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How Getting Your Show on TV Works

The TV Show Pitch
The "show about nothing" ended up running for nine seasons.
The "show about nothing" ended up running for nine seasons.
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Now you have a meeting with a network executive. Maybe an actor pal set it up for you, or you hired a fantastic agent who got you a few minutes with someone at CBS. Or you got in to Comedy Central and now you're ready to meet with them in person to sell your idea for a television show. This is known as the pitch. Typically 10 minutes or less, the pitch is a dynamic verbal description of the show. The key is to keep it short, focus on the highlights, steer clear of too many details (unless they ask for some) and sell, sell, sell.

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When they say these meetings are 10 minutes, they mean it. Network execs are very busy people. A recent article in Variety stated that during development season, "a broadcast network will buy 25 comedy scripts, shoot 12 of them as pilots and pick up two of the 12 for series." [source: Variety]. You don't want to waste their time or yours, so make sure you're thoroughly prepared. Do plenty of research beforehand. Know which networks to approach with your idea. Keep in mind the network's audience demographic. You probably wouldn't want to pitch your cupcake baker/exotic dancer idea to ESPN. One way to get this information is by reading what the TV business refers to as the trades -- essentially, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. You'll want to do this many times a week. A deal can be announced one day and canceled the next. It wouldn't hurt to add the entertainment and business sections of the New York Times to your reading list, along with Entertainment Weekly.

Pitching is all about the verbal selling of your concept, so make sure you can talk about it clearly and effectively. You'll want to condense your idea or concept to a few thoughtful sentences. I know, I know, you just spent time fleshing out your concept or idea into a script or a treatment … but, for pitching purposes, you'll need to compress it again. The thing to think of here is that you're not telling the whole story, but outlining it to entice the network exec to read your treatment or script. Or, better yet, to invite you back for a longer meeting in which he'll ask you questions and give you further opportunity to sell it. Ellen Sandler, a veteran writer for CBS and NBC, outlines four key elements of a pitch in her book "The TV Writer's Workbook." She says a pitch should include four main points:

  • The setup
  • What your central character wants, and who's preventing him from getting it
  • What's the risk and the turning point (give two turning points if you can)
  • Why you want to tell it

[source: Sandler]

Once you've condensed your concept down to a few lines highlighting these points, you're ready to pitch. Before you go, remember that practice makes perfect. You don't want to read your pitch, but you also don't want to memorize it. You can't memorize passion. One of the main elements of a successful pitch is your passion for the show. Your passion, believability and potential are all part of the package that the networks are buying. Also, you want to treat this as a typical interview -- but it'll last about as long as an average elevator ride, so first impressions are important. Make a good first impression. Dress well (but not too well -- sporty casual is best). Be polite. Thank them for their time. Take criticism well. Don't oversell and remember to be yourself.

If you knock it out of the park and end up selling your show, get ready to make a pilot! Stay tuned for How TV Production Works, the next step in the process. But in the meantime, check out the links on the next page.