Producer’s POV: How (and Where) Should I Pitch My TV Show?

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I get asked this question all the time: How (and where) should I pitch my TV show?

As the Pitch Prep Coach for the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE)’s PitchCon and repeatedly getting up to bat myself as one of the qualified producers in the NBC/Universal partnership with the Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA), I’d say it’s the same answer as for almost everything else in Hollywood:

“It depends.”

William Goldman was right: “Nobody knows anything.”

Still, you’ve got to start somewhere.

photo courtesy of Apple TV

Like any other sales activity, you have to consider:

  • * What it is you’re trying to sell?
  • * What is your actual product?
  • * How can you best show it off?
  • * Who are you selling it to?
  • * Do they even want what you’re trying to sell them?
  • * Are you selling it at the right time?
  • * Are you at the right price point?

That may sound all too business school dry and boring for you creatives but as the world gets smaller and the economics of our industry get ever more squirrely, it behooves you to pay attention to theBusiness of Show.

Sure, I’d love to live in a cabin somewhere and just write (and paint), too. That’s art. That’d be a dream come true. But, unfortunately, I don’t live on Fantasy Island. That’s not making a professional living out of your beloved craft. So, unless you’re independently wealthy (call me), if your goal is to shift your avocation to your vocation, let’s stop for a reality check – and dig a little deeper…

Are you pitching a “blue sky, characters welcome” comedy to the USA network? Or an edgy, one-hour dramedy to ABC Family? Or a half-hour sitcom to TV Land? Or a cheap, easy to produce unscripted reality show with great (detachable) talent “attached”?

If you’re selling a sprawling, bloated, big budget, mini-series to a conservative, fiscally-prudent cable network, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree. But if you’ve got a ripped from the headlines true crime indie feature that might fly as a movie of the week, maybe NBC’s Cloo would be a good target? Could your ultra-low budget, uber high concept (even if cheesy) indie creature feature be pitched to SyFy as a Saturday night popcorn movie? That’s thinking.

TV is the new indie film world. Maybe shift all your indie feature fund raising efforts over to pitching your project instead as a TV MOW that could recoup your production capital via a domestic TV run that could double as free advertising to raise its (and your) profile and launch your international marketing efforts?

It’s all about time, energy, knowledge, resources and connections. And of course, talent. And great ideas. And execution.

For a reality project, you’ve gotta have a protectable format to sell. Yes, ideas get stolen. But don’t go crying to Mommie – especially if you were the one  trying to pitch your no brainer derivative spinoff idea to the person who actually owns the rights to the asset. What is new and different about your singing/dancing/stand-up comedy/high diving/survival/angel investor competition show?

Just like in features: you have to strike that fine balance between being fresh, innovative and original – but not too weird – because they still want familiar and comfy like a favorite old sweatshirt or couch. That’s a fine line. No one wants “the next” Jersey Shore or anymore Housewives. They want what’s new. Not what’s next. Don’t be derivative.

We’re in a TV Renaissance . A new golden era where some of the best writing is on TV.  Don’t turn your nose up at it. Study it. Find your “In.”

Almost all the cable channels are looking for larger than life people extreme behaviors in fascinating families, eccentric subcultures or work environments – with whatever slant they market: travel, fashion, celebreality, etc.  Scripted or reality: it all comes down to character.  Are these intriguing people I’d want to watch intimately while I eat my dinner at home?

Pay attention to who you’re pitching to. What they buy. What they air. What’s been successful within the scope of their brand? What could be? The Food Network wants shows about people who cook versus cooking shows. MTV needs a music angle. TruTV’s gotta  be authentic. Syfy wants to investigate the unbelievable.

Who’s their/your target demographic? Do they mesh? And who caters to them? Showtime and Sprout have wildly different target audiences. The new Esquire Network wants to attract affluent men, morphing from its provenance of the G4 Network – and probably still lingering with the bulk of its audience as computer and gadget-junkie geeks. Oxygen wants bold, audacious women (25 – 35) – on screen and off. Think: who are their obvious brands and advertisers?

Subtle distinctions in tone can make or break your pitch before you’ve even breathed a word – or more likely – even got a foot in the door.

Attention spans are increasingly short in the new millennium but still – they dwarf a Studio Exec’s.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not of the camp that demeans them. They are some of the smartest, quickest web-thinking people I know. And some of the busiest. And under the most stress. Not like a surgeon or a disaster relief worker, I’ll give you that, but their days overflow with higher financial stakes and more political landmines than most of us in Dilbert cubicles will ever (thankfully) have to deal with.

Ultimately, knowing the lay of the land is critical. Who are the players? What are the rules? Even if all of it is constantly shifting and changing – you gotta start somewhere. Know your product. Know your buyers. Know your marketplace. Is what you’re selling even a product? (i.e.: have you actually even “made” something?) Or are you just spitballing and bemoaning that you could write better than the “crap” that’s on TV? Disdain is a great way to get doors shut in your face.

Respect – and passion – and new, creative ideas – and a great work ethic – are great ways to get those doors open.

Watch for my next Producer’s POV when I’ll cover what should be in your TV pitch proposals.

From my Producers’ POV column on Script Magazine.