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Developing Factual Ideas

Help – I’ve Been Asked to Develop Some TV Ideas But I Don’t Know What to Do!

Photo by visualpanic

Photo by visualpanic

Have you been put into a TV development team for a few weeks but don’t know where to start? Don’t panic. Here is an easy (some might say cheat’s) guide to developing TV programme ideas, fast.

All you need to get started is the TV Mole website, which will give you everything you need to find ideas, write up proposals and even pitch if you need to. Here’s what to do:

1. Get a brief

Find out what is expected of you – are you supposed to come up with lots of ideas suitable for any channel? Or are you working within a niche – say ideas for BBC4, Spike TV or The Food Network? Your head of development might be looking to pitch ideas to a range of channels – but find out exactly which ones. There’s no point having ideas, however brilliant, if your development head has no intention of pitching to a particular channel. Knowing this will save you wasting a lot of time.

2. Check out the channels

Once you know which channels you are aiming to pitch ideas to, visit their website and find their commissioning website if they have one.

Here is a list of the UK commissioning websites

Explore their website to see what kind of programmes they transmit and then make sure you watch some of their programmes and analyze them:

  • Is their programming themed around a particular subject eg. cooking, gardening, lifestyle or science?
  • Does their programming have a particular tone – eg. intellectual, bitchy, irreverent or do they have all kinds of programmes?
  • Do they favour a particular type of programme – eg. reality series or presenter-led documentaries?
  • Who is their intended audience – eg. teens, men or family?

3. Generate ideas

Read Ten Habits That Generate Winning Programme Ideas and get to work!

If you are short of time, explore the Be Inspired link for hundreds of ideas that have been hand-picked for their potential to be turned into TV shows.

If you are specifically looking for science, history, lifestyle, natural history, religion, documentary, or reality ideas, explore those individual links where you’ll find dozens of genre-specific ideas. Read the articles, think laterally, pick up the phone to talk to experts in that field and see what you come up with.

4. Develop your idea into a programme idea

Once you’ve found an idea or two that you think has potential you need to develop them further. First do a quick viability check – is your idea on a subject that is of interest to your target channels? There’s no point developing an idea about renaissance architecture for The Food Network (unless, perhaps you have an idea where you are going to get chefs to bake recreations of iconic buildings…).

Don’t just settle on the first approach you think of – how many different ways could your idea be made? Have a look at How to Turn One Subject Idea into Ten Programme Ideas and play around with some different formats.

5.  Get Access / Find Your Talent

In order to make your TV programme idea stand out you need to offer something extra – unique access or great characters (or if you are extremely good, both). Make the phone calls and get meetings with the people who will smooth your way if the programme goes ahead, and get them on your side. If you are pitching an idea about dog lovers, find some good characters and film them talking about their passion for their pets (or whatever is relevant to your idea).

Many programmes get commissioned without having unique access set up or a characters already cast (and it can be expensive in terms of time and money to achieve), but it will give you a great advantage if you can prove that you have either or both these things.

6. Write a proposal

Your proposal is a selling document not a treatment. Nor is it a thesis. It needs to be short and convey the narrative, tone and shape of your idea. Your aim is to open a dialogue and make your commissioner (or Head of Development, if that’s who you are pitching to) want to know more, and to buy into your idea.

There’s no need to get into what kind of shots sizes you’ll be using – that would be like reciting a list of ingredients in an ad for a burger. You don’t want to know exactly what’s in the burger when you are watching an ad – you want to know it’s big, juicy and mouthwatering, comes in a bun and is going to fill you up. It’s the same with a TV proposal  – you are, as they say “selling the sizzle, not the steak”.


How to Write a Proposal a Commissioner Will Actually Read

15 Steps to Writing an Impressive Proposal

The Secret to Finding Fabulous Free Photos for Your Television Proposal

7. Pitch

If you are passionate about your idea and have researched it inside out and upside down, you will be fine. If not, prepare, prepare and prepare.

Read Seven Pitching Lessons from the Dragons’ Den for some tips on how (not) to pitch.

And always prepare to answer the commissioners’ questions and reassure them if they have doubts. See how in: Six Ways to Allay Your Commissioner’s Fears and Get the Greenlight for Your TV Programme.

So there you have it – a crash course in development. Work your way through each of these steps in turn and you will turn in an impressive performance. There’s no guarantee you’ll get a commission – there’s always a sprinkling of luck needed  – but you’ll have acquitted yourself well and will have begun to build a reputation as a great ideas person.


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

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