When it comes to selling reality TV shows, Richard B. Jefferson, Esq. has extensive experience working with reality TV producers to set up their deals.
He is one of the founding Partners at M.E.T.A.L.® Law Group, LLP, located in Los Angeles, California. I had the chance to interview him about how to succeed in reality TV and am excited to share his perspective with you.
What are the three biggest mistakes aspiring reality TV producers make with their reality TV shows?
Richard: Good question!
Mistake #1 – Failing To Take Care of Business First
Don’t skip the necessary step of having a written agreement in place with all of the co-producers and other vital contributors before shopping the project.
Show creators that have pitched their project and have interest from a large production company or network frequently approach me, but sometimes they haven’t yet formalized their relationship.
This can jeopardize the success of the project.
When a relationship is memorialized in a contract the parties may have issues that need to be worked out. This takes time. When a network is excited about a project, the producer has a small window to close the deal or the network may lose interest. The network is not going to wait around while co-producers hash out deal points with each other.
Aspiring producers should take care of internal business before presenting the project.
Mistake #2 – Sharing The Project Before It Is Ready
I have seen a number of alleged “projects” that were really just a bunch of ideas on paper and unedited video footage. Aspiring producers should develop the details of the project before presenting it so that the person who is receiving the pitch “gets it”, whether they like it or not.
This is important for legal purposes because Copyright Law absolutely does not protect ideas, however, a compilation of well-developed concepts may be afforded some copyright protection. So an aspiring producer would not likely have recourse against a network that took a few poorly pitched ideas, but a producer may have recourse if a network took the entire concept that was pitched.
Mistake #3 – Not Paying Attention To Legal Issues
Aspiring producers should have an explanation for potential legal issues that exist in the project, such as clearances for the use of celebrities or products that are in the presentation reel.
If the project includes footage to merely symbolize an easily replaceable element, then that is fine. Otherwise, it is a good idea to secure a letter of intent for the on-camera appearance.
For example, if the project just uses footage for celebrities or brands that merely represent the format of the show and other celebrities or brands can easily be substituted in without affecting the show then that is not a problem (and should be explained).
How do new reality TV producers sell their first reality TV show??
Richard: I think that the traditional ways for young producers to break into the business (i.e., pitching untested material to production companies) is dwindling.
The best way for new producers to break into the business is to forge ahead and just develop and produce their projects, release it on the Internet, and strategically build a following (i.e., using social media outlets).
I have had a number of clients use this formula and when it came time to pitch to networks, their possession of actual demographic information to support the target market to be was the most convincing part of the presentation.
There is a lot of good content being produced, but it is very impressive to a network if a producer can offer data that supports the likelihood that his or her show will deliver a base number of eyeballs!
What is the hardest thing for reality TV producers to learn when they are starting out?
Richard: I use to teach Business Affairs to aspiring producers at New York Film Academy and I would see the creative passion that they had in their projects. Unfortunately, many of them were not very interested in learning the business side of the industry.
I think the hardest thing for young producers to learn is that they must understand both the creative and business side of the industry to have a successful project.
What are the current trends in the Reality TV marketplace?
Richard: There are a couple sub-trends that are going on nowadays.
First, I see some of the cable networks starting to treat shows as long-form commercials where they are actually looking for partners, sponsors, and corporations to pay them to air a show. It’s basically a platform for strategically promoting goods and services within and around the show.
Second, I see the web incubator model becoming more of the norm, where shows are being tested on a network’s website to see how it performs, and if it does well then it is brought up to the “big leagues” and put into a time slot that best caters to the demographic data that was already collected from the web show. Basically, networks are looking to reduce their financial risk.
Walk me through the process of selling a reality TV show from your perspective. At what point do you prefer to get involved? In a typical deal, how long are you involved?
Richard: I can give you an example based on a recent deal…but every deal will have its own nuances.
The deal I will reference was initially created as a webisode, with new episodes airing every week on YouTube. The show attracted close to 10,000 subscribers, 2 million views, and it had about 500,000 followers on Twitter over its first two seasons.
This attracted the attention of a large production company that had a development deal with a major network. The show hired my firm to negotiate a shopping deal memo with the production company, but in my first conversation with the show producers they told me that they didn’t have an agreement among themselves so that became priority.
There were some issues but luckily we got everyone on the same page and signed a collaborative agreement (which is important because the production company would not move forward without seeing the collaborative agreement).
The deal memo with the production company took about 3 weeks to negotiate. Next, the production company produced a high quality sizzle reel, it pitched the show to the network, and six months later the network bought 6 episodes, which it intended to initially air on its website with an option to move to television. I also helped negotiate the talent deals directly with the network on behalf of the show.
What/how can someone who is selling their first reality TV show expect to be paid?
Richard: There are essentially three deal structures for Reality TV:
- Fee-Per-Episode Structure. The first structure is the traditional fee-per-episode deal. This is very common with the larger broadcasting networks. The producer will receive less control and will probably receive a lesser credit on the project, but the producer is going to be assured a paycheck for each episode and he or she may receive additional fees for future episodes that are produced; such as “best of” episodes, reunion shows, or other special episodes that involve the show.
- Profit-Sharing Structure. Another structure is the profit-sharing structure. This is more common with cable networks because they are more creative and less able to take big investment risks upfront. Cable networks want to see what is going to work, so they are willing to give a producer a little bit more control and there are more chances to receive a more prominent credit, but payments are more speculative. The show basically has to make a profit before the producer is going to make money. Networks usually will want to see talent and sponsors attached to the program before they take this risk, and they may give the producer a small advance on net profits.
- Web-Series Structure. The newer structure is the web-series structure where a network will put the series on its website first and this counts as the first series cycle in the contract. The Network pays the producer a low stipend to produce the show. If the show is seen as successful according to website statistics and social media numbers than the show will move to television. This is likely going to be the structure for most newcomers.
What does a contract for the sale of a Reality TV show look like?
Richard: Although there are some common terms in every deal, every reality show contract is different. The devil truly is in the details with these deals. Deals heavily depend on what a show will bring to a network (i.e., target audience, sponsorship, celebrity) and on what kind of “leverage” (negotiating power) the show producer has, such as impressive numbers that would make the show attractive to multiple networks.
What’s their likely career trajectory over the next five years?
Richard: Reality Show deals are usually based on cycles (which could consist of six to twelve episodes) and the network will want options to pick up future cycles. The success of a show depends on its performance in the previous cycle.
With that said, a producer’s career can also be built by being involved in multiple projects. As a producer becomes known as “the guy” who will give a network a quality show, the producer will have the connections to consistently pitch new projects.
If you could only give one piece of advice to a writer contemplating pitching a Reality TV series, what would that be?
Richard: Make sure that you handle your business affairs throughout the life of your project.
I mentioned times when you need to pay attention to your business in some of my responses, but even after you have all of your contracts signed and your show is on the air make sure you have someone monitoring the agreements so there are no surprises.
The responses given above are for informational purposes only, and are not intended to be legal advice. If you would like to find more information on the business and legal side of the reality television industry, please visit www.lawyersrock.com.