Idea Power & Creating TV Pitches That Sell…
A TV series does not come into existence without it first being an “idea” compelling enough to drive the entire development, production and marketing process. This article helps new writers and producers understand how to create, write and pitch TV show ideas that can sell as a new TV series. We’ll talk about creating original TV show ideas, how to communicate them in a written pitch treatment, and where to pitch a TV show.
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 having a TV show idea get you a deal, and ultimately a TV show produced? Let’s first talk about creating TV show ideas that are more viable for selling.
“…what producers reading any pitch treatment need to understand, is what we’re specifically, potentially watching unfold.“
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 all about format. TV Drama Series are all about the character’s plight within the world they inhabit. But what producers reading any pitch treatment need to understand, is what we’re specifically, 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! Many new writers or producers get stuck “selling” the concept with too much pre-amble, and justifying “why” they think the show would be entertaining, without ever getting into real specifics of what the producers would specifically be covering in a sample episode, and over the arc of a season.
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 shows quickly to series if they believe in the project. 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. Read Deal Points When Selling a TV Show Idea for more insight.
To find that opportunity, it’s important to understand that every idea for a TV 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 TV show ideas that can sell. 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. The intangible, and invaluable that any successful TV executive has, as well as any successful writer, is a sense for what is entertaining for others watching. Being objective in a subjective process isn’t easy. It also happens to be the friction that fuels the whole process in Hollywood.
“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 TV show ideas. Seeing countless new writers and producers land deals, with many shows making it to air, I still always come back to the fundamentals for any idea to capture the confidence of a buyer. So lets dive in to a bit of nuts-n-bolts on how to pitch a TV show idea.
How To Pitch A TV Show: Creating The Pitch In 5 Steps
Step 1 – Create Your Core Idea
This is the “Aha!” moment when you can “see” what you believe is most entertaining about your show. The first task is to break down what you believe the essence of the show is. This is the first time of many that you should ask yourself, “what are we actually, specifically, watching?”. . Assuming it’s orginal, and you believe the various components of the show will result in entertaining content, ask yourself the following questions: Have we seen this subject/story before? Is it ideal for more than one network? Does it have a title that provokes interest and is marketable? If it’s reality-based, is the format for each episode unique enough to deliver original content? If it’s a scripted series, do the characters and main story components collide in conflict to fuel longevity for the series?
Step 2 – Research for Originality
While most TV shows are derivative of past shows, you must be certain that your unique approach to your concept delivers something totally new. The internet allows you to research if specific subjects or stories have been developed into TV shows, along with watching enough programming to be up on what’s being produced. Talk to others close to you for their reaction to your idea. You’ll get a quick sense as to whether or not your seed of an idea is as great as you think it is.
Step 3 – Create A Clever Title
TV is a title driven medium. Simple, powerful, captivating titles work best. A twist of familiar phrase, making your title a play on words is a good approach.
Step 4 – Craft A Captivating 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 TV show idea. It’s the short pitch that boils your story or concept down to its core essence. 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 its potential. The following are examples of could-be loglines for popular television shows:
“A music mogul fights for the future of his business as ex-wife and sons each aspire and conspire to become the next heir apparent to his empire” – Empire
“A most wanted fugitive collaborates with an FBI profiler to bring down criminals and terrorists” – The Blacklist
“A gregarious and likable Chef travels the backroads of America to sample road food from all corners and cultures of our country” – Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives
“A domineering dance instructor goes toe to toe with overbearing mothers, as she leads her young dance students to competitions” – Dance Moms
“An ex-Navy Chef attempts to revive struggling restaurants in just two days on a limited budget.” – Restaurant: Impossible
“A Madison Avenue marketing genius tries to escape his past while navigating the boardroom and bedrooms of 1960’s New York City.” – MadMen
“A small time crook has an epiphany and decides to revisit his past to right each of his wrongs” – My Name Is Earl
“Couples compete for cash as they gamble by chance and trivia played out on a giant pachinko-inspired wall where money is won and lost” – The Wall
Step 5 – Write A Detailed 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.
You can find some great insight on creating and pitching reality TV show ideas at “How To Pitch A TV Show Idea“.
If you’re pitching a TV Show idea for a scripted series, or a pilot script, check out “How To Pitch A TV Show Pilot Script“.
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.
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 TV show to Hollywood.
Where To Pitch A TV Show:
Technology and tenacity will deliver great results for your pitch. Check out some of the resources below that have proven to launch careers for new writers and producers…
The TV Industry Online –
To pitch your TV show idea, visit the TV Writers Vault marketplace for more insider advice and direct exposure to the television industry’s top buyers…
Markets and Festivals (Rubbing Elbows!):