A short while ago a reader got in touch… okay it was several months, but a response is a response, right? Oh, no. Now I’ve got a proper job I’ve changed. I’ve turned into that guy. Oh well, it was always going to happen. I promise to still speak to you if you grab me in the street. Want a selfie? Sure, no problem. Although I do need to monetise my content, so like Sandra off of Gogglebox I shall be charging. £1million each. A bargain at a minuscule fraction of the price.
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Back to my correspondent (finally) who asks this question…
‘What is best way to pitch a TV format idea to a production company? I get the impression that format ideas tend to come from within production companies, and they’re not particularly open to ideas from the outside.’
The biggest hurdle has already been identified by the correspondent themselves. Most production companies have development teams; people hired for their format creating brains. They’re paid to sign away to the corporate behemoth every flash of inspiration in each cell of every dark recess of their flat white sipping brains. If you want a career in television development then having ideas and sending them to companies is the way to start. They want keen, usually young people to come in and create their next hit. If you have great ideas, enthusiasm and an open attitude then you have a chance of making a career in it.
This is similar to companies not accepting unsolicited scripts, but even more exclusive because most companies who produce formats need to keep their ideas in house and retain the rights — it’s how their business works. With scripted shows companies need to tap into writing and performing talent outside the payroll and there is a, justified, acknowledgment of the creator/writers work before a production company takes an idea on and that is reflected in the deal. With non-scripted formats companies generally don’t want to look at other peoples’ ideas lest they be accused of stealing. The format world is tricky in this area — legal issues do come up. Sometimes a format has a sprinkle of the essence of plagiarism and often there isn’t much of a format at all, it’s just, say, Micky Flanagan, Caroline Quentin 1 or another big showbiz name like someone off the TOWIE going off on a jolly. A perfectly good idea for a show, but not something that will sell around the world and generate huge income for a national broadcaster (ooh, bit of politics there, maybe?)
And, of course, many ideas are commonplace. I’ve seen several shows where I’ve thought, ‘I had that idea’ but I genuinely don’t think any have been stolen. I do have one instance where it has, sort of happened and I was pretty shocked — it’s not a show that has ever made it on air. It’s rare, but it happens and I might blog about that separately sometime. That shouldn’t stop you having ideas and getting them out there — it’s an anecdotal rule that the more precious about the legal protection of an idea people are, the less likely they are to make progress. I know that can seem like a Catch 22, but it does turn out to be true. It’s something David Quantick references in his book How To Write Everything in relation to scripts – the bigger and more frequent the copyright notices are, the worse the script tends to be.
So, you’re in a tricky situation as a wannabe format creator outside the industry. There are, however, some smaller companies out there who don’t have the staff to pump out ideas and are open to submissions. You’ll have to do your own research into who they are, but they do exist. Of course, just as with scripts, you face the same uphill struggle of emailing ideas and hoping for a response. And, like anything in life, the more time, effort and research you put into it, the more likely you are to get a response. Coming up with a great television idea seems simple, but you need knowledge of the industry, its history and trends to find an idea that is timely.
With all these hurdles in mind here are a few questions to ask yourself before presenting an idea.
1) Is there an easy to grasp top line?
2) Can you explain how it would fill a slot — half hour, 45mins, an hour — concisely?
3) Is it timely? If there is a good reason why this idea works now, then that helps. Mention Pokemon Go. Instant commission guaranteed.
4) Is it just a regular treatment that explains the idea — a word document? If so, is it short, clear and concise and is there any way you can illustrate the idea simply? Many production companies create short ‘sizzle’ videos either using stock footage and graphics to showcase an idea so lazy, sorry, pressed for time commissioning editors can just click a link and look at an idea while messing around on Twitter, I mean responding to important emails. Or can you showcase your concept in a simple powerpoint rather than a wordy treatment — that can help?
5) Are there any skills, expertise or contacts you can bring to the idea that a production company doesn’t have?
Bear in mind that I am not an expert in creating formats and there are many better qualified people than me, but I do read a lot of treatments and discuss ideas with a hopefully helpful, open and creative mind. I did have a hand in developing Westcountry TV’s hit, one series show Mad About Shopping, however.
Good luck. I’m working a competitive celebrity historical reality jousting format… Strictly Come Lancing. Please don’t nick that. It’s mine, all mine.