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TV Development Tips

Development 101: Why Your Idea Will Never Get Commissioned

photo by piccadillywilson

photo by piccadillywilson

Do you have a great factual programme idea but are frustrated by other people’s lack of interest? What are you doing wrong?

You’re probably pitching a subject rather than a programme idea.

Subjects vs. programme ideas

If you have an idea about gangs, dinosaurs or cooking you have a subject idea not a programme idea. What makes your idea unique, and commissionable, is the execution of your idea – the specifics of where its set, who it features, number of episodes, narrative arc etc. And depending on your interests or production niche, you will tackle your subject in a different way.

Know your market

Any pre-existing relationship you have with a development executive, channel or particular commissioning editor will influence how you develop your subject into a programme idea, as you need to tailor it to their particular tastes and/or business needs.

If the thought of developing your programme idea to a specific brief upsets your artistic sensibilities, the alternative is to pour all your energies into fully working up an idea and then think about which production company or channel might be interested in it. But you can save yourself a lot of work and emotional angst if you do a reality check early on to make sure that someone will want to commission it, otherwise you are looking at wasting a lot of time and energy on something that will never be made, or putting a lot more time and energy into maxing out your credit cards/raising the money yourself.

Turn a subject into a programme idea

A single subject area can be turned into at least ten different programme ideas, depending your audience. So, instead of pitching an idea about gangs, dinosaurs or cooking, you might pitch:

  • A one-off documentary about girl gang members in South Central LA who are setting up a soup kitchen to help homeless single mothers get off the streets.
  • A children’s competition series, where they are taken to the Natural History Museum and have to complete a series of challenges, such as build a life-sized dinosaur from a pile of bones, or curate a special exhibition from artefacts they’ve found in the archives.
  • A daytime cooking series that challenges the two top chefs of cities around the country to go head to head in a cook-off, judged by school dinner ladies.

Idea checklist

The basics of any narrative, and therefore any programme idea, are:

Who – Who are your main characters, experts, presenters? (In the first of our examples above, it would be girl gang members…)

Where – Where is your programme set? In a studio like American Idol? In a home like How Clean is Your House? In a taxi like Cash Cab?  – (…in  South Central LA.)

What – What happens, what are your characters doing? Exploring the history of finance (The Ascent of Money) or making over a house (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) – (…who are helping homeless single mothers get off the streets.)

How – How to do they do it? By travelling the world and visiting monuments and museums as in Around The World In 80 Treasures? By immersing themselves in a situation like Dirty Jobs?  – (…by setting up a soup kitchen where young women can learn new skills and build their self-esteem.)

Asking yourself the who/what/where/how of an idea will also help you refine your initial pitch (what’s known in Hollywood as the elevator pitch) – if you can’t describe your idea in one sentance you still have some work to do on the format. Go back and work out the exact who/what/where/how and you will have the basis of a strong idea and the beginnings of a killer pitch.

Get more development and pitching tips in Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch



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