How to Pitch and Sell Your Project to a Network. Case Study: A&E, Part 1/3

An “Insider’s Guide” To How Factual Television Channels Develop and Commission Programs  (Part 1/3)

By Erin Essenmacher

This Silverdocs presentation featured A&E’s director of Development Stephen Harris and was moderated by DocumentaryTelevision.com’s Peter Hamilton.  

Harris and Hamilton originally presented at the Silverdocs Conference on June 23, 2010.  They did a reprise the following day as part of a special breakfast event organized by the DC chapter of Women in Film and Video

The presentations and discussion looked at the development and commissioning process at a major cable network, in this case, A&E. 

The following is Erin Essenmacher’s summary of the presentations and audience Q&A at both events, with added notes taken by Peter Hamilton during prep sessions.

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How to Pitch and Sell Your Project to the Network

Stephen Harris framed the discussion by saying, “we’re going to change the name of this presentation to ‘How to Pitch and Sell Your Project to the Network’ – because that’s what you’ll be able to do with the information we’re giving you.”

It’s Cyclical Not Vertical!

Peter Hamilton offered an initial overview and industry context:

  • Many producers don’t really understand the relationship between the network and the production company
  • I have this image of producers down on their knees as if praying up to the network gods, just hoping they’ll reward them with a deal and a bucket load of money
  • But the model is not vertical – it’s circular
  • Producers are part of a larger process. Networks commission programs with the goal of appealing to a target audience. Their success generates advertising revenues and supports their subscription revenues
  • The networks invest part of their revenue flows back into commissioning more programs.
  • The cycle isn’t ‘virtuous’. It’s ‘vicious’ because it’s so competitive. 
    • Other channels – as well as other media and recreation activities – are fighting for your audience and revenues
  • Successful producers understand exactly how they fit into this circular and fiercely competitive process.
    • They study and act on all the levers.

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A Day in the Life of an A&E Developer

A typical day for Harris starts with a visit to a newsstand on his way to work. He picks up several newspapers and magazines. When he gets to his office, he browses them for stories, personalities or issues that catch his attention.

  • “Because I work in development, part of my job is to keep the pipeline filled with new ideas.”
  • “Ideas can come from or be inspired by stories in People magazine, Page Six of the New York Post, gossip and entertainment blogs, competing networks – just about anywhere
  • “I try to write down three things every day that pop out at me.
    • They don’t have to be whole show ideas, but something interesting that I can share with my colleagues
  • “It’s sort of like reading the tea leaves and trying to divine what the next hot series might be
  • ”I’m taking the pulse of pop culture.”

He then reads the trades for a pulse check on industry news and to find out who’s doing what.

  • “I’m in contact with folks at other networks, but I still don’t usually know what they’re doing until I read a blurb about it somewhere
  • “It’s my responsibility to figure out what will keep us one-and-a-half to two steps ahead of our competition. I’m kind of like an odds maker
  • “My job today is to predict where pop culture will be in 12-18 months when our new series are launched.”

Harris then checks his emails. He receives around 200 every day.

He then takes phone calls and meetings with agents, production companies and independent producers, all with ideas for the next big series.

  • “I take about four or five pitch meetings a day, usually about 20 per week,” Harris explained
  • “Some have no chance, others have promise but certain elements need to be fixed, and a few have real potential
    • “Many pitches come from established producers who are working on series for us.
    • “They have access to the Development team, and they’re close to our day-to-day thinking.
  • “From those 20 pitches, I’ll pick the strongest to present at my pitch meeting
  • “I end up pitching about three projects per week to my group.”

The Format for Pitches

  • “I review sizzle reels on DVD. 
  • “Links to pitches don’t work for me. I get too many emails and I lose the ones with the links. Also links expire. And passwords change.
  • “I can nearly always keep a proper track of DVD’s.”

Team Meetings

  • A&E’s development team consists of 13 execs, and meets for 3+/- hours/weekly
  • It also includes the Bio channel team
  • Competitive ratings are reviewed carefully:
    • “Everyone is on the lookout for a project that is succeeding for another network, but we passed.
    • “Alternatively, we’re always pleased when we see that a series that we passed on has become another channel’s lemon.”

Peter asked Stephen if the focus of the team’s analysis was to identify under-performing series on A&E’s schedule, and to develop a program that would strengthen that weak slot.

  • “No! Our focus is not about gaps. It’s about how to get a great show!
  • “The scheduling will take care of itself.”

A guest post by Erin Essenmacher, The Film Panel Notetaker
(Adapted for the WordPress format)

More about the Development Process from DocumentaryTelevision.com