff who wrote them, the assistants would compile old episodes into a document which could be given to new writers on the staff. It was a quick way to acquaint them with what had already been done, what will never be done, the kinds of things that generally happen in an episode, and the rules of the show that make the show's engine run.They called this document "The Show Bible."
What ended up happening was, people who weren't in the industry or had never worked in television (the people who all too often end up teach TV and screenwriting classes) started to hear about this thing called a bible, and realized there was money to be made teaching people how to write bibles. So a whole new field of TV Writing teaching bubbled up about creating your show bible.
At the time this started, it was especially ridiculous, because at that time you couldn't even sell a pilot unless you were already showrunner. You could really get someone to read a spec episode for an existing TV show, and hope that it got you staffed on this show. But you could never get anyone to read a pilot from a new writer in those days.
So, this was craziness. But in an interesting example of the tail wagging the dog, what happened next was that festivals started popping up for TV Writing. And hearing about this thing called a bible that everyone was talking about, a lot of them started to require writers to submit a bible along with their show.
To me this is a fascinating example of having festivals who are run by people not in the industry, who are getting their information from teachers who are not in the industry. And somehow all that coming together to change the actual industry!
Because it's gotten to a point where now a big change is happening in the industry. And, this is actually a very exciting change, as far as I'm concerned. Today, producers, agents and managers are asking for pilots. They're excited to sell pilots, because we're having a renaissance in TV Writing right now, and there are a lot of new markets with Amazon, and Netflix, and other internet based networks with a huge demand for content in television.
Suddenly, we're finding ourselves in a market where we're not only seeing great writing is happening in television, but also a market in which you can sell a pilot, or get staffed on a show based on a pilot, even if you don't have showrunning experience.
Agents, managers and producers who used to insist on spec episodes for existing shows, are starting to ask for these original pilots instead. And along with them, they're actually asking for show bibles.
So, it's an interesting situation in which something that completely fictional turned into something that was real. Where the teachers and the festivals, many of whom didn't even know what they were talking about, actually changed the industry.
When it comes to creating a bible for your original pilot, it's important to remember that bibles are bullshit. That in the real world of television as it's existed for generations, you would never make up a bible at random, before you'd even written a single episode. That a bible is supposed to develop naturally from producing a show for years, until you get to a point where you've got to bring new writers on, and you need a shorthand for explaining it to them. So, in that context, when a producer asks you for a bible for your brand new show, what are they actually asking for?