Let’s talk about how to pitch a TV show so you can become a TV writer.
We’ll compare how to pitch a TV show to how to pitch a movie and look at TV pitch examples.
We’ll also consider the “problem of originality” and learn a process for developing a TV pitch.
How To Pitch A TV Show – Overview
The key to learning how to pitch a TV show is the same as learning how to pitch a feature film.
You need to have a strong core concept.
That’s no surprise, but I want to be clear about this before we move on to the granular details of how to pitch a TV show.
How To Know If Your Core Concept Is Strong
In my experience, the best way to assess the strength of your core concept is to look for patterns in the feedback from potential audience members and at least one Hollywood pro.
In other words, your concept is strong when:
- You have given the verbal pitch for your TV show to at least ten people in your target audience and they respond positively to your pitch.
- You have submitted your one-sheet for coverage from a professional reader and received a Recommend.
Does Your Core Concept Resonate With The Audience?
To me, learning how to pitch a TV show requires actually pitching your TV show and finding out if it resonates with your audience (and with at least one pro reader).
Don’t worry about the pilot episode, casting, locations, or even future seasons.
Get the concept right first.
What Is A TV Concept?
Learning how to pitch a TV show means understanding what makes a TV concept different from a movie concept.
Here’s a short pitch template for a movie:
“My story is a (genre) called (title) about (hero) who wants (goal) despite (obstacle).”
I like this formula because it forces clarification of the central 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).
For a TV pitch, however, you need to add four elements – three are visible and one is invisible.
The Three Visible Elements Your TV Show Pitch Must Have
Your TV pitch must specify the:
- Distribution channel
- Length of the show
- Time slot
This is because TV is actually a much larger medium than film, and the different segments of the world of TV are mediums unto themselves.
This means literally saying whether your TV show is:
- Cable vs. Network (the channel)
- Prime time vs. Morning (the slot)
- Half-hour vs. Hour-long (the length)
Thus, this TV pitch structure:
“My show is a (channel) (slot) (length) (genre) called (title) about (hero) who wants (goal) despite (obstacle).”
“My show is a cable prime-time hour-long action-drama called Privateers about a group of hackers trying to level the playing field in American politics despite powerful government forces.”
Film pitches don’t need to do this. When pitching a film you don’t need to specify that your film is intended to be a studio project or an independent project, and you don’t need to say whether it’s 90 minutes or 120 minutes.
For TV, in many circumstances, you do.
When Are These Elements Implied?
Often when you say “drama” it implies an hour, and “comedy” implies a half-hour.
But as TV adapts to new distribution channels (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu), more types of shows are evolving, and it can be easy for listeners – especially if they are not Hollywood insiders – to get confused about your core concept.
You’ll want to customize your pitch to the listener when you’re in any kind of pitch meeting.
The Invisible Element Your TV Show Pitch Needs
The one additional element that must be present in your TV pitch isn’t something you say out loud, but it has to be there.
You need to demonstrate the source material for future episodes.
Typically, a deep vein of future source material comes from:
- Current events (legal issues, police stories – e.g.: The Good Wife, CSI)
- Historical events (fall of empire, inventions – e.g.: Rome, Halt And Catch Fire)
- Personal issues (love, growing up, race – e.g.: Friends, Freaks And Geeks, Blackish)
- Workplace environments (security services, a TV set – e.g.: Homeland, 30 Rock)
Of course, most of these sources can be mixed and matched.
How To Pitch A TV Show – The Problem Of Originality
When you’re learning how to pitch a TV show, you need to consider how original your idea is and adjust your pitch accordingly.
The fact is that your pitch can fail if it’s not original enough – but more often, it fails because you’re pitching it as something which is too original.
The Right Amount Of Originality
Creative professionals (like you and me) tend to value uniqueness and originality.
The desire to do something original stimulates others to innovate, entertains audiences in new and challenging ways, and holds a mirror up to new aspects of our culture.
However, originality scares decision-makers.
To a decision-maker, words like these…
- breaking new ground
- completely original
…are code for: “so far, projects like this have never been successful.”
The lesson is this:
The more original your idea, the tougher it is to sell.
How To Pitch A TV Show – The Wire
The Wire is considered by many to be not only the best show in the history of television, but also one of the most original.
Let’s look at how David Simon pitched The Wire and see what we can learn about how to present our most original ideas in a way that doesn’t scare decision-makers.
Lead With a Familiar Context
The Wire is a drama that… will be, in the strictest sense, a police procedural set in the drug culture of an American rust-belt city, a cops-and-players story that exists within the same vernacular as other television fare.
Now, Simon knows how to pitch a TV show. He also knows that he has a new and ambitious take on the genre of police procedural. However, he doesn’t lead with his complex, intellectual ideas about writing a Greek tragedy.
He leads with what is familiar.
Use Comparisons to Give a Sense of Precedent
After Simon establishes the familiar context for The Wire:
…The Sopranos becomes art when it stands as more than a mob story, but as a treatise on the American family. Oz is at its best when it rises beyond the framework of a prison story and finds commonalities between that environment and our own, external world. So, too, should The Wire be judged not merely as a descendant of Homicide or NYPD Blue, but as a vehicle for making statements about the American city and even the American experiment.
This part of Simon’s pitch (clearly customized to HBO), demonstrates that there is precedent for a show like The Wire.
End With What’s Original About Your Project
Only after a familiar context and precedents are established does Simon segue into discussing originality:
…In the end, the cost to all sides begins to suggest not so much the dogged police pursuit of the bad guys, but rather a Greek tragedy. At the end of thirteen episodes, the reward for the viewer—who has been lured all this way by a well constructed police show—is not the simple gratification of hearing handcuffs click. Instead, the conclusion is something that Euripides or O’Neill might recognize: an America, at every level at war with itself.
Note that even when Simon finally says the words “Greek tragedy,” he still gives the context of the familiar “well constructed police show.”
How To Pitch A TV Show – Battlestar Galactica
On the other hand, sometimes the problem is a lack of originality.
For example, when Ron Moore and David Eick went to pitch the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, Eick received a suggestion from Bonnie Hammer, Chairman of NBCUniversal:
‘You’re going to have to explain to me again when you come in to pitch this why the world needs another space opera.’
In other words, the space opera genre had become boring (at least to Hammer) and so what was needed was to emphasize originality.
Moore obliged and instead of leading with a familiar context, led with the way in which his project was original.
Here’s an excerpt from his written TV pitch, titled: “Taking the Opera out of Space Opera”
Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series. We take as a given the idea that the traditional space opera, with its stock characters, techno-double-talk, bumpy-headed aliens, thespian histrionics, and empty heroics has run its course and a new approach is required. That approach is to introduce realism into what has heretofore been an aggressively unrealistic genre. Call it “Naturalistic Science Fiction.” This idea, the presentation of a fantastical situation in naturalistic terms, will permeate every aspect of our series.
How To Pitch A TV Show – Star Trek
Often the issue of originality is especially difficult for science fiction projects because their nature is already to be so different.
The key to learning how to pitch a TV show in the genre of science fiction is to be able to answer this question:
“What are the rules?”
What The Rules Are
The rules are the laws of your milieu, and the basis for why your alternate universe is realistic and believable.
If you know the rules and can explain them clearly to decision-makers, it becomes easier to suspend disbelief and share your vision of a different world.
Different Versions of “What Are The Rules?”
You might be asked questions like:
- “What are the rules?”
- “How is this world different from Earth?”
- “What are the uses of this (device name)?”
- “How does the (device name) work?
- “What are the consequences of this technology?”
- “Where do the aliens come from?”
How Star Trek Did The Rules
Here’s an excerpt from Gene Roddenberry’s original pitch for Star Trek:
Star Trek offers an almost infinite number of exciting Science Fiction stories…. How?
Astronomers express it this way: Ff2 (MgE) – C1R11 x M = L/So
Or to put it in simpler terms, by multiplying the 400,000,000,000 galaxies (star clusters) in the heavens by an estimation of average stars per galaxy (7,700,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000), we have the approximate number of stars in the universe….
So… …if only one in a billion of these stars is a “sun” with a planet… …and only one in a billion of these is of earth size and composition… …there would still be something near 2,800,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 worlds with a potential of oxygen-carbon life…
… or (by the most conservative estimates of chemical and organic probability), something like three million worlds with a chance of intelligent life and social evolution similar to our own.
Or, to put it in the language of television… Star Trek is a ‘Wagon Train’ concept—built around characters who travel to worlds ‘similar’ to our own, and meet the action-adventure-drama which becomes our stories….
Make Complex Scientific Ideas Accessible
Roddenberry needs to demonstrate a deep vein of future source material.
But he doesn’t just say “a new world each week.”
That doesn’t explain the rules of the Star Trek universe.
Instead, he explains the equation so that his concept seems like a logical extension of the scientific truths of our own world.
In other words, Star Trek can find a new world each week because based on the rules of our world, alien life must (mathematically) exist.
Now, to be fair, the incredibly successful Star Trek franchise has been called out for it’s share of scientific mistakes (as has Star Wars, Dr. Who, and more).
My point is that Roddenberry uses the known astronomical data at the time to make the case for his concept – not only for the future source material, but to place the original nature of the series in the familiar context of Earth’s scientific laws.
Get The Details Right
In my experience, sci-fi fans are smart, knowledgeable about the genre, and care about details.
I believe this is one reason, for example, why Ron Moore took such care with the realism of Battlestar Galactica, and why James Cameron hired a professor of botany and plant science to help design the lush world of Pandora in Avatar.
Respect the sci-fi audiences (and the decision-makers who can greenlight your project) by making your complex scientific ideas accessible and getting the details right in your pitch.
How To Pitch A TV Show – Structure
Let’s go back to the difference between how to pitch a TV show and how to pitch a movie.
Typically, a movie pitch starts with a short pitch (1-3 sentences), then goes into the complete pitch (5-10 minutes) of the three-act structure.
In contrast, most written TV pitches are structured like this:
- Core concept pitch
- Show summary
- Character descriptions
- Pilot episode story
- Future season short pitches
- Future episode short pitches
While each of these aspects is important, as I said, the most important aspect is the core concept.
How To Pitch A TV Show – Process
You may have read my post about how to pitch a movie.
Let’s take the concept from that post and develop it for TV. That way we can illustrate the research aspect of the process which is so crucial to developing the core concept.
Step 1: Draft The Initial Short Pitch
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.
The essence of this pitch is that nerdy technical people become field operatives. Let’s explore how to pitch a TV show with that as the DNA.
Step 2: Identify Possible Genres
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
Here are some TV shows with brainy people and field operatives:
- Burn Notice
- Covert Affairs
- The Unit
- The Big Bang Theory
Here’s how to note the genre classification:
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.”
After looking up all of the above projects and noting their genres, it looks like Nerd Ops could be classified as:
- Action crime drama
- Action adventure crime
- Action comedy
Step 3: Identify Length, Time Slot, And Channel
All of the projects we’ve researched so far are prime-time and hour-long except Big Bang Theory. This argues for specifying that this is a prime-time hour-long show.
As for whether it’s more cable or more network, at this point it’s not clear, but there’s nothing so far that seems too edgy for a network to consider, so I would provisionally go the network route.
Step 4: 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 5: 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 6: Build A Table To Hold Comparison Data
What we’re going to do now is build a table full of data.
Set up a table with five columns: Title, Genre, Length, Date, and Pitch.
You can do this in a word processor or use a spreadsheet such as Excel or Numbers.
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 look for the project summary. I’ll highlight it, paste into a text file to remove the formatting, edit if needed, then cut and paste into my table.
My table looks like this: GIAR Research Nerd Ops for TV Example
Step 8: Look For Patterns
These are some of the patterns I see:
- Almost all projects are hour-long action, thriller, adventure, drama, and generally “shoot-em-ups.”
- The only material that is comedic is Chuck and The Big Bang Theory.
- While most of the comparison pitches hint at the future source material, the pitch for Nerd Ops does not.
Step 9: Develop A New Version Of The Core Concept
This is the part of the process where you, the writer, go into a room by yourself and figure out something amazing.
When you go into the room you have:
- DNA of nerds becoming operatives
- Antagonist of a terrorist hacker organization
- Themes and structural elements (see above)
- Research on comparable projects
Then, you emerge from the room with a new concept:
Virtuality is a network prime-time hour-long (genre) about an elite group of MIT students who have to save the world by defeating a terrorist hacker organization in a terrifyingly real Virtual Universe containing an infinite number of virtual worlds.
Step 10: Add More Comparison Projects
Now that we’ve got a revised concept, we need to redo our research to help clarify the genre.
We’ve added new elements: virtual reality and multiple worlds.
Based on this, new possible comparisons include:
- Quantum Leap
- Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Virtuality (a TV movie with the same title)
- The Matrix
- The 13th Floor
You can see the full table here: GIAR Research VR for TV Example.
Step 11: Look For New Patterns
Based on the new comparison projects, a common genre is sci-fi action adventure, and 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.
Step 12: Adapt The Core Concept
After the writer goes and does more creative work:
Virtuality is a network prime-time hour-long sci-fi action-adventure about an elite group of MIT students who have to save the world from a terrorist hacker organization by finding the ultimate codebreaking program hidden in a terrifyingly real Virtual Universe containing an infinite number of virtual worlds.
I grant you, this is clunky, but now we at least have a core concept that works for TV and describes the project accurately.
Step 13: Expand The Core Concept Into A Summary
Again, the writer goes into a room and comes out with:
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 by the terrorist hacker organization, “The Ten Thousand Suns” (TTS), who promise to release the Key and render all banking firewalls useless.
There’s only one problem – Professor MacGivens hid the Key in pieces inside an immense, multi-dimensional, Virtual Reality (much like the Triforce in the video game, The Legend of Zelda).
The operational division of the National Security Administration, called “The Department,” recruits Professor MacGivens’ five graduate students to help them find the Key before the terrorists do.
Soon, the students realize that they are in over their heads. The terrorists are smart and deadly, and if they die in the virtual world, they go into a coma in the real world.
Luckily, 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 who the students are. TTS attempt tracks and attempts to kill the students in both the virtual and the real world. The students must learn how to protect themselves in both worlds while seeking the Key and outwitting their highly intelligent, sociopathic adversaries.
Step 14: Get Feedback
You may remember that the first point I made was about the importance of pitching and developing your core concept.
Now is when you do that:
- Take your short pitch and your summary and email it to a few friends who like this kind of TV show.
- Meet with more friends one-on-one and deliver the pitch and summary verbally.
- Submit your work in writing to a professional reader and see what he or she thinks. (You can find the consultants I recommend on my Resources page).
Step 15: Draft The “Bible”
Once you have tested your core concept, you’re ready to expand things into a “Bible.”
A Bible includes material such as:
- Detailed character descriptions
- Pilot episode story
- Future season summaries
- Future episode short pitches
I hope this post helps you learn how to pitch a TV show.
Any thoughts on the process I’ve described? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.