Chris Cohen is a presenter and comedian who credits YouTube for getting him where he is today. Apart from that, he and Justin Bieber have nothing in common!
If you fancy your chances with an on-screen role in TV or even if you want to understand how the internet can help you make your mark in the media then his story should prove very valuable. It is full of sound advice and useful tips. In fact, couldn’t have written it better myself! Over to the man himself:
How did you get on the telly?
It sounds like a cliche but it really is down to hard work and determination. I had worked in IT for around 7 years, but during that time I had tried my hand at stand up, and had been relatively successful. Stand up was great and gave me a belief in myself when it came to performing.
One aspect of my stand-up routine was to make up a song on the spot about someone in the audience. It was something I’d always found relatively easy to do, making things rhyme and bizarrely, it was that weird ability that helped me get my break. I popped a song on YouTube. It was an awful (in my opinion) parody of Rihanna’s Umbrella but with the words changed to mock the then England Manager, Steve Maclaren, for our failure to qualify for the Euros.
It went viral overnight and I was asked to sing it on Eamon Holmes’ breakfast show on Radio Five Live. I did a couple of shows for them and then got another approach from a producer doing an online football show, Fanbanta with Kevin Day. Obviously, in doing these two shows, I had to write some more football songs, so I carried on writing them and posting them on to YouTube. The response was great and loads of people were requesting songs about their favourite players or teams.
Once I had around 12 songs online, I got an email from a producer who was working on a BBC 3 show called Upstaged. It was basically a show where, for 8 hours, you had to put on your own TV show, in a glass box, in the Millennium square in Bristol. There were two glass boxes in total and essentially, viewers would vote for which act they thought was best and then if you won, you stayed for another day. I hadn’t really had any time to prepare anything, so with my good friend Marek Homola (who happens to be an amazing guitarist) we rocked up and did three days, or 24 hours in these glass boxes, filling our time on air by making up songs about people walking past or viewers at home.
It was a brilliant experience, not least because it taught me how to present live, for 8 hours, with no breaks and ensure there was always something going on for the viewer to watch. It was also a brilliant experience because it was what led me to finding my agent, Jo Wander.
The technical director on the show was seeing a local news presenter in Bristol, and he told her to watch my act. She did, told her agent about me, and she signed me up. I found myself with my very own shiny new agent!
We put a showreel together and sent it to lots of production companies and my agent set up some meetings. Finally my agent introduced me to a production company who were filming a series called Noel’s HQ with Noel Edmonds and thought I would work well as a comedy interlude, singing a song each week about bureaucracy gone mad in Britain.
After a couple of interviews and a screen test, they signed me up. It was a prime time, Sky One, shiny floor entertainment show and there I was, with my guitar, singing live to the nation. I learned so much and meeting Noel Edmonds, who is a real pro in the presenting world, was a brilliant opportunity to see how it should be done.
I then found a football social website called Footbo.com and rang them up asking if they’d be interested in me doing a weekly show from a football stadium taking a humorous look back at the week’s football. They were really up for the idea and I did it for the experience. It went up on YouTube every week and it was a vehicle for me to present on and show people what I could do. After half a season, the same producer who invited me on to the Eamonn Holmes show called me and said he was working on a weekly magazine show for ESPN and asked would I be up for doing something for the website. I said I’d like to do something for the show itself! I had a meeting with the producer who sent me on a shoot the very next day with the proviso that if it was any good, I could stay and do one every week.
It went well and I spent the next three seasons with ESPN presenting, interviewing players, singing stupid football songs and basically living the dream! It was an incredible opportunity. I was basically allowed to direct myself each week, come up with ideas and put them into practice. To start out with it was just me and a cameraman, so I produced myself and then got to edit the footage too. I was essentially a presenter, producer and AP on every shoot. I also got gigs with Chelsea TV, Angela & Friends on Sky One, Channel 4 and Channel five list shows and loads of other brilliant programmes which all came about from essentially, from taking a plunge with Footbo and working for no money just to get content out there.
So that’s the very brief (!) summary of how I got on telly!
What do you think plays the biggest role in getting you on-screen jobs?
I think it’s down to commitment. You have to be determined and not take knock backs personally. Think from a producer’s point of view. In the early days of your career you have to ask why would they take a risk on a relatively unknown presenter, when someone established, like say Ant and Dec, could do it and would guarantee viewers? If you get told no, it doesn’t mean you’re no good, it just means you’re not right at that time for that project.
Finding yourself a niche as a new presenter is key. You have to convince a producer that you are the only person for the role. Mine, I guess, was comedy songs and football knowledge. Yours could be gadgets, history, gardening, food… anything really. Having a specialty is a real plus to a producer. Also it’s imperative that you have your own ideas. I think I must have generated about 75 TV show ideas in my lifetime. I’d say 99% of them don’t get past the first hurdle, but the more you listen to reasons ‘why’ commissioners don’t think it will work, the more you’ll tailor your next show idea to make sure all the boxes are ticked.
If you go to a commissioner with a great idea, that you are perfect to host, then they’d be foolish not to choose you. It can be a very tiring, gruesome experience, having to be told no a lot and go back to the drawing board, especially when you get so enthused about an idea, but for that one meeting where they love your idea and want to give it a go, it makes the other 300 meetings pale into insignificance.
Do you have an agent and if so how does that relationship work? If not how do you market yourself?
My agent is fantastic. Jo (Wander) is brilliant at setting up meetings with producers I wouldn’t otherwise know, finding opportunities to put me forward for and dealing with all the financial aspects of each job. I have to be honest, in the very early days, when opportunities are few and far between, you do question why you need an agent as essentially what little work you do get (which you may even find off your own back) you’re having to give 15% to someone else!
However, that’s a very naive view to take and you soon realise that without your agent making calls constantly and getting your name about, many of these people who do end up giving you a go wouldn’t have even heard of you. Jo takes care of everything, including the business side of deals and makes sure that everyone’s happy at the end of the day.
I wouldn’t change my agent for the World and I think finding an agent you can trust and rely on is key to being successful.
How should aspiring TV presenters use the web and the likes of YouTube to promote themselves?
YouTube is amazing. Every single gig I’ve got in my lifetime somehow links back to YouTube. My comedy football songs eventually got me in to Upstaged and Noel’s HQ. My football presenting on YouTube for Footbo got me my roles presenting for established football shows and the Cat vs Printer video I posted up on YouTube has led to so many more amazing opportunities that just wouldn’t have come about had I not posted online.
Don’t get me wrong, the content still has to be appealing to people, but if you can make something you’re proud of and think is good the instant accessibility of YouTube means you get feedback straight away and it’s a wonderful place for producers to scout for new talent through. It’s still hard work. You still have to regularly update your YouTube channel and make sure you keep quality levels high, but generally, the rule is, if you have an audience on YouTube and can prove an idea works then it’s less of a gamble for a producer to give your idea a go on telly.
TV presenting is deemed a highly insecure business. How hard to you find it to find consistent work?
Weirdly, the insecurity I get from not knowing where my next job might come from is what keeps me on top of things and keeps me on the look out for new opportunities. Having that fear of being jobless at the end of each contract makes you VERY pro-active when it comes to looking for new ventures.
Like I said before, whilst my agent is fantastic at finding castings, interviews, meetings and new opportunities, I too spend a lot of my free time writing pitches, show ideas or calling contacts to see what’s going on and whether there is anything I can help out with in the coming months. It’s essential to keep as pro-active as possible. I have now reached a stage where if I’m sitting at home on a weekday and playing FIFA or just watching TV, I feel like something is very wrong and I get up, get myself down to Starbucks and either write something creative or send a million emails reminding people I’m still alive and available for work.
What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to be a presenter or reporter?
It’s very easy to say ‘it’ll never happen to me’ and ‘there a million aspiring presenters out there, why would I make it?’ but the fact of the matter is, it’s like any job. If you work hard at it, think creatively about getting yourself noticed and are prepared to work for nothing for a while and believe in yourself, then the chances will come. It’s not easy, but then again if it was everyone would be doing it.
Get a thick skin, a lot of blank pages and some caffeine inside you and start writing. Make sure you use all the tools available to you. If you have an idea then do it yourself. Everyone knows ‘someone’ who has a camera and some spare time. Film it yourself and whack it on YouTube. It doesn’t matter if it’s rough around the edges, if the concept works the concept works and people will find it.
Also, don’t be scared of having to do a slightly less glamourous job to make ends meet. I worked in coffee shops, restaurants and bars after leaving IT to make ends meet whilst starting out in presenting. It was exhausting having to work 7 days a week but it was worth it in the end.
What are your professional goals now? What would be your dream job?
My professional goals are the same as they were when I started out. I love this job and just being able to make a living from doing it is fantastic, but I want to work harder and come up with more ideas, work on more shows and have more fun doing so.
I really feel I’m doing my dream job already. I get to interview footballers for example, who I grew up watching and being in awe of. I get to air my opinion on a range of subjects and people tune in to listen to what I have to say. I also get to do some of the craziest things that I’d happily pay hundreds of pounds to do, for free and I get paid to do them in most cases.
In essence what you put in to this job you get out of it. I think the day I’m a judge on Britain’s Got Talent is the day I can say I’ve achieved it all… that or Grand Designs. Love Grand Designs.