Working in Television Development

Developing Ideas

Television development – that utopian heaven of consummate creativity. A place where you think, create, develop and eventually give birth to a brand new idea which will eventually wow the viewers on their television screens.

No, of course, it’s not that simple but you are forgiven for thinking like that. I certainly used to. You can only dream of being paid to sit and think, to ‘blue sky’, to brainstorm, to let your imagination run free without the pressure of working long hours in actual production.

‘Development’ in television, in case you are starting right at the beginning, is the process of developing new ideas and formats for new programmes. There are jobs in ‘development’ but are even rarer than production jobs. This post comes by special request of Dale Hornidge one of my Twitter gang (@shurichmond) a television runner who’d like a job in development (are you listening TV producers?). Thanks for the suggestion, Dale. Here’s a bit of what I know about Development:

How to Get into Television Development:

That’s hard if you are starting at the beginning. Firstly not many production companies have a dedicated development team on the basis they can rarely afford them. Profit margins are increasing slim. If a production company is lucky enough to be commissioned to produce a series, any profit it makes will have to tide it over during the times they are not in production. Paying people to ‘sit and think’ is seen by some as money they can ill afford. It is expected that the staff already on the payroll would combine their responsibilities with development or they may get ideas sent in to them by people keen to get into their company – more on that later.

Others may take the view that hiring development personnel is a sound investment leading to new commissions. This is more likely within larger organisations and this is where you stand a better chance of getting a job. Development jobs are advertised occasionally and you need to keep an eye out for them but don’t rely on them. If you like the look of a company, apply anyway.

Your next hurdle is experience. A production company is unlikely to hire someone in development that hasn’t already got a reasonable amount of experience. Ideally they will want to hire someone that has already shown an ability to develop and research new ideas, even if only as part of their role in other established shows. BUT, where there’s a will there’s a way and this is not a blog to conceive of defeat. If you want it enough, even if you do not have that experience, you’ll work at it!

If you are already employed on a production use the personal contacts you have there to ask for a development role. They may not be advertising but if you inspire them with your work and your enthusiasm they may just agree to keeping you on for a bit after the production ends to help in development.

Using your Ideas to get into Development:

So if you are lacking experience but full of vision and a burning desire to join a development team you need to demonstrate your creative potential. The best way to do this is to develop your own idea and formats, write them up and use them as a ‘calling card’ to prospective employers. Check out earlier articles on this site on the subject of developing ideas and writing proposals (http://wanttoworkintelevision/how-to-present-ideas/).

A producer is far more likely to notice your application if you have taken the time to write up your own ideas. There is no need to deliver full blown proposals – a good idea can be described in a paragraph or two. If you manage to identify a growing trend or offer an alternative format for a popular television subject you are well on the way to proving your ability to come up with good ideas for new shows.

Don’t forget to do some basic research on your idea – what channel do you think it will suit? What kind of viewer will it appeal to? Is it practical? Has it been done before? Answering some of these questions will show that you understand the practicalities of development. And resist the temptation to suggest “round the world” formats unless you have worked out how to fund it. Budgets are tight. (And too many people are trying to fund their wanderlust through an unimaginative programme idea – in my experience of wading through proposals about one in three involve travelling!).

Make Your Interests as Asset:

Do you have particular experience in an interesting subject area that would bolster your application? I note, for example, that Dale’s profile says he has a ‘thing for property and architecture’.  Property shows are probably over-played right now on British television but anyone developing a property show (and several production companies are doing just that as we speak) could well find your personal interest useful to them so play up your strengths, even if they don’t involve television. Explain how your background could help them in their development because development is not just about a big idea – it’s also about research.

Working in Development:

Development is partly about brainstorming new formats and clever ideas but it is also about researching detail. If an idea is based on true-life stories or involves casting people with specific backgrounds then a proposal should include some examples. A researcher in development would have to research those and provide some background to prove to the commissioner that they do exist.

If you are developing quiz or game show formats you may spend some time playing the game in the office to see if it actually works the way it says it does on paper.

You may be asked to find new talent, like experts and presenters, and could spend time talking to agents, or scouring the internet for suitably qualified people.

If you are developing a drama project based on characters working on an allotment, you’ll need to visit characters on allotments to get ideas on what may happen there, or simply to ensure you get your facts right in the drama.

Jobs in development can involve anything and that, of course, is part of the fun but beware development is not always as fun as you think it’ll be!

Development Hell:

The fact that this is a recognised phrase in the world of television should tell you something! It generally refers to the high levels of frustration involved. The vast majority of ideas are rejected. You can work for hours, days or months on a new idea and have it rejected within minutes by a commissioning editor.  That’s a fact of television life.

Most people join television to make programmes. When you are in the thick of production, working long anti-social hours you dream of a job in development which allows you to create without the pain of production. But after several weeks or months in development you can find yourself wishing you were in production. Creating ideas is really only fun if they eventually get realised on screen. Development hell is the state of being locked in a room, staring at the walls, trying to think up yet another idea that is likely to be rejected. Development hell is missing the dynamism of being part of a large team making something. Development hell can be lonely.

Hope that helps a bit, Dale!

Any questions on this subject, or any further insights or information you have, are always much appreciated so please do leave them in the comment section below.


  • Ollie says:

    Hey, I was just wondering how do production companies fund programs that exceed there budget given by the channel? Thanks.

  • Graham says:

    I’m not 100% sure. But looking at Indies in the UK, it seems as though most of them make low budget TV shows (Docs, fact ent etc) because it’s hard for production companies to survive. Which leads me to think that that’s why bigger companies acquire them to assist them in funding bigger projects that have global potential. So in most case’s they’re unable to fund productions outside of the channels budget. (this may be completely wrong but it’s what i think is the reason) Hope that helps 🙂

  • Liam says:

    I also think sponsorship deals are key to helping production companies with struggling budgets. For example Domino’s sponsored Red or Black millions of pounds to support there big budget Gameshow. Product placement is also a new way to boost production revenue. I’ve also heard of companies that can assist in raising money for productions. As Graham also said i too am no expert with this and am merely assuming that is what happens. Hope that helps!

  • Joseph says:

    Recently complete a music video for a Canadian artist. We only had a limited budget so when it came to getting essentials to shoot, we needed an investor. After approaching a local jeweler, he’d decided not only to give us up to 10k in jewelry for product placement, but a cheque for 1k in exchange for a minimum of 3 shots in the video. Contracts were agreed upon and we got the extra cash like we needed!

  • Ky says:

    Hello, I know this is an older post but I found it on my journey of trying to figure out what i want to do in children’s programming.I want to actually come up with and design children’s programming, but i want to be more hands on with the production of the shows, like a sort of middle ground. is there a title or department for that? Right now intern at a independent production company (music videos, commercials , and documentaries)I have a B.A in psychology and Neuroscience , a M.A in Communications Arts : TV Production, and thinking of doing a M.A in education: Technology and media. 1-do i have the right combination of training? 2- what type of experience do I need? 3- Is there a field where I can actually accomplish what i want. 4-how do i get there?

    Sorry for all the question just a college student trying to find my way in this crazy world, and actually make a positive impact.

    • Lun says:

      Hey Ki,

      I am an undergraduate student, I am interested in creating music videos but I am also inclined to work for fiction and non-fiction programs that have a positive impact. I am intrigued of your story, how has your journey been from the time you were figuring things out. Would love to hear from you

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