How to present ideas for television is another frequently asked question around here. Having an idea for TV is only a fraction of the battle – developing it into a workable format, writing it up, pitching and selling it is where the real work starts. Fortunately a man with a very good understanding of how the process works dropped into my inbox the other day, and as a result we have some very useful tips on how to develop your idea into a format from a very experienced TV format creator.
First the introductions:
Bob Barber is a freelance TV format creator, director of media company – Killer Formats Ltd, and published author of: SELL YOUR TV SHOW IDEAS: an Outsider’s Guide to Getting Inside the TV Format Industry.
Despite having absolutely no previous TV industry experience when he started out 6 years ago, Bob’s TV formats have now been optioned over 40 times in 9 different countries and have been produced/piloted for BBC & Channel 5 in the UK, for BRAVO Cable Network in the US, and for SLICE Network and W Network in Canada. In recent years he’s signed exclusive format-writing deals with two large European TV distribution companies and a high-profile UK independent production company.
Tell us how you first got into developing TV formats (and did you have any previous media experience?).
Despite my background as a property surveyor, I’d always hankered after doing something a little more creative. As a decent enough guitarist in my youth, my original plan was to make it as a musician and songwriter. But alas, as the years wore on, this prospect became less and less likely. The bottom line was that with a full time job, and latterly, with a young family in tow, I just didn’t have the time to pursue a career in music.
That left me wondering what else I might do that was vaguely creative, reasonably profitable and that could fit into my busy schedule. Writing a play or a novel was too time consuming, but some form of creative writing still appealed to me. After some thought, I hit on the idea of creating and selling TV formats. Although I had absolutely no experience in this area, I figured there might be some money in it, and after all, how difficult could it be?
Despite being pretty clueless in terms of the workings of the industry, I nevertheless set-to in developing and pitching a few ideas to production companies – and as luck would have it, within a year, I’d signed TV format option agreements with two large UK production companies.
What’s the most important thing you have learnt about developing ideas for TV Shows?
It’s not easy to pin down one particular aspect, but in my book I discuss a number of facets that I believe a format must have, to give it a fighting chance of getting optioned. Besides being absolutely compelling (which is a given), for me the best ideas, have:
Originality – As a freelance TV format creator, the one thing you must be able to offer buyers is novelty and originality. The production companies themselves can and do come up with any number of little tweaks on established well-worn formats and bill them as genuinely “new”. But how many are really that radical? We’ve all seen how many slight variations on the singing/dancing, cooking and home makeover formats there have been in recent years. So, unless you have a completely new and innovative take in these well-trodden format areas, in my view, it’s probably best to steer clear, as the production companies will doubtless say that your idea is not distinct enough to warrant them investing time and money into it.
Simplicity – In my view, the best formats are almost always based on the simplest of ideas. Think of a top-selling format, and you can be fairly sure that the concept’s straightforward enough so that it can be summarised in one or two sentences. Dragons’ Den—Entrepreneurs and inventors pitch their business ideas and inventions to hard-nosed venture capitalists in pursuit of a cash investment; or Big Brother—a group of strangers are filmed (warts and all) sharing a house for several weeks in an elimination contest—the last housemate remaining, as voted by the contestants and the TV viewers, wins a large cash prize.
If you’re unable to summarise your format as simply as this, then it might be time to think about either refining it or scrapping it altogether.
Do you have a golden rule regarding writing up a treatment/format?
Yes – get your log-line right. The log-line at the top of your treatment is by far the most important paragraph you’ll write. You need to grab a busy producer in one snappy hit – within a few seconds of him/her seeing it. No matter how great your concept is, if they’ve got to wade through line after line of guff before they get to the golden nugget, chances are they’ll put it down before they get that far. I look at writing killer treatments and how best to ensure that a producer “gets it” as soon as s/he sees it.
How do you go about working out where to pitch your ideas?
I cover this in some depth in the book, but to summarise – in terms of territories, I usually pitch new formats to appropriate UK producers first. If they don’t know me, I’ll give them a short potted history of what I’ve achieved in my introductory email. In my experience, most will be happy to see your ideas if you sell yourself properly.
Next, I tend to aim for worldwide producers and distributors. I seldom target home (UK) broadcasters first – that’s because if they reject a format based on my treatment, this effectively sterilises the entire territory for local producers – why would they want to invest in an idea that’s already been rejected by the local broadcasters?
The recent emergence of the large multi-national Producer-Distributor, has spawned some new opportunities for freelancers like me entering the market. These companies tend to be cash rich and ideas hungry – all looking for the next global TV smash hit. As such, some are prepared to see ideas from outside their organisations from the likes of us, and if they like them, the chances are they might spend fairly big bucks on developing them.
What advice do you have for people concerned about revealing their idea for fear of it being ‘stolen’?
Although there are some fairly standard industry safeguards, ultimately, if someone’s really intent on ripping off your format, then I believe it’s pretty hard to stop them – especially if your idea’s still at a paper format stage. Fortunately though, in my experience, the overwhelming majority of people in this industry are actually decent, good and honest, and the reality is that unless you’re prepared to trust people to run with your formats, you’re unlikely to make much headway.
My book,SELL YOUR TV SHOW IDEAS: An Outsider’s Guide to Getting Inside the TV Format Industry (Bookshaker) was published last month. It’s written specifically for non-TV format professionals, and is brimming with first-hand guidance on how to profit from the unscripted TV format world. Among other topics, the book covers:
1. How to turn a simple a TV show idea into a potentially valuable TV format
2. How to know if your unscripted TV show ideas are on the right track
3. How to write and present a TV show proposal/treatment
4. How best to protect your TV show ideas
5. How the global TV format Industry works
6. Where to pitch and who to pitch to
7. What to expect from an offer or a contract
SELL YOUR TV SHOW IDEAS is available from Amazon.co.uk (from £12) – http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1781330077 – and from Amazon.com (from $20) – www.amazon.com/dp/1781330077