How to pitch a TV show

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How do TV production teams develop and sell hit new shows like Grand Designs, Location, Location, Location, Embarrassing Bodies and Supernanny?

In another BBC College of Production podcast (I wrote about its episode on The Only Way is Essex and constructed reality shows the other day), a group of producers and commissioners (the people who buy the formats for a broadcaster) discussed their approaches.

Again, there are lessons here for anyone developing content or creative ideas, so I thought I’d share my notes:

  • Themes are cyclical: Part of the art is spotting the zeitgeist, what topics are people interested in. These are cyclical – it’s not the time now to be talking about how to buy houses, but it will be again some day. Right now nostalgia and wholesomeness are big: think vintage style and baking…
  • Read the bottom half of the web: Read comments. Actually, what one producer said was read the comments on articles on the Daily Mail website. You may need a calm disposition and a strong stomach, but it is here that you will be able to see what people are talking about, what they are concerned about…
  • Everyone will have the same idea: Another echo of the “simultaneous invention’ effect. Producers accept that if they have sensed that the time is now to be making programmes about cooking on a budget, so will a dozen other production teams. They can’t rely on the theme, they have to find the compelling, amazing way of addressing it that will seize the imagination of a producer, make them feel “I better buy this or someone else will.”
  • The need and benefit: Feature shows are useful – they meet a need, deliver a benefit to the viewer. Your format and pitch to a commissioner need to be clear about what they are… Thinking about these things stop you from just focussing on the production process.
  • Why you? Why me? Why now?: Sometimes it isn’t the strength of the idea that counts, but its context. One producer said that these three questions that quite often people pitching a format can’t answer. Once the idea is sold, they need to be explained clearly: Why your production company, why this broadcaster showing it, and what makes it of the moment.
  • The title sells it: For feature shows, if the concept is strong enough the title alone will grab the imagination of the commissioner (and the public once it gets made). They told a tale of Daisy Goodwin who runs Silver River who sat down with a commissioner and said to him casually “How clean is your house?” The response was “That’t it!” and the show was given the go ahead…
  • Talent attached: You need to “develop a nose for who will work” with a format. Very often the presenter being right for the format will help sell it…
  • Think of visuals, draw pictures: Often pitches are written, but doing things visually, even just talking about images will help bring it alive.
  • Prototype: Some producers feel it is important to create a short video of the idea, a “sizzle tape” to show what it would look like and how it would work.
  • Keep working at an idea: I liked the way they said you should be ruthless with your ideas – cutting out ones which won’t work, asking people to critique them and tweaking them until they feel right…
  • Make it universal: Broadcast needs to appeal to big audiences. Good formats don’t rely on people who are interested in a topic – think of how many people who aren’t interested in cars or right-wing politics politics enjoy Top Gear…
Great advice. I’m writing some book proposals at the moment and I think I will be coming back to some of these points…
And if you’re still in any doubt about how to pitch a TV show, here’s a master at work. The infamous Monkey Tennis sequence from Alan Partridge…