On the Demand for Content & Pitching a TV Show

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to the Association of Media Professionals Meeting in Atlanta on the topic of “How to Sell your TV Show to Cable.” AMP is an organization designed to help people in media production advance their careers.

Selling a TV show to a network is a little understood process partly because there’s no one way to go about it and the market changes so quickly sellers have to constantly adapt their pitch to new outlets, delivery methods and programming trends. With the plethora of entertainment outlets from the traditional broadcast, syndication, cable to OTT (Over the Top Television which includes networks like Hulu, Roku, Netflix and Prime as well as lesser known OTT networks like Country Road TV Network), there has been no better time than now to get into the content business. Monetizing OTT is a great opportunity. If you have ideas about how you can get your audience to subscribe via text/SMS or social media, that’s win-win for you and the OTT network. OTT was originally defined by YouTube Red, Facebook Watch and social video consumption.

As more consumers are cutting the cord, the traditional over the air broadcast TV channels are ramping up with newer offerings like Bounce, Escape, Retro and Grit. Add to that new cable start ups like Justice Network, Justice Central and Quest. Court TV is making a comeback.

All of these need shows. Some make the strategic decision to produce their own programming in house; others decide to outsource everything. When I was a senior executive at Lifetime in New York, we went through phases of sending production to Lifetime in Los Angeles, taking it back to New York, then deciding to outsource production, then taking some of it back in house. This is actually a typical kind of evolution in programming. At one point, FCC rules prohibited networks from producing their own shows for air on their own channel, so you would see ABC studios programs on NBC, etc. The rules have changed, but the demand for content has not. The only constant, in fact, is change. But since you’re not a network, you’re an independent, change is to your advantage.

Currently there are 450 scripted series in production in the USA; 58 of those productions are based in Atlanta. I’m not counting reality shows, which are in reality, largely scripted. While it was first thought reality was easier to do than scripted, good, watchable reality is actually harder, in my opinion.

What struck me at the AMP presentation is that while there are thousands of people involved in TV and film production, there are relatively few who are actually involved in the pitching process. While there are a lot of books about pitching a TV show, it’s very much like sales 101—you can teach and train people but a lot of it is just who you know and then basic common sense. Common sense like economics, supply and demand. How much does the show cost to produce? Who owns the rights? Does anybody want to watch it?

Here’s the secret from someone who has been on both sides of the pitch table. How does the network (buyer) make money on the show? Do you have any ready made sponsors either in terms of brand integration or brands that would support the theme or the stars of the show?

While you would think originality is important in a pitch, networks like to find shows that are “like something else.” There’s simply less risk. For scripted shows, there are four basic proven concepts—cop, doctor, lawyer and family. You can ask where does science fiction fit in, etc, but those four archetypes are generally what outlets are looking for in terms of scripted.

Pitches need to be short. Your trailer or sizzle reel should be very brief and just offer hints and build excitement about the project. Being vague is a good thing. Let the network fill in the gaps—they know their audience and what they are looking for. At the end of the day, your show will be a collaboration with the network. That might as well start at the beginning.

Of the 450 scripted shows in production today, the number that won’t be in production in a year is somewhere in the HUNDREDS. The failure rate is very high, but the barrier to entry now is probably lower than it has ever been. Go forth and prosper!

To learn more about the Association of Media Professionals in Atlanta which I recommend, go to www.ampatlanta.org