Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 10: Identify the Hole in Their Schedule

For the most part, we’ve talked about writing spec pilots that will never be made, but today let’s actually try to get a show on the air.  In order to do so, you have to think the way that networks do, and the first thing you have to understand is that networks vastly overestimate the importance of their own house ads.

Networks love promos for their own shows so much that they’re now willing to float them on top of their shows, and sometimes leave them on the whole time!  I don’t know about you, but if I have to look at an ad for a full hour, I’d rather content myself with knowledge that the network got paid a boat-load of money to run it, instead of just handing it out free to another show at the network!

But house ads can’t do them any good if their shows aren’t in pairs: they have to have one show that can (or should) share the same audience as another show, so that the two shows can set up a feedback loop: promoting each other more and more.

The next thing you have to know is that reality shows are a good (and low-cost) short-term revenue stream, where as scripted (fictional) shows are a good (but high-cost) long-term revenue stream.

Despite predictions that reality would kill scripted TV, just the opposite has happened.  Every basic cable channel with its own hit reality show now wants a scripted show to pair it with.  That way they can channel the short-term value of the reality show into a more long-term pay-off: a scripted show that will go where the reality show can’t: syndication and DVDs.

Believe it or not, most shows currently on  the air owe their existence to this phenomenon:
  • A blatant example: A&E had a hit show called “Intervention” so they started a scripted show called “The Cleaner” about an intervention-coordinator to pair it up with. 
  • Big networks do it, too: NBC decided to pick up “Smash” once “The Voice” became a hit, knowing that they could pair the two together, just as Fox had done with “Glee” and “American Idol”.
  • The CW has been desperate for years to get a hit show about modeling to pair with “America’s Next Top Model”.  They’ve all failed, but I suspect that if you pitch them another model show, they will jump on it.  
And it’s not just reality shows.  Anything that features ads can be paired up with a scripted show:
  • AMC greenlit “Mad Men” because they were still showing classic movies at the time, so they felt they needed a show set in the same era. *
  • Later, AMC greenlit “The Walking Dead” because they were getting their best rating from their October HorrorFest movie marathons, and it drove them crazy that they had no in house programming to run house ads for during those ad slots. (They also get good numbers with Westerns, which got us “Hell on Wheels”)
Once you start noticing this phenomenon, you will see it everywhere. This can pay off for you: If you’re pitching a network (or even writing a spec pilot that they might see), find out what their top-rated non-scripted programming is, then create the ideal companion.  The key to any sales meeting is this: don’t sell them what you came to sell, sell them what they came to buy.

I promise you that basic cable networks are looking for shows about ice road truckers, cake bakers, snipers, and wedding planners.  Even better, make a show about a bickering-but-loving family with one kid in each of those professions—You could sell it anywhere!

* And it works the other way, too : this season of “Mad Men” is paired with a new reality show called “The Pitch”


j.s. said...

This is fascinating inside stuff and interesting to think about if you have something ready to sell that can be easily spun into a version of what networks are looking to buy. But it also seems like a trend that really isn't worth chasing as a writer (unless you are already more established and a network explicitly invites you to pitch or develop something specifically for this purpose). This kind of thinking from the network's perspective may have been part of why they bought MAD MEN but it certainly wasn't why Matthew Weiner wrote it to begin with. Anyone who's working purely on specs should think practically about all of the marketable elements of their show. But the most valuable element of all is quality and passion -- the ineffable stuff that will hook and keep an audience for 50-100 hours or more. And I'd bet that it's a pretty daunting task to try to achieve that while also second guessing the market and reverse engineering a show based on any given network's current reality schedule. Considering how long it takes some of the better shows to get going, this seems even crazier. And it definitely feels related to the kind of "who cares?" attitude you were decrying yesterday.

Matt Bird said...

But I'd like to hope that it can also open up new possibilities that people haven't dared think of before. The idea of making a show about a glee club (talk about low stakes!) was impossible--until Fox needed a companion for American Idol. Likewise with a zombie TV show, until FearFest opened up that opportunity.

My point is that the scripted TV market is changing and, even better, expanding. After years of false doom-saying, there are actually (I would assume) more hours of fictional TV on now than ever before, and as reality show keep getting weirder, that will create an opening for weirder and weirder scripted shows.

So yes, ignoring your passion and writing only for the market is bad, but, on the other hand, knowing that the market is bigger and wider than you thought is good! And it might open up your mind to pursue an idea that you always wanted to but you thought was so crazy it would never work.

(And, of course, another advantage of this method is that the research is shockingly easy: just watch every episode of the reality show, and you're more than halfway there!)

j.s. said...

But I'd say that both GLEE and THE WALKING DEAD owe just as much of their greenlight to a resurgence in the popularity of their respective genres in recent films as to any network's idea of a reality tie-in.

I guess I can see how the networks might like to think of their reality and scripted shows working in a kind of synergy, especially for advertising purposes, but I'd still maintain that the best of each world really can't translate all that easily into the other.

I know that CSI was inspired by cable reality programs and that LOST was vaguely thought of initially as a scripted take on SURVIVOR, but they seem like an outliers to me. And not everything that's popular demands/deserves to be remade... I don't want to see scripted versions of JERSEY SHORE or DEADLIEST CATCH. And it wouldn't be possible to make reality shows out of THE SOPRANOS or THE WIRE because a big aspect of what those shows offer us is access to an illicit and cloistered world of crime.

Shouldn't one of the bigger effects of the entire reality TV trend be to value in scripted shows what we just can't get from non-fiction? And vice-versa, too. For example, anybody trying to script a procedural detective show nowadays has a masterpiece of reality like THE FIRST 48 to reckon with.

I agree that TV seems wide open in terms of subject matter now, but I think it's made up of the networks' collective desperation for eyeballs and of the proof that other hits of this recent scripted TV renaissance have offered.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

So my pilot spec for ALASKAN CAKE SNIPER, centered on a hoarder with a dark past involving child beauty pageants, might sell?