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Commissioning Tips

Pitching Tips Straight From the Commissioner’s Mouth

Photo by tompagenet CC BY SA 2.0

Pitching is such a tricky thing because you rarely get the opportunity to see other people do it, so you just have to take a deep breath and hope for the best. And chances are you won’t walk out of the door with a commission (research by The Research Centre suggests you have something like a 1 in 10 chance of a commission if you work for a big, well-known indie with an experienced development team; a small company with few development resources have more like a 1 in 100 chance).

As you leave the room you are left wondering: Why didn’t your pitch work? Was it something you did, or didn’t say? Or were they just not that into YOU?

BBC Fast Train recently gave TV freelancers a rare opportunity to witness some live pitches to a panel of commissioners chaired by Camilla Lewis, MD Cineflix. The panel consisted of:

  • Tom Edwards – Commissioning Executive Producer, Features and Formats BBC One & BBC Two
  • Jo Clinton-Davis – Controller Popular Factual Commissioning, ITV
  • Greg Barnett – Commissioning Editor for Entertainment, Daytime & Soaps, Channel 5
  • Andrew Jackson -Deputy Head of Features, Channel 4

They heard eight two-minute pitches in total and gave constructive feedback on each pitch along with their top tips for a successful pitch. Their reactions were often similar, but sometimes their advice wildly differed, depending on their own channel’s agenda. This is what makes the pitcher’s job so hard: a commissioner’s response is naturally both personally and professionally subjective and so it can be hard to tell whether your idea actually has legs but you need to take it to a different channel, or whether you should kill it and try with another one.

The response to each pitch is outline below – the details of each idea are deliberately kept vague to protect the pitchers (who weren’t formally identified to the audience and so their names aren’t available for inclusion)  but you should still be able to get a sense of how the commissioners think. Some of their criticisms are very common so if you can avoid making the same mistakes, you will have a much better pitching experience.

Pitch #1 – A reality TV show based around modern day stress

  • AJ – Workaholics are a relatable starting point – need to get to this point early on in the pitch. Not clear from the pitch whether the series is a competition or episodic narrative.
  • JC-D – Wanted to hear more about the concept rather than the characters. “This is how the show works…” What will we see over 60 minutes? How will the narrative sustain over that time?
  • TE – Need to get some sense of why this subject is compelling to the producer and what, therefore, will be compelling to the audience. Need to anticipate any objections to the idea and address them upfront in the pitch.
  • GB -What’s the hook? Think about the messages you need to get out in the first 30 seconds of the pitch. Think of your pitch like a promo for your idea.
  • CL – There were some good selling points but they were hidden in the pitch – need to  put them at the top of the pitch

Pitch #2 – Travelogue fronted by a comedian

  • JC-D – It seemed like a pitch in two halves – a travelogue morphed into a standup comedy show. Where’s the returnability? Is it a one-off series? If so, it’s not very future-proof.
  • TE – The specificity of the places visited closes it down to a wider audience making it too niche. How could it be opened up?
  • AJ – Really liked that it was pitched as a narrative that originated from a personal observation/experience
  • GB – It’s an interesting concept but the format is confused. What is the presenter actually going to do in each place? Did well to get all the information about the idea in the first few sentences:
    • The inspiration behind the idea
    • Personal passion of the producer
    • Good overview of the content
    • Good introduction to the type of talent who would be interested in fronting the show.

Pitch #3 – Celebrity-fronted charity show

  • JC-D – Gets straight to the core concept but it’s hard to get celebs to commit this much time and energy. Needs a really entertaining format and conceit to give it an extra dimension. Can entertainment values be successfully blended with the harsh realities of charity work? What can we learn from charity Celebrity Apprentice? The format needs to be greater than the talent name i.e. the format needs to be the star.
  • AJ – Charity is a hard sell on Ch4 – hard for it to be edgy. Likes its purpose and there’s a reason for doing it now. However, BBC does charity shows – Red Nose Day, Children in Need and Sports Relief – very well already so not sure there’s a need.
  • TE – It’s a good area and the emotion is strong. It would be hard to get the talent to commit to a long period – could something similar be delivered over a shorter production period?
  • GB – Who, why and what sets it apart?
  • CL – Stop talking about charity and talk about the emotional narrative journey instead.

Pitch #4 – Wish fulfillment format

  • TE – It feels zeitgeisty and plausible. Introduce the talent earlier in the pitch – think of your pitch like the pre-title tease of your show. Is it really interesting? Spell out some of the emotional beats. 
  • AJ – Likes the transformation element but it needs to be aspirational for the general public, rather than just aspirational for the individual contributors.
  • JC-D – Likes the universality of the idea. Pitch started with a broad aspiration but then it went narrow and niche. How to give it breadth and scale? What’s the twist?
  • JC – The personal dream has to intersect with the aspirations of the broader population

Pitch #5 – Fashion makeover show

  • AJ – Wanted to hear an acknowledgement of existing fashion shows and why this is different. Personally, he doesn’t like the word ‘fashion’ – likes clothes but doesn’t want to ‘follow fashion’.
  • GB – Feels like this is a saturated market. Why is this unique? Why now?
  • TE – Great to combine emotion with a business makeover format, but for BBC2 needs more Specialist Factual content. Tying in the idea to the fact that we are all short of money is good and very current – could unpack that a little more. Concentrate on the aspects of emotion and skintness. Could shorten the time scale a la 24 Hours in A&E.
  • JC-D – Needs to be a game changer. Needs a clearer proposition. Difficult to make ‘skint’ aspirational. Likes the idea of psychology of fashion – how people can change themselves through their clothes.

Pitch #6 – Celebrity party planners

This idea was an instant hit with the panel and so became more of a discussion rather than a critique of the pitch. The consensus seemed to be that it was a familiar format with a new twist for a modern audience and therefore easy to picture on screen. There was serious interest in the idea from at least one of the commissioners.

Pitch #7 – History show based around WWI artifacts

  • JC-D – Start with a clearer outline of the story – it’s a story of investigation, journey and redemption. Feels too male and military for ITV. Choice of presenter also makes it feel older/male skewing. What could you do to bring in women and a younger audience? Could the same story be told using a wider variety of WWI objects?
  • TE – The upcoming WWI anniversary is a good peg. Likes following  an unfolding emotional journey.
  • GB – Already has a very similar series on the channel – War Hero in My Family
  • AJ – Following very specific personal stories is a good hook.
  • CL – Try to engage the commissioner in a dialogue as early as you can in the pitch. Could you turn this into more of an event programme?

Pitch #8  – Relationship format

  • TE – Feels like the person pitching really likes the idea and would put a lot of passion into making it. How to stop it being too female-skewing? Don’t Tell the Bride manages to pull this off. How to give it a twist? Secret cameras? Format points? Stunts?
  • JC-D – Feels too niche. It can’t be too serious. The relationships need to be between younger people. Think about the tone – the problems need to be real but you can’t play games with peope’s real emotions.
  • GB – Could work as a studio show with a panel and VT inserts and audience phone-in

The panellists’ top pitching tips

Tom Edwards

  • Know the channel you are pitching to
  • Love the channel you are pitching to!
  • Know the shows and talent currently on the channel
  • Talk in ‘the language’ of the channel
  • Write the three-sentence TV listings blurb; what’s the pre-title tease?

Jo Clinton-Davis

  •  Have a big, simple idea
  • Know the core concept and be able to articulate it
  • Why is the show right for now? How is it ‘noisy’?
  • What are you bringing to the idea that makes it distinctive?
  • How is your idea going to touch 4 million people’s lives?

Greg Barnett

  • Watch the channel before you pitch
  • Don’t assume the channel is still showing the programmes it used to show 18 months or two years ago
  • Be able to sum up your idea in one sentence

Andrew Jackson

  • Know the idea inside out
  • Having some footage to show is good – even if it’s just on an iPhone
  • The title needs to stand out on the EPG (electronic programme guide) and must stop the audience flicking past it
  • Don’t bring me a PowerPoint – we know if we like it within 10 seconds so don’t want to sit through 24 slides
  • Don’t bring me anything on an iPad – I don’t know the wifi log-in!

You can find more pitching tips – straight from the commissioner’s mouth – in Chapter 10 of Greenlit: Developing Your Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch

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