I got a chance to chat with Scott Manville, former head of development for Merv Griffin Entertainment, and founder of the TV Writers Vault, an online marketplace for scouting and selling original TV show ideas such as Saw Dogs for Discovery Channel and Deals From The Darkside for SyFy.
Scott’s site assists in educating and guiding the new writer/creator as they navigate the development and pitching process within the TV industry. He joins us for a more focused discussion on creating and pitching Reality TV today.
Here are the questions I asked Scott and his answers.
What is currently selling in the Reality TV marketplace?
Documentary-style reality series are always in the cross-hairs of producers. We’re not just talking about the high society “Housewives” or the drunken “Guidos” in New Jersey. They’re looking for unique professionals, businesses, and related environments to produce as new shows. Subjects and worlds that are exciting and compelling to watch. Professionals, entrepreneurs, and people living interesting lives are getting a huge amount of attention when pitching producers.
Reality TV has connected the traditionally insulated world of Hollywood with everyday people because unusual people are the actual content of new programming. As a result, we’re seeing everyone from plumbers, doctors, even real housewives pitching shows, and many landing deals. The TV Writers Vault has helped facilitate those deals, and connect new writers and people with producers.
Unfortunately, most don’t have any background or understanding of how to pitch themselves or their concept once they’re in a live conversation with a producer or TV executives, and that’s where I think Good In A Room can really help. Having that great concept for the next hit reality series may get you through the door, but you’ve got to know what and how to communicate.
When someone has an idea for a Reality TV show, how do you recommend that they do research to determine what other shows may be related to their concept?
Watch a lot of television to understand the types of subjects and formats that are working right now. Also, be vigilant about getting the most out of any meetings and conversations you might have with executives in the industry. That includes conversations with assistants, development execs, producers and other writers.
One thing I have to say about creating and pitching TV shows: most people focus on the sole purpose of pitching being to sell their project. If they can relax in the conversation with the producer or executive, which often means actually listening, they’ll end up learning a lot of information related to what the network wants, what they already have in the development pipeline, and the types of projects they’re interested in that support the Network’s current or changing mandate. To me, that’s the real opportunity in having those meetings and conversations.
What do the decision-makers in reality TV expect when they meet a new writer who is about to pitch them for the first time?
This is an interesting question, mostly because with Reality TV being a majority of programming today, Producers find themselves more often in conversations and meetings with people from outside the industry who don’t have experience in pitching.
For that reason alone, if a person new to the business of pitching reality shows can be prepared and understand what to communicate, it puts them a head above the competition.
If an executive is being pitched the same concept from 20 different people, they’re going to gravitate toward working with the person they feel had the best pitch because this gives the executive confidence in working with them.
What kinds of notes do writers typically get on their Reality TV projects?
A lot of the hurdles faced have to do with the writer not understanding how reality TV really is just another genre of storytelling. It’s all about story.
Even if the show is about your crazy pet spa, you need to understand who the characters are, what conflicts and challenges are faced, how the main characters relate, and how things may potentially evolve.
The writer needs to view the concept as a story:
- Communicate the framework that breeds interesting moments.
- View the people involved as characters in a heightened reality.
- Focus on their unique personality traits that are redeeming or flawed.
- Focus on the unique circumstances and challenges they share.
Producers will then be able to see not only the drama, but also the potential for comedy, which always sells well.
Let’s say someone does sell a reality TV show concept. How much are they involved in what happens next?
It often depends on what the project is, but from the point of optioning your concept, you can expect the production company to take the lead in developing it with the network. A new writer/creator will have a passive role, which is actually something to be admired, because they can benefit financially, with on-screen credit, while continuing to work on other projects. If the show is about the person, or involves that person who pitched it, then they’ll of course be directly integrated in the production.
What/how can they expect to be paid?
A person who sells a concept for a reality series can expect an on-screen Producer Credit, Per-Episode Fees, and a modest participation in the production companies licensing revenue. The actual figures are influenced by the budget and outlet. Per episode fees are a percentage of the per episode locked budget (the budget set by the Network to pay for production of each episode). Budgets for Reality TV programming may range from $100K to $500K or more, depending on the content, network, and length. Primetime is typically higher, especially at major networks. Expect to receive between 2% and 4% of the per episode budget.
This may ultimately range from $2,500 to $6,000 plus per episode. Also expect bumps per additional season based on the show’s success. A production company may license the show in multiple foreign markets, each creating a new stream of revenue. This is where creators and producers can make good money even if the show isn’t a hit. Expect to negotiate for 2% to 4% gross revenue, or 10% net revenue from the licensing Production Company’s income from licensing the show.
What’s their likely career trajectory over the next five years?
Selling a show can provide a lot of momentum. Its easier to land an agent who can bring more opportunity and connections, and more producers are going to want to know what you’re doing next. Its very important to capitalize on what may be a small window of time, to build your reputation, connections, and brand. In reality TV, if you’re a business being featured as a show, this is the golden time to really promote your brand. Reality TV is the latest, greatest, marketing machine that can launch a brand quicker than any other medium.
What differentiates Reality TV writing from TV and film writing?
They’re actually very similar. Its all about story and characters. But in creating and writing concepts for reality TV, the writing is much more condensed and efficient—not so much narrative. A typical pitch for a reality show may be just a few pages, whereas a pitch for a scripted series or movie is always much longer.
If you could only give one piece of advice to a writer contemplating pitching a Reality TV series, what would that be?
My specific advice would be to understand that the executive hearing your pitch wants to see what is actually unfolding in the show.
The new writer is often insecure about the executive “getting” the idea, so they start a pitch with a long-winded exposition on “why” the concept would work, as if the executive needs to be educated. If the subject truly requires that, do it in one sentence, but immediately get into the actual content of the show; what we’re watching, and how it potentially unfolds. I see it in written pitches, and it happens even more with in-person pitches. The new writer/creator mentions the “high concept” (the clever set-up, or unique circumstance the show creates), and it may sound like a cool concept, but the response they get is, “So what are we actually watching?”
Just as a written pitch is carefully calculated, specific parts of a conversational pitch should be the same. Put that unique premise and hook across to them immediately so they know the agenda of the show, and give specific details of what we’re seeing unfold.
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