How To Write & Pitch A TV Show Idea That Sells
Understanding the power of “Idea” in Television
By Scott Manville
Producer – Founder, TVWritersVault.com
If you’re asking “How do I pitch a new TV show?”, or “How can I sell my TV show idea?”, we’d like to help you understand the most important factors in getting Producers to engage with your pitch- the idea itself, and the written treatment. We provide this free pro insight and advice for all new screenwriters and producers in the process of writing and pitching TV scripts and ideas.
Whether you’re pitching reality shows, docuseries’, game show formats, or drama series’, the most critical aspect of the pitch is the “Logline”. It’s the short pitch that sells your series. It’s the one-liner and shorthand that a TV development executive uses to sell it to her boss at the production company, and that her boss uses to sell it to the network executive. Ultimately it is that core “idea” that is used to market the show to viewers. We’ll break down this clever and critical tool for you further in this article.
The Pitch Treatment:
Supporting that core idea should be a written pitch treatment that details all of the unique and original aspects of your concept as they would play out in the proposed show. This bolsters the originality of your pitch, and helps protect it as an intellectual property. “Ideas” are protected under copyright law only when there is a unique and original expression of them. “stock ideas” that are vague and generalized with no original creation of proposed content in a pitch cannot be protected. So it pays to roll up your sleeves and get creative and clever in your premise, your plot, your characters, and proposed scenarios and format. In this guide, we’ll dive into the framework and strategy for writing a compelling pitch that will communicate the potential of your TV script or concept to producers.
TV Industry Leaders confirm that “ideas” are the fuel that drives the entertainment industry:
“There are sectors that make up the business. It is not just producers selling finished content. It is all about the beginning of the process, the idea stage.”
“The idea is king. Plain and simple. But it has to be made well, and it needs many elements to succeed. I always say a good game needs to have both sizzle AND the steak. The steak is the solid format. The sizzle is what makes it a television show and not a board game.”
3 Key Components that sell your TV series idea or script, and how they fuel the potential of your pitch:
First, lets talk TITLE. Unlike film titles that may be more ambiguous to serve some underlying theme or the character’s plight, television is a title driven medium unlike any other. It’s the first message delivered to viewers to provoke interest. It’s often a play on words, and rolls easily off the tongue. A title can be a great sales tool if it hints at a subject we haven’t seen before and inspires the imagination, allowing the executive to see the potential for the series.
A LOGLINE is a one or two sentence description in a pitch that tells the basic premise and purpose of a TV show idea. Loglines for the sake of pitching a project are similar to a TV Guide description of a show, but more specific in describing the concept of the program. This is the catalyst for increasing the odds of selling a script or idea for a series.
|“You can have the most polished pitch reel, but if that core idea isn’t highly original and captivating it will never find the traction it needs to become a show”|
In my twenty years of working in development for major television companies I’ve seen countless occasions where an executive fell in love with an “idea” pitched, and then worked from the inside out with the Creators to develop the best approach for that concept. That’s called the “development process”. In the same number of years I have never seen a bad idea purchased because the pitch was polished and professional looking. You can have the most polished pitch reel or “show package”, but if that core idea isn’t highly original and captivating it will never find the traction it needs to become a show. That’s why it’s critical to develop multiple ideas and engage producers with written pitches so that you, and the production company, will know what’s worth investing in. And since its the production company who will be investing, whether they pay for the proof of concept reel or get a network to underwrite it on a “pre-sale”, it all comes down to finding an idea that resonates with them. This often has to do with their own keen sense of what is entertaining to watch, and if that type of project can connect with their connections at the Networks. The more you create, the more you pitch, the more you engage with producers, the more refined your sensibility will be for what companies want.
Ask yourself these critical questions when conceptualizing an idea for a TV show: What are we actually watching happen in the show? Is the premise too familiar, or is it something that hasn’t yet been explored in television? Are the characters compelling? The Creator must take a hard look at what they’re actually proposing. Often what is great in theory falls flat in reality. That said, and assuming your idea is highly original, you absolutely need to invest your time in developing the pitch so that the premise and path of the show is communicated for the executive to see its potential. Look for irony in the world or subject you’re proposing. Viewers want to experience things in a way that they don’t expect. Keep in mind that this is television, so no matter the subject, you want to propose personalities that are polarizing. We want to experience a heightened level of the human condition, and it takes strong characters with interesting perspectives to portray that. Your pitch is a roadmap with ingredients that sets things in motion. The setting, the circumstances, the agenda and plight of the people involved are all major components that need to be fresh and crystal clear. Continue revisiting your logline as the touchstone that all things are derived from. In fleshing out your pitch you may see that the logline needs to be modified, and hopefully becomes more clear and clever.
Developing your logline is also an opportunity to express an original hook that your show has that separates it from others within the same genre or theme. A great logline should provoke interest and inspire the TV producer to see the potential of the show. Odds are, if you can’t boil your pitch for a TV show down to a solid 1 or 2 sentences that tells what the show is about, producers will never be attracted to it for development.
To an executive scouting projects, the TV show logline is perhaps the most important element of the development process. It is the core concept of the show, and is very close to the short pitch a Network markets to the public when promoting a new show. This holds the “idea power” of your project.
The following are simple examples of could-be loglines for popular television shows:
“Ordinary people face their fears by competing against each other in outrageously devised stunts” – Fear Factor
“A likeable husband’s tolerance and marriage is tested by the constant intrusion of his overbearing parents and dim-witted brother” – Everybody Loves Raymond
“Twenty women will court and compete to win the affections of one man who will narrow the selection until he must decide on his one true love.” – The Bachelor
“Contestants’ general knowledge will be tested when given the answers to questions they must then form.” – Jeopardy
“Aspiring singers will compete in a nationwide talent search on live television where they will face the often unfair scrutiny of a panel of judges before voting viewers finally brand one the “American Idol”, receiving a recording contract.” – American Idol
3. Synopsis / Treatment
This is a detailed outline, typically 3 to 10 pages, depending on the genre, that tells the story of your series and concept as it plays out in both the pilot episode, and over the arc of the series. It will include a description of the “world” and premise of the series, the plight of your main character(s), and sample episode storylines. The content varies by genre, but we’ll break it into two main categories:
Scripted Series – The logline has explained the main premise and plight of your protagonist, and now this is where you drill in and bring the world their world to life. The key is to not be so detailed that it bogs down the reader, but to hit on all of the most critical beats in the episode or season you are detailing. This may include an outline of the Pilot episode (whether or not you have a script), an outline of a first season arc so we can see how the series evolves, and what the specific episode summaries are. Our article How-To-Pitch-A-TV-Show-Pilot-Script.asp provides a full view of writing pitch treatments for scripted series.
Unscripted – While the logline should detail the set-up or subject that is the focus of the series, when you dig in to write the synopsis you’ll most likely be writing what we’ll “potentially” or “ideally” witness in the series. Since much of these series’ are character focused, a majority of your synopsis should cover the main characters lives, habits, passions, pursuits, and conflicts. You can get a more expanded view by checking out our article on Create-Pitch-Reality-TV-Shows.asp
The Verbal Pitch | A meeting of the minds…
The Goal –
While you have no control over whether or not the Executive will connect with your pitch, what you do have control over is the single basic goal of the meeting. That is, to connect with them in like-minded creativity. One of the best things an executive can discover is a new writer or producer who knows how to think and make fresh and compelling choices. So even if you don’t sell the pitch for that particular project in the room, they’ll feel a “connection of the minds” and be open to new projects you deliver in the future. Or, in a best case scenario, they like the way you think so much that they’ll want to work with you in figuring out how the idea or story may work. It’s a combination of factors, but you MUST win them over by how you think and view things.
The Prep –
When you have a tightly written pitch that outlines the specifics of your film or treatment, it’s then time to practice pitching it off page. Know the logline cold. It’s short, and holds the most impact. It’s what sets their view on the project, and the words you’ve carefully crafted but be told exactly as is. But for the synopsis you’re going to have to train your thought process to follow the story beats, but not verbatim. You don’t want to memorize five or ten pages of text, so what you’re going to do is give an abbreviated walk-through of the story. Some of the specific wording or turn of a phrase you’ll remember, while most others you won’t. Take a drive, go for a bike ride, a run, a swim, or anything that allows you some focused solitude. When your mind is finally comfortable hopping through the obstacle course of your story, then do without the distraction of activity. Stand up, and give the pitch. Pitch your dog, pitch your kids, pitch your spouse. Let them interrupt you, and keep your momentum. You need to build a flexible muscle so you’re not walking into the room with a perfectly rehearsed robo-pitch that will be DOA. When your story is a part of you, then you can easily pitch it with the flexibility needed. You’ll be comfortable.
The Pitch –
Hopefully you’re pitching a project that will fill a void. Something we haven’t seen before. A subject they haven’t thought of before. But with an approach that gives it a highly unique perspective…your angle in. Know in your heart what makes the project special. Getting past the pleasantries, start your pitch with a cause. Right from the start hit them with a core question that will be the flashpoint for the pitch. Then you’re ready to share the logline with them. If you have the right project, they’ll want it to work. Their mind is then open to absorbing much of the details you’ll follow with as you walk them through the arc of the story, or the structure and content of the concept. Be prepared to be interrupted, and take it as your opportunity to engage with them. If it’s the right question, you’ll then become conspirators in figuring out how the story best works. Do not let the momentum die. Keep moving forward in the pitch. Also keep in mind, you’ll be on edge, excited, nervous to a certain degree…it’s common to race over details. This is often a great way to cut the fat out of the narrative and deliver just the essential facets of the story or concept. While nerves can sharpen your energy, they can also cloud your ability to “hear” what the executive may be saying (or not saying) to you during and after the pitch. You must listen. You’re not there to sell them. You’re there to serve them. If you listen and hear what they communicate, it may tell you more about what they want, rather than you only hearing that they don’t want yours. It’s a process. You’re building a collaborative relationship.
As the pitch wraps up and they’ve shared their view, always have one or two other projects in your hip pocket just to mention to them. They’ll tell you on the spot “sure, what are they”, or “follow up with that one”. It’s a way to keep the tone positive and moving forward.
The Follow-Up –
Only follow up when they specifically expressed an interest in the project. If they weren’t sure, or only spoke of issues, you’ll only be bugging them about a project they’re not interested in.
Another way to follow up isn’t to follow up asking if they want to engage on the project, but to follow up with a new project. It gives them the opportunity to address or share any determination of your original pitch, while no whipping a dead horse. At the very least their mind will open up to see if your new pitch is more viable.
Here’s a few write-ups from my blog on pitching TV show ideas. Jump into the conversation and I’d love to chat!
Check Out This Great Discussion With TV’s Top Showrunners On Creating & Pitching TV Show Ideas
Pitching A TV Script or Treatment for Scripted Series?
If you’ve written, or are in the process of creating and writing a pilot script or treatment pitch for a scripted TV series, we’ve put together a great page of information from top TV showrunners and executives. It details the value of ideas for TV, and how to find subjects and stories, advice from creators of hit TV shows, information on TV pilot script and treatment pitch structure and content, links to actual pilot scripts of hit TV series, and other resources. The TV Writers Vault Guide to Writing, Pitching & Selling Scripted TV Series
Learn how TV show ideas and scripts are sold here at the TV Writers Vault:
Experts On Storytelling for TV & Film:
Here’s a bit of brain-candy for anyone who wants to understand how TV series ideas and movie ideas are conceived by some of the most brilliant storytellers in our industry. It’s an education that will keep you inspired:
Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (“Toy Story”, “Wall-E”, “Finding Nemo”) taps into a formula to help us build a roadmap for a story:
Oscar and Emmy Winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”, “A Few Good Men”, “The West Wing”, “The Newsroom”)taps into his process of creating characters for story ideas:
When you’ve got your great idea for a new TV series worked out with a clever title, a captivating logline, and a clear synopsis, then you’re ready to put it to market and get a production company behind it. Here at the TV Writers Vault, when you list your pitch in our secure industry marketplace, we provide electronic proof of review by any executive accessing your pitch. When an executive likes your pitch and wants to discuss the project, they simply click a button to request contact with you and we provide your direct contact information. You’ll receive instant notification of all activity and requests.
Producers at the TV Writers Vault are always scouting new projects for both scripted and reality television as well as other genres. Read Success Stories from the TV Writers Vault, and click below to pitch your new idea for a TV show.