How to Pitch & Sell Your Project. A&E, #3/3. “Seven Key Takeaways”

Part 3/3

By Erin Essenmacher

A&E director of Development Stephen Harris spoke at Silverdocs and WIFV panels that were moderated by DocumentaryTelevision.com editor Peter Hamilton. 

The ‘Sweet Spot’

Peter explained that all networks have a “sweet spot” or ideal budget range, which varies by channel and project.

The ‘sweet spot’ is based on such factors as:

  • The network’s financial strategy: investment or profit-taking?
  • The scale/success of network
  • Daypart
  • Competition
  • Program genre and format
  • Whether the program is a seasonal promotion
  • And if the producer is “established, successful and sought after by other channels”.

According to Stephen Harris, A&E’s “sweet spot” looks something like this:

  • “If we are developing a reality show, we want to know what other networks are doing, and at what price.
  • “So if another network has a successful show at $300 – 400,000, we’ll want to do something similar, but hopefully better, in the same budget range.”

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Producers: Understand the Schedule

“Also key to your research:  Know what your kinds of shows your target channel is already programming.”

Stephen described how A&E’s schedule is currently structured:

  • Sunday: Celebrity DocuSoap (Kirstie Alley’s Big Life, Gene Simmon’s Family Jewels)
  • Monday: Hope & Redemption (Intervention, Hoarders, Obsessed)
  • Tuesday:  Paramormal (Psychic Kids)
  • Wednesday: Big Characters on the Job (Dog the Bounty Hunter, Billy the Exterminator)
  • Thursday: Crime and Justice (The First 48)
  • Friday: Off Net Scripted Drama (The Glades)

What Was Green Lit?

Harris described the slate of eight newly-green lit series that is A&E featuring this season, including:

  • I’m Heavy (“about extreme weight loss”)
  • The Squad (“The First 48 inside a prison”)
  • Strange Days with Bob Saget (“a show like 30 Days where Bob serves as a sort of human guinea pig, living different lives including with a motorcycle gang, in a fraternity house, and living off the grid”)
  • Growing Up Twisted (“at home with Dee Snyder of the 80’s rock band Twisted Sister”)
  • Teach (“follows Tony Danza as he spends a year teaching English inside a high school”)

Length: 30’s or 60’s?

Some networks may prefer 30-minute episodes over hour-long episodes, but as Harris explained for A&E:

  • “Let the subject matter define the length and number of episodes. 
  • “All of our contracts specify costs for both 30’s and 60’s. 
  • “Sometimes we might green light a one hour pilot, and then when we see it, we agree that it works better as a 30.”

Production Supervision

Discovery’s channels – where Harris used to work – are structured with separate development and production teams.  

  • A couple of weeks after a green light, the development executive moves back to development, and the production department takes over and runs with the project.

A&E is structured so that the same executive stays on from pitch through production and until broadcast. 

  • “I have projects at all stages,” Harris explains, “so I’m taking new pitches, staying on top of shows I have in development and in production, and overseeing programs in post.”
  • Stephen says that he typically has 8+/- projects that are in the Production through Delivery phases.

Are Catfights the Keys to the Kingdom?

One audience member questioned the nature of conflict in reality programming, and asked if every show needed to have “catfights or backstabbing.” 

  • Harris framed it this way:  “You must have drama and conflict. That doesn’t have to be ‘backstabbing’ – it can be the struggle to lose weight or kick an addiction and the obstacles that folks overcome in doing that.
  • “The bottom line for the success of the show is a storyline and characters that make a viewer want to keep watching.”

Seven Key Takeaways for Producers

Stephen Harris wrapped up with his ‘Key Takeaways’ for producers who strive to earn commissions from A&E:

  • Sizzle
    Create a “sizzle reel” – a short segment that gives a sense for your story and main characters.  Sizzle reels should run from 3 minutes to no more than 8 minutes – not a pilot, just proof of content and character
  • Filters
    Each A&E show must have: Big Characters, High Stakes, Unique Access and Resolution.  If your project doesn’t meet all of these criteria, don’t pitch it. If it does meet these criteria and your proposal and sizzle reel don’t show these elements, re-work them until they do
  • Title
    A hot/compelling title is crucial.  It needs to grab audience’s attention and make them want to see the show. Look at Pawn Stars!
  • Research
    Do your research before you pitch a network: determine their “sweet spot” or ideal budget, determine their core audience, and look at what kinds of shows they’re already doing. A&E’s network demographics: 50/50 audience of men and women.

    • “Anything that feels too Male, isn’t for us. 
    • “But we might send it off to our sister network, The History Channel.
    • “We want diversity, and that means topics and subject matter that have a universal feel.”
  • Business Model
    • “Our model is 100% commission.
    • “We only want series, and we prefer shows that can go into multiple seasons,” Harris explained.
    • “And we want to own all rights, in all territories, including DVD sales.”
  • Timeline
    The average timeline for a show from pitch to screen is 12 to 18 months. For ‘fast tracked’ shows, it can be 8 to 10 months
  • All American
    A&E’s content is all U.S.-based. “There is no interest in international topics.”

A guest post by Erin Essenmacher, The Film Panel Notetaker
(Adapted for the WordPress format with additional noters from Peter Hamilton)

More about the Development Process from DocumentaryTelevision.com

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