Ask first, pitch later

So, just for a minute, put yourself in the role of a buyer with money and a mission:
March 1, 2008

So, just for a minute, put yourself in the role of a buyer with money and a mission:

* In the market for a house, you walk into a real estate office, and an agent jumps up and says, ‘I have just the house for you!’ Would you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with someone who doesn’t first ask you about what you are looking for, how many rooms you need, or what’s important to you?

* Looking to replace your old car, you stop by a local car dealership; a salesman says immediately, ‘We have a great deal for you right now on an eight-passenger SUV!’ Will you make a $25,000 purchase from someone that never asks you what kind of car you actually want, or how you intend to use it?

‘No’ is the obvious answer to both questions, but you’d be shocked by how many producers essentially do the same thing; showing up at a meeting with a network programming or development executive, hoping to make a sale worth hundreds of thousands of dollars by saying that they ‘have the perfect show’ for them, and ‘the next great idea for the network.’

Having spent years as a producer, network executive, and now as a programming and production consultant to both, I can tell you that pitching an idea based solely on what you think a network is looking for can be disappointing and often futile. Here’s why: what’s on the air or on the website today represents a snapshot of the network from six months to a year ago – because that’s how long it takes to get a program from development to completion. You have no idea which programs the network is currently considering, how its strategy may have changed, or which new and pressing issues it faces in the competitive environment in which we all operate.

But there is a sure way to know precisely what a network is looking for: ask! You might be surprised that it’s not necessary to have a fully formed idea to pitch when you contact a network. Most network development departments are usually more than happy to provide you with a written or verbal ‘creative brief’ – a description of the network’s strategy and objectives that you can use to shape an idea or figure out where to pitch it. ‘Pitches need to be informed about what we’re looking for and our overall programming needs,’ says Elli Hakami, VP of program development, West Coast, for the Discovery Channel, echoing what other development executives tell me. ‘I’m usually happy to take the time for a half-hour call or meeting to make sure the pitches answer those needs.’

When you do make that initial contact, do it by email or letter to the development team. Don’t inundate the network with materials, but do provide a sense of your experience and credits so they know they are dealing with a bona fide producer or company. Do ask for a briefing on where the network is going, and what it needs.

And then be prepared to listen and ask questions, but not to pitch. Later, incorporate the information you’ve gleaned into your ideas and proposals. Then, and only then, should you return with specific programming ideas. This time, they will be based on the real needs and goals of those whom you want to buy your ideas. And that’s what successful selling is all about.

Ed Hersh is the founder and chief creative officer of StoryCentric, a programming/production consultancy providing insights to networks and content creators. His experience as an executive and producer includes Court TV, A&E and ABC News. Hersh can be reached at

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