So you do not necessarily want a job in television but you are keen to get a story, feature, book, product or person on the screen.
The following is a guide based on my experience as an Editor on a live daytime television channel and therefore focuses specifically on placing features on similar shows.
Daily magazine programmes in the vein of ITV’s ‘This Morning’, ‘Lorraine’ and ’Daybreak’ eat up ideas and are therefore always in the market for new ones. As we discussed previously in this blog ideas come from many quarters, including news stories, new books and products and there is an entire business in trying to place something on a television programme.
Producers and Editors are inundated with press releases, emails and ‘phone calls offering ‘ideas’ or guests for their show. It obviously pays (as always) to do your research first before sending something into a show. If you have written a generic press release, consider adapting the version you send to different shows to ensure you have taken their format, their content and their schedule into account.
Pressures, Deadlines and Lead Times
Most live daily television programmes will be under huge pressure to maintain and increase ratings which means ensuring every story has to be as strong and as attention-grabbing as it can be. They are not in the business to do ‘favours’ in promoting other people’s agendas unless they marry with their editorial.
Live shows can – and will – make decisions and changes right up until the moment they are on air, particularly if there is a breaking news story in which case they will be chasing up suitable guests and experts right to the last minute.
Each production will have its own production cycle. ‘This Morning’ has a day team for each day of the week. They work on a weekly cycle and most producers will try and plan a couple of weeks ahead. They will have a running order for the next show the day after their last show which then gives them four working days to set them up, write briefs and scripts.
Topical features will most likely be added in by the news team. If you have a particular date in mind for an item (say an anniversary, launch date etc) for some reason then you should ideally try and get your idea to the production at least two weeks before, if not earlier (don’t make it too early or the team may forget about that brilliant idea you sent in – or at least remind them nearer the time).
Obviously if an idea or story is truly brilliant, topical and relevant it will be accepted at any time (but if it’s that good the chances are you are Max Clifford and will have several productions fighting to have it first!)
If your idea/expert/book lends itself to a mini-series of some sort then lead times are much longer. Films are one of the more expensive elements of a live show and there is less of it as financial pressures rise. However, show like BBC’s ‘The One Show’ and ITV’s ‘This Morning’ still produce features and strands (pre-recorded mini series) on tape. Obviously the sort of subject that would end up on tape is the sort of subject you cannot as easily or effectively do in studio – ie the likes of travel, gardening, parenting etc.
How a Feature gets from Idea to Screen
If you want to get your idea on television it has to have real content – trying to hide a weak idea behind a whacky format will generally get spotted.
Most topical features come through the news and forward planning desks but the daily production teams are also constantly trawling for ideas. If a day producer likes the idea they will then do some preliminary research to establish that a story or idea is genuine, has real content and has a suitable cast. They will then pitch it to the Editor of the show and if he/she likes it then they will often add it to a running order of one of their future shows.
Before going on air the production team will do more in-depth research and write up a brief for the presenters. They will need to do a research chat on the telephone to the relevant people. Sometimes at this stage of the process they discover that the story is not quite what it seems and may have to drop the item as a result. Don’t forget that on a live show anything and everything can change. If a topical story breaks the feature you have got so close to seeing on television may well be dropped and there will be no guarantee you get another slot.
What Do Editors Look for in a Story?
Strong content; relevance to their viewers; something that people will care about and preferably some visual content – they are making television not radio and constantly under pressure to find interesting ways to visualise an item – even if only stills, archive, headlines, home video or news footage, props, graphic information packages and etc that help to tell the story.
Viewers need to feel they are getting useful information, strong entertainment or inspiration from the story. Editors and Producers love stories of success against the odds, people fighting back against injustice, violence, heart-break and etc. A story that touches the heart is always strong. A story that can make a viewer laugh or cry is one that engages on an emotional level and likely to be a story that attracts and retains the viewers’ attention.
This may be of particular use to understand if you are trying to promote a charity. Most charities should have a fund of strong human interest stories and this will be one of the best ways to get itself a mention or a guest on the television.
Interesting statistics often work well and a national survey on a good topic can work wonders. The Succeed Foundation is a new charity concerned with eating disorders. Working with them recently we used their academic partners to conduct a survey which led to press coverage around the world – a simple line like, “30% of women would trade at least one year of their life to achieve their ideal body weight and shape” really helps to sell a feature.
Coverage beyond one issue – ie themes, campaigns
Topical live shows will sometimes produce what they call ‘specials’ – often running every day across a week on strong subjects that are relevant to viewers – for example: Mental Health, Sex, Sleep, Eat Yourself Fit, Green Week etc.
Positive action pieces that also give some entertainment value or pull at the heart strings are often popular – for example, the kind of ‘Dreams Come True’ strand, raising funds for children’s’ hospices around Christmas time, house or personal makeovers for deserving characters, etc.
Cost is a major issue for producers of daytime television so before you get excited about pitching an idea on house makeovers, consider if the production will be able to afford the films, guests and other expenses involved in major specials and campaigns.
How to Make an Attention-Grabbing Approach
- Send in an idea that already has a format of some sort – that gives an idea of how it could be visually interesting in the studio.
- Get a popular celebrity attached who would make an interesting interview in their own right as well as telling your story.
- Send in full details but not a huge amount of information that will be difficult to digest. A good idea should be easily sold in one paragraph. Ideally you should be able to send up to one page of A4 with a summary of why the idea is relevant to the show, what the story or idea is, who is involved.
- Gimmicks are fun and will probably get some attention but won’t necessarily sell a weak idea. Someone once sent the diet Coke man to deliver a press release and that certainly got attention; another sent a crate of Bananas for Banana Week.
- It can be worth sending someone to demonstrate a particularly interesting product. Such gimmicks may not result in getting you idea on screen but the production is more likely to remember the PR company and their products.
So, in summary, there are many stories waiting to be placed on the right show and your approach to a production can make all the difference between success and failure. Learn what makes a good feature on a particular show, be creative in your approach, explain how your contribution will work within their format and attract the attention of their viewers. Do as much work for the production as you can – they are busy people – but don’t overload them with gumpf!
Remember television needs you and your ideas just as much as you need them. Don’t annoy productions with ideas that quite obviously won’t work. If producers start to trust your suggestions because you consistently deliver strong and relevant ideas then you can start to build up a strong and potentially profitable relationship.
Any questions or contradictions on this topic, please feel free to leave them as a comment. And if you want more of this sort of information let us know, and subscribe to the blog to be sure you don’t miss the next exciting instalment…!