How to Avoid Having Your TV Idea Rejected

A spate of emails asking advice on what to do with an idea for a TV show motivates this latest article – that and the fact that I have been woefully quiet around here!

There are already some articles on this subject under the category Ideas & Development, including articles on how to protect your idea, but a round-up of some sort on the subject would seem to be in order, so here goes:

Let’s get the brutal bit out of the way first. An experienced commissioning editor once told me that the bulk of her job was saying “no” – rejecting the vast majority of programme proposals that came into the broadcaster.

There are a number of reasons why your proposal may be rejected so make sure you have done your homework before pitching to give your idea the best chance.


Is it an original idea?

I’d like to say that broadcasters only commission original ideas but many a successful format has been derivative of a previously successful show. A popular trend allows for a large number of similar ideas but each one strives to provide a unique format, even just a simple twist to make it unique. There can be very many programme ideas on the same subject but with slightly different approaches – property makeover shows, for example.

You do however have to make sure your idea has not already been done. Before you spend too much effort writing up and pitching a proposal, do your research. Wander around Google trying a combination of key words that relate to your TV idea including search terms like TV, television show and etc. It’s not a foolproof method of research but better than nothing. Check out the websites for the main broadcasters and have a look around to see if they are already doing something similar. Scroll through the TV listings or your TV planner to see what is currently being broadcast.


Commissioning Briefs

If you are pitching this to a TV broadcaster then you should ideally refer to how it meets their commissioning briefs, which you can often find online.  These are the current commissioning briefs for Channel 4 and BBC factual and features.


The way we live now is at the heart of many successful Channel 4 shows. Our programmes address a wide range of subject matter: food, relationships, property, money, health, design and families. The objective is not simply to reflect those subjects but to encourage personal transformation.

If you are working on new programmes try to focus on a fresh selling-point: a new subject area, a compelling new format, amazing access or great new talent who can own and define a show. Always remember that successful Channel 4 faces are real experts with on-screen charisma, they are not simply just ‘presenters’.



Features and Formats are a key way to deliver volume and broad audiences (with no age barriers to entry) for factual programming at the BBC.

Modern features need to be distinctive and take risks. Traditional areas and approaches are no longer enough to cut through. Ideas need the potential to inspire change – practically or psychologically, they help us live better lives.

1. What’s the title that will capture the audience’s attention?
2. What is the billing for the show? What’s it for and what will it achieve?
3. Who’s in it and what do they bring to the table? Talent, whether known or not, is increasingly key to shaping strong propositions and needs to be distinctive.
4. Why should we be making this programme now? How and why will it resonate, and who with?

Make sure your pitch answers the questions posed by the commissioning brief.



You should be prepared to answer the question; do you have the relevant access? This could be access to specific locations (you’ve pitch an idea based in Buckingham Palace) or people (you’ve included Posh n’ Becks in your list of interviewees).

Making unrealistic suggestions for content will have your idea thrown out very quickly.  If a celebrity or talent is crucial to your idea you should approach their agent first and ask if they will agree in principle to being involved in the programme should it be commissioned.  Agreement in principle is not a promise but it does show you’ve made the approach and got some interest.



You don’t necessarily have to work out the budget but again you need to be realistic. If you are pitching “Spices Around the World’ to be shot on many different overseas locations are you sure the broadcaster can afford it?  There is no point pitching an expensive idea for a daytime slot that has a small budget.



The title can sometimes sell an idea on its own if it captures the imagination and sells the idea. Many people are scrolling though titles on their Sky planner or similar, and a title (especially for a new show) needs to stand out and capture the interest of potential viewers. “Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents” is a good example of a title that gets your attention and also gives a good idea of what the show is about.



You need to address the question – as posed by the BBC brief – why make this programme now? Statistics can often help here. Has there been any research recently in your proposed subject matter? Has the subject been covered by other media recently – newspaper and magazines? What trends can you identify that make your proposal relevant?


Content & Contrast

The format is important. A novel twist on an old idea can help sell a TV idea but content is crucial, especially in factual and features. Make sure you know about the subject you are pitching and demonstrate that knowledge in your proposal. If the programme requires the involvement of an expert make sure you have identified one that suits TV. Factual ideas thrive on contrast and drama, especially in the kind of format that follows a personal journey. It helps to highlight the challenges that participants may experience, physical, emotional or mental. Contrast often leads to the drama. Teenagers from rough housing estates going to a posh finishing school, company executives taking on menial jobs, and etc.


Who will be making the programme?

Most broadcasters will not take ideas from individuals. To have the best chance of selling a TV idea you need to pitch first to an independent production company with a track record of making this kind of programming.

It is easy to write up a good idea but a whole lot more difficult to translate it onto the screen. Almost more important than the idea is the production team. Broadcasters can’t take the risk of spending significant sums of money on a programme without having a reasonable guarantee that it will turn out on screen as sold on paper. They will only commission experts in TV production to make the show – and ideally experts in this kind of format.

To find a suitable production company you need to research the different companies, find some that make this kind of programme and approach their development team. There is a list of production companies on our Useful Links page.


If yours is a factual idea then do check out Nicola Lees website TV Mole (

If you have any questions do leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to find an answer for you. Unfortunately I am not an expert in pitching ideas in countries other than the UK.

If anyone has experience of developing, pitching or making TV programmes overseas, please do let me know. We’d love to pick your brain to help some of our overseas readers. You can contact me via the Contact page.


  • Panos Kallos says:

    Have lots of ideas for reality shows and documentaries,but got just the basic idea..(synopsis)how can these ideas go further..the ideas are really great not big budgets and simple.
    I was working in the tv indusrty for more than 10 years in my a director and a camera operator.
    all Best

  • Sam says:

    There are so many people out there with creative and original TV ideas. Unfortunately they’re not favourably received from TV production companies, due to funding or the risk involved… it’s a shame, as there are so many fantastic programmes that we’re missing out on. Really enjoyed reading your article!

  • Sam makes a very good point here – there is too much risk attached to a lot of good ideas for Production Companies to attach themselves to it.

    That being said, I have noticed more and more smaller production companies taking a chance and shooting a pilot or teaser to show – but alas, in the industry, it can be difficult to see the right people if you aren’t well connected. Networks must get so many requests in per day, getting your idea in front of the right person is very difficult. A nice article though.

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