The killer pitch

'Selling is a bitch,' asserts Dave Goldberg, VP and creative director of New York's Camera Planet. 'One out of 100 ideas sells. And it's getting tougher.
October 1, 2004

‘Selling is a bitch,’ asserts Dave Goldberg, VP and creative director of New York’s Camera Planet. ‘One out of 100 ideas sells. And it’s getting tougher.

‘Network buyers are getting pitched the same reality shows over and over again,’ he continues. ‘You have to have that hook that’s going to make it different.’

Goldberg has produced a number of cable reality shows, including Dog Days for Animal Planet as well as A Night With and Stage Moms for VH1. The key, he says, is having a pitch for each buyer and each outlet that is so fine-tuned it can’t be refused.

‘You have to come up with a killer idea to get through the door and get your first meeting,’ says Matthew Frank, MD of RDF International in London. ‘RDF has been doing this for 10 years. The first five, we really struggled to get meetings with commissioning editors. We were kind of pitching blindly.’ Now, however, Frank says the company has ‘a much more collaborative relationship with commissioning people.’ RDF has also come up with a winning formula for proposal documents, one that addresses ‘key points, based on what the commissioning editors said they wanted pitched to them,’ says Frank. It includes such items as the show descriptor, potential time slot and budget.

To find out how to serve up a winning reality pitch, RealScreen created a virtual round-table, including Frank and Goldberg as well as VH1 director of original programming and development Lauren Gellert. What follows are their tips for precisely targeting a proposal and bettering the odds that a pitch ends up a home run.

1. A description of the show

The description should tell the buyer the show’s concept as concisely as possible. As Frank of RDF (which is behind international hits such as Wife Swap, Faking It and Junkyard Wars) points out, it should contain a ‘short, key paragraph that hooks them into reading more.’

The principal paragraph should also offer a logline, or as Frank says, the ‘USP line – Unique Selling Point – the one-line sale of the program.’

Gellert agrees. She has been EP on a number of reality shows, such as A Night With, and I Married…, and says she likes when the process is as transparent as possible. ‘I want to be able to read the logline and know what the show is about,’ she explains.

Goldberg says referring to other shows might be useful, but cautions against ever being negative about other formats. ‘There’s no accounting for taste,’ he says. ‘So while you may hate a show, it’s entirely possible that the show rated well and the network wants something like it, or the buyer loves it.’

The description ‘should also be sexy and answer: ‘What am I going to say to the audience?” summarizes Goldberg.

2. Defining the characters

‘The great thing about reality is the characters,’ observes VH1′s Gellert. ‘You have to showcase your characters. You have to show why they’re good for a show.’ Gellert suggests shooting a few minutes of tape for each of the proposed program’s main subjects. ‘If it’s character-driven or based around a piece of talent, it is essential to show the broadcaster what that person is like in front of the camera,’ adds RDF’s Frank.

Goldberg also provides brief examples of stories. For VH1′s A Night With, about people who spend a night with a rock star, he provided a sample story of a woman who had slept with Kid Rock. He also includes pictures of each character.

3. The structure

Prior to sending a proposal to a network buyer, know the types of shows in which the network is interested. ‘You need to know if they are looking for a family relationship show, a dating show, or a celebrity-driven vehicle,’ says Frank. ‘Go to the briefings that all of the broadcasters hold. The BBC, [for example,] will do open days where they tell you the kinds of things they’re looking for.’ Goldberg adds that producers should also only pitch shows and structures they’re personally comfortable doing.

Reality can also mean different things to different people. Is the show observational, character-driven fare like The Osbournes, or is it a Trading Spaces-style makeover? Make sure to explain the nature of the project being pitched. For Animal Planet’s Dog Days, Goldberg says, ‘I told them it’s a docusoap but it’s also a reality comedy.’

Although Gellert says she’s more concerned with a series’ concept than its length, Goldberg notes it doesn’t hurt to have a length in mind.

It might sound obvious, but make sure there is a good reason for the show. ‘I learned this from pitching MTV,’ says Goldberg. ‘I pitched what I thought was this great proposal, and the buyer said to me: ‘Okay, so what about the twist?’ There has to be guaranteed conflict – internal or otherwise – to make people stay tuned.’

Frank says RDF will go into detail about why the conflict will occur and how it will be brought about. For a show like Faking It, he observes, ‘We’ll say: ‘Burger man becomes top chef.’ With Wife Swap, we say: ‘It’s two worlds colliding.” Adds Gellert, ‘If there’s no end game [such as a prize], you have to make sure there’s drama throughout or no one will watch.’

5. Who is the audience?

Highlight the show’s target demographic during the pitch, as some targets will get a buyer’s attention faster than others. ‘Eighteen-to-49 is the demo more buyers are interested in,’ says Gellert, ‘but focus on the network’s core viewership. VH1′s core audience is 25 to 35. MTV’s or Fuse’s audience is younger.’

How much detail the pitch should include about the audience tends to vary by filmmaker. For his part, Goldberg admits he’s less concerned about the audience when he’s pitching than he is about his own interests. ‘I rarely think about the audience,’ he says. ‘Maybe that’s irresponsible, [but] my thoughts are: a) Is it something I want to watch? And b) Do I care about this? I want to make shows I care about.’ He adds, ‘Networks respond to your passion.’ (For a buyer’s take, see Insider Trading, pg. 44.)

As well, a proposal should discuss the show’s potential time slot. Frank says RDF addresses ‘whether we think it’s an 8 p.m. show, a daytime show, or a late night show. This gives an indication of the tone.’

6. How to shoot

Goldberg notes that a show’s style will greatly impact its potential market. ‘You have to find the right look,’ he cautions. ‘Think about the network, the story. For VH1, Mini DV wasn’t right for A Night With. It’s more intimate and we can get into places most people can’t, but it wasn’t right for that show.’ Gellert says, ‘If how you’re shooting is part of the concept, then say it in the proposal. If you’re doing cinema verité, mention whose point of view it’s coming from.’

Producers should also reveal the creative team. Says Frank, ‘On the second, more fleshed-out page of the proposal, say who your director is.’ Adds Gellert, ‘There may be a creative person attached to the project who everyone wants to work with.’

7. The budget

Including a suggested budget in a reality series pitch is conditional upon whether financing is in place. Says Gellert: ‘Usually, budgets are only mentioned if [producers] have their own production company and say, ‘We can keep the budget low,’ or they have sponsorship.’

‘I never put a budget in the proposal,’ agrees Goldberg. ‘You may imagine one figure but that can change. You have to be flexible and know what the buyer is willing to spend. You learn from pitching.’

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