Someone dared ask me this question. Do people really expect me to give away the secrets of television alchemy? Luckily I’m a kind and gentle soul so here is the answer. You chuck a load of hard work, sweat, luck, disappointment, rejection, misery, elation, hope, pre-crushed dreams (use pestle and mortar), joy, wonder, some jokes, the bruised cheek of Clarkson’s alleged fracas victim into a cauldron and boil for anything from one to ten years.
If you’d like to know the exact recipe – weights and timings etc. – then please send me one million dollars. Oh, I’ve just had an email promising me four million, three hundred and twenty three thousand. Just give me a minute to send my personal details to this kind reader and I can continue to provide this exciting and informative content totally free of charge. Right, done.
The questioner went on to ask, ‘does a production company make a programme and then sell it to a broadcaster, what is the process?’ With maybe a few rare exceptions a production company never makes a show before selling it – if anyone has any examples that prove the rule then let me know1. Even making a fully budgeted pilot and certainly a series would bankrupt or certainly have a huge impact on most production companies, even fair sized ones. Much better, then, to get the broadcaster to pay for the show before making a massive turkey.
What production companies do is generate ideas and attempt to persuade a broadcaster to invest in them. This is usually a long process with a number of steps before a channel decides to commission a series. It’s understandable, a series costs shedloads of cash – to give you a vague idea a half hour comedy might be anything from £100,000 per episode at the very low budget end to £250,000 or more at the higher end. Dramas generally have bigger budgets and we comedy producers are not bitter at all.
I’ve had plenty of conversations, usually with friends of my parents, about this and they are staggered by the amounts, ‘my licence fee, it must all be unionised!’ etc. No, the crew work their nuts off and rates haven’t changed in years, the production company makes a small amount of money to keep generating new projects, actors get paid a lot less than you think… the glamour. If you want to make money go work in the city. I don’t want to go on or this will turn into a rant and no-one wants that. As Sam Smith says, ‘I do it for the love and honestly I didn’t nick that bloke’s idea, it’s pure coincidence that it’s exactly the same, yeah?’
I’ll stick with the process as it relates to comedy and my experience. We generate ideas either in house, someone sends us a good script or treatment or we see a performer and try to work up ideas with them. Sometimes we will invest a small amount up front into developing a script or shooting a short taster to demonstrate the idea. There are examples of production companies investing a bit more time and money up front in an idea they truly believe in, but are either struggling to sell or to give it the push they think it needs to win a commission.
One oft quoted example is The Mighty Boosh. Baby Cow put around £40,000 into a pilot the BBC commissioned. Essentially they wanted to ensure it was so good the BBC couldn’t say no. That is still a huge, risky investment for a production company up front. Obviously with the BBC already interested it had a good chance and they trusted their instincts, but would have known success was not guaranteed. We’ve often had to do this at Channel X to ensure a pilot or taster will work.
When we have a project that’s ready for a broadcaster’s commissioning editor to look at, then we’ll send it and tell them it’s the best thing in the world ever and they’d be a fool not to commission it. Then we wait for the phone to ring or an email to ping through, often for a very long time. Of course, most things are rejected and usually not because they’re shit – one of the reasons commissioning editors trust production companies is that they act as a quality control filter in the stampede towards the elusive slot on a channel. Commissioners have to choose one out of a number to progress. And they have their bosses, the marketing people at commercial channels and their bosses’ bosses to convince. Or maybe they do just think it is shit. Sounds tough? It is. Tough.
Let me take you through a few steps. A production company sends a comedy project in and here’s what might happen…
1) Script Commission: If we send a treatment from a writer with some experience the broadcaster might commission a script. That means they are paying the writer to both produce a pilot script to bring their idea to life and also to option the writer and production company for a period of time (usually 12-18 months) so they have the exclusive right to then make a pilot and/or series.
Often, particularly with newer writers, we will send a full script that we have worked with them on for some time. If a broadcaster likes it then they may want to see if the writer can produce more material and commission a second script. It’s a small investment to see how the idea develops and to buy into the idea.
2) Taster / Teaser: If an idea has a particular visual style or is a vehicle for a performer then a broadcaster might commission a taster or teaser (sometimes called a mini-pilot) It’s essentially a 5 to 15 minute short with a few scenes. This is becoming more common as it is much cheaper than a full pilot and can be enough to show that a series would work. Detectorists was developed this way and the series was commissioned without the need for a full pilot – there were two full episode scripts and a series outline to go alongside the taster, so a lot of work had been done by Mackenzie Crook and the production team.
(A production company will often put a small amount of its own money into shooting a taster before pitching to a broadcaster, particularly if the idea or format is a bit tricky to understand on the page).
3) Table Read: A broadcaster likes a script and wants to hear it come to life. They could commission a table read where the company casts the script and gets the actors together in a big room to read it aloud while the producers and commissioners watch. They can be great. They can be painful. There’s nothing worse than a bunch of great actors reading a comedy script and seeing commissioning editors and channel controllers sit in befuddled silence.
Sometimes an actor who would be great on screen isn’t great in a table read or some of the timing doesn’t quite come off or maybe the atmosphere is just a bit weird and the channel controller is having a bad day because some kind of fracas has occurred involving one of their big name talents. Who knows?
Fortunately tasters and other development tools seem to be taking over, see also….
4) Live Showcase: Few and far between, but the BBC has done a number of sitcom showcases in Salford in recent years. Hebburn came to life this way. The show is performed like a play in front of an audience, including commissioning editors. If the audience laugh, the commissioning editor doesn’t just have to trust their own instinct.
(Like tasters, production companies and often writers and comedians put on their own showcases. Again, it is a cost-effective way of bringing the work to life and can be a great way for new writers to test their work).
5) Pilot: Well done. If you get this far, you are doing great. The broadcaster loves your script, your table read went down a storm or your taster was a piece of genius. They’ve commissioned a pilot and you get to make a show. One whole episode to show it’ll be the best series ever.
You got the casting perfect, the actors and director made all your jokes even funnier than you thought they could be, the crew did a brilliant job – you could see and hear everything, actors had costumes, sets, props and make up. The runner remembered how you liked your tea / coffee and wasn’t a jumped up nephew of the executive producer. Phew.
And finally you get your…
6) Series: The broadcaster loves your script(s), pilot or taster and your series outline. Congratulations. They do a deal with the production company to make the show. With British comedy usually the vast majority of the budget comes from the broadcaster. Some money may come from other sources – distributors who may pay an advance on international and DVD sales although there is generally a lot less money to be made from this in comedy than drama and other genres – there are exceptions, of course.
What the broadcaster is doing is paying the production company to make the show exclusively for them and for it to be broadcast on their channel a certain number of times. I don’t want to go into the details of rights etc. because I’ll bore myself and you to death, but it’s that kind of stuff.
So that’s it, I think. That’s the process. I think it’s as clear as I can make it and I hope it’s useful, but do comment if you have any questions. And if you manage to get your project moving forward at any of these stages then you are doing well and possibly even have talent. If it falls at any stage, and it most likely will, then try again. Most people have to push at the door with a number of ideas before it opens. Alternatively use a battering ram. I’m sure threats of violence have worked, but it’s not really my style. Good luck.
1 I do know of individuals, student filmmakers etc. who have made a series or several episodes of a show, but these are usually guerrilla filmed shows where everyone is working for free or very little. There may well be examples of companies producing episodes of low cost programming (factual shows can be much cheaper to make as they can be shot by a one or two person crew, you don’t have actors etc. although it is still advisable to have food, preferably hot, available for hangry presenters) but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.