A TV series does not come into existence without it first being an “idea” that is compelling enough to drive the entire development, production and marketing process. This article helps new writers and producers understand how to pitch a TV show idea that can sell to production companies.
Ideas open doors, fuel the development process, and ultimately connect with viewers. It is that core concept or “idea” a new writer or producer pitches that inspires a production company to dedicate resources for developing it. When that idea moves to the network or studio level, often with a “proof of concept” pitch reel produced, it is still that core “idea” that drives the project’s potential as development executives must communicate compelling details efficiently with their bosses, and so on up the ladder. Ideas are the life blood of our industry.
“…It’s all about the beginning of the process, the idea stage.” – Rod Perth, CEO NATPE (National Association Television Program Executives).
It is indisputable that ideas sell. That’s why services like the TV Writers Vault deliver such an important piece of the puzzle for our industry. Having a marketplace where ordinary people with extraordinary ideas can have their pitches scouted by a large number of industry buyers is the direct connection that both the creator and the industry needs. Because for both sides, it takes A LOT of projects to find those few gems that can go the distance.
There’s nothing more exciting than seeing new talent, some who’ve never pitched before in their life, come face-to-face with top decision makers in film and television for a true shot at getting their big break. I’ve been on both sides of the table, and love the entire process. So how does an “idea” get you a deal, and ultimately a show produced? To understand that, you need to understand that there are different stages and levels a new creator can become part of the project produced.
Write your original idea for your show detailing the unique story or format we’re following. Each genre has its own fundamentals. Reality TV Show concepts have critical elements like casting, or access to a unique world, lifestyle, or business. Game shows are very clever in format. TV Drama Series are all about the character’s plight within the world they inhabit. But what producers reading the pitch need to understand in any pitch for any genre, is what we’re potentially watching unfold. “What are we actually watching?” is the question both creators and producers face when the network executive polarizes a pitch. They’re experts in “seeing” the show you’re describing. So don’t sell them. Tell them! You can find some great insight on writing reality TV pitches at “Creating Reality TV Ideas” and “Creating & Pitching TV Show Ideas That Sell“.
If you’re writing a TV Pilot Script, be sure to check out the TV Writers Vault Guide for “How To Pitch & Sell Scripted TV Series Ideas & Pilot Scripts“.
When your pitch connects with a producer and they want to commit their resources to develop and sell your show to a Network, they first must secure your project with an Option Agreement so they have the exclusive right to sell and produce the show. In such a deal you’re giving the production company a limited time period of exclusive rights, typically 12 months. During that time they may shoot a sizzle reel or “proof of concept” tape to present to networks. If they have close ties with executives at networks that are ideal for your project, they’ll most often “pre pitch” the show to see if there’s any preliminary interest. Then if they do have interest at a Studio or Network, they may get financial backing from the network to produce a pilot. Cable Networks operate in a very fast process, and often order to shows quickly to series if they believe in it. Another benefit of pitching shows for cable is that they’ll often order in bulk if the first run gets good ratings. 40-50 episodes a year is common for a hit cable reality series. As a creator and producer, even in a passive capacity if you’re new to the game, there’s a tremendous amount of financial reward if a series gains momentum. You can expect on-screen credit, per episode fees, and participation in licensing.
To find that opportunity, its important to understand that every idea for a reality show has its own potential. You can’t make a mediocre concept great. It must have the right combination of compelling factors that together deliver a story and show that draws viewers in. If you believe you have a concept that is unique, even if you believe its a “no brainer, slam-dunk, next Gold Rush”, you still must market your project to a variety of producers and executives to find the one right connection. The process can be very subjective, and challenging.
Having a keen sensibility for what is entertaining will also increase the odds of crafting the right project that will connect. Even-so, its a numbers game in the way that the more pitches you work on, the better you’ll become at identifying, conceiving and honing a concept for a pitch. If you operate your own creative pursuits in the same manner that a production company does (having many projects on slate) then you’re in a better position to actually build a career because you’re developing many ideas and projects, finding the one(s) that connect, and getting offers from top tier companies who like what you bring to the table. The tangible “proprietary” element you bring in a pitch may be access to a certain world or subject. It may be the quirky business you operate and the process we can witness. It may be an ingenious game format you invent that is both hilarious to watch and stimulating to participate in. No matter the format, the love/hate relationship reality television has with both the industry and viewers still always boils down to one thing- Story. The biggest opportunity “Reality TV” has brought to the industry and creatives across the country, is that no subject is out of reach, and every person’s life experience has a story that is totally unique.
Hollywood is built on the power of “idea”, and television has been the most rapidly evolving platform for ideas to be produced through storytelling and formats.
Hollywood is a machine constantly on the search for new ideas to help reinvent itself and bring a fresh form of entertainment to viewers. If you think being an outsider of Hollywood makes it impossible to sell an idea that will be produced, I know first hand that’s not true. In my first year as a development executive at Merv Griffin Entertainment, I brought in a concept created by a journalist in Florida. The idea was written up in a one-page outline, and explored the simple idea- “How far will an ordinary person go to help a stranger in need?” Our producers immediately saw the potential for comedy and entertainment value. Merv signed the creator to an option deal, we took it out to networks the next day, pitched it as “Pay It Forward meets Candid Camera”, and the project was sold on our first pitch to Disney’s Buena Vista TV.
After one of the development meetings with Disney Execs Karen Glass and Holly Jacobs at our offices, I was walking them down the long hall leaving the Griffin Group offices and Holly asked, “So who came up with this idea?” So I told her, “Some guy in Florida”. She smiled and said,”I love when that happens“. That was the lightning bolt that convinced me the industry needed an online marketplace to connect “idea people” with buyer’s like Karen and Holly (formerly of Disney/Buena Vista). The TV Writers Vault was born shortly after, and I’ve spent the years educating new creatives on the process of creating and pitching. Seeing countless new writers and producers land deals, with many shows getting on air, I still always come back to the fundamentals. So lets dive in to a bit of nuts-n-bolts on crafting a pitch.
Craft A Clever Logline (The short pitch): Whether you’re pitching casually at a coffee shop, in a room full of executives, or to a pitch panel at a film festival, you want to have a very clear Logline that communicates your core concept. A “Logline” is a one or two sentence description that tells the basic idea and purpose of a show. Loglines for the sake of pitching a project are similar to a TV Guide description, but more specific in describing the idea of the show. This is the catalyst for increasing the odds of selling any script or idea to Hollywood. Its the short pitch that boils your story or concept down to one or two sentences.
For film, a logline most often gives the unique premise (the set up) along with the main character’s extraordinary agenda. The same applies to television, except you may be dealing with a different genre like a reality docu-series where you’ll want to describe the unique world or subject we’d be covering, and the plight of the person(s) involved that we’re following. I’ve always known the logline to be the true test of a project’s potential. It really tests the writer to see if they know their project well, and more often than not, if you can’t create a strong logline, then the idea itself isn’t strong enough. The idea is the anchor for all that happens in the show. Its the reason for the rhyme.
A great logline should provoke interest and inspire the TV producer, and ultimately viewers, to see it’s potential. The following are examples of could-be loglines for popular television shows:
“Ordinary people face their fears by competing against each other in outrageously devised stunts” – Fear Factor
“A likeable husband’s marriage and tolerance is tested by the constant intrusion of his overbearing parents and dim-witted brother” – Everybody Loves Raymond
“Twenty women will court and compete to win the affections of one man who will narrow the selection until he must decide on his one true love.” – The Bachelor
“Contestants’ general knowledge will be tested when given the answers to questions they must then form.” – Jeopardy
Write A Snappy One-Sheet Synopsis: Executives need to have a clear road map for understanding what your show is, its core concept, and what we’re potentially watching as it unfolds. The written page is also the piece of Intellectual Property that establishes what you’re pitching, and what they’ve been exposed to. There is no way around it- You need to have a written pitch.
The Synopsis written should carry us through the most interesting and critical moments in your show. Describe the premise, the circumstance, the progression of story in clear beats, with any key ultimatums or challenges faced. The craft of turning a clever phrase takes talent and time. But one of the most important aspects of writing a pitch synopsis is the skill of using efficiency. Can your page be condensed to a paragraph? Can your paragraph be communicated in one sentence? Executives and Producer do a ton of reading, and you don’t want them to get bogged down, but the real reason for writing efficiently is to carry the reader along briskly, so one moment fuels the next, and the next moment has evolved into something greater, and so on.
Make Strong Choices: Audiences arrive to watch movies and shows with a willing suspension of disbelief. They want to believe in your story, and connect with it. Its your opportunity as the Writer/Creator to make strong choices in any aspect of your story or concept. They want a heightened, or intensified reality, and there’s a few ways to get there when you’re developing your story. Create an ironic premise, but with a very plausible setup. This propels the story, giving the main characters a lot to work with. Give your main character a very unique challenge, and in their journey they encounter things that test their resolve, and sometimes change the course of their agenda, so ultimately we see them grow as a person. How that’s done is up to you, the creator.
Talent lies in the choices made by the artist, so make strong, unexpected, beautiful choices. It will resonate through every facet of your story, and connect with buyers hearing your pitch.
Get inspired. Look at your life and the world around you to find fresh and compelling stories and subjects. If you roll up your sleeves and dedicate yourself to the work, you just might sell the next groundbreaking idea for a Reality TV show to Hollywood.
To pitch your reality TV show idea, visit the TV Writers Vault marketplace for more insider advice and direct exposure to the television industry’s top buyers.