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Please, Make Me Sick

Body odor. Sweaty palms. People who spit when they talk. Long-winded story tellers. Malfunctioning audio and visual aids. Halitosis. Believe it or not, none of these rank as the worst offenses committed by producers pitching a project. I don't even mind hearing really bad ideas. Pitches for bad ideas can be wildly entertaining; and, in truth, the line between a really bad idea and a really great idea is precariously thin. Just think about the log line for The Apprentice: a reality show about young people competing in business-oriented games. Doesn't sound very sexy, does it? But it made one hell of a show.
October 1, 2004

Body odor. Sweaty palms. People who spit when they talk. Long-winded story tellers. Malfunctioning audio and visual aids. Halitosis. Believe it or not, none of these rank as the worst offenses committed by producers pitching a project. I don’t even mind hearing really bad ideas. Pitches for bad ideas can be wildly entertaining; and, in truth, the line between a really bad idea and a really great idea is precariously thin. Just think about the log line for The Apprentice: a reality show about young people competing in business-oriented games. Doesn’t sound very sexy, does it? But it made one hell of a show.

For me, the single most bothersome element of a bad pitch is lack of passion. Producers are constantly asking me, ‘What are you looking for?’ And the answer is: ‘I really don’t know.’ I’m waiting for producers to come into my office and tell me what I’m looking for. I want to be convinced. Was the A&E development group looking for a docusoap about Victoria Gotti and her family? The answer is no. But the producers knew Growing Up Gotti was a good idea because it was a show they wanted to watch. As a result, it was easy for us to carry that passion all the way up the commissioning ladder.

Think of the network development process as a big game of telephone. A producer pitches an idea to a development executive. Then the development executive must take the idea forward to his boss, the head of non-fiction, who must convince her boss, the head of programming, who must persuade the general manager of the network, who must in turn carry the idea to the ceo and the board of directors, who then hand over the bag of money to make the show. If the passion is not in the room during the very first encounter between the executive and the producer, there’s nothing to carry forward into the boardroom. Here are some other insider tips for turning pitches into programs:

Avoid double-digit pitch sessions.

I hate when a producer comes into my office and rifles 15 ideas at me. No one has 15 great show ideas. When a producer does this, it indicates they don’t have a strong sense of what’s good or bad. I know it’s hard to get meetings, but you’ll make the most of your time if you invest in fewer, better ideas. Gang pitches leave the executive confused and annoyed.

What’s the hook?

You need to identify the strongest elements of your idea and bring those to the fore in your pitch. When we were developing Family Plots, our real-life series set in a mortuary, the pitch had a convenient, built-in hook: ‘It’s sort of like a real-life version of Six Feet Under.’ The two shows are vastly different, but it was an easy way to get people in the door.

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid)

You should understand an idea well enough to explain it to a 10-year-old (or your boss). If a concept has any chance of making it through the network telephone game it has to be clear, precise, and simple.

Avoid ‘second to the dance’ syndrome

Success always breeds imitators. I’ve been pitched literally dozens of variations on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. (Queer Eye with supermodels, children, transvestites … dwarves!) It’s always better to come in with something original.

On second thought, think of the development process like passing along an infectious disease. You must go into a pitch hoping the executive catches your fever and then passes along the germ. The best part of my job is hearing an idea and wanting – needing – to pass it along. That’s how shows get green lit – when everyone wants to spread the germ to their audience. It’s a sick business after all.

Robert Sharenow is a director of programming at A&E Television Network. He is currently developing and serving as executive producer on several real-life series, including Family Plots, Growing Up Gotti, and Dog the Bounty Hunter.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.

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