How To Pitch TV: A Case Study

How to Pitch TV A Case Study For Creating A Pitch For Your TV Pilot

Ready to learn how to pitch TV?

If you want to develop a pitch so you can pitch TV, this post is designed to break down the development process into twelve steps.

You may have read my previous post about how to create a pitch for your film screenplay.  My client met with a producer who suggested that he develop the idea as a TV pilot.

He adapted his idea from film to TV–and the pitch changed substantially. He’s given me permission to show you the process and the results.

The goal of this post is to share more of the development process so that you can see how research can influence how you create a pitch for your original idea.

If Your Goal Is To Sell The Project….

You don’t want to develop it in a vacuum (i.e., without reference to what has been done before) and hope that it all works out.  To pitch TV ideas clearly, you want to be making creative choices that also make sense for the marketplace.

You’ll never know exactly what’s going on in the mind of the decision-maker (or the audience).  But when you are more aware of the competitive landscape, you can create a better pitch.

This project started as a movie idea, so I’d like to start by clarifying the difference between TV and film pitches.

What Makes A TV Pitch Different From A Movie Pitch?

In terms of story, what makes a pitch work tends to be the same across mediums like movie, TV, novel, and new media:  you have to have a big idea, well-executed, with a clear audience.

However, there are three differences:

  1. Movie hero(es) tend to transform, whereas TV hero(es) tend to stay the same.
  2. A key question in the decision-maker’s mind for a movie pitch is, “Do I care enough about the hero to find out what happens?” For a TV pitch it’s, “What is the source material for future episodes?”
  3. Typically, a movie pitch starts with a short pitch, then goes into the complete pitch (5-10 minutes) of the three-act structure. In contrast, most TV pitches are structured like this:
  • Short pitch
  • Show summary
  • Character descriptions
  • Pilot episode story
  • Future episode short pitches
  • Future season short pitches

If you’d like to see examples of polished pitches for successful TV shows, here are some posts which contain examples:

I have seen many writers develop complete TV pitches including suggestions for casting, photos of locations, inspiration boards….

Unfortunately, without a strong, clear, differentiated core idea, nothing else really matters. So let’s focus on developing your short pitch first.

Step 1: Draft The Initial Short Pitch

If you already have a short pitch, great. If not, try the following formula with five elements:

“My story is a (genre) called (title) about (hero) who wants (goal) despite (obstacle).”

I like starting with this formula because it forces the clarification of the dramatic conflict. Typically, a story that is clear can be framed in terms of an entity (the hero) that is seeking something (the goal) despite some significant problem (the obstacle).

Our goal is to clarify the five elements and make them more compelling. This means that the changes we make may seem small (e.g., exchanging one word for another), but they will have large implications because we’re working at the DNA-level of the story.

Using the formula, here’s the initial pitch for the original film idea:

It’s a comedy called Nerd Ops about the National Security Administration’s nerdiest technical people who must become field operatives to save the world from a terrorist hacker organization.

Step 2: Identify Possible Genres

Genre gives context to the project, suggests a structure for the story, and has implications for budget, scope, and potential revenue.

You may already know how your project should be categorized. If not, here’s a way to generate ideas for genre descriptions:

  • Go to IMDb.com/tv/;
  • Look for produced projects that are the most like your idea;
  • See how they are classified.

Suppose I picked the show Burn Notice as an initial point of comparison. On IMDb, just under the title where it says “Burn Notice (2007-)” it says, “TV series – 44 min – Action | Crime | Drama.”

Using this strategy, and given the core concept of nerdy technicians becoming field operatives, here are some possible genres:

  • Hour-long action crime drama
  • Hour-long action adventure crime
  • Half-hour comedy

The way IMDb defines genre isn’t as distinct as the way boxofficemojo.com does it for films.  We don’t need an exact classification with which everyone could agree; we want to understand the competitive landscape and look for patterns.

Step 3: Identify Themes

While I do believe that it’s important for a finished project to have one core thematic premise, at this stage we’re interested in looking at themes more broadly.

Here are some themes that I could see being relevant:

  • Weaknesses can be strengths (and strengths weaknesses)
  • Warriors for the 21st century
  • The brotherhood (and sisterhood) of geekdom
  • Humans vs. machines

Step 4: Identify Structural Elements

Structural elements are aspects of the project which are obvious and relevant but which you don’t want to classify as themes.

Some structural elements of this story could be:

  • The culture of elite hackers
  • The NSA recruiting process
  • “Hell Week” training
  • Powerful supercomputers

Step 5: Brainstorm Comparisons

Now, using the genres, themes, and structural elements as a starting point, let’s generate more TV projects to which Nerd Ops could be compared. To pitch TV effectively, you want to be aware of any similar projects.

At this point, we’re still thinking of the project as being about nerds becoming field operatives in a spy context, so we’re choosing comparisons that are in the spy/intelligence milieu or involve a group of brainy people.

  • Burn Notice
  • Covert Affairs
  • MI-5
  • Intelligence
  • MacGyver
  • Nikita
  • The Unit
  • 24
  • Alias
  • NCIS
  • Chuck
  • The Big Bang Theory

Step 6: Build A Table To Hold Comparison Data

What we’re going to do now is build a chart full of data. Along the way, we’re going to get ideas for more comparison projects and we’ll add those to the chart.

First, set up a table with twenty rows and five columns. Those five columns should read: Title, Genre, Length, Date, and Pitch.

Second, open netflix.com. If you’re not already a Netflix member, you can get a trial membership.

Step 7: Fill In The Table

First, I’ll search IMDb.com for Burn Notice. I’ll enter the genre and length in my table.

Second, I’ll go to netflix.com and look for the summary. I’ll highlight it, edit if needed, paste into a text file, then cut and paste into my table.

After poking around in the IMDb and netflix databases, my table looks like this: GIAR Research Nerd Ops for TV Example.

Step 8: Look For Patterns

Looking at our table, we can see that almost all material that involves spies or the intelligence community is an hour-long “shoot-em-up.” That doesn’t really work with the comedy genre.

The only material that is comedic is Chuck, The Big Bang Theory, and (to a limited extent), NCIS.

My client started to realize that, among the many ways the development process could go, there were three main paths that interested him:

  1. Develop the project into a half-hour comedy like The Big Bang Theory, only now instead of it being a group of nerds at Cal-tech learning about relationships, it would be a group of nerds with the National Security Administration learning about relationships.
  2. Turn the project into an hourlong dramedy like Rescue Me, where it’s still primarily about relationships but there’s the occasional action sequence, just instead of a fire, there’s a dangerous operation where the technical geeks have to go into the field.
  3. Focus on the most important element (to the writer) and re-develop it.

As you might expect, he went with #3.

Step 9: Focus On The Key Element

What interested my client in the original version of this pitch was not the world of spies per se. It was the transition from being a thinker to being an operative.

Typically, the ever-present “computer guy/girl” is in the background, a source of information and support for our heroes. However, we are seeing more of the technical people coming to the fore and playing heroic roles, such as the Augie Anderson character from Covert Affairs, McGee from NCIS, Chuck from Chuck, with an early historical precedent of MacGyver.

Step 10: Research And Develop A New Version Of the Idea

In TV, there are examples of technology being used by smart people who are still the primary heroes (instead of the background support people).

Possible comparisons include:

  • Sliders
  • Quantum Leap
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation

By building a new table, we can see the common thread—they are science-fiction projects where a new world is explored each week. To make the pitch work, we’d need a way to jump into new worlds that hadn’t been done on TV before, and which preserved the key element of thinkers becoming operatives.

What about Virtual Reality, aka, VR?

Because we’re just exploring this idea, here are some comparisons in different media:

  • TV: VR.5, Virtuality
  • Movies: Disclosure, Inception, The Matrix, The 13th Floor.
  • Books: Snow Crash, Otherland, Woken Furies.

The question is, how does a conflict in the virtual world impact the real world?  Building out our table with summaries for the projects in different media, a common thread is that there is a secret hidden in the virtual world that would have consequences if discovered/let out into the real world.  You can see the full table here:  GIAR Research VR for TV Example.

Let’s summarize:

  1. Our genre has changed. Instead of being an action adventure drama, it’s sci-fi action adventure.
  2. Our themes and our characters have remained the same.
  3. Structural elements have changed. Instead of the NSA recruiting process and “Hell Week” training, we have a secret hidden somewhere in a virtual world, and a new world (or different facets of one world) to be explored each week.

Step 11: Draft A New Short Pitch

Our research inspired the development of the idea into a different genre.

Here’s the old short pitch, then the new one:

Old short pitch:

It’s a comedy called Nerd Ops about the National Security Administration’s nerdiest technical people who must become field operatives to save the world from a terrorist hacker organization.

New short pitch:

It’s an hour-long sci-fi adventure called VR about an elite group of MIT students who have to save the world from a terrorist hacker organization by solving a mystery in a terrifyingly real Virtual Universe containing an infinite number of virtual worlds.

Summary:

When MIT Professor MacGivens invents “The Skeleton Key,” a code-breaking program which can penetrate any encryption, before he can find sanctuary with the authorities, he is murdered and all his data stolen by the terrorist hacker organization, “The Ten Thousand Suns” (TTS).

The operational division of the National Security Administation, called “The Department,” recruits Professor MacGivens’ five graduate students to help them find the Skeleton Key. Soon, the students realize that MacGivens has hidden the Key in pieces inside an immense, multi-dimensional, Virtual Reality (much like the assembly of the Triforce in the videogame, The Legend of Zelda).  They also find out that MacGivens’ stored a copy of his mind inside the VR world, where it functions as a “Hari Seldon” (from Asimov’s Foundation novels) kind of advisor.

Unfortunately, it’s not long before operatives from TTS discover the VR world.  Not only does TTS attempt to recover the Skeleton Key for their own purposes, but they track, target, and attempt to kill Professor MacGivens’ students in VR… and in the real world.  The students must learn the intricacies of combat both in VR and in the real world, while also solving puzzles and outwitting their highly intelligent, sociopathic adversaries.

Step 12: Test Your New Pitch

At this point, with your own project, you would begin testing your short pitch to see how you can sharpen and improve the core concept.

Feedback about VR

If you have thoughts on the project, I’d love to hear them. Let me know in the comments.

Other comparison movies we should add to the list?

Thoughts on the title? Other titles?

Any other suggestions?

. . . . . . . .

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8 Comments

  1. Found this very useful as I’m currently working on an idea for a TV drama. However, it would be useful to know how to go about getting one’s foot in the door of the TV companies, in order to pitch the idea. Probably easier said than done!

    • I am working on an online class which will cover the step-by-step of getting one’s foot in the door. If you haven’t already, subscribe to my mailing list and I’ll let you know as soon as it’s ready.

  2. Really helpful article. But I want to know the answer to once you’ve developed you show, title bible, pitch, etc. how can you get it in front of people.

  3. Thanks so much for writing this out. I’m looking to make the big move to L.A. and understanding the details of this pitch process is invaluable. I’m in love with a book series that I would like to develop into a show. Is no element of script or hard literature necessary to secure the production of a concept? Just luck of the right connections and a good idea? I just want to make sure I walk out into the big scary world of professional production with everything I need to support my pitch. Thanks again!

    • Glad you’re excited to move to LA, Trisha! However, when you want to adapt something that already exists (such as a book series), you need to secure the rights first. I suggest you contact the book publisher to see if they have a subsidiary rights division that can tell you who controls the subsidiary rights or who represents the author. As well, if you are unable to secure the rights, I recommend pursuing another idea instead.

  4. Interesting concept, but not a fan of the name.

    First, you’ve already identified a related show titled “VR.5.” I wouldn’t want a name so close. It’d be like pitching a show called “Mork and Wendy.” Second, I don’t think it says much about the show. VR has been around long enough that it’s not mysterious in and of itself anymore. Being in a virtual world isn’t a new concept, so the show has to work on other levels. I’d like to see a title that reflects those other levels.

    I like “The Skeleton Key” or, if not that, maybe something that identifies closely with the students, since they are the key drivers of the series. Perhaps they self-identify with a group name?

    Good luck with the project, it’s a very interesting idea.

    Oh, and, will every episode focus on the TTS, or will that be an umbrella arc for the series?

    Paul

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