It happens at every industry panel. Programmers are on the dais, fielding questions from the floor. A producer walks up to the microphone and, instead of a question about strategy or scheduling, development or diversification, comes out with, ‘How come you never return my call?’
Makes for a pretty lousy panel, if you ask me. The programmer is on the defensive, often over an idea that has no relationship to what his/her network runs anyway.
As a program salesman for over 20 years, I’ve suffered from the same feelings of non-return-call-itis. In fact, I left the talent side because I felt I needed more rejection. And I can tell you, making the buyer squirm is rarely the way to sell a program, particularly if you’re an independent without any leverage.
Good ideas are a great place to start; a solid relationship with the buyer is even better. Lacking the latter, you may wonder how to go about getting noticed. Whining may work for a four-year-old, but not for someone who wants a channel to pony up a few hundred grand.
Knowing the network’s schedule is vital. Don’t pitch Lifetime a program just because it has a woman in it. Nickelodeon can do a kids news program by itself. MTV has music locked up fine, thank you. They don’t need us. So, do your homework ahead of time. Watch the network, read the trades (like this one!) and know where each has found success.
If you find yourself lost amongst the shuffle on an underling’s desk, get to know that underling: what organizations he or she belongs to, their last job, their aspirations for their next job. Get into their head. Take `em to lunch… and don’t pitch a thing. (There is nothing sadder than a programmer cornered by a desperate producer who’s bouncing ideas off them like a paddle-ball).
Do you know their promotion person? Their business affairs person? The person who routes the tapes through the maze of screeners and buyers? What conventions do they attend? If your target speaks on a panel, how about a follow-up letter commenting on the speech?
If you get to know the network before pitching them, it’s only natural that when you do have a worthwhile idea, they’ll pay a little more attention.
Finally, you may want to give up all together on the selling process, because if you’re not built for sales, you’re ultimately doomed.
As a producer, you’re passionate about your idea, so much so that when someone rejects it, you feel as if he or she is rejecting you. It’s almost impossible to remove yourself from the situation enough to re-evaluate the pitch or, more importantly, their needs.
You’re certain to give up too easily, as well. The biggest deals we’ve made at Cable Ready were programs that had been pitched a few times by others. Did the show get any better? Impossible. Are we better at pitching it? Hopefully.
We hang in there, developing the relationships, getting to know the players, waiting for a need to arise that we can fill, or an opportunity to create a need that we alone can fill. Most producers who represent themselves give up far too early, and a good number of sales people do, too.
So maybe you ought to give up… selling, that is. We have an agreement with our program supplier clients: we won’t produce shows if they won’t try to sell them. Having an outside representative is, I believe, the best way to keep your programs, your ideas, your capabilities in front of lots of buyers all the time. And, in spite of mergers and acquisitions, there are still lots of different networks and buyers out there. Mix in global networks, and you’ve got a task that becomes impossible to do alone if you intend to produce a program at the same time.
Give it your best shot, for sure, but also know when to get out of the way and let a specialist do it. Be prepared to pay for that service, with the promise of greater persistence, greater exposure and fewer rejections or non-ringing phones for you.
And, for goodness sake, if you do get the ear of the buyer, don’t berate them for not returning your call or giving you a meeting. It will certainly be your last time in front of them, unless you’re Steven Spielberg. (By the way, if you are, can we talk?)
Gary Lico is the president and CEO of Stamford, Connecticut-based Cable Ready. Founded in 1992, the company develops factual programming with TV stations, syndicators and indie producers for distribution to cable in the u.s. and internationally.