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TV Development Tips

Development Lessons from the ER – How to Triage Ideas

photo by brykmantra

photo by brykmantra under CC

I have often danced with drunks and stuck needles in toddlers’ faces – what I learned during my 10 years as an Accident and Emergency nurse has served me well in TV development, as there are  many similarities:

Life in the ER:

  • In A&E you never know what crisis you’ll have to face when you go into work.
  • Everyone thinks their problem is the more urgent than anyone else’s.
  • Sometimes a seemingly healthy patient deteriorates and dies before your eyes: there’s nothing you can do to save them.
  • Sometimes you have to accept that not everyone is going to survive.
  • Sometimes people surprise you by recovering against all the odds.
  • There are certain people who turn up  in the middle of a crisis, make sure everyone knows they are there and have saved the day, and then leave behind a scene of devastation (to be cleared up by the person who probably did save the day, but will never get the credit).
  • The experience A&E nurse uses observation, interrogation and gut instinct to quickly assess every patient.

Lessons learned that apply to TV Development:

  • You never know what crisis you’ll face when you go into work – be ready to drop everything and pitch in in an emergency.
  • People with more seniority than you are unswerving in their belief that their idea is better, more important, and more urgent than anyoneelse’s. They are usually wrong and should be put to the back of the queue.
  • Sometimes seemingly strong ideas unexpectedly die.  You might be able resuscitate them, but there comes a time when you have to accept there is nothing more you can do.
  • It can be worth throwing an unlikely idea into the conversation with a commissioner – sometimes they commission the unlikeliest things.
  • There are certain producers and execs who turn up, shout a lot, and then leave, making sure everyone knows they’ve just been incredibly creative. Their real talent lies in creating a scene of devastation(to be cleared up by the person who will save the day but will never get the credit).
  • To avoid being distracted by routine, non-urgent demands on your time, you need to apply principles of triage to your workload. This will ensure that you are spending the most time on the ideas that have the highest chance of being commissioned.

How to Triage

Triage can be used to assess all ideas that come through the door – and keep reassessing your workload and prioritizing as the situation changes on a daily/weekly/monthly basis:

  • Red = Urgent – Any idea that comes from the mouth of a commissioning editor should get priority, as should any idea that rests on topical and exclusive access that needs to be shot within the next two weeks. Deal with this today.
  • Yellow = Serious – Any idea that fits a channel’s brief and where you have an existing relationship with a commissioning editor. Any idea that has already been pitched to a commissioner and you are developing further. Deal with these ideas this week.
  • Green = Routine – Any ideas in the early stages of development, prior to pitching. Ideas in this category can move up suddenly to another category if guerrilla pitched and commissioner interest secured. They are also likely to move down if no attention is paid to them. Deal with these as soon as you can, but not at the expense of more serious priorities.
  • Blue = Time-Waster – These are subject areas not ideas and shouldn’t have come through the door. Smile nicely, and eventually they will get fed up and go away.
  • DOA = Dead on Arrival – Some ideas, however much you want to save them, however good, talented or have unfulfilled potential they have, they are never going to make it past the commissioner’s door – the talent causes a scandal, a new commissioner takes over just before you manage to get the greenlight or the channel is too risk-averse.  Sometimes these ideas do come back from the dead, but usually you have to accept that there is nothing you can do, and walk away.

So spare a thought for those on the development front-line – it is a stressful, unpredictable and thankless job. On the plus side, go to any factual conference and you do get to dance with drunks….

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


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