Insight, Synopsis & Pitch Template
“Viewers have an insatiable appetite for witnessing and being entertained by the human experience”
If you want to create and pitch a reality show idea that can sell, it’s important to first understand what they are, how to conceive of marketable ideas, and how to create a pitch that will show producers the entertainment value and potential of your idea. The TV Writers Vault provides this open guide to help you create better concepts and pitch more productively. This information has helped many new writers and producers land deals and get shows on air. Here’s what we’ll cover:
Formatted reality shows are essentially game shows, because there is a specific structure, set rules, and a clear winner. What makes them exciting to watch is the fact that they are often clever dramatic social experiments. To truly connect with an audience and have entertainment value in a show, the idea needs to be as fun to watch as it is to participate in.
Docuseries reality shows allow us to witness life unfold for a person, family, business, or group set within a lifestyle and circumstance that creates entertaining and compelling content. The reason viewers tune in is because we have an insatiable appetite for witnessing and being entertained by the human experience.
Be Specific in your idea, and try several approaches. Here’s a typical scenario that will give you an idea of why being specific and unique is important: Ms. Network Executive gives a production company executive the inside scoop that they would love to find a show that places contestants in some sort of “fish-out-of-water scenario” and would like it to involve a family. That in itself is a generic idea, but it does send the creative mind in a specific direction. What she hopes is that you will be the one to deliver an approach to that concept that is totally unique and holds great entertainment value. They may be spending time trying to develop the concept internally, while also taking pitches from a handful of producers. Many producers will create two or three variations on the same concept. And each of those will give you a different result, a different experience as a viewer, and therefore they are considered by any executive taking stock- different shows. So don’t be afraid to work on several shows within the same theme. It can only increase your chance of making a sale.
Titles are very important. They should roll off the tongue easily, provoke conversations, and simply tell you exactly what you’re going to be watching. The Bachelor, The Apprentice, Gold Rush, Wife Swap, The Biggest Loser, America’s Got Talent, InkMasters, Flipping Out, Blind Date, Little People-Big World, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, Pawn Stars are all good examples. Word play is always a good way to grab attention and create curiosity. Meet the Parents, Wife Swap, and Blind Date are all specific to what their show is about, while using known phrases to create titles that provoke curiosity.
Think of movies- Story is a critical element when developing a reality-based project. When you look at movies, look at the core concept and story elements of the film, and a reality show just might be staring you smack in the face. “Cannonball Run”, “Meet the Parents”, “Around the World in Eighty Dates” “The Fugitive” are all specific examples of film concepts that have translated into reality-based shows for television.
When pitching a docuseries it is all about the characters and the world they live in. Having video on the persons involved is great, but you’ll want to clarify their roles and relationship to one another. Explain how experiencing their world is unique and compelling. Describe their plight in life, and how they handle adversity. Check out our article on creating docuseries for some deeper insight.
Formatted reality series have a very clear structure, rules, and a progression to a winner. When pitching these types of shows, keep in mind that everything needs to feed and build drama. Be it a relationship series, or competition series, it’s all about creating the right components that deliver key dramatic moments. The logline will describe the unique premise and agenda for the series, and the synopsis will take us through the specific steps detailing how the show unfolds. The most important aspect of creating this type of series is to have a highly original hook that makes the show unlike anything we’ve seen. While the framework or subject may be derived from other popular shows, your specific hook makes everything different.
Having a “proof of concept” reel is great, but it’s critical to understand that it can both help and hinder. If you’re pitching a docuseries, then having video that allows the producers to see who and how the people are, their personalities, their perspectives, their world, is great. BUT if you try to have produced a “professional” reel it can quickly become overproduced and more of a turn off. Why? Because what a network or production company will fall in love with are the people, the subject, and their world. They’ll have an idea of its potential content. If you attempt to present and deliver what you think that is, it can show too much and fall short, killing their confidence. It’s best to simply have a two to three minute tape with main characters introducing themselves, talking about their job, family, relationships, and each other. From that, we’ll get a sense of their personalities and their perception of others, giving us a clear view on the chemistry we’d be dealing with in producing a show.
Pitching “In The Room”
Being good in a room is something born from experience and guts. Keep in mind, confidence doesn’t mean being brash or overbearing. Confidence means having trust. It means having enough trust that the executive will see what you are communicating, and you can relax enough to not push right into the pitch. Have a warm greeting. Ask them about specific projects they’re working on. Get a feel for what their mandate might be. Get a sense of how they view programming. All of this comes from simply having a quick chat as the meeting starts. The right moment for sharing your pitch will usually be triggered by them, and you’ll be able to key on something they may have pointed out during the quick chat. Finding that common ground is a good place to start. And be ready to adjust on the fly in order to serve what you feel their needs or interests are. Have a back-up pitch! To go in with the entire meeting based on one pitch is asking for a very short and awkward meeting. What you’re needing to do is have a moment with them where you connect creatively, and you both find that you’re like-minded in terms of taste. That leaves the door open for future pitches. If you’re lucky, they’ll be inspired by one of your pitches, and will begin working out the idea with you.
Sample Pitch Treatments
In formatted and docuseries reality TV, a written pitch treatment is the roadmap that describes to producers what we’re potentially watching in the produced series. In a formatted reality series, it’s all about the structure and escalation of drama leading to an end-game. Further below in article we give a very basic outline which includes Title, Logline, and Synopsis, but you will of course want to include elements that are specific to the subject and genre:
Title of Show:
Logline – [1 or 2 sentence description of your concept. Similar to what you might see in TV Guide or on a poster for a movie, but a bit more descriptive of content].
Synopsis – [A detailed description of your show as we would see it on TV. Usually 1 to 5 pages in length. This details the “arc” of the season. It’s important to be efficient with your descriptions, yet give enough information to provoke interest of the reader. The golden rule: Show the reader what we are watching.]
Here’s a clear view on what is expected in terms of content for a pitch treatment in the two main styles of reality TV: The following is a simple structure (content not included) of presentation for any project, and is similar to the registration/submission form used for the Television Writers Vault. Most project outlines describing a show will be 1 to 3 pages in length
Note: There is no right way to form a TV pitch for the various reality-based and scripted genres in television. However, there are philosophies and formats that will help the buyer see more clearly what your TV show idea is, and its potential. Following are a few samples of written pitches for reality show concepts. These are very basic synopsis’ written. A more developed and expansive version can be written at any point in the development process.
Reality TV Pitch Synopsis Samples:
Title: Broadway Bound
A reality TV Docuseries for Television
Logline (short pitch):”Waiting For Guffman” meets “American Idol”. A flamboyant Broadway director and choreographer descend on a small town, infiltrating the local play. One performer will be taken back to Broadway for a featured part in a real Broadway show.
Synopsis: [content should be 3 to 7 paragraphs outlining the content of the show as it unfolds. Be specific and original in your execution]
In every small town, there are big dreamsï¿½
In Washbuckle, Missouri the regional theatre holds open casting calls for their annual musical review. Some members of the troupe have dreams of making it to Broadway or Hollywood. Others are content in being the star of Washbuckle, Missouri hogging what little limelight there is year after year.
But what happens when, just one week before opening night, a ruthless Broadway Director and Choreographer drops into town with the agenda of taking control of the small town production while scouting for talent to find his ï¿½starï¿½? Itï¿½s a fascinating look at big dreams in small town America. The personal stories and archetypical characters that collide as opening night approaches. The ego-maniacal local theatre director getting systematically pushed aside by the big-city Broadway director. The humorous moments as the city-slickers struggle to tolerate the small town ways and mentality. The infighting among potential cast members. The panic that ensues as the cast, choreography, and production are turned on itï¿½s tail at the eleventh hour. The inspiring moments that rise to the surface amidst the chaos of opening nightï¿½. And ï¿½the decisionï¿½. One person from the cast will be chosen for a spot in a hit Broadway production, a trip to Hollywood for a spot on a soap-opera and every chance they could ever hope for being famous?
6 Episode Season Arc:
Ep. 1 – Meet the town folk. Get to know the key characters and the theatre group. Weï¿½ll also watch in parallel the merciless Broadway Director in action in New York, seeing the contrasts in both characters. Weï¿½ll take a humorous look at the awful auditions for the small town play. Weï¿½ll see the announcement (or rumor) of the impending arrival of the Broadway Director scouting for talent, and witness the anxiety that is infused in each of our small town characters fighting to get into the play.
Ep. 2 – In-fighting, tensions escalating, accusations, the director starts feeling the pressure. People are cast. Hearts are broken, hopes are sparked. They have a first run-through with the cast. The mysterious Broadway director in black sits in the back. (Imagine a Simon Cowell) snapping from the back row, ï¿½Stop! Every one of you STOP!!ï¿½ He then marches down the isle. An imposing figure. He introduces himself and delivers the news that he has come to find talent, and someone from this town, in this play, will be chosen. He goes on about how he sees nothing but problems. The play will be re-cast, the production will stop now! (One week before opening night). The new director and small-town director fight. Cast members protest. New auditions are held, and performances scrutinized. A new cast is announced, and from that cast will come his ï¿½starï¿½.
Ep. 3 – The pressure is on to bring it together for opening night, weï¿½ll cover four days of rehearsals, as well as the personal struggles surrounding the production. Anticipation, anxiety, resentment, hope, adrenaline. Opening night! We see the performance and the reactions of our Broadway director. Cliff-hanger for his decision on who will be Broadway bound!
Ep. 4 – Re-cap of the series, the performances, the arguments, and finallyï¿½ the decision. One of the people that landed a role, large or small in this little play is chosen. We share in the afterglow, the elation, and the disappointment of others. And sharing a dream come true for that one person selected.
Ep. 5 – Broadway New York!! Our winner is whisked around like a star. Taken backstage of a REAL Broadway production, immersed in the whole lifestyle. Meetings with Hollywood talent scouts, directors of other productions, agents, etc.
Ep. 6 – We see our small town hero take his leap of faith, jumping headfirst into a Broadway show. A dream is realized.
Title: “The Last Tango”
A Formatted Relationship Series for Television
Logline: Five soon-to-be engaged couples will face their fidelity as their relationships are tested, ultimately proving their readiness or rejection of the biggest commitment of their lives. Temptation Islandï¿½ meets ï¿½Around the World in Eighty Datesï¿½
Synopsis: Five soon-to-be-engaged couples will be brought together for a relationship-altering journey. In this series, each person will explore and discover what their relationship is really made of when faced with The “Last Tango”. Those couples cast will be currently involved in a ï¿½long engagementï¿½ or living together as boyfriend/girlfriend for an extended period. All will be at a turning point, or breaking point in their relationships.
Each couple will be separated into groups of five men and five women. We will then follow each group of men and women on a romp-around-America Last Tango before marriage. Locales will be Hawaii, Las Vegas, Nashville, New York City, Beverly Hills, and Miami. On their journey they will be set-up at events, outings, and other social adventures where they will meet and spend time with a variety of tempting prospects or ï¿½datesï¿½.
Each of our couples will be privy to fear-provoking information about their significant otherï¿½s activities while they themselves are in the midst of their own journey of temptation, or perhaps the discovery of a new love. Itï¿½s a triangle of conflict that will boil over into the final episode when our couples are reunited.
[Sample Episode Outlines should be in this portion, detailing the pattern and progression of play, as people are challenged and eliminated by whatever process best serves the concept.]
Final Episode: One person of each couple does not know they will return from their Sabbatical to face an ultimatum by their partner on Live TV. It is at that moment they will be confronted by their significant other who poses the ultimatum; ï¿½Marry me now, or lose me foreverï¿½.
Each relationship faces peril or a prize; to part separate ways or get married at that moment. Ten adventures, five couples, five ultimatums, all leading to five moments of drama on Live TV. For some it will be the final straw. For others, a new beginning. ï¿½Can your relationship survive The Last Tango?ï¿½
“They are social experiments that deliver a heightened reality of our world”
Unique Professions or Lifestyles: One of the simplest and most successful sub-genre of reality show is the documentary style series covering unique professions or lifestyles. These stories serve the insatiable curiosity viewers have to gain insight into other peoples lives and jobs. Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County is a guilty-pleasure glimpse into the spoiled and faux-glamorous lives of a certain group of women in Orange County, California. Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch takes us out on the high seas with Alaskan king crab fishermen battling giant waves and wind as they fight to pull their catch and earn a days pay. Both of these series are covered in documentary style format, so if you have a subject or idea for a reality series that fits into this style, you’ve got to have the actual people involved to pitch it. Repo men may have a compelling profession, but you’ll need to have the stories of the actual, specific repo man that would star in the series. Again, it’s not just pitching the idea, but pitching the specific person and profession that the series would be focused on.
They are social experiments that deliver a heightened reality of our world. Survivor, produced by Mark Burnett Productions, is a microcosm of our society. We are stuck living together, therefore we must get along. Each person must strategize to win, but must do so without creating enemies, because it is their neighbor that votes if they can continue or if they get kicked out. It isnï¿½t always fair, and therein lies the fun. In that pressure-cooker atmosphere we see the players true character rise to the surface. Even though the show is set up, you get real drama. Another example: To put a group of young adults together in the same house that are strangers, living, working and playing creates an inherent ï¿½soap operaï¿½ for the audience to watch. That was Bunim/Murray Productionsï¿½ ï¿½The Real Worldï¿½, and it opened up the young viewing audience to a new form of compelling TV. Documentary-style coverage of a set-up situation.
The Apprentice, another Mark Burnett brainchild, has similar game elements to that of Survivor but takes place in a different jungle- the corporate jungle. Aspiring business mavens must work together under the scrutinizing eye of Donald Trump. Poor performers of the weekly business task face Trump in his boardroom where each week one person is fired. A marketing person will tell you that people will tune into this show to see Trump fire someone each week. True! But the reason viewers find it compelling to watch is because of the specific moments of drama that come out of situations and challenges that face us all. As in most dramatized pieces, it is a “heightened reality” that makes it entertaining to watch.
A show that branded the cable network of Bravo with a Network Hit, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was a simple and entertaining formula that brought opposite worlds together when hapless straight guys are thrown to the mercy of five gay experts in all that is hip and chic, in hopes of resurrecting their lifestyle and appearance. The result of bringing these two mismatches together…. comedy and quality entertainment. The emotional hook in this show isn’t the obvious “comedy that ensues”, but the heart strings that the show touches when someone’s life is changed for the better. You’ll notice this as the root of any successful makeover show. It’s not about the makeup and furniture, it’s about changing lives.
Another show that received great critical acclaim in reality programming is Wife Swap on ABC. Beyond being a “fish-out-of-water” concept, the show is built on casting “oil and water”. Husbands and wives discover the grass ISN’T always greener when they swap husbands or wives to experience family life through someone else’s perspective and practices.
ABCï¿½s hit franchise The Bachelor is both simple in concept and execution, but what the Producers of the show know how to do is pull drama from specific moments of tension and anticipation. Itï¿½s classy, itï¿½s romantic, and again- itï¿½s real drama that weï¿½re watching. And one thing that puts it a cut above the rest is that it isnï¿½t necessarily a journey of breaking hearts as much as it is a journey of two people finding true love with each other (that hopefully lasts beyond the air-date of the show). The show romanticizes the courting process and we can’t get enough of it.
One example of a good concept that inspired by an event many of us can relate to was the WB reality series, High School Reunion. A production executive went to their high school reunion and experienced the organic drama and issues that are alive at any high-school reunion. That was the nucleus of what became a prime-time reality show. The show keyed on the characters we all know; the beauty queen, the jock, the nerd, the bully, the loner, the gossipers, the rockers, etc. They chose to build the show around a ten-year reunion because having most of the people at age 28, theyï¿½ll find a large chasm in the career and life progress of each person. Some will already be huge successes, some will have taken turns for the worse, most will be insecure and frustrated. Again, it is all built for drama. And you can be sure that there will be humor with revenge fantasies played out, unrequited love rekindled, or even a grudge match between the ex-nerd turned judo champ, and the ex-bully turned couch potato. It is something we all relate to, and fun to watch.
Another form of reality-based programming that came back into play has been the hidden-camera show. The cable hit juggernaut Impractical Jokers is semi-scripted for direction, but improvised by the actors involved with the “marks” that the joke is being played out on. The concept is simple but limitless- You have likeable and talented best friends in a variety of set-ups, and always delivering funny results. Unsuspecting marks become players in what is essentially an unscripted scene of comedy and drama.
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