Many people have ideas that they think should be on TV, but having an idea is the easy part. Actually getting an idea on TV is fiendishly difficult even if you are a professional TV producer with many years experience.
Malcolm Gladwell famously said in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of practice (equivalent to roughly five years of full time effort) for someone to become skilled and successful in an area of sport, business or the arts. The same is true if you want to get your idea on TV – the ability to understand the market, generate dozens of ideas, spot new talent, write proposals and pitch all takes time and practice.
But let’s imagine you have just one idea. This idea is so good that you will do anything to get it on television, but you don’t want to spend your time doing an apprenticeship in a TV development team churning out ideas you don’t really care about. Here are five other ways to invest your 10,000 hours.
1. Write a book. Producers are always on the hunt for new onscreen talent – and finding new talent with a ready-made televisual idea is their idea of winning the jackpot. One of the best ways to attract their attention is to write a definitive, zeitgeisty or provocative book, especially if it fits into one of the specialist factual genres: science, history, art, religion and natural history. Do the research, find a new angle or argument, get it published, and then send a copy to the relevant development executives at independent production companies who make programmes in the area of your expertise. With a bit of luck you’ll get a meeting and can work with them to develop your idea further before pitching it to a TV channel. Estimated time: two+ years (on top of 10 years+ of prior training/expertise).
2. Get a job in TV. The more senior position you hold, the more power you wield. That’s true in any industry. But in TV terms, the higher up the management pole you are, the closer you are to the people who make the final commissioning decisions and that access makes it easier to pitch your own ideas. Get a job as runner, then work you way through researcher, associate/assistant producer, producer and series producer until you get to the lofty position of executive producer from where you can leverage your seniority to attend industry conferences, mixers, pitch meetings and PTA boards at the school where your target commissioner sends their children. From there it’s only a matter of time before you get your chance to pitch your idea. Estimated time: 15+ years.
3. Make a film and win an award. Commissioning editors like to reduce their risk of failure and having celebrated production talent attached to an idea does exactly that. A director has a short window of time following a BAFTA or Emmy when every door will be open to them, with channel executives desperate to hear their ideas, commission another potentially award-winning programme and bask in the reflected glory of the stellar ratings and reviews. Grab a camera, learn to edit (or find someone who can) make a film, submit it to the festival circuit and hope it wins an award. Repeat ad infinitum until successful. Estimated time: 2-40+ years.
4. Make friends in all the right places. In this game contacts are king and people in power like to mix with other people in power. If you are the CEO of an international company, the editor of Vogue or the head of the Natural History Museum you have a reasonable chance of securing a lunch date with a commissioner if you get your people to call their people. If you’re not yet at that stage you need to play a longer game. Look around your friends, colleagues and family, find out who has contacts in the media and make friends with them. If you are at university, work out who has a great career ahead of them and stick to them like glue: their career is your career. Bide your time, send them birthday cards, ply them with alcohol and wait… Eventually, if you are lucky, they will ascend to the position of controller or commissioning executive at a TV network and you are right their by their side, whispering your ideas in their ear… Estimated time: 1 week – 20+ years.
5. Build up an area of expertise. One excellent way of getting a commission is to have unique expertise or access to a world that is normally out of bounds (and also a good way to make sure your idea doesn’t get ripped off). In this instance, if they want a programme based on your expertise or in your world they have no choice but to put you and your ideas at the top of their to-buy list. The greater your real-world expertise and influence, the greater your TV-world power. Get a job, and work hard and make a name for yourself in your field: A&R (Simon Cowell), business (Donald Trump), cooking (Gordon Ramsay) or wherever your passion takes you. Once you are a global success you will be able to call the TV shots too. And if no-one likes your ideas you can just go back to counting your millions. Estimated time: 15+ years.
Whether you are working in TV or another field, if you want to get your ideas commissioned you need to put in many hours of learning, coaching, practice and trial and error. So there we have it. No quick fixes, unfortunately, but start now and you might just have a chance…
If you want to learn more about developing and pitching your ideas take a look at Greenlit: Developing Your Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch.