Over the course of the past year – on panels, in hallway conversations, at off-sites – the overriding topic of conversation among producers and network execs has been: “What the hell is happening to the factual/reality business?” The news is seemingly grim: per Nielsen, of the current “top 10” non-fiction cable programs, not a single one was launched in the last two years. Even in the realm of supposedly low-risk “meat and potatoes” programming, fewer shows are working than in the past. Why?
We talk about the glut of unscripted shows, the derivative nature of many shows, the cord-cutting, the Netflix factor, the changing times and reality TV ennui. But also being dissected is the development process in the industry as a whole (at networks and our own prodcos) which some believe has become an overly aggressive filter, weeding out potentially successful shows.
Are “checklists” killing the hits?
While the development process is by nature expensive, somewhat inefficient and very “Wild West,” it is, of course, the only way to sift through the 50 to 75 ideas and pitches a week that our development team juggles. (Props to our network friends who have to juggle hundreds a week!) Clearly there are “pure crap” pitches that need to quickly be filtered out of the pitchosphere. There are also plenty of “nearly crap” pitches that should quickly, and rightfully, be put out of their misery.
The trouble is when we get closer on the scale to the “viable pitch” category – pitches that are solid, well thought-out, and are just as likely as anything else to break out. These are the strong pitches that, thanks to the quality of talent or a truly original format twist, feel fresh and exciting in the room. And unfortunately, many of these strong pitches that get big, positive, initial reactions get filtered out of the system due to The Checklist.
Let’s take a theoretical “strong pitch” about Hawaiian loggers pitched to a production company or network. Cue The Checklist…
*Is the cast perfect in look, presence, demo, gender and accents?
*Has the world of loggers done well with viewers? What about Hawaii?
*Are the stakes higher than in previous logging shows?
*Is the format fresh and loud enough?
*For networks: is it on brand? Will it play on a billboard? Is it ad sales-friendly?
*For prodcos: is anyone looking for loggers? Is it too expensive to shoot in Hawaii? Didn’t a similar logging show bomb last year? Does my agent like it?
Granted, all of the above are extremely valid considerations when you are thinking about investing precious time and resources to develop and pitch a project or to invest millions of dollars to produce it. In that sense, The Checklist works. But does it sometimes work too well? Could there be a hit out there with a perfect cast, with high stakes, and that isn’t exactly on brand, but might become a hit and in turn, end up defining the brand? Or a hit with an amazing cast, and a strong format – but with modest stakes – that somehow connects with an audience?
Of course, production companies are as guilty as networks. While we all have tremendous passion for the shows we pitch, and can spend months or sometimes years on our pet projects, the hard fact remains: we need to sell shows to keep the lights on. And so, we too become victims of The Checklist, perhaps filtering out otherwise impressive shows we don’t think a network will want because “they don’t want makeover shows” or “they don’t want talent with New York accents.”
To be clear: the issue is not with The Checklist itself, but rather, with what some have called the “10 out of 10” syndrome – the decision to not develop a show unless 10 out of 10 boxes are checked.
If we could all take a tour of the massive graveyard of sizzles that never made it, we would no doubt be amazed. All those good ideas that had the bad fortune to have checked only seven or eight out of 10 boxes – which ones could have been hits?
Checklists are helpful and serve to weed out crappy shows, but there are undoubtedly potential hits that are dying on the vine – ideas, formats, and casts that are not given a chance to benefit from the industry’s amazing development process, and killed before their time because they committed an unpardonable sin: they didn’t check all the boxes on the checklist. Perfection is unattainable – in life, and most certainly, in television. So why not kill the urge to check every box and take more chances on projects that we just like because… well, because we just like them, with or without 10 checkmarks.
Bruce David Klein is president and executive producer of New York-based Atlas Media Corp.