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Getting the Greenlight

Seven Lessons from a Life in Development

Photo by pimpexposure

Photo by pimpexposure

When TLC re-branded in 2005, they introduced the notion of ‘life lessons’, along with collectable ornaments and a section on their website for ‘grown-up fun“. In the same spirit I’d thought I’d share some ‘development lessons’ – unfortunately, I don’t have matching knick-knacks, and you’ll have to provide your own grown-up fun. Listed in rough chronological order are a series of key ‘aha’ moments and some hard won triumphs. If there’s enough demand (100+ requests) I’ll do a list of my worst development moments too.

1) Be a mentor

I submitted one of my first ideas when I was working a as production co-ordinator. The development producer said she was interested and asked me to submit a proposal. Huh? I’d never seen a proposal, didn’t know what I was expected to write.  I had three crews going out on shoots that week that needed call sheets, so I didn’t have time to find out. My idea died right there, and I never submitted another idea to that development producer.


If you are a development producer and someone brings you an idea, give them help to develop it. Yes, it takes time, but a little encouragement goes a long way.  And little time invested at the beginning of a relationship can pay huge dividends later. The next time that person brings you an idea (or the time after that) they will know how to present it properly and it could be the next hit programme.

People will usually outperform your expectations if you fuel them with a little encouragement. If you build a reputation as the go-to person in development because you take people’s ideas seriously, give them constructive feedback and give credit where it’s due, you will build a loyal and enthusiastic extended development team.

2) Pitch programme ideas, not subject areas

As a junior researcher, not many months into my first development job, I spent my days working up other people’s ideas. One day,  a commissioner arrived in the office unannounced, looking for my exec producer who was out. Seeing an opportunity, I blurted out an ill-formed idea about how medical advancements occurred during wartime and asked if she might be interested.  “That’s too niche. We need something more specific,” she said, as she disappeared out the door.  Hmm.

I scratched my head, and then set to work. Within a couple of hours, and after some concerted research on Amazon,  I found what I thought could be the perfect answer: McIndoe’s Army by Edward Bishop. It told the story of  the WWII RAF crews who were shot down in flames and became the first plastic surgery guinea pigs. A recce and a proposal later, I pitched the idea again and it was commissioned as The Guinea Pig Club on BBC4.


What made this proposal a success over my first? It was a fully-formed idea rather than a subject area (which is what I’d originally pitched) and it used a specific story, full  of human drama and emotion, to tell a much bigger story (how war has driven medical advances).

3/4) Pitch the improbable

photo by Pin Pon

photo by Pin Pon

My next experience of pitching happened when I unexpectedly bumped into a commissioner late one afternoon. I’d been toying with the idea of proposing a documentary set aboard a hospital ship and had the buy-in of one of their volunteer medics who I thought would be a good character. However, I thought the channel heads would think it too ‘worthy’, and had almost talked myself out of developing it any further. I mentioned it to the commissioner with the intention of getting  a quick ‘no’ so I could kill it and get back to my potential contributor to let him down gently.

So, at 5pm, when the commissioner was non-committal about the idea, I wasn’t too upset – it would give me more time to work up some of the other ideas I had on the go.

At 09.10am the next morning, it turned into a near disaster when she called to say it had been commissioned by BBC3 and needed to transmit in three months! The format of African ER was less than a vague notion and I hadn’t yet spoken to the hospital ship’s PR office to see if they would allow us to film aboard the ship. And we needed to be on the ship and filming in a month.

Lesson i:

Good ideas are worth pitching even if you aren’t sure whether the commissioner will like them. In this instance, and unbeknown to me, another programme in BBC3’s Africa Season had fallen down leaving a hole in the schedule. My pitch came at just the right time to solve an urgent scheduling problem.

Lesson ii:

Get access before you pitch. We spent a frantic few weeks negotiating with the ship (it’s never good to have to negotiate when you have no wiggle room), finding talent at short notice and crewing up. It was a nightmare for the crew to film in cramped quarters, at sea off Sierra Leone, with barely any time for preparation. Against the odds they pulled it off. But (where possible) be kind to yourself and the production team by sorting out your access and talent before you pitch.

5) Give the channel what they want even (especially) if they haven’t asked for it.

by phatman

by phatman

There is a school of thought that you should only ever pitch programmes that directly meet the brief that a commissioner outlines in Broadcast/at a festival/in a pitch meeting. While you can be successful  by pitching to a specific brief, there is also business to be had around the edges of the brief. Sometimes, the channel has odd scheduling holes that they need to fill, or an odd pot of money they need to spend. They probably won’t think to express this need explicitly or publicly, so it’s up to you to anticipate their problems and offer a solution.

There’s a certain amount of luck involved, as there is in all development, but if you get it right, cha-ching! The money is yours and you have a commission.

One-offs can work

For example, channels generally prefer to commission series over one-off documentaries, as they fill the schedule and are cheaper to make per hour. Production companies often prefer them too – they can hire staff for a long production run and can guarantee their workload for several months or even years ahead.

A one-off documentary, on the other hand, takes a the same amount of time and effort to staff, research, plan, film and edit – and when everyone knows exactly what they’re doing, the production is over and you have to start all over with a new subject, production schedule and crew. It’s not a business model favoured by many.

However, one-off docs do have advantages. They can be used as a proving ground for up-coming directors and a production company can retain key staff between longer projects if they can offer them work on a one-off doc in between.

So, like everything else, a varied production diet is recommended.

I had a run of success with a series of one-off docs on BBC4. Every time we met with the channel, I’d offer up another one in the same vein as the last (natural phenomena, such as Lightning and The Life and Times of El Nino). Before long we’d had a several commissioned.

Had we offered a six-part series on natural phenomena the channel would probably turned us down as it was too much of a financial commitment for them. But drip feeding the ideas over a couple of years was a win-win for everyone.

The other advantage  of this approach was that it gave us something new and positive to talk about with the channel execs while we struggled to get more complex proposals off the ground.


Understand the channel you are pitching to, do your research on what’s worked and what hasn’t and then keep you ear to your ground for potential scheduling  or funding issues that you could capitalise on with an opportunistic pitch.

6) Be in it for the long haul

photo by qmnonic

photo by qmnonic

Development is often seen as something to do between jobs, or during short bursts of downtime. This is a mistake.

While there is much to be said for having production staff dipping in and out of development (they can bring a fresh perspective to tricky ideas), the key to being a successful development producer (by which I mean repeated commissions on different channels, not just a one-hit wonder), is to have a long term view and the kind of in-depth knowledge that comes only with experience.

If you are a producer who likes to make films but also likes to keep a foot in development you can be the eyes and ears of the development team, spotting new talent and ideas while out on the road. But you must share those ideas with the development team if you don’t have the time to follow them up yourself (actually you don’t have to, you could take them somewhere else, but you need to tell someone, otherwise they have no value at all).

If you are just starting out on a development career, thinking long-term can really benefit you. Keep a note of everyone you meet who might make an interesting expert or presenter, and keep in touch with the most promising. Often, you will  find a potential host who is rejected by the channel because their presenting style or area of expertise isn’t fashionable.

Keep in contact

If you really believe in them don’t throw away those contact details.  Keep the relationship going (for years if necessary), and stay alert for new opportunities. There will come a time when that a new face is needed for a programme and you can pitch them again.

Years ago, when I was still working as a researcher, I was looking for dive experts to help us with a shoot on Lake Titicaca. I spoke to a few people and set up meetings, and then a production manager said she’d found someone who was keen to help and he would call me. He did and we arranged to meet. He had no TV experience or academic background but was great at explaining scientific concepts and had vast experience of working with scientists. I thought he would make a great presenter of science programmes, but I couldn’t get anyone to take me seriously. The feeling was that science presenters needed an academic background and all the better if they were bearded.

We kept in touch, and met every few months or so, and I discovered he was full of great ideas and had a great enthusiasm for sharing them, so we spent a few very productive afternoons brainstorming over tea and ice-cream by the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London. Those conversations led to the commission of three different series.

Months turn into years

The months went by, and then the years went by… eventually, I spotted my chance. There was a push to find new science presenters and I slipped my guy into the mix of academics who were being screen-tested. Suddenly it didn’t matter whether he was a professor of something or other – he could tell the story in a way the audience would understand, and do it with charm and enthusiasm.

So, three years after we first met, Paul Rose was commissioned to present three programmes in quick succession – Meltdown, Take One Museum and Voyages of Discovery. Reader, I didn’t marry him, but I did have to keep the relationship alive longer than many marriages before I got a commission.

Paul continues to present programmes and we still meet to kick new ideas around.


If you believe in someone or something, don’t give up. It’s important that you don’t obsess over one pet project to the detriment of everything else – move on to other ideas. Keep it on the back burner, keep your contacts sweet and be alert to new pitching opportunities.

7) Collaborate

image by kentbye

image by kentbye

During one of our brainstorming sessions, Paul Rose told me of an old expedition to map and measure India. I bought the book and thought it would make a great documentary but we needed  to pitch series, so it went back on the shelf.

Around the same time, an assistant producer, Simon Winchcombe, came up with an idea that involved old expedition to measure the shape of the Earth. Again, it was a great subject for a documentary, but not a series. But now we had two ideas, which was two-thirds of a mini-series. All we needed was a third story.

After a lot more research, development and discussion with BBC4 we pitched a 5-part series Voyages of Discovery, which took elements of both ideas and reworked them into a series that explored the history of exploration.


Talk to your colleagues and collaborate when developing ideas – while you might both have good ideas, putting them together could be even better.

So that’s what I’ve learned; what about you?  Add your comments below.

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



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