Television is a really interesting beast. There are so many different ideas that fit in the TV world, and there are really only two forms in which they can take place. You're either making a single-camera show or a multi-camera show, no matter the genre.
That's kind of the liberating thing about TV—even more so than the kind of content you're making, it's classified by the way you make it. Today, I want to go over the different kinds of TV writing and how they fit together and define who and where you'll sell them to.
So let's dive in.
Why Single-Camera vs. Multi-Camera Production Is a Choice That Matters...
Before we dive in, I thought I should spend some time defining what our terms mean.
We'll go over a ton of examples as well, so if you are bored and have nothing to watch, this might be a good post to gather some shows you might have missed or want to study.
Single Camera TV Definition
A single-camera television show is one shot with the perspective of a single camera.
Yup. That's it.
They look more like movies, and their production and writing are dealt with in the same way. Now, lots of times they don't only use one camera to shoot these shows, but the look of the show is always from one perspective edited in a cinematic way.
Traditionally, this type of show is a comedy, but there is room for other genres.
Shows like Barry, Transparent, and Casual are all single-cam shows that play in the drama realm.
Sure, they incorporate some comedy as well, but they would be your single-cam dramas. Obviously, 60-minute dramas are also shot through the single-cam perspective, like Law & Order, Fargo, and Friday Night Lights.
What is a single-camera comedy?
The most popular format of single-cam shows is comedies.
Shows like The Office, Modern Family, Superstore, and many network comedies are single-cam. This kind of style is favorable for the mockumentary style of shooting that rose in the early 2000s.
'The Office'Credit: NBC/Universal
These kinds of shows shoot much like films do. You have a dedicated crew and location scouts, and you build sets for places you might return to often.
Directors here all try to match a particular style set in the pilot. The shows feel uniform but sometimes can have some experimentation with shots and angles.
Single Camera TV Scripts
If you want to write a show that's in the single-camera format, you're in luck. Most of these shows are written in a way you might have already learned, like a movie. The half-hour shows are usually 22-35 pages, depending on what network they're on. The more dialogue, the longer the script.
If you want to read and download some single-camera scripts, here are a few to look at.
What Is a Multi-Camera TV Show?
These kinds of shows are the ones you commonly think of as shot in front of a live TV audience, or ones that occur on the same set over and over again. They run three or four cameras all at once, spread all over the set.
While many do have live audiences, some do not, and they just pipe in the laugh track after.
Advantages of Multi-Camera Production System and Techniques
The advantage of shooting multi-camera is that you can shoot out an entire episode in only a few hours. You capture multiple takes at once and have lots of choices in the edit. The actors also get to feed off the energy of the crowd. They record the laugh track from the crowd's reaction that encourages people to enjoy at home.
These shows are usually much cheaper to produce than the single-camera versions.
Multi-camera Sitcom Examples
Some of the most famous multi-camera comedies are Seinfeld, Friends, Two and a Half Men, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
While widely considered some of the best multi-camera sitcoms, these shows exist all over. They're not just for networks anymore.
Netflix has The Ranch, Fuller House, and the reboot of One Day at a Time.
Are There Any Multi-Camera Dramas?
There's a fun answer here. In the early days of TV, everything was shot multi-camera.
As TV evolved, dramas wound up shooting single-camera, but sitcoms generally stayed multi-camera, until things changed in the late 90s and early 2000s, when they started experimenting with form more.
So there are multi-camera dramas, but they have largely been forgotten in the annals of history.
Multi-Camera TV Scripts
Multi-camera TV scripts have been around for quite some time, and they are formatted entirely differently than a single camera. There are some key differences. Screenwriting IO created a list, which we've included below:
- Slugs/scene headings are often underlined. Sometimes, the names of each character featured in the scene are listed in parentheses directly below the scene heading.
- All action and description are in ALL CAPS.
- Character names are underlined the first time they are introduced.
- Often, character entrances and exits are underlined. Sometimes, major physical transitions are as well, ie “JEFF CROSSES TO THE OTHER END OF THE ROOM.”
- Major or important sounds, sound effects, and special effects are often underscored, and usually set off with a colon, ie “SOUND: DOOR SLAMS.”
- Dialogue is often double spaced.
- (Parentheticals) are more common than they are in feature screenplays. They do not have to be on separate lines, and are sometimes in line with the dialogue.
- Often, scenes will be identified by a standard designation (ie “ACT 1 SCENE B”), and sometimes all-new scenes will start on new pages.
- The page header will often include the scene and act numbers below the page number.
- Acts all begin on a new page and start with the all-caps, centered act number written about 1/3 of the way down the page. For example, act two will start on a new page, with “ACT TWO” centered before the first scene header, and the top 1/3 of the page will be blank save the page header. This also applies to the cold open and the tag.
- Acts end with a centered, all-caps “END OF ACT [NUMBER].” Again, this applies to the cold open and tag as well.
- The end of the episode is indicated with an underlined, right justified “FADE OUT.”
Check out some multi-camera TV pilot scripts here:
- 3rd Rock from the Sun, "Brains and Eggs"
- Friends, "The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate"
- Two and a Half Men Pilot
Single-Cam vs. Multi-Cam Wrap Up
Now that you understand the different formats of television, you can understand why you need to choose if you want to be a single-camera production or multi-camera production before you even write. You want to take into account the point of view and how it will affect the story. Also, have some idea of the kinds of shows you want to emulate.
Whatever you choose, now you know the ins and outs of both formats.
It'll be interesting to see what you come up with and to read your work!
What's next? Write Your TV Comedy Pilot or TV Drama Pilot
Hundreds of pilots sell to networks and streaming services every year. What's stopping you from selling your idea?
Get writing now!