The first thing most network execs or producers will ask you is “What’s your format?”. Are you proposing a documentary style format or a formatted concept? What’s the difference?
A format is a production or story structure that doesn’t change from episode to episode. In a competition format, it’s a device that is used to intensify competitive drama … and is often used in shows where the outcome has an expected winner. Shaw Media’s Top Chef Canada is one example, as are “Survivor and “The Bachelor”. All these shows use different structures, but remain consistent within their own structure.On Gordon Ramsay’s “Ramsay’s Best Restaurant” two restaurants in the same food genre (Italian vs Italian, Indian vs Indian etc.) compete against each other with 3 specific challenges that have to be met. At the end of the show, Gordon Ramsay has to decide which restaurant will make it to the semi finals. This structure is the same from episode to episode, culminating in a semi final and final restaurant cook-off. Networks LOVE competition formats because they easily lend themselves to being sold from country to country. Because the established structure remains the same, this allows for local languages, local hosts, experts and competitors. “Big Brother,” “Top Chef,” and “Chopped” are examples of shows that are produced world-wide. Even “Ramsay’s Best Restaurant” could have a UK version, an American version, a Canadian version etc. and could all be presided over by Ramsay himself … or not.
Competitive formats usually evolve and progress over the arc of the season (the episodes) ending with an explosive final competition. Some competitive formats like “Fear Factor” resolve the competition at the end of each episode. Shows like “Fear Factor” do well in syndication because audiences can watch them as “stand alone entertainment” meaning they don’t need to catch the full season to know what’s going on with new contestants and competitions each show.In a documentary format, producers look for interesting and unique stories/situations in real life that are entertaining for audiences. This could be a unique profession or business like History Channel’s Duck Dynasty, an interesting or hilarious family dynamic Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, History Channel’s Duck Dynasty, a certain type of lifestyle, like Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules or History Channel’s Duck Dynasty, (yes, I’m joking with you) or anything that large groups of viewers could find interesting. One of the reasons Duck Dynasty was such a huge success is that it contained elements from all these criteria. Entertainment follows this simple formula for success: The more things there are for audiences to like in a show that they can relate to themselves, the bigger the audience that will watch the show if it’s good. It’s a numbers game first. A creative game second. Some of you reading this will cringe, but how many really great niche series have been cancelled after their first season because no one came to watch it? If your idea only appeals to a small segment of all people … no matter how great the show, the odds will be against your succeeding. A little tough love from yours truly.
To pitch a reality idea you need a Title, Logline and Synopsis (format).
The title should be clever or interesting. It could be a play on words like History Channel’s Pawn Stars or dead-ahead like Bravo TV’s Million Dollar Listing LA. At the very least, it should tell you something about what the show is about.
A logline is the two or three sentence pitch that communicates what the concept of the idea is about. Your logline will tell the folks in the room what the premise is and why it’s unique – the twist. The true test of a good idea is the logline. If you can’t describe what your show idea is about and why it’s unique in 2 sentences, it’s probably not a great concept.Spend time on your logline writing, editing, rewriting and editing. It has to be tight. It has to be clear. It has to show that you know your idea and why your audience will embrace it. Bottom line: you are selling YOUR idea so sell it like you’re channeling Josh Altman from Million Dollar Listing LA.
A Synopsis for a reality TV show pitch is where you have the opportunity to talk about the dynamics and unique moments in the show. For a competitive format you’ll outline how the format works … the structure … how the story progresses, all within 4 pages max. If you’re pitching a documentary style reality show, your synopsis will outline what the show’s world is about, who the main characters are and what the dynamic is about. You’ll dig a little into the nitty gritty … talk about interesting situations, potential moments that will CREATE the drama and conflict. To a certain extent with unscripted series, the set up of those encounters is controlled by the writers and producers of the show. What happens next isn’t. The interest for those who could potentially make the series is in those sorts of details. Also remember, you’re pitching events and scenarios in progression of how they’ll happen … no one else in the room knows the show that’s in your head. Be super organized and clear but most of all keep it simple by really editing your pitch to essential information. Again … write, edit, write, edit … until your fingers bleed. Resist the temptation to bang on with flowery prose about details that are potentially confusing and unnecessary. Move your pitch story along at a good pace. These people are professionals and will grasp the concept right away if you pitch it properly, you don’t need to school them on human behaviour or how television works.
Let’s say you met with the production head of a network, or an independent production studio and they love your concept, The production company will then want to pitch it to a network so they will want to “option” your idea. At this point it’s worth hiring an entertainment lawyer who will negotiate the deal on your behalf. Part of this will be for the financial side, but part will determine your involvement in production and what your “credit” will be. Producer, creator, co-producer are typical types of credits. In the case of the network, they will want to pick a production company to develop the show – usually one they have worked with before on something similar to what you have. Again, an entertainment lawyer is good idea to involve at this point.
Asking me about fees and income is like asking me how long a ball of string is. Ask the entertainment lawyer. Usually fees are negotiated based on your prior successes and how well the geniuses think your concept will do. If you’re just starting out with no credits to your name, you will get less in fees, a credit and will be in a better power position next season if your show is a hit. If you get lucky and are picked up for another season, fees increase, syndication gets thrown on the table (make sure your lawyer is all over International licensing etc) and you just might be able to buy a new house. Good luck and here’s to hoping that your next pitch is a success!