FEF: “Man, you better have some great talent”

Top execs at broadcast and cable nets shared their lists of dos and don'ts for crafting a successful pitch during the 'Non-scripted Network Stars' session at the 2011 Factual Entertainment Forum.
June 2, 2011

(Photo: Rahoul Ghose)

Top execs at broadcast and cable nets shared their thoughts on copycat programming, what they’re looking for and how not to pitch at the first day of realscreen‘s Factual Entertainment Forum in Santa Monica.

During the ‘Non-scripted Network Stars’ session (pictured above), TLC’s senior VP of production and development Howard Lee said part of the rush in creating reality programming is that “you never know what’s going to hit next – that’s what’s so great about reality.”

The sentiment was shared by most of his fellow panelists, including Tim Krubsack, seniorVP of alternative programming for Syfy; John Saade, senior VP of alternative for ABC Entertainment; Bruce Seidel, senior VP of programming for Cooking Channel; and Rob Sharenow, exec VP of programming for Lifetime. The panel was moderated by DiGa co-founder and former MTV programming president Tony DiSanto.

Sharenow was less rosy about the current state of reality, delving into the topic of copycat programming. “As soon as a show hits, there are 15 others [like it],” he said. “I want to be excited again. Now I feel like we’re in a lull period. I’m waiting for you guys to wow me.”

Cooking Channel’s Seidel took a different tack, naming The Voice as an example of being able to refresh a saturated singing genre. Agreeing with Seidel was ABC’s Saade, who said part of the success of The Voice came from it breaking some of the rules in the genre and therefore refreshing it.

“The mistake is [thinking it always has to] be edgy,” added Sharenow. “I think I’ve got three pitches on swingers. When you get it right, yes, you can push the envelope.”

Saade chimed in to say that being at a broadcast network, he has to approach unscripted differently than cable nets that stack their schedules with non-fiction content. “For us, [our non-fiction series] runs basically 30 minutes or an hour [a week]. We can’t do a marathon or find different ways to engage with characters and stay with them. It’s like reading a paperback book one page at a time.”

The panelists also discussed what sort of pitches they’re looking for right now. Syfy’s Krubsack said he’s looking for self-contained shows, while TLC’s Lee said that the net is pretty open to pitches. “Formatted [pitches] are easy for us. Extreme Couponing is self-contained; there are no longterm talent deals with each person.”

At Scripps’ Cooking Channel, Seidel says that the a’re able to take more risks than at the Food Network and are experimenting with a docu-demo, with Debi Mazar’s Extra Virgin.

As for how to pitch, Krubsack said at Syfy someone can come in and pitch an idea, get it on paper and then shoot it to flesh it out. “Sometimes producers come in with a sizzle tape and it’ll go to pilot from there,” he said.

Over at TLC, Lee said that it varies, and if they really know the producers, they’ll greenlight a bunch of their ideas. “If we don’t, we’ll give money for the pilot to make sure we’re not going off the deep end.”

“Come to us with hosts and test everything,” advised Cooking Channel’s Seidel. “One show we tested on Cooking Channel made it to series on Food Network.”

At Lifetime, Sharenow said the female-skewing net has no formula, but if you’re pitching a talent-based show, “Man, you better have some great talent.” And that talent had better have its deals orchestrated with the producers before the pitch goes to the network.

The execs also said that they can tell when a pitch has gone to every other network before theirs. “The best is when they give you a DVD with the other network’s name on it,” said Seidel.

Before wrapping, Sharenow offered one last piece of advice stemming from seeing tons of sizzles: If you’re looking for the right musical track to amp up your tape,  avoid Coldplay.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.