How to Pitch a TV Show: The Key Steps
Writing is, obviously, a vital part of creating a TV Show. However, it is sadly not the only vital part of the process. Knowing how to pitch a TV show is crucial to getting it made.
So what steps are necessary to create a successful TV pitch? This article will take you through a checklist so you can be sure that your pitch will do the best possible justice to your ideas and scripts.
A TV Pitch is a Conversation, Not a Monologue
The person you’re pitching to is not a robot, designed to crush your writing dreams. As unlikely as it might seem, they want to be excited by your pitch. They want to feel something – for you and for your project. They want to know your project but they also want to know you. Are you someone they can work with?
If you’ve already made it to the stage of a pitch meeting, be confident in yourself and your material. You’re both here because you both want to be.
Before launching into your pitch, take a moment to engage with the person you’re pitching to, even if it’s a simple greeting or small talk. Ask them what they’re working on, or what kind of projects they’re looking for. Even if you already know the answers (which you should, having done your research), it could lead to a fruitful and interesting conversation.
Building this rapport first will make the person you’re pitching to more relaxed and receptive to what you have to say.
Equally, leave time for questions and be open and prepared for them. Keep your cool, even if they sound like they’re picking holes in your project, and don’t become defensive or precious. Again – are you someone they can work with?
Knowing Your TV Show
This may sound like a strange or obvious step, but it’s still a vital one. How can you expect to convince network and cable channel executives of your idea if you have not fully grasped it yourself? The Ancient Greeks had a saying, “know thyself.” To know your TV show is, quite simply, to be more capable at pitching that TV show.
So, how do you know if you’re ready?
Having a logline fresh in your head is crucial to knowing if your idea is well-developed. A successful logline or a what-if concept can neatly kick off a pitch. Think of it as providing a bird’s-eye view of the TV show. It provides an overview without oversimplifying.
From this, you can delve deeper into the details. A slick and informative logline will entice those listening and help your TV pitch significantly.
Another important factor to consider is who you envisage watching your show. This will demonstrate that you understand your audience. Linked to this is knowing where you should pitch your TV show. Would audiences who use Netflix be more suited to the idea in your TV pitch than audiences who don’t?
Knowing this will highlight that you are aware of the marketing aspects of your show and put you one step ahead of the unprepared writers that are your competition! And remember, generally, the bigger the budget the bigger the audience needs to be to justify it…
This may come down to questions of genre and platform. Do you imagine the show airing in the evening? Is each episode the same length? Recently, shows like GAME OF THRONES and BODYGUARD opted to have a longer final episode. Would this variation in length help your TV pitch idea? These different parts can be organised together in a TV pitch document. This document, often referred to as a “Bible”, will be discussed further on in the guide.
Genre implies certain characteristics and certain expectations. If you’re pitching a science-fiction TV show, people are immediately making assumptions based on it belonging to that genre.
Think carefully about the specific implications of each genre. Try to identify how you are either operating within a certain genre, or diverting from it, and the knock-on effects that will have.
Is your idea a hardcore genre fan-only proposition, or could it cultivate a broader audience? GAME OF THRONES, for example, has made fantasy fans of us all.
Always, when thinking about genre, ask yourself why you are either adhering to or diverting from its expectations.
When crafting and rehearsing your pitch, think about recreating the effect your show will have on the audience. If it’s a comedy, are you making the listener of the pitch laugh? If it’s a drama or thriller, are you making them cry or sit on the edge of their seat in suspense?
Comedies usually have twenty to thirty minute episodes, depending on ad breaks or lack thereof. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a rule of thumb distributors and channel executives will likely see comedy in these terms. Is it a sitcom, where the character relationships are mostly reset by the end of each episode? Or will it tell a longer, ongoing story?
Drama is more frequently structured into hour-long episodes. Again, this is contingent on ad breaks and platform, so do your research! Procedural shows might, like a sitcom, reset each episode to concentrate on a case of the week. Other dramas are more serialised, weaving characters and storylines in and out across episodes and seasons.
Learning how to a pitch a TV show involves learning about these various expectations for genre. Instead of seeing this as limiting, use it as a way of being creative and original. Being aware that you are diverting from certain genre expectations is a good way to demonstrate your individuality and to surprise the audience.
Don’t be afraid of the expectations of genre. Use them or challenge them.
You want to show that your TV show idea is well researched. You want to convey that it takes place in a fully realised world, whether that’s a Chicago emergency room or medieval Scandinavia. However, there is a fine balance that needs to be struck in the language of the show. This balance is between how authentic it is and how engaging it is.
- The extent of this step has a lot to do with genre. Genre, in turn, has a lot to do with our first step of knowing your TV show.
- So, we can see how important each step is for the success of the other.
Doing it well
The recent ten part docudrama Inside Look: The People v. O. J. Simpson, American Crime Story had to face this challenge. Much of the series takes part during O. J. Simpson’s famous court trials.
The language could easily have either become too bogged down explaining law procedure, or too simplistic and vague. However, it doesn’t.
As the trial progresses, the series goes back and forth in time. Breaking up the language of the court, a potentially jargon heavy portion, is one effective way to prevent your TV show from appearing too loaded with jargon.
It’s then a show about characters, about people – something everyone can connect to – and not legal technicalities.
Doing it badly
A sketch in That Mitchell and Webb Look shows an extreme parody of when a TV show is not well researched (watch the sketch here). Without proper research, a hospital drama fails to feel authentic. The medical language is simplistic to the point of it being absurd.
While this is an extreme example designed to make us laugh, the point they make is valid. Think carefully about the setting and world of your TV show. Does it need specific language or expertise to make it engaging and believable?
Are there moments in your pitch where you get too bogged down in specific language and details that a layman wouldn’t understand or care about? This is sure to provoke a yawn in whoever you’re pitching to.
These are questions of small margins and fine lines. They are also very specific to your TV show. For those reasons, this step requires considerable and unique care.
A TV pitch document, often referred to as a “Bible”, will prove that you know your TV show.
Once you are comfortable with questions of genre, audience, concept, and structure, you’re ready to put this document together and use it as a basis for a verbal or written pitch.
Knowing your Bible inside and out means you will be well prepared to answer questions following your pitch. An executive might challenge you on the arc of a supporting character, or what happens in the next season . You want to have an answer for these.
Your title is often the first opportunity to make an impression in a TV pitch. You can think of the title as the logline of the logline. It is the shortest and neatest taste of the show. It relates to the plot, or could be metaphorical.
A title like Breaking Bad, for example, at the basic level suggests the show will explore an introduction into ‘bad’ themes and ideas. And eventually, something will break. That is exactly what does happen.
Make sure your title is neat, enticing, and works with the plot.
Sum up the key primary and secondary characters. Explain the significance each character has to the plot of your TV show. Explain how they relate to each other. This is also a great opportunity to use images to pitch visual ideas of how the characters may look. Be creative, original, and clear.
Think about TV shows you love and are similar to your idea. What hooks the audience, what brings them back week after week, season after season? It’s often the characters.
Your pitch might begin with the opening image or the opening scene of your pilot episode. What happens next?
Your Bible should have a detailed account of the pilot episode for your TV show. We’ll get to see the characters you’ve summarised in action. There may be questions about when later characters will appear. First impressions count for a lot. So, getting the pilot episode to the best it can be is an important way of creating a successful TV show pitch.
Here you can expand on what the pilot episode begins. Explain the world inside your show. Where is it going? What will it explore? How do the characters and plot progress? Getting the synopsis right is important because a TV pilot episode can only take a viewer so far through a TV show.
Future Episodes, Future Series
Establish potential plot developments way ahead. This will show you’ve thought about the longevity of your TV show. Even in the age of mini-seasons of ten or six episodes, the idea in your TV pitch has to have legs.
Like the synopsis, this will help your TV pitch go beyond the pilot episode. It is a chance to show off the potential in the ideas and characters you have introduced.
Representation & Writing Credits
This is one of the more difficult but important steps to a successful TV pitch. Gaining representation and having some writing credits behind you will lift your profile which will make your TV pitch more impressive.
Remember, you’re not only pitching an idea but pitching yourself as a writer and creator! At the same time, arrogance is incredibly unbecoming, and no-one likes a boaster. It’s that careful balance of not being ashamed to talk up your achievements while not exaggerating them or their significance in the context of the industry.
Your representation, your credits or a casual connection might be what gets you in the room to pitch to in the first place. It also might give you some common ground for that small talk at the top of the meeting.
Screenwriting competitions give you the chance to gain momentum. Platforms like the BBC Writersroom collect and regularly update a variety of screenwriting competitions. Be on the lookout for any opportunities that suit your writing tastes.
Networking events are a great place to meet people in the industry. You can deliver mini pitches and hone your concept as you explain what you’re working on. Meeting people at networking events can lead to new projects and new credits.
Online submissions are like online ways to network. Sites like The Black List offer a place for aspiring writers to share their ideas and connect with other people in the industry. Build your network in a variety of ways to gain the momentum that will help secure a successful TV pitch.
There are lots of good TV pitch ideas. There are many good TV scripts being written right now. Getting from a good to a great TV pitch might be the most important factor for success. While there is no hidden secret to securing this, there are certain important checkpoints that can help.
Questions to ask yourself
- How does this TV show draw from other sources?
- How does it divert from those sources?
- Is there a credible market that will watch this TV show?
- Does this show outdo any other shows similar in genre or scope?
- What will draw the audience towards the show?
- What will keep them there?
- In what areas does the show play with expectation?
This is not a definitive list. However, asking questions like these will help you carve out the originality of your TV show. These are all questions that will be going through the executive’s head while they’re listening to your pitch and deciding whether they want to buy it or work with you.
In turn, pitching an original concept that tests expectations can strengthen the likelihood of its success.
Comparing your TV show with others may improve your TV pitch. This is, however, a tricky and sensitive tactic that requires careful consideration.
Compare too much and your show may lose its originality. Compare too little and it may seem too obscure or without an audience.
Doing it well
A well measured comparison can provide a useful context and reference point for those that you’re pitching to.
For example, in the early ’00s, Channel 4 showed a number of successful sitcoms about people living on the fringes of society. From Peep Show to Spaced, there was a hunger from the channel to show people failing to get to grips with the pace of modern life. This theme or thread connects a lot of their programming to this day, even across different genres – Black Mirror started out as a Channel 4 show.
Be aware of these trends when you pitch your TV show. How do they influence the importance of your show? If your show relates to certain trends at a channel, use that to emphasise its suitability for them.
Doing it badly
Be careful when using comparisons. Firstly, too many comparisons can blur the concept behind your show. So, be concise.
Secondly, it is easy to see this as a chance to talk about the many influences you might have. However, this may not be totally relevant to the concept of this TV Show.
Try not to confuse comparisons for your TV show with your own personal influences. Equally when using comparisons, don’t come across as a carbon copy of an existing show or desperate to chase trends. The next big thing rarely looks like the last big thing, and maybe that channel or producer is actually trying to steer in a new direction.
Pitching a Reality TV Show
Reality TV is set apart from other types of TV because it is not scripted. The premise exists, but the story emerges as the show goes on.
As it is such a different format, it deserves a different approach for its TV pitch, and a great deal of familiarity with the existing landscape.
Reality TV Show Types
Knowing your TV pitch is the vital first step for scripted ideas. This is also the first important step for a reality TV show pitch, which will fall mostly in one of the following categories.
Competition Style Reality Show
Competition style reality shows have been popular for a considerable amount of time. They have reinvented themselves many times and they now come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. Some examples include The Apprentice, The X Factor, and the hugely popular Love Island.
Documentary Style Show
These shows aim to teach the audience something new. Take The Island with Bear Grylls which follows real people trying to survive on an island. It is an experiment for the people on the island. They don’t know if they will manage in their new living conditions. It is also a lesson for the viewers, to see how we would be when removed from the demands of the natural world.
Lifestyle reality TV shows cover a wide range of reality TV. From makeovers of houses to makeovers of people, lifestyle shows use everyday life as its subject matter. A recent and consistent show that fits this category is Eat Well for Less.
This type is a very popular strand of reality TV. A simplistic brief might be: ten people from all over the world spend six weeks in a confined environment. This is a crude and unspecific brief, but it gets at the essence of what social experiment reality TV is. It comes in a variety of forms and has been reinvented many times.
- Remember: genre and/or types of reality TV do not have fixed or closed borders.
- Some of these types of reality TV, like any genre, blend and merge with other genres.
Pitching a Reality TV Show That Feels New & Exciting
The “types” of reality TV show may feel or sound quite general. Think of the consistent popularity of the singing competition in recent years. How, then, can you break into a seemingly satisfied and popular market?
Expanding on a Well-Known Format
When we look at a show like The Voice, it used a popular and known reality TV format. However, with a new twist of preventing the judges from seeing the contestant, this expanded on a successful reality TV format.
This is a useful platform to think of because there is already a demonstrable popularity for your show. Thinking in these terms will also allow you to fully identify and get to grips with what is unique about your reality TV show.
The popular docu-style reality shows (like Made in Chelsea, The Only Way Is Essex) did something different. The essence was to blur the line between what was really dramatic and what was staged as dramatic. The people and relationships are real, but often the drama is manufactured for the show. This unique take on what reality TV is created a surge in popularity for this style of TV show.
Be technical in a way that you are, perhaps, less free to do for scripted TV show pitches. A lot of space in a reality TV show pitch is freed up because plot does not exist in the same way. The concept must have a lot of care and attention instead. If you are planning to make a docu-style reality show, how are you going to create the right environment for compelling drama? How are you going to capture it? Answering these questions is an essential step in a successful TV pitch for a reality show.
- Use tested reality programs.
- Find ways to use those tested programs as a springboard for your own original ideas.
To hone your pitching skills, you must first be prepared to hear criticisms, challenges, or questions. There are several ways to find feedback for your TV show idea, all better than whispering it into the ether. It’s better to hear and address criticisms now than when it’s your one chance to impress someone important.
At screenwriting networking events you can test your ideas. This can be a great way to hone your logline because you can speak to a lot of people in a short space of time all on the subject of your work. The more time you spend in this environment, the more succinct and engaging your pitch will become.
Reach Out To Friends
It might be worth asking friends to hear your TV show pitch. This can remind you that as well as pitching for TV channel executives, the pitch should also speak to the people who will watch it. If your friends (who for the sake of argument are not in the TV/film industry) cannot grasp the concept, or can’t think of a single person who would watch it, perhaps that’s a sign you need to return to the drawing board!
Sending your script to a professional reader is another way to receive a different kind of feedback compared with the two above. A professional reader can provide feedback on a more technical level. Is the pace working? Are the characters developed to a sophisticated level? A professional reader can give detailed insights into these kinds of questions. They could also point you to an angle or selling point that you might not have considered,
- The key for getting good feedback is about getting it from different points of contact.
- Drawing from friends, professionals, and like-minded screenwriters will ensure you do this.
- Be prepared for any questions that can be thrown at you.
How To Pitch a TV Show: Conclusion
There is not a quick fix solution for learning how to pitch a TV show. A lot of factors have to come together and have to be done right. A lot comes down to personality and how well you come across in the moment.
A great Bible does not happen without a great concept. Additionally, a great concept involves you knowing your TV show, and knowing where it fits in the wider network of other TV shows.
Gaining the right status through representation and writing credits adds a certain weight to your TV show pitch. Creating something original means your TV show pitch has the potential to feel unique and special.
If these factors come together, you are in a strong position to make a great TV show pitch.
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