Last week I wrote here about how simple ideas are often the most successful in TV and radio.
As I’ve often said – for instance, at the 2011 Dublin Freelance Forum – I can’t over emphasise how much, just like in print and online, ideas are the lifeblood of broadcasting. Without them, we’d be faced with an embarrassment of silence and blank screens.
So what do you do if you have one that you think could make a great programme or series? Or what if you’re just wondering what kind of ideas become great programmes or series?
I know it sounds obvious but the first thing to do is to check programme listings and listen to and watch as much as you can on as many stations and channels as possible. This will give you a feel for the styles and subjects that each prefers based on what was recently or is now being produced and for what might in the future fit around these programmes, either because they’re very similar or totally different.
No harm either in keeping an eye on various media correspondents and publications who regularly publish articles on trends, people, production companies, what’s just been green lit, etc.
Who to pitch to is the real conundrum. This is another reason to look and listen, especially for production credits on those programmes that are in the same general area as your idea or topics of interest. Some will be made in-house – for example, RTÉ and the BBC produce much of their own output – while others will be external productions – all of what you see on Channel 4 is made by independent production companies.
You’ll find lists of these independent production companies online, their biogs often giving you clues as to their areas of specialisation; in Ireland check Screen Producers and IFTN, in the UK have a nose round PACT.
Whether in-house or independent, these are the people with the experience and expertise who’ll know pretty quickly if your treasured idea is as brilliant as you think it is and whether it stands a snowball’s chance in hell of getting commissioned.
But before you approach anyone you still have a little more research to do.
If you know anyone in the business, make them your first port of call – buy them a coffee and pick their brains. They’ll know who’s who and be able to advise you on who’s approachable and who isn’t. They might even offer to get involved, either organising an introduction or, if you’re lucky – and you trust them – coming on board to help (re)write and pitch your proposal and to work with you on the idea if it ever gets made.
If you don’t know anyone in the business, then it’s a much tougher ask. You’ll have to not only work out who the right people are to pitch your masterpiece to and then find their contact details, you’ll also have send a few emails or make a few calls to see whether in fact they even accept unsolicited ideas; many don’t.
I’m often asked what kind of ideas stand most chance of getting commissioned?
If I knew the answer to that I’d be writing this from a chateau in the south of France or a penthouse in New York. I can assure you I’m in neither.
But there are undoubtedly some things that help: for instance, exclusive access, be it to an interesting person, institution, documents, site, etc; a killer format that will work internationally across a returnable series; awareness of an important anniversary that gives an opportunity to reassess a topic with the benefit of hindsight; and/or a hot subject that is currently slap bang in the middle of that much maligned zeitgeist.
One or more of these and you’re half way there.
However before you get too carried away, remember no matter how far you manage to get your proposal, the chances of it ever seeing the light if day are slim.
There’s a very good chance your idea is actually rubbish (I cringe when I look back at many of those I thought were brilliant at the time that now languish unloved and alone in my Programme Ideas file); someone may have recently beaten you to the punch with something similar (the only token of comfort when this happens is you at least know your idea was in the right ballpark); and even if your idea is awesomely fantastic, it’ll probably be rejected simply because there are more programmes pitched to commissioners than they have slots in their schedule to fill.
So why do people like me continue to develop and pitch ideas that we know are unlikely to ever be transmitted?
Some might call it desperation. And they could be right. When the phone doesn’t ring and there’s bugger all work on the horizon it’s often the only way of getting a gig…if you’re very lucky.
But there’s also something hugely rewarding about guiding one of your own ideas from development through pitching and into production, and then finally seeing or hearing the finished product going out on air, knowing there are people all over the country watching or listening to something that many months ago was just a thought waiting to be committed to paper.
That’s a feeling that takes some beating.
The accompanying cheques don’t hurt either.
You might also be interested in this subsequent post on the murky world of having your ideas stolen by someone you pitch them to: https://www.patomahony.ie/2016/01/been-caught-stealing-off-message-26/