How do network decision-makers cover reality TV pitches?
A&E’s Stephen Harris shared his insights by responding to a memorable pitch from Craig ‘Burnie’ Burns at our 2011 Real Screen workshop.
- See last week’s post for the Setup, including Stephen’s filters
We assembled our Case Study from notes taken at the workshop, as well as from later conversations with Burnie.
First, here’s Burnie’s pitch:
And Stephen’s coverage:
Burnie’s show title “O.C. Gaffer” is memorable. It tells you what the show is about.
OK, it’s true that the average person has never set foot on a film set, or has any idea what a ‘gaffer’ does. But they can look it up, right?
Well, maybe not so ‘right.’
Programmers and development executives take title choice very seriously! So seriously that we imagine ourselves flipping through the TV Guide channel, seeing a title and asking ourselves, “Would this show title motivate me to choose this program from amongst the hundreds that are listed for that time slot?”
“O.C. Gaffer” is a good enough title to get Burnie discussed in a development meeting.
- But it is likely to become a future work assignment for our programming and marketing teams to help develop the perfect name.
There are many ways to brainstorm great new show titles.
- You could hire a creative agency. That will cost you several thousand dollars.
- Or flex your own creative muscles. Try this exercise: do a search for movie titles and old television shows. There have been plenty of films, TV shows and songs over the years that could easily inspire a catchy title.
- Another approach is to explore the particular vocabulary used in the world in which your project is set. You may be able to find an interesting title in a clever catch phrase, like “Pawn Stars”.
Remember at the title brainstorming stage, nothing is off limits:
- The riskier and more memorable the title, the better. Think “Teen Mom” and “Deadliest Catch”
- Say it. Write it. And then close your eyes and picture it on the billboard or on the side of a bus.
- If you are smiling from ear to ear chances are you have a keeper.
Burnie’s elevator pitch is:
- “I used my life savings to set up my business. I became the biggest gaffer in Orange County. 2009 nearly wiped me out. So now I need to work the big jobs in L.A. That’s where the money is! I’m 60 years old. This is my last chance. I’ll die fighting for my piece of the pie!”
The elevator pitch is a condensed, five-sentence description of your show concept. It’s your secret weapon and million dollar lottery ticket.
The goal of the elevator pitch is to immediately excite someone’s appetite to pursue your project.
- You must be able to explain the concept of your program or series in a brief statement when you are asked, “Tell me, what is your show about?”
So, it’s important to keep it simple and relatable.
- An easy starting place is: “My show is (blank) meets (blank.)”
- For example, “O.C. Gaffer” is “Cake Boss” meets “Hollywood Tans.”
What do I think of Burnie’s elevator pitch?
- It needs work. It’s all about Burnie’s personal challenge, and not about his show.
- It doesn’t say what the show is about: “I’m a gaffer! This is what I do. And this is my drama!”
- The elevator needs to provide more unique access into this world.
- Play up the fact that everyone knows this job exists, and now is your chance to pull back the proverbial curtain.
- Who cares if some 60 year old gets to LA or not? We want to know about Burnie the gaffer!
Off the top of my head, the elevator pitch needs to go in this direction:
- “O.C. Gaffer” is a 100 percent unfiltered VIP Pass to the life and world of a Hollywood gaffer. Scaling scaffolds at rock concerts or lighting a 40 acre haunted tour. The sky’s the limit as to what these unsung heroes of lighting accomplish on a daily basis.”
This is an original topic, pitch and world never seen on television in a non-fiction format.
- While it’s connected to the sometimes flashy industry of film and television, a gaffer is a relatable blue collar field of work.
- And the aspect of the owner operator running his own business is another great relatable quality.
Remember: the best ideas aren’t necessarily the most controversial ones:
- 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?’
To sum up: my initial response is that “O.C. Gaffer” is an original, sustainable concept.
The subject of the inside workings of a gaffer company may be too ‘inside baseball’ for the average TV American viewer to care about.
- The average person can relate to running a cupcake business.
- Or to the high stakes of risking life and limb for the big money in crab fishing, driving a big rig truck, or digging for gold.
- But will they care about the inner workings of the TV and film lighting business?
The gaffer’s work is a unique business not seen on TV before.
- Even though it’s set in a glamorous world, it’s not very glamorous work.
- It’s a hard-working, blue collar gig.
- Burnie can play this up as a relatable element.
And, it’s a team job: Burnie’s crew adds an opportunity to develop a cast of supporting characters.
The Startup Trap
The kiss of death for almost any project is to position your stakes as starting a new business, going into new territory, or making a comeback.
When the success or the failure of a startup is the ‘high stakes’ in a program concept, it leaves little motivation for the concept to survive a second season.
- The business succeeds, fails or muddles along.
- Whatever: There’s nothing new to add in Season 2.
The producers of “Cake Boss”, “Billy the Exterminator”, “Dog the Bounty Hunter” or “Pawn Stars” did not premise their series on the fact that their businesses must succeed now or are going out of business.
Takeaways for Burnie
- Do not premise your stakes on your business hitting the big time up the road in LA!!
- These are reality TV-savvy times: your viewers accept that you are good at what you do. That is why you have a show in the first place!
Coming soon in #3/3, we continue Stephen’s feedback on Burnie’s pitch, covering
- Targeting Networks
- Production Values
- Final Takeaways
More on Stephen’s Filters
- Read ‘How to Pitch Your Program to a Network.’
- It’s our 3-parter on A&E’s filters from last year’s Silver Docs conference.
Whatever you call it: ‘Unscripted’, ‘Non-scripted’, ‘Reality’, ‘Lifestyle’, ‘Factual’ or just plain old ‘docs’, watch out for coverage of your pitches in DocumentaryTelevision.com.
- Our warmest thanks to Burnie: “You are an inspiration to everyone who just wants to get it done!”
- Here’s a link to the highly recommended Burnie’s Grip & Lighting
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.
Brent Montgomery, Executive Producer, Leftfield Pictures
Mary Donahue, Executive Producer, A&E Television
Rob Miller, Agent, Peleton Entertainment
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