How Do Networks Evaluate Pitches? Coverage Case Study: A&E’s Stephen Harris and “O.C. Gaffer” (1/3)

How do U.S. network decision-makers cover reality TV pitches?

A&E’s Stephen Harris shone a bright light on the coverage process when he responded to a memorable pitch from Burnie Burns at our 2011 Real Screen workshop.

The workshop was titled: ‘Getting Your Concept to the Side of the Bus: A Network Insider’s Guide to Greenlighting a Factual Program’.

Burnie’s walk-on pitch inspired our 3-part Coverage Case Study. This is the first in a series of reports that will provide practical information on how channels cover pitches.

Each channel is distinct. Executive workflows vary.

But we are confident that:

  • Our Coverage Case Studies will point to sourcing practices that are common across the sector
  • And that a better understanding of these practices will help producers and commissioners to improve their pitches and assessments.

FOUR FILTERS

We opened the Real Screen workshop with Stephen’s presentation of the four filters that he uses to determine if a show may be right for his channel.

Here they are:

  1. Big Characters
    Do the main characters register? Do you remember them? If any of our characters walked into a room, you’d notice them, even if they weren’t celebrities:  The “Storage Wars” Guys, Gene Simmons, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Billy The Exterminator.  They just stick with you!
  2. High Stakes
    What is the ultimate in high stakes? The answer is “Death!” Think of programs that feature characters defying death (“Criss Angel Mindfreak”), who are caught up in potentially fatal addictive behavior (“Intervention” & “Hoarders”), investigating death (“First 48”), or risking death (“Dog the Bounty Hunter”). ‘High stakes’ also includes stories about overcoming great personal obstacles (“Monster In-Laws”.)
  3. Unique Access
    Does the program offer something you couldn’t otherwise see or experience? Does it feel exclusive?  On A&E’s schedule: You can always see Steven Segal playing a cop in the movies; but here’s a show where he is a cop. Gene Simmons was this guy who was spitting fire and gargling fake blood on stage as a member of Kiss – but we show you another side of him. If we had been pitched a show about following Kiss on the road, we probably would have passed. But seeing Gene at home, telling his son to take out the trash, now that’s different!
  4. Resolution
    We look for a close-ended story arc. There should be resolution within each episode.  A network commissions a show with the intention of it screening it for multiple seasons. But we also like to have the flexibility to air the latest episode from Season 4 followed by an episode from Season 1, and have it feel seamless. At A&E, we are not likely to commission competition formats like “America’s Next Top Model” that aren’t easily repeatable and that have a shorter shelf life.

Will It Really Matter in 18-Months?

The best ideas aren’t necessarily the most controversial:

  • We’re looking for programs that aren’t just topical but sustainable
  • Series that are ‘ripped from the headlines’ don’t always work
  • I’m always asking: ‘Will it still be relevant 12-18 months from now?’

“IS THERE ANYONE HERE WITH A SIZZLE TAPE?”

At the end of our Real Screen presentation, we asked the SRO audience: ‘Is there anyone here with a sizzle tape who wants a live assessment of your project?”

As Stephen recalls:

First Impressions Really Matter!

The affirmative answer came in the form of a pleasant, well-prepared, surprise package, wearing a distressed blue denim tuxedo and black thermal shirt.

When we called on him, he rose with presence and immediately began to introduce himself.  “I’m Craig Burns, ‘Burnie’ Burns, the ‘Orange County Gaffer’, or the ‘O.C. Gaffer’ for short.”

We invited Burnie to join us, and he came forward holding a yellow DVD case.

He had already ticked two of my boxes for pitching success:

  • Box #1: Always come prepared with an elevator pitch and a sizzle tape.
  • Box #2: Look photo-shoot fresh!

Burnie must have read my manual because he immediately introduced himself and his project, while seamlessly handing me his DVD.

Everyone in the room knew that Burnie was ready for destiny to knock on his door. He had a snappy show title, a concept and a hook.

These are the basic ingredients needed to make your project jump out of the pile of pitches. It’s what you need to get a production company to return your call, or an agent to mention your name at a power lunch, or for your project to command 15 valuable minutes during a network development meeting.

While the tech crew cued up the DVD, I was amazed at how Burnie seemed to be so polished yet he somehow maintained a very down-to-earth, approachable manner. Maybe it was that denim tuxedo?

Burnie told us that “O.C. Gaffer” is about his life as the owner of a lighting company located just south of Los Angeles in Orange County, California.

He specializes in lighting feature films, commercials, music videos and just about anything that requires really bright lanterns for the purpose of recording on video tape.

SIZZLE REEL

We screened Burnie’s sizzle reel.

NEXT

Next week, in #2/3, we begin Stephen’s coverage:

  • Title: “O.C. Gaffer”
  • Concept
  • Elevator Pitch

And in #3/3:

  • Talent
  • Targeting Networks
  • Production Values in Burnie’s sizzle reel
  • Stephen’s Takeaways and Recommendations

And More …

  • Methodology: Stephen’s coverage of “O.C. Gaffer” was cobbled together from notes taken at the Real Screen workshop, as well as from later conversations and email exchanges with Burnie and DocumentaryTelevision.com.
  • Get ready for Real Screen Summit 2012!
  • More Coverage: Whatever you call it: ‘Unscripted’, ‘Non-scripted’, ‘Reality’, ‘Lifestyle’, ‘Factual’ or just plain old ‘Docs’, watch out for expert coverage of your pitches in future editions of DocumentaryTelevision.com.

———————-

Speaking Engagement

New York State Bar Association
Entertainment, Arts & Sports Law Section

Anatomy Of A Hit Reality TV Series: The Pawn Stars Case Study
This remarkable panel is comprised of the Executive Producer, Agent and Network Programming Executive of Pawn Stars.
The panel will discuss the key decisions made in the process of creating, producing and launching cable television’s #1 reality series.

Panelists
Brent Montgomery, Executive Producer, Leftfield Pictures
Mary Donahue, Executive Producer, A&E Television
Rob Miller, Agent, Peleton Entertainment
Moderator
Peter Hamilton, DocumentaryTelevision.com

Wednesday October 19, 2011
9:10 – 10:50AM
Concierge Conference Center
780 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Click here for more information

—————————–

!!THE SWEET SPOTS!!

‘Sweet Spots’ Study: What Do U.S. Networks Pay for Programs?

Production Cost Benchmarks: Signature / High / Sweet Spot / Low
Pipelines. Target Demos.
Key Programming Contacts, and More!

25+ U.S. Cable Channels:
Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, ID, Velocity, Bravo, Documentary Channel,
A&E, History, HI, Bio, Nat Geo, NG Wild, Ovation, truTV, SyFy and many more
!
Docs & Reality
Proprietary, interview-based research
Don’t make a pitch – or attend a job interview – without it!

Learn More …

—————————