Christmas may well be the season for giving but in the particularly unforgiving media business rejection happens all year round; and the festive season is no exception.
Whoever thought up the 1980’s Just Say No anti-drugs slogan could well have been creating a mantra for media execs the world over whose main job often seems to be turning proposals down, whatever the time of year.
I recently got another such feck-off email. Nothing especially unusual in that as I pitch ideas pretty frequently and as is the way of things for most of us who do, the majority never get past the paper proposal stage.
No, this was a far rarer Dear John for yours truly as it was only the second in as many years that wasn’t in response to a programme proposal but to a job application.
I didn’t even get called for interview which surprised me as it was a job I thought I was more than qualified for, so either I didn’t sell myself very well in my covering letter or my CV needs reorganising…or both.
Which was a pity as it wasn’t for a short-term, contract job, but for a proper pensionable position; I know, look at me, getting notions.
And proper pensionable positions, while not as rare as hens’ teeth in this business, aren’t exactly common as muck either.
One of my earliest posts here was about the, em, joys of freelancing but even your truly, who’s never had a real job in his life, occasionally applies for full-time gigs.
And in fairness, much as I like being self-employed, I could be tempted into the PAYE world by the right job.
The thing is, though, I haven’t a great record when applying for any kind of media employment; most of the work I’ve got has been either through word of mouth or because an idea I pitched was commissioned and they were kinda stuck with me then.
For example, while in London at one stage I registered with and regularly answered ads on Production Base, a site through which you can apply for film and TV jobs.
Back then I never got called for interviews either, though I think that was for more than just because of my inability to do the application hard-sell.
It puzzled me initially until I figured out that my work experience at that stage was a bit all over the shop, having worked in TV and radio; out front and behind the scenes; in documentaries, light entertainment, general features, current affairs, music and even briefly in sport and art.
It’s got even more diverse since.
This meant there were kids half my age with more experience of direct relevance to the advertised position who were clearly getting the interviews I wasn’t.
As it was costing me well over £100 a year for all this rejection, once I figured out why, I unsubscribed pretty pronto.
This latest thanks-but-no-thanks missive did get me thinking about the almost constant presence of such rejection in the media and why dealing with it successfully is vital if you want to stay the pace.
So think about a commissioning editor at some television channel or other for a second who gets pitched whatever number of ideas every year.
First off, how many of these are likely to actually be any good? Or even original? I’ve never been a commissioner but I imagine they’d whittle it down pretty considerably on these two basic criteria alone.
Then they’d eliminate those that may well tick the above two boxes but aren’t a good content fit for their network’s market; they’d have no interest, for example, in a straightforward history or science series if they worked for a youth-orientated channel; though put a new twist on it and maybe.
Next up they’d scratch anything resembling projects they were currently in discussions or production on or that they’ve already made in the recent past; they may not be the exact same ideas but if they feel they’re even in the same ballpark they’d be a no-no.
At this stage, our person in the commissioning hot-seat, cognisant of their overall budget and number of slots they need to fill, would get down to the real nitty gritty; this is when the real decisions get made.
Now obviously the process isn’t as linear as that, with choices made in each of the above categories on an ongoing, rolling basis, but it gives you some idea of the vagaries involved and why your creative masterpieces might not get past first base.
So when you then sit back and try to figure out what percentage of ideas this individual gets pitched ever make it to our TV screens, whatever the exact figure, it ain’t huge.
I often figure that commissioners get so much practice in drafting rejection responses they can run them off without nary a thought, but must go into mild apoplexy when faced with composing their more rarefied positive counterparts.
I also imagine most broadcast freelancers’ Ideas Pitched computer file is far heftier than their Ideas Produced one. Mine sure is.
So how do you deal with all this rejection of your undoubtedly brilliant proposals that if only given the proper funding would absolutely garner a multitude of viewers/listeners/readers, oodles of critical praise and shelf loads of deserved awards?
The first thing is to not get emotionally attached to your ideas, no matter how wonderful you think they are.
This may sound obvious but it can be a hard-learned lesson.
In the early 2000s based on a conversation I had with a friend over coffee I worked up a big, international television documentary series idea that I thought would make for spectacular and unmissable programming.
I still do.
I put a lot of work into it on and off over the following 18 months, convincing myself that the devil was in the detail and that as soon as anyone read the fascinating stories that were peppered throughout they wouldn’t be able to refuse it.
I was wrong. There were a few initial-interest nibbles but no bites. I was devastated.
I’d put my heart and soul into this idea and was gutted when I had to eventually admit that it was probably dead in the water.
Since then no matter how terrific I think any of my ideas are, because I know the chances of them ever getting commissioned are slim I treat them more like passing acquaintances than real friends.
They may someday become true mates but until then I’m keeping my distance.
That particular great idea of mine wasn’t a complete failure.
Just as I was beginning to accept it might never get made, my mate Brian Woods at True Vision wondered if one of its episodes could be expanded into a series to encompass the overall history of modern war journalism, and the eventual Emmy-winning Reporters At War was born.
It’s a cliché but you really do never know what’s around that next corner.
However, there does come a time to park an idea and move on – just like a good hitchhiker knows when to take the train.
The idea may well spring back to life sometime in the future, in which case it’ll be sitting pretty in your ideas folder ready to be updated and pitched again…but it may not, in which case, you tried, now leave it.
That said, there’s only so much rejection a soul can take and it can get pretty depressing when everything you touch turns to SFA, especially when the phone stops ringing with work offers at the same time.
Twice I’ve come close to giving up altogether.
Back in 1989 I had decided that if I didn’t get some kind of radio or TV presenting gig by the end of the year I was going to give up hustling for one. I’d been trying at that stage for about two years since I finished my year as full-time Ents Officer in NIHE (now DCU) so was getting pretty disheartened and really had enough of what felt like repeatedly knocking my head against an uninterested brick wall.
Then in London in 2008 work very dramatically dried up for yours truly after Channel 5 pulled their interest in two big ideas I was developing for them after, like all other broadcasters, they cut budgets when their advertising revenue fell off a cliff because of the economic crash.
That was the last time I worked in the UK and had RTÉ Television not commissioned an idea I pitched them in early 2009 which I subsequently came home to make I was seriously contemplating a change of career.
I just had no idea what else I was actually qualified to do so I hung on in there.
Fortunately for me I’ve been kept reasonably busy since.
So despite all the rejection, I’m still here – for now.