You might think that all you need to get your TV programme commissioned is a good idea. Not so.
Assuming you have a really good idea, and have sprinkled it with fairy dust for luck, it is still unlikely that you will get your idea commissioned. Why? Because your commissioner is scared. They’re scared of commissioning a television programme that might fail. And failing programmes put their jobs on the line. Which makes it your job to allay those fears and make it easy for them to say yes.
Here are six fears you need to address in your proposal and pitch:
As a TV commissioner reads your proposal or listens to your pitch, they are trying to picture what your programme will look like on screen. They want to know how it is structured; what the point of view is; whether it’s serious or irreverent; how the story is told – with voice over, presenter, contributors; with archive, animation, interviews or secret filming?
They are also working out where it would fit in the schedule – does it fit with the tone of the channel? Does it fit with other programmes that are scheduled on a certain night? Does it address a current commissioning need?
If they can’t picture the finished programme, they won’t risk spending a lot of money on commissioning your programme. And that makes perfect sense – would you buy a “red car”? No – you’d want to know the make, the model, number of doors, mileage, the engine size, fuel consumption, insurance group, and features such as CD player, airbags and central locking.
Fear Buster: Have a clear vision and communicate it well.
Sometimes you might have a great idea that depends on great characters, a celebrity or an expert presenter. Commissioners will be silently weighing up your chances of being able to cast your show.
For example, if they are at a small cable channel, they are unlikely to believe that you will be secure the services of an A-list Hollywood star. If you have friends in high places, and have managed to interest said A-list star or top-notch academic to take part in your programme, you need to present proof. Get a letter from them or their agent, expressing their interest, or make a taster tape with them to prove they are on board.
You might be suggesting a reality show that depends on larger-than-life characters. Commissioners will generally accept that the casting process will find great characters, however if you are suggesting something out of the ordinary, you need to prove you can deliver on your promise. So, if you are proposing a documentary about an extremely rare disease, you need to have located people who suffer from that disease, and who are willing and able to take part in your programme.
Or you might be proposing a formatted series that needs a presenter. If you are pitching to a broadcaster, it’s probably enough to suggest some names, as they will have their own ideas of who they would like. If you are pitching to a smaller cable channel, it’s likely that they don’t have a big talent budget and so will be looking for new onscreen talent. Finding good talent is notoriously difficult and time consuming, so finding someone upfront will get your commissioner excited.
Fear Buster: Provide proof – names, emails, taster tapes – that you have already located your talent or contributors. You’ll get extra points if you manage to find a famous person who is willing to step outside of their normal world to front a subject that might otherwise be difficult to cover. For example, Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive is a great example of a difficult subject presented by a famous person that went on to be critically acclaimed and popular with the audience.
Which leads us to…
TV commissioners want column inches. They want to feel they are contributing something good to the television landscape and that their jobs are worthwhile. The majority of commissioners have come through the ranks as filmmakers, and then find themselves in a job where they no longer get to see their name on the end of a programme. Their only validation comes when a programme they commissioned is publicly praised, in the first instance by the previewers and reviewers, and later by the television award judges.
And if they get negative publicity, it’s like a stab through the heart… What’s worse, is that they then become even more cautious in their commissioning decisions.
So what you need to do is reassure them that your finished show will be a quality product (apologies the word ‘product’ strikes you through the heart, but that’s what we’re talking about here, if we’re completely honest). They need to know that it will be made by someone who knows what they’re doing, and has as much of an emotional investment it being a success as they do.
Fear Buster: Attach a respected director or Executive Producer who has a proven track record making the type of programme you are pitching. Even better if they have already won awards and massive audiences.
Commissioners are busy people and they don’t want to have to nanny you through the production process (although some are more hands-on than others). And they don’t want any nasty surprises: they need to know that you will produce your programme within the allotted schedule, within the budget and without any legal issues.
Fear Buster: The easiest way to reassure your commissioning executive is to have the back-up of a reputable production company, that has a strong track record of making successful and solvent programming. If you are just starting out, you are unlikely to persuade a TV commissioner to give you their money if you don’t have this support – but you can approach a production company before you pitch to see if they will partner with you.
There are now hundreds of TV channels available to viewers and so it’s hard to make them stand out in the schedules. This is particularly true on the EPG (electronic programme guide – what you see when you are flicking through the channel schedules on Sky+, Freeview or TiVo), as they only allow a limited number of characters to be shown on screen.
Your programme needs to capture the audience’s attention and fast, so you need a great title that sums up the show, so viewers know exactly what they’re going to see. This is especially true for cable channels, which have lots of TV shows on the same subject that they need to differentiate from each other.
Consider these Food Network Shows and see if you can guess what they’re about (click through for the answers and to see clips):
Fear Buster: Have a ‘Ronseal’ title – that “does exactly what it says on the tin”.
TV channel executives are scared of championing a show that no-one else at the channel will like. Remember, you might be pitching to someone who will have to ‘go upstairs’ to pitch your idea to their boss. they can only do that if they really believe in your project. You need to fire them up with enough enthusiasm to propel them up those stairs like a rocket, excited to tell anyone who will listen about the surefire idea they’ve just been pitched.
If you don’t believe in your idea, there’s no reason for anyone else to. If you aren’t passionate about your proposal, do more work on it until you get that ‘aha’ moment. It might be that the idea is solid, but it’s just not your thing – if that’s the case, get someone else to pitch it for you.
Fear Buster: Pitch your idea with passion – it’s infectious.
So there you have it: six ways to allay your commissioner’s fears. You may, of course, be able to get your idea away without having all of these elements in place, but the more you do have, the better your chances.