I get a lot of questions about how to pitch new television programme ideas so when Mark Marinaccio got in touch to ask if we’d like some information on pitching reality TV ideas, I grabbed the opportunity to pass on the benefit of his experience.
Mark Marinaccio is an Executive Producer, Creator and Showrunner (American for supervising producer) for some of the largest cable networks and production companies in the business. He has directed and produced some highly rated reality series, such as The Ultimate Fighter on Spike, Ghost Hunters on SyFy Channel and The Dead Files on Travel Channel. He has overseen series and pilots for The CW, A&E, Discovery Channel, Tru tv, Travel Channel, Bio and Spike.
Mark was Director of Development and Production for The Discovery Channel where he took in hundreds of pitches in all forms, forged relationships with producers and agents and oversaw the development and production of many projects.
Mark currently has optioned dozens of shows and is in active development with Ben Silverman’s Electus, Zodiak USA, Howard Schultz’s Lighthearted Entertainment, Kinetic Content, Relativity Real, Skip Film and Mtv and Bio Channel.
Obviously Mark’s background is biased to the USA but his experience and advice will be valuable to anyone looking to get their ideas onto the screen. Over to Mark:
How would you explain the genre of unscripted reality to a TV novice?
Unscripted is a term that has come to define a number of different type of projects that were previously referred to as, “reality”. The term, “reality show” is now being used to describe competition and elimination formats like, “Survivor”, “Amazing Race” and “The Apprentice”.
The term, “unscripted” is being used to describe the reality type shows that more resemble documentaries with the distinction that they are not necessarily true, real or verite although they can have that look and feel.
We say unscripted when we want to distinguish the program from “drama” or “sitcom” television shows which have writers, scripts and a director and are treated more like feature films in terms of unions, rules and regulations.
Unscripted has also been called, “alternative” as it is an alternative to scripted fare. It is important to note though that unscripted is generally considered non-fiction although what takes place is not necessarily real.
Some examples of “unscripted” shows are; American Chopper, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Amish Mafia.
What are the key elements of a successful reality show on TV?
Every network has different needs and differences in what their audience responds to but when you pitch a show to a network or are in the pre-production phase of a show the needs that are the same no matter who the network are; character, stakes, jeopardy, drama, conflict and resolution. Like any well crafted story a show needs to take the viewer on a journey and provide that roller coaster ride of highs and lows.
First and foremost in the “doc” style reality shows the characters are front and center and need to feel larger than life, they need to pop and every time they leave the screen you need to feel like you want more of them.
Stakes and jeopardy go sort of hand in hand. We need to know that the person or people we are about to follow are putting something on the line, something is at stake in their lives no matter how small or big, we want to see them forced to make decisions that have consequences and rewards. We need to know what’s at stake for them if they do something right or wrong, where is the jeopardy in their lives.
Drama is just what it says. Think of unscripted shows as soap operas, where is the drama, how is it unfolding, why am I going to be “leaning forward” towards the television. Is she pregnant with this guy’s baby? Will they find gold after all?
Conflict is a part of the drama but applies specifically to relationships. Plain and simple no relationship or friendship is without its ups and downs and we need to see those moments.
Resolution is VERY important these days. We need to see an outcome. We need to see how someone’s actions either lead to their success or failure and they will celebrate or fail. These people all represent a part of us and we need these vicarious explorations in ways we can’t normally get.
It’s not much different for the competition shows, they all need the same elements but are presented in more easily digestible ways and in a format that is repeatable and brings with it certain levels of expectation. Take for example the rose ceremony on The Bachelor. We know girls are going to cry, people are being sent home and it will be dramatic. That’s why we hang around until that point in the program.
What are the biggest challenges when producing unscripted reality?
Challenges present themselves everyday when producing these shows. There are the regular and expected roadblocks of locations and cast falling through, equipment failure, hostile terrain and unreliable crew. The biggest two challenges are for good reason. The first is the delicate balancing act that we have to do with the network for whom we are producing the show. They have needs and expectations and we need to meet those demands while also staying true to the project so that people will respond to it. The second is the talent. The cast members of a show and either make or break the production for you. When the cast is problematic or uncooperative then things grind to a halt, motivation and spirits go down and the crew stops functioning. The single biggest challenge I’ve ever had producing shows has stemmed from uncooperative talent.
When developing new ideas for the reality TV market what sort of things do you look for in an idea/topic?
There are two approaches that I take to developing new projects and they are not exclusive from one another. The first is that I listen to what the networks are buying. I am a great study of what everyone is buying and selling as well as what the network executives are saying themselves. The second is that I look at the spirit of what the network executives are saying. If they are really keen on Alaska fishermen and keep asking for Alaska fishermen shows then they are going to get a hundred of those pitches but if I ask why Alaska fisherman and they tell me it’s because they are hard working and out if the dangerous elements fighting for their income while their families wait for them at home then I know there are other professions that offer that exact same thing.
Additionally I believe my success in developing projects stems from the projects I’ve produced. I’ve done a lot of paranormal shows so it’s not coincidence that my first sale was a paranormal show. But I also make sure to be different enough that I stand out and to do that my projects need to have that element of never having been done before.
What are your tops tips for catching the attention of a commissioning editor in a programme proposal?
In America we had network executive who hear out pitches and watch our sales tapes and then generally they take them forward to their bosses and committees and so on until there is an offer of commission.
The way I stand out is by having a piece of tape that is captivating and engaging. Also, and idea that has not yet been seen on tv or an idea that they didn’t even know existed.
What has been your worst moment as a producer of reality TV? What did you learn from it?
My worst moment came while I was running a show as the executive producer and the network shut us down and fired everyone. A lot of people lost their jobs and those people had trusted me and the network fired all of us. We all worked for the production company that sold the show but still we were fired because the network didn’t like the product we were making.
What I learned was incredibly valuable. Speak up. I sat back and did what I was directed to do on that project by the production company. I didn’t fight for my ideas and my interpretation of the networks direction. Instead I did what was asked of me only. Now I’m not saying that if I did things the way I wanted then it would have been successful but I’ll never know and what I learned that day was that it’s better to succeed or fail by your own hand than by someone else’s. If I had done things the way I wanted and we failed then at least I know it was because my ideas were wrong but instead I’ll never know and that is worse than the failure itself.
Tell us about your latest projects.
I am currently in production on a pilot for National Geographic Network which is still top secret but I will soon begin production on another show that I created and sold to Bio Channel…and it’s paranormal of course!
I am also building a place for those who want to learn how to sell their own reality shows at www.formatkings.com as well as an educational site, www.thetvmentors.com and I am writing a book called, “How to Sell Your Show. Writing and Pitching for Reality TV”.
(PS: Right now on formatkings.com there is an opt in box that gets subscribers a free pitch page grid sheet for signing up to the site)