How To Pitch And Sell Your Reality TV Idea – Interview With Scott Manville

Scott Manville

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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92 Comments

  1. Hello, I have a great idea for a new reality show, called heaven or hell, based on my app currently now availible on google play, please check it out I have previousily pitch the shows concept, but lack of funds prevented going forward, kind regards, robert

  2. Hi

    I have a great idea for a Reality TV Show. I have watched “The Bachelor” for the last several years, and found it interesting but not really down to earth. As the romance part of the past shows are way to glamorous.
    My recommendation is to have a “Southern Bachelor or Red neck Bachelor”. The series would have a true southern guy with a real life down to earth job such as a logger, pulp mill worker, union worker, (nothing glamorous) a guy who likes the out doors and fishes and hunts has a down to earth family in a down to earth southern town. The applications for the ladies would have to consist of girls from the southern states. (same prerequisite of real life down to earth jobs).
    The only glamor would be the southern hospitality glamor that the Bachelor and ladies chosen to participate would create in the southern towns in the south.

    A lot cheaper to produce and a lot more down to earth and entertaining than the high rise hotels the girls are kept in, whats wrong with a Holiday Inn or Motel 6 for girls to stay in. The whole episode would be filmed around real southern roots. Back roads, dirt roads, rivers, hunting, fishing ect.

    I just think the viewers and audiance would be so entertained with real life down to earth people doing a show like this.

    Sheri Courson

  3. Hello Stephanie, I have an idea for a reality T.V. show. I am a Union Bricklayer (Mason). As technology has changed over the years the younger generation has became more steered towards technology. This is becoming a big problem in the Masonry construction trade. Masonry work is a very physically demanding trade. The younger generation don’t want to work that hard. The problem with this is, the oldest construction trade is on its way to extinction. The average age for a Mason is in his forties. I feel that a televised show about SAVING the OLDEST CONSTRUCTION TRADE there is will generate interest. If Hunny boo boo has a reality T.V. show then so should SAVING the OLDEST CONSTRUCTION TRADE. If you can give me any imput at all on this i would be grateful. I could be a great help in trying to save this trade. thank you so much.

  4. We build dairys do brewer’s we do cold drinks plants we do pharmaceuticals plants and we do oil refinerys and all off the pipe work is not done with drawing and most of it is done from my dad brains and seeing is believeing thanks fmfor ur time

  5. Ok I do have one of the best Ideas for a reality show. Sometimes I cannot believe it has not been chosen.It would be the most entertaining and fun Reality show in a long time Maybe ever. I wouldn’t ask for a fortune either a lump sum or per episode. for the rights to say Hey its my Idea ! Its a home run of an Idea for a reality show !.

  6. I have a great idea for a T.V. Reality show in which would have all the elements i believe that would create great drama, Suspense for the viewer and a whole different twist on the idea of voting out contestants but still keeping the ratings.I believe my idea will change the generation of today’s outlook on life, And what we depend on, But to only realize it is really not necessary. I will leave you with that,
    In appreciation of your time.
    Interesting?
    Stephane Tremblay
    chromer19701@yahoo.com for questions

  7. I am a Metis man from Manitoba. I have been thinking about spending a year in the bush alone this is not about man against nature but more about reconnecting with nature and personal growth. Yes i have skills I have worked in forestry/ prospecting/ horse farmer, Swift water rescue Tech etc. I am also a Sun-dancer and practice traditional spiritual believes.. I was planing on doing this anyway then i thought I would like to raise money to create a fund to teach primarily aboriginal youth the skills need to enjoy and heal in a wilderness environment and provide life long skills that they can carry though there lives and to pass on to others. grew up with out my culture and suffered as a youth but am older now and have a much better life. If you are interested please contact me via email. I understand that this has its risks and will be hard on me at times but the sacrifice would be worth the good it could bring for others.

  8. my name is kayla. im 20 years old and i live in Germantown md. my family and i have always said that we would make the perfect reality TV show with all the drama and crazy stuff that happenes in our life with my mom and her 2 boyfriends , my older sister who is bipolor lol , my lil sister who comes to see us on the weekends …her dad thinks she is a angel boy was he wrong lol…my lil brother who is a dork., and then there is me and my son , and oh boy we are own tv show in itself ..hes almost 2… but i would like some help trying to make a show. we were homless for like 6 months so they missed all the crazy parts lol but it seems to happen alot to us.

  9. I was thinking about a show about rebuilding church’s. Going into good church’s that need help with their building maybe repairs, how to deliver a message and how they help the community. It’s so many good church’s that need a blessing, repairs to their church’s, get more people to attend, you could have a host and special guess like; Yolanda Adams, T.D. Jake’s and Joyce Meyers can come on the show, kind of like extreme makeover but extreme Church over.. How can I get this idea out there to TV

  10. Is there anywhere I could find examples of a written idea someone has pitched to try and start a reality TV show? Something I could see what professionals want to look at?

  11. Hello Stephanie. I would like to pitch a big brother type rehab show for real people with three phases. Co-ed center with ultimate goal of a future. Involve ‘team’ of therapist, life coach, personal trainer and dr/oral surgeon. Beginning of third phase (for those who make it) would be makeover – their success is the success of the show. What do you think?

    • Hi Christine. This brief description is clear– that’s a great start. You are probably already doing this, but I would research the shows that have a rehab element like Celebrity Rehab and also a makeover/coaching element like Starting Over. You will want to be able to describe how your show is the same and different from the other shows in a similar genre. Best of luck to you!

  12. Do a show about everyday poor people in the hood working from paycheck to paychecks and tell me how the rating go skyrocketing high?

  13. If anyone has contacts, I’d like to do a reality TV show about my dinner show and entertainment business. I juggle and breathe fire, stuff kids into a 6 foot tall balloon, pick-pockets during the course of illusions and have a few concepts that can be highlighted each episode.
    Dan
    danchanmagic.com

  14. thank you ms Palmer for the information. it helps but i still am in the dark on many issues.You say the agent works on commission, but the attorney gets paid by the hour to pitch my idea. First can he pitch more than one idea at a time, and if he is getting paid by the hour how does a person know if he is being honest and doing anything at all for his money? Does the agent watch over him? should my first step be in speaking with a agent? and how do i go about that?

  15. Stephanie,We are starting one of the first legal RETAIL marijuana stores in Washington State since the legalization of marijuana. The show would star the two start up entrepreneurs and follow the trials and tribulations of the business start up, dealings with regulators and regulations, growers and pot farms (now legal in Washington), pot processers (now legal in Washington), our families (both close and extended), the law, our employees, and of course the most interesting customers in a small town, but close to a larger city, the pot buyers.
    I can imagine filming in places like pot growing farms, pot processors and packagers, and in our store. I’m sure we will have interesting characters in all the settings.
    The show would be a 30 minute weekly format.
    I’m not a writer – just one of the partners starting the business.
    Interesting?

      • Hi stephanie, I have a reality show idea about someone who criss crosses across the u.s picking up hitch hikers finding out their stories i e” trials and tribulations.” This idea recently after my cousin had picked one up and gave him a ride home and ended up spending the day in the mountains of West Virginia with complete strangers drinking whiskey, arm wrestling and playing the guitar. The whole time he had his phone on audio record and it was priceless what went on that day in the mountains of West VA. My cousin would be the absolute best host.

      • Thanks for sharing, Chris. Especially if you want your cousin to host, I recommend shooting footage so decision-makers can see why he/she would be amazing as a host.

    • Que pasa Aardvark!

      Great idea. Give me some basics: names, locale, business details and I will write a fictitious first episode for you…for free! And I do know some producers who will review the pitch. If interested, please send info to:kangovyrall@aol.com.
      HNY,
      Steve

  16. Hello,

    I have what I believe to be a exemplory idea for the next be reality tv series. I will not go into many details, but I have yet to see a series similar. This show both capatilizes on peoples good natured affection towards humanity, as well as its insatiable hunger for chaos and drama.

    I have absolutely no Idea what to do with this concept as my career interest lie elsewhere. However, I would be interest in promoting this if it provides as much cash as you previously suggest.

    Please email me

    BS

  17. Stephanie,
    I have uses writers vault. But I have come questions for you. Can you email me please. I left my e-mail on the contact page,

    Thank you
    Mike

  18. Hello, I have an idea for a reality show about harness racing. This show would be about the guys like myself racing for little money and for the love of racing please help me pitch this idea. There are a lot of interim ting things behind this sport and plenty of intersting people and “secrets” to making a winning horse.

  19. hello, I have what I believe will be a great idea for a reality show, Iam not going to go into details on this forum but the show is similar to the show punked but funnier,there would be no scripts or anything for the show, if you can give any advice on how I should submit this to like A&E for example.

    • I am told that they will not deal direct to me, that i must get a third party, entertainment agent. my concern is do i have to come up with money on the front end or do the agent`s pitch it for you and get paid if they can sell your idea. If i must pay how is this awarded? I have over a dozen idea`s of a reality show, several game show idea`s and several tv series idea`s. Is there a one time amount or do i have to pay for each idea?

      • Entertainment agents are paid only on commission, as a portion of any deal they negotiate for you. Be suspicious of any agent who tries to charge you upfront. Entertainment attorneys, on the other hand, are typically paid per hour or per project (depending on the attorney and what you negotiate) and often require fees upfront.

  20. What about …..Dancing with the Pastors & a reality show regarding the process, leading up to the event.

  21. I am a professional entertainer bus driver working with one of the top coach leasing companies in the country. This would be a great way to show the drama, comedy and life of a Rock Star Bus driver.

    We could also bring in a green driver and train him or have a competition between new drivers and the winner gets to drive a huge name artist. It takes special training and not everyone is able to drive as safe and smooth as this job requires, and even if they do they may not have what it takes to handle some of the other challenges.

    This would be amazing it would promote the leasing company the artist the driver and be very entertaining. Not to mention the possible random shots of rock stars passing by etc…

    This is a very hard career to break into and one that holds a great deal of mystery to most people.

    I’m not much of a writer but if you like what I have presented I would love to get your help pitching this idea.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my response
    I hope to hear from you soon

    Sincerely
    James Brown

  22. Hello Scott,
    I would like to pitch a realtiy tv show about my crazy family. Everybody says are life would make a great reality show. The name of the tv show would be Keeping Up With the Celestins

  23. I have an idea for a reality show and I would like to share it with you. Campground reality is my idea. We camp here in Butler Pennsylvania. If you are interested please contact me thru my email address I just gave you. Thank you!

  24. Was approached by Fremantlemedia NA this past May to take one of our games and make it into a reality competitive show. It just temporarly fell through this past Wednesday, with that said since they showed interest in our product it inspired us to pitch it elsewhere. What would you advise?

    • Hi Chris. I don’t have specific recommendations without knowing more about the project. In general, it’s great news that Freemantle showed interest. This likely means you have a commercially viable project. The first step would be to identify potential buyers who have produced similar projects in the past. I would also want to know why Freemantle fell out (if you know) as that would impact how you pitch to the next potential buyer.

      • Hi Laura,

        I don’t want to say too much about the game in a public forum. But it would have been a bridal competition. We host Customized Urban Bridal Competitions for the past 13 years here in Boston to high popularity and to high reviews. So with that said they arranged a meeting in Boston and we sat down with this VP of Development and came up with a pretty cool concept for a potential 2nd tier network within 30min. They told me it was exploratory, and we would touch base in the Fall and possibly talk about contracts and the next step. The conclusion is there was no interest in that sort of competition as of yet and of course we thanked them and they told us if anything changes they will let us know. So that where we stand today..On a slightly different note let me ask you do you think there is a market for a same sex wedding competition? My wife and I thought of that and it doesn’t seem to be anything on tv on that.

    • Hi Beth. Thanks for your question and this really depends of the specifics of the show you are pitching. But, in general, you would look for production companies who have produced shows in a similar genre and do your best to get your sizzle reel to them. This could be by contacting them directly, using your connections to get a meeting, having a representative share your work or attending an event like RealScreen Summit.

  25. I have an idea for a reality show for your network. I am a therapist in Baltimore MD, and our team of therapist would like to create a show that would express some of the times and lifes of teenagers in Baltimore and how therapist deal with these second chance adolescents in this area. Looking at the trials and tribulations of the youth and therapist throughout the course of treatment. Please respond..
    Thanks
    Dwayne Lodge

  26. I have a very unique living situation. My husband and I have custody of his two older children from his prior marriage, and a child of our own. I am an accountant, and he is a mechanic. Our daily lives are quite interesting due to the dynamic that is involved. I think it would make a great tv show, especially considering the local police and sheriff’s office know us personally because of the situation. How should I go about pursuing this?

  27. I am developing a fantastic idea for a reality show (no, really), and am unsure on how to proceed. I sense that I should have an attorney first, so the idea isn’t “stolen,” I really feel it is that good. I can see a franchise in the works, but again, am not sure on how to proceed…

  28. Scott, do you recommend asking the production company or network to sign a non-disclosure agreement before giving them all the details of a written treatment?

  29. I have an amazing idea for a tv show, however my husband and I don’t have the finances available to copyright, join a site, or hire an agent. The only “film eqipment” we have are our cell phones. I want to get started right away on filming, but its a video diary /reality tv show based off of whats happening in my life now , i think it will sell big and it might even help people out, but I can’t hold the camra phone and do what i have to do at the same time, any suggestions?

  30. I am a mother of two biological kids with 15 +- grand kids. I have adopted two foster kids and have went through at least 25 kids as a foster mom, I seen enough, been through enough to make people laugh with tears and cry for my pain that I endure with the many ailments that’s been put on me.

  31. Hi Scott, I have a lot of experience in producing Bonus material for DVDs and producing hosted shows for networks like TNT. I have however never sold a show of my own. I know how to write, shoot,direct and pitch. I own my own equipment shooting and editing. Should I go ahead and shoot my pilot with 10 episodes and then pitch a network? My Networks don’t do reality. Should I just call them when I’m done and set up an appointment? Your advise would be wonderful. Thanks

    • Hi Cynthia,
      Great question! And I find myself in a similar boat. I was wondering if you ever got an answer to your question about shooting the show yourself.
      I would love to hear any input you have.
      Thanks very much.

  32. I have what I know could be really good show it is how to start where to being at that I need help in.

  33. I pitched a reality television idea to a production company. They sent me a shopping agreement to sign…I cannot afford an attorney and finding an agent is like pulling teeth. Any suggestions so I don’t sign my life away. Thanks

    • It’s great that you have a company that is interested in your work and this is exactly the point at which an attorney should be involved. If you can’t assess the fairness of their contract yourself (totally understandable), you want an expert opinion because as a rule, you should never sign something you don’t understand. As a place to start, there are a number of examples of agreements on the DoneDealPro website including this shopping agreement to compare to the one you received: http://www.donedealpro.com/members/details.aspx?object_id=477&content_type=1&section_id=13

      • Thank you – I wasn’t able to compare your shopping agreement to the one I received – it was much different; however, I will be sending amendments to the attorney for the production company and include some points I read on your site. Again, thank you. I know I am very fortunate to be given this opportunity :)

    • Hi Suzy,

      I haven’t heard of anyone selling their show through New Show Studios, but it doesn’t mean that they haven’t. I would ask specific questions about the outcome you can expect and if you can talk to any past or current clients. A reputable company should be happy to provide these. I recommend this with any service you are considering. If you do work with New Show Studios, I’d be interested to hear about your experience.

  34. I paid the writers vault, but now I can’t log in and they haven’t responded to me.
    I am very skeptical about their validity

  35. I have a great reality pitch , how much of the pitch do I tell a producer without having and legal documentation. Don’t want to use my idea without buying it or giving me credits?

  36. I have such a great idea for a reality TV show that will make millions that I’m super excited but I don’t know where to start and I don’t know who will listen to me.

    • As far as pitching production companies; Scott Manville created the TV Writers Vault ( http://www.tvwritersvault.com ), so Writers and Creators can have direct exposure to Producers scouting new projects. I would suggest checking out the articles on Good in a Room and TV Writer’s Vault as a place to start. I also recommend the book ‘Small Screen, Big Picture’ by Chad Gervich for insight into how TV ideas are purchased.

    • Hi Chuck,

      I haven’t worked with Talpa, so I don’t have personal experience though they have verifiable credits. You can contact Scott at TV Writer’s Vault to see if he has worked with them.

      Thanks,
      Stephanie

  37. Great article. My company is currently working with a production company to produce a reality series,and pitch it to a network. Thanks for the info in this article. It’s very helpful.

  38. I am a reality TV show producer and currently working on a few projects. However, Scott, you mentioned finding executive producers, you can find all the producers in the world but if they haven’t established a relationship with the networks, producers can not help anyone to have their show aired.

  39. Great interview! I would mention that anyone pitching a Reality Show that has a sizzle reel will want to make sure they have all their legal clearances in place. Consent and release location agreement etc..

  40. Great piece of information which will be taken into consideraton… as i will
    be taking on board when i pitch my new tv show bible. Thank you!!!

  41. Hi Gib-

    Thanks for asking my advice. Having a great idea is a good starting point, but you’ll want to be sure to write a clearly defined pitch that communicates the unique premise of your concept, and the specific beats of the show as it would unfold. If you’re able to align it with a production company, then that company may finance and produce a reel, if necessary.

    As far as pitching production companies; this is why I created the TV Writers Vault ( http://www.tvwritersvault.com ), so Writers and Creators can have direct exposure to Producers scouting new projects. I don’t operate as an agent, and cannot represent any specific project in that marketplace. The good news is, you don’t need an Agent to be able to sell a concept to a Production Company. I hope we can help you find the right connection for your projects.

    • Hello Scott,

      I have a Reality Show I’d like to pitch, where would you suggest I start? All I have is the idea at this point. Is this enough to get started? I am not in a position to put together a pilot or finance the project myself. I am confident it will stand on it;s own, if given the opportunity. Would you be interested in helping to pitch the project for me or guide me to someone that would?

      Gib LaStrapes

  42. I’ve heard a lot about TV Writers Vault. I couldn’t figure out whether they were legit since so many sites are out there promising things while asking for membership fees. Would be interested in hearing more about the site he set up and the successes people have found with that site.

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