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How to Write a Proposal a TV Commissioner Will Actually Read

Commissioning editors can receive up to 80 programme proposals a week; few will be read from start to finish. Many commissioners never read past the first paragraph, or even the title. On average, they make a decision within 40 seconds. Usually that decision results in the proposal being filed in the bin.

So how can you make sure a commissioner keeps reading to the end of your proposal? Here are ten ways to make your proposal stand out and keep your commissioner reading to the end.

Your proposal must have:

1) Title

Your title can be the most important part of the proposal that doesn’t matter.

Many ideas have been commissioned on the strength of a good title and nothing else – for example How Clean is Your House, was a phrase that was tossed into the conversation as a commissioning meeting was wrapping up, and Ben Frow commissioned it. Therefore, it makes sense to give your idea a good title if you can – it should be evoke the tone of the show and tell the viewers what they’re going to see, for example: The Big Food Fight, Baby Borrowers, Murderball , An Inconvenient Truth, Man on Wire , Location, Location, Location, Grand Designs.

A mistake that producers often make is to try to be too clever with their titles. Convoluted puns and insider references to high culture won’t make the cut – not because your audience is dumb, but because TV listings only allow small number of letters. This is especially true for EPG – electronic programme guides – which allow 40 characters (however, only the first 10 will show for a 30′ programme), so if the title doesn’t reflect the content and fast, viewers are likely to ignore or miss it, as they flick through the TV guide.

The channel have ideas of their own too – so under Stuart Murphy, BBC3 titles were of the in-your-face variety such as, My Penis and Everyone Else’s, Fuck Off I’m a Hairy Woman. Similarly, Channel 4 likes titles with shock value – The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off. If you are pitching to a channel that has a strong identity, give your idea a suitable name – there’s no point being coy, you need to show that your show belongs on their channel and nowhere else (if this makes you feel uncomfortable you and the channel are probably not a good fit and you should pitch elsewhere).

However, if you can’t nail your title it doesn’t actually matter at this stage – as your film/programme/series evolves during shooting and editing a better title might present itself. You can get so caught up with trying to come up with the perfect title that you never get round to pitching it, (or worse, someone else pitches something similar before you do and get the commission).

If you are stumped, a good working title is the “Ronseal” title, for example: Delia’s How to Cook, How Not to Be Shark Bait, How to Sleep Better (my original title was Get into Bed with BBC1), What Not to Wear, You Are What You Eat, Rogue Traders… you get the gist. Not only are these tittles good working titles they often end up as the final title. To find yours, just describe what your programme is about.

And a word of warning if you are pitching to an international channel – what works in the UK (or USA) might not work elsewhere. For example, Strictly Come Dancing works in the UK because it accurately conjures up the programme – by simultaneously invoking a classic and much-loved institution and a cult dancing movie. However, those cultural references don’t translate, which is why you’ll find the same show being shown in 30+ countries as Dancing with the Stars, which does exactly what it says it is going to do.

2) Ownership

Put your contact details on the proposal – you’ll be surprised how many people don’t. You should keep your proposal to one page but if there is supplementary material – character/presenter biogs or showreel, make sure you put your name and contact details on everything, as it might get separated from your main proposal.

If you work for a production company, make your logo prominent – the commissioner wants to be reassured that you have the reputation, skills and resources to execute the idea.

3) Duration and number of episodes

The commissioning editor wants to know the shape of your idea, as one of the ways they’ll be assessing your idea is to imagine where it will fit in their schedule. Don’t make your commissioner get excited about your pitch and then have their hopes dashed when you reveal you’re pitching a feature doc. If you are proposing a 90 minute documentary and the channel only has 60 minute slots, you’re never going to get a commission.

In this instance you should have done your homework upfront – either offer them an hour long documentary, or work out if you can reformat it into 2 hour long programmes to make it more workable for the channel.

4) Genre

Be upfront about what you’re pitching.

Some channels favour different approaches over others – for example, they might only commission heavily formatted shows and never buy docudramas. You shouldn’t fall into the trap of pitching the wrong kind of programme to a channel if you’ve done your research, but stating your film’s genre at the top saves the commissioner searching all the way through your proposal to reassure themselves that your idea is takes an appropriate approach for them. If they’re wondering what kind of animal your film is, they’re not concentrating on the reading your proposal properly (or listening to your pitch, for that matter).

5) Outline

by maveric2003 under CC

by maveric2003 under CC

Condense all the information a commissioning editor needs into the opening paragraph and gradually give more detail as the proposal progresses.

This inverted pyramid structure is a classic approach used in news journalism, the idea being that if a breaking news story comes in up against the deadline, the editor can create space by lopping off the ends of existing articles without harming them.

For our purposes, we need to remember that we have about 40 seconds to grab the commissioner’s attention, so you need to tell them all they need to know in the first paragraph. Once you’ve got their interest they will be happy to read more detail. If you don’t your carefully crafted proposal is in the bin.

Your title is the first piece of information the commissioner will use to decide whether to read on.

Next, a compelling tagline should describe your film in one sentence – this is the sentence you use to describe your film to strangers. If you can’t describe it in one sentence, you haven’t yet nailed what it is about and you will find it hard to pitch.

Your first paragraph expands on the tagline and gives an overview of the overall narrative in general terms. State the genre if you haven’t already done so.

“This observational documentary follows a year in the life the children, parents and teachers as they struggle to save their failing nursery school from closure, by using new, and controversial teaching methods imported from the USA.”

Instantly we know that it will be full of conflict and human drama, with real-life jeopardy and a measurable outcome within a set period of time. The mention of controversial teaching methods acts as a teaser, making the reader want to find out more.

Next you need to spell out the specifics “an oversubscribed nursery school in the most deprived/leafiest part of Manchester” is better than “set in a failing school” as it tells us more about what we might see (and the first paragraph has already told us the school is failing – this suggests some reasons why). If you have already negotiated access to a specific school, mention it.

Introduce the characters – at this stage you are painting the picture rather than writing detailed biographies, so describe characteristics: “Alison, the disillusioned, snappy headmistress… Sarah, the quiet but determined mother of six… Harry the hen-pecked caretaker, ” so the reader begins to get a sense of the people, their motivations, challenges, strengths and weaknesses. If you are asking an audience to sit through 90 minutes or a six-part series with these people they need to know that they will be informed, entertained or inspired by them – they need to provoke emotion in the viewers because they can identify with them in some way.

Give an overview of how the narrative plays out – you might not know if it’s an ob doc, but you still need to lay out a story (it doesn’t matter if it changes as you film and edit), so make a best guess. What are the milestones and potential turning points? This is particularly important if you are proposing a series – each episode needs to have a self-contained narrative – The day of inspection”, “The US Troubleshooter arrives”, “The Nativity Play”, as well as a potential cliffhanger that will compel the audience to tune in the following week.

Mention any special story-telling techniques you will use – animation, archive footage, hidden cameras, and flag up any scheduling issues – for example, if the US expert is arriving on a certain pre-arranged date that you have to film.

by Frauenfelder under CC

by Frauenfelder under CC

6) Style

Once you’ve written your first draft, rewrite it. Cut out all the hyperbole – don’t say it’s a compelling, extraordinary journey, If the story is extraordinary, it should speak for itself and the commissioner will come to the conclusion that this is an intriguing or exciting film without you having to tell them.

Use short words and short sentences. You’re not proving how educated and clever you are, you are making your proposal easy to read for someone who doesn’t have much time.

Use active words in the present tense – it gives your idea energy and makes you sound confident.
“The children to the zoo and see elephants for the first time.”
“One of the trips the children could go on is a trip to the zoo.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the children do actually go to the zoo but you have provided a visual image that will give the commissioner an idea that you are going to be following the children on activities as they learn about the world, which has the potential to be cute, funny and heartwarming.

Cut it down so it fits on one page. If the commissioner loves is and needs to see more they will ask. Give them six pages, and I guarantee you’ve wasted a tree.

7) Proofread

Print out your proposal and put it to one side for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight, before proofreading it. Ask someone else to spot the typos and spelling mistakes that your eye has grown used to.

For a final sense check, ask someone who is unfamiliar with the project to read the proposal and tell you what the film is about. If they can’t, you have more work to do.

If they’re excitedly asking you questions, you’re on to a winner. If they’re furrowing their brow as they ask questions, you haven’t nailed it, in which case you need to ask yourself some hard questions: is it your proposal that is unclear, or does the idea itself not stand up to scrutiny? Better to find out now than when sitting in front of someone important, as you might never get a second chance.

Proposal Boosters:

There are a couple of additional details you can add to your proposal, and they can lift it from a film that is ‘nice to have’ to ‘must have’ programme.

8) A photograph

A carefully chosen image can really lift your proposal, bringing it to life by adding a splash of colour to a boring expanse of black and white text (personally, I think a photo is essential). It doesn’t have to be directly related to your idea, but does need to set the tone of your film. A striking image makes your proposal more memorable and easier to spot if your commissioner is trying to find it amongst a pile of papers.

Flickr has lots of interesting images that can be downloaded for free under the Creative Commons license (choose photos that are licensed to use for commercial purposes).

9) Production talent

If you are, or are working with an award-winning director, producer or executive producer, put that information prominently at the top of your proposal.

10) Onscreen talent

Commissioners are always looking for new experts or presenters that they can develop to be the face of their channel. If you are pitching an idea around new onscreen talent, it can therefore make your proposal more attractive. In this instance, add a paragraph about their credentials and be prepared to show a talent tape when you pitch.

Likewise, if you are pitching an idea that a famous person is interested in presenting/taking part in/being interviewed for, spell it out close to the top of your proposal.


Need more proposal writing tips – including sample proposals?

Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas from Concept to Pitch reveals how to get an idea for a documentary or nonfiction television series such as Touching the Void, The Apprentice or Supernanny from concept to commission and explains why having a great idea is not enough.

Step-by-step, it demystifies the TV development and commissioning process. You’ll learn how to:
• Generate ideas every day, not just in brainstorms;
• Write a compelling proposal that buyers will actually read;
• Talent spot new presenters and keep them onside;
• Exploit new opportunities offered by different platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook;
• Pitch your idea to the right people;
• Avoid common, embarrassing pitching mistakes;
• Find alternative sources of funding;
• Spot potential roadblocks and troubleshoot your proposal to make sure you get the greenlight.

Candid interviews with fifty top industry insiders – including international producers and buyers – reveal how globally successful shows were originally conceived and pitched; their war stories are salutary, entertaining and inspiring. Each chapter is stuffed with case studies, practical tips, resource lists, sample proposals and exercises designed to boost your skills and help you develop your own commission-winning ideas. Read it straight through for a master class in development and commissioning, or dip in to specific chapters when you need a refresher.

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What industry veterans say about the book:
“After 25 years in this crazy business, it’s the first time I have seen TV commissioning so comprehensively and entertainingly dissected.”Mike Slee: Independent Film & TV Producer/Director“The most comprehensive, insightful and entertaining book on television commissioning you’ll ever read.”Christian Drobnyk, Director of Entertainment, UKTV.“Spending a few hours reading this book now will save you months- even years – of blood, sweat and tears… Indispensable.” Lina Prestwood, Director of Content Current TV“Blows the lid on so many TV secrets the industry may never be the same again”Tom Archer, Controller Factual Production, BBC“More information than a year of film school. As soon as I’d read it, I read it again. I didn’t want to miss a single word. I only wish this book had been around when I started in the industry.” Fiona Tudor Price, Chairwoman, Women in Film and Television, South Africa

See also:

The Secret of Finding Fabulous Free Photos For Your Television Proposal

Six Ways to Allay Your Commissioning Editor’s Fears and Get the Greenlight for your TV Programme

Give Me the Money and I’ll Shoot! Finance Your Factual TV/Film Project


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