Scriot writer and showrunner Mathieu Dams De Cooke & Verhulst Show

Writing scripts for talkshows: complete breakdown

What are scripts and who writes them?

YES, even talk shows are scripted! A script is essentially the written version of a play, movie, or any other media production that requires a script. Naturally, scripts differ from production to production.

For talk shows in specific, the script can be described as a synthesis of the introduction, the following questions and topics, conversations, and all content linked to that. However, it is important to keep talk shows spontaneous (or make it seem spontaneous at least), which gives scripts a contradictory notion.

Regarding the terminology, it is important to keep in mind that different countries use different titles for specific roles. In this article, we’re sticking to the terminology that is used most in Belgium and the UK.

The Series Producer makes the main decisions about the script, its content (photos — aka stills, videos, soundtracks), and how it creates the feel of the show. It is written day per day by the Showrunner or Day Producer together with the producers below them in close collaboration with the host.

Mathieu Dams (left), Showrunner of De Cooke & Verhulst Show 2021

For daily talk shows, the Showrunner can change from day to day (they are often referred to as Day Producers). The different producers under the authority of the Day Producer, are each responsible for the creation of a different section of the script, meaning a subject or a guest e.g., calling the guests, asking them questions and filtering out the interesting ones in the script. Thus, the questions AND answers are mostly already known beforehand.

Once the script has been agreed on, the PA (Production Assistant) will turn it into a rundown and the production team will make cue cards for the host. This can be digital (on a tablet) or printed out and glued onto physical cards. This is often the step where lots of frustration of the production team builds up, but we’ll discuss that later on.

The prompters turn the script into an RTF file and upload it to the prompting machine. With some small adaptations, they are pretty easily all set. Until someone decides to change something to the script of course, otherwise the presenter will struggle with reading and feeling comfortable with the text.

Prompting at De Cooke & Verhulst Show 2021

How do you write a talk show script?

Writing scripts happens in different steps. Firstly, you start by doing your research. It is important to properly understand the subject, the context, relevance and possible controversies around it, and of course the guests and their environment.

Consequently, you’ll have to write the teaser for the announcement of the show and the introduction. It is only obvious that this has to grab the audience’s attention. Introduce the subjects and guests in a way that triggers the viewers’ curiosity.

Same counts for the creation of the questions. Make them creative, unpredictable and engaging. They should yield open, thought-provoking and even personal answers that initiate a conversation of insight and entertainment. Again, it is important to let the conversation flow according to a flexible topic/question list rather than having a fixed chronological list of questions with no room for spontaneity.

Nonetheless, the majority of the show’s success depends on the host. Being a good host requires more than having the charisma to be charming and the comic timing to slay ‘em in the seats. It’s understanding your broadcast medium. Most importantly, the host needs to make sure the guests don’t divert too much from the topic and knows how to balance letting the guests express themselves but also keeping them in the right direction of the script.

Finally, the script ends with a brief summary of the issues that were discussed during the show, acknowledgements to the guests and audience with an open invitation to come back next episode.

Camera scripting in talk show production

Even though it’s mostly used in music shows, talent shows and other shows that involve a lot of music playing and cutting cameras accordingly, also talk shows often create scripts with the right shots for the camera crew.

Thus, a camera script is a cue sheet indicating the various camera positions to be used in a show. Examples of different shots are:

  • As directed: When multiple shots are planned/filmed, but during actual broadcast/recording it can be decided which of the shots will be used.
  • CU – Close-Up: A close-up shot is a type of camera angle, focus, and design that frames an actor’s face.
  • Duplex: Shot with 2 side-by-side (shot of the host next to a video caller/guest,…)
  • ECU – Extreme Close-Up: An extreme close-up shot, sometimes just called an ECU, focuses on a specific part of the actor, usually on their face.
  • ELS – Extreme Long Shot: This shot is used to show the subject and the entire area of the environment they are in.
  • LS or WS – Long Shot or Wide Shot: A wide shot (WS for short) is a type of camera shot where a character or group of characters is completely within the frame.
  • MS – Medium Shot: This shot shows the subject from the knees up , and is often referred to as the 3/4 shot.
  • O/S – Over-the-shoulder: An over the shoulder shot, often referred to as a third-person shot or an OTS, is a shot where the camera is facing one character from a position.
  • Two Shot: A two shot is a shot that shows two subjects in the same frame. With the two shot, the director can choose between close-up shots, medium shots, long shots, and everything in between.
  • X/S – Cross-Shot: A technique for filming interactions between two people in which the camera looks alternately at one or the other person, with the focus on the person farthest from the camera.

In TinkerList, there is a possibility to add a column in the script for the camera script. This makes it easy for the camera crew to follow along and know what shot to use at what moment.

TinkerList customisable script

Structure of scripts

As for the structure, the script exists of different ‘items’, or ‘sequences’, addressing a topic (with specific guests) or a guest. With every item, the PA makes a timing estimation of how long it will take to cover the topic and in that way, makes sure the length of the show stays within the agreed time slot.

Often, extra ‘backup items’ are created that can be added to the script just in case they run through the show a bit faster than predicted. In TinkerList, we call them ‘floating items’.

Traditional script

In this example, the script starts with a teaser that briefly ‘teases’ the content of the show, followed by an introduction, which is called ’Cold Open’ here. ‘PR’ indicates text for the presenter. This is the text that is sent to the prompter and read by the presenter directed to the audience.

You can clearly see the division of the script in different parts, indicated with [card title] in bold. As mentioned before, the terminology in scripts is very dependent on the country. It is advised to consult the experts of the local industry to use the correct words, titles and labels.

Some examples of script media terminology:

  • DLS = image (The Netherlands)
  • PLAY, INSTART, OVERSTART = different types of clips (The Netherlands)
  • VT, VT ITEM, FLT (= Float), ULAY,… = types of videos (United Kingdom), also called ‘Clip’, ‘Instart’, ‘BBW’
  • Still = images (United Kingdom)
  • GFX = graphics or images (United Kingdom & United States)
  • Lower Third = a title, text overlaying the video, also called ‘SVO’, ‘Title’, ‘Strap’ or ‘CG’
  • VO: Voice Over

Regarding playing videos, they can be played 3 ways:

  1. With the audio sent out in full, and the microphones in studio closed: called VT ITEM (UK), Compleet (NL), Volsom (BE), SOT(= sound on tape in US)
  1. With the audio at a lower level and the host speaking over it: VT(UK), Meelees (NL), Doorlees (BE), VO (Voice Over in US)
  2. Illustrative in screens on the set (the director decides when to show them). But mostly they use Meelees or VO.

In this example, ‘Complete’ indicates the videos are played with the audio sent out in full and the microphones in the studio closed.

Challenges in creating a talk show script

Version management

As the Showrunner, it is necessary to keep a clear overview of the script and rundown. Collaborating with the production team in a well-structured way not only makes for a better show but also less stress. Nevertheless, version management, time pressure and last-minute changes in talk show productions often go hand-in-hand with chaos, frustration and mistakes.

The host receives the script, usually via email, and works with the Day Producer to finalise it. This step can sometimes take a lot of time when the host’s and producer’s visions are different, and the iteration process is quite tedious, with numerous back and forth emails.

Collaborative writing where you can clearly see who’s working on what and what changes were made ****is not optimal in a traditional scriptwriting workflow relying on tools such as Word or Google Drive, which makes version management a very draining task.

In addition, it is more of an exception to the rule that, if the script is ‘finished’, it remains that way. From ‘finishing’ the script to the moment they start shooting, endless adaptations to the script (e.g., changing the order of the items, using different media, changing titles and text, recalculating timings,…) make it very challenging for the production team to communicate and stay up to date in time.

Not only the presenter needs to be updated, but also everyone on the creative team, technical team, and prompters need to get informed. On top of that, the rundown and cue cards need to be reprinted and redistributed with every change to the script. You can only imagine how this is subject to mistakes and disorders.

We have been doing this for 15 years now, of which I have been editor-in-chief for 13 years and that has become very efficient thanks to TinkerList. We used to be in a camper with two people: Karl Vannieuwkerke and I: I made a Word file, put it on a stick and gave it to Karl who then started working on it, he then gave it back,… Very inefficient actually and there were constant calls with the people in Brussels.

Thomas Swannet, Showrunner Vive Le Vélo

Media handling

Firstly, linking the right media to the right sections of the script can be challenging. Usually, the Day Producer puts references in the text of the script of where clips, images (stills), and other audiovisual media need to be played. In TinkerList, this audiovisual content can be put in the text itself (cf image further down below), but with traditional tools, all the files are put on a separate drive with specific names.

Often, the names in the script (and rundown) are not similar to the file names on the external disk or folder, which makes it an almost impossible quest for the technical team to match the right media with the right spot in the script and play it in time. Not to mention the constant change of media, order, titles and names.


As mentioned before, A LOT changes in the script during the production process. As a result, the constant back and forth flow of adapting, rewriting, printing the script (if the printer doesn’t break down), sticking and glueing the cue cards, etc., is first and foremost very detrimental to the environment, but also extremely frustrating for the team to stay updated and provided of the latest versions of the script.

Solution: introducing automation and collaboration to scriptwriting

Collaborative & remote writing

Let your team simultaneously collaborate and edit in a cloud-based script, anytime, anywhere. With real-time updates, a traceable version history, and enriched with media in the cloud, you don’t have to worry anymore about useless script printouts and communicating edits to the right people in time. In TinkerList, you can also easily add all background information about the guests in ‘briefs’ or ‘files’ in the script itself.

Moreover, when the producers are writing the script, the technical staff can already easily add a column and write notes wherever needed.

TinkerList has really been a very big step forward for us. Both for the editorial team in Brussels and for our small main team in France, it is a major improvement, especially because communication between each other can be much easier.

Thomas Swannet, Showrunner Vive Le Vélo

Enriched script with media in the cloud

As mentioned above, you can add the necessary media in the script itself in TinkerList, which means the end of wasting your time looking for — and linking — the right files. Simply add your clips, images or graphics in the script and let our automation play it at the right time.

If you prefer to play the media yourself, you can use the ‘TinkerList downloading app’ that lists all your media in the correct order and can easily be consulted by the technical team to play the right media at the right time during the broadcast.

TinkerList script with media in the text

Moreover, the app is synced to the script, which means it automatically downloads new files that are added to the script. Again, in the right order.

Go paperless

Did you know it takes a full grown tree of paper for the production of one season of a talent show? Climate change is a priority issue and obliges us to lower our environmental impact. At TinkerList, we make television production paperless: by exclusively using the editorial workflows, planning & calendar, script and rundown in our digital platform, the crew can eliminate paper use altogether. No more printing scripts 20 times a day, everything cloud-based ☁️

With our TinkerList tablet, you don’t need to worry anymore about printing cue cards either: instant updates for the presenter and the latest text ready to be presented. We don’t deliver the hardware, but you can read all about installing the Tablet Presenter App here.

TinkerList Presenter App

Clearly, using cloud-based, remote and collaborative software makes script writing easier and better. Here’s TinkerList’s script writing benefits summarized:

  • collaborative, cloud-based platform with easily to consult edit history
  • linked with prompter (consult real-time updates to the script)
  • linked with presenter tablet (digital cue cards are always updated to the latest version for the presenter)
  • script and rundown are synced and in the same doc, switch from the script to the rundown view by one click
  • media handling, team and studio are in sync