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.
- 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”)
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”