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PRIMETIME: How Should I Prep a Reality Show Pitch?

Every show—in fact, every piece of art—should be a reflection of audiences' lives... and every story throughout history can be boiled down to a single sentence.

It's been an exciting week in the world of "PrimeTime"…

First of all, huge thanks to the folks at Writers Digest magazine who named this blog one of their 101 Best Websites for Writers! The article isn't yet online, but as soon as it is, we'll throw up a link. In the mean time, you can pick up the piece in Writers Digest's May/June issue, available now at newsstands and bookstores. While I'm obviously biased, it's a terrifically helpful list—check it out!

Secondly, we learned last week that After Lately, the Chelsea Handler mockumentary I'd been producing on, has been picked up for a second season… so thank you to all of you who watched. Get your Tivos ready for more!

Today's question comes from C. Brown, who writes…

I have a great idea for a reality show that is like [Keeping Up with the] Kardashians meets American Idol with a particular industry that is recession proof. What is the process to get the idea to the next level? I talked to some people and they said start taping it… but the idea is so extravagant it is almost impossible for me to do on my own and I need major support to pull it off. So… how do I get started? Treatments? Exec. summaries? Is there a particular format for treatments or summaries for reality that is different from traditional programming? Please give me guidance, I want to get this out of my head and share it with the world.

Well, C. Brown… what you should not start doing is "taping it." Shooting a pilot independently… especially a reality show… is almost always a one-way ticket to nowhere—and you'll be broke when you get there.

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Networks almost never buy independently shot pilots. First of all, they almost always look cheap, shoddy, and slapdash. Secondly, networks want—and need—to have a hand in the development of their shows (both scripted and reality), so the more produced and "finished" something is when it arrives, the harder it is to sell. This is why most projects—scripted and unscripted alike—are sold as pitches, not produced pilots or scripts. (Spec pilot scripts are selling a bit more now… but the majority of purchased projects are still simply well-developed concepts.)

Having said that… there often is value to shooting a "sizzle reel," or demo, for a reality show… but we'll get to that in a moment.

Let's first take a step back and look at the foundation of your project… and, really, of all projects.

There are two types of reality shows: format-driven shows and personality-driven shows.

Format-drivenshows derive story and conflict from a particular format, often a game or competition. Game shows like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, for instance, have specific formats: their games, which are governed by explicit rules and gameplay. Competition/elimination shows, like Survivor and Top Chef, also have specific formats: contestants participate in carefully designed challenges, and each week someone is eliminated… until one winner remains to claim the prize. It doesn't matter who you drop into these format-driven shows; they're crafted to create conflict, tension, and excitement no matter who's participating. (This doesn't mean casting isn't critical; it just means that the shows' formats are designed to generate story regardless of casting.)

Jersey Shore cast photo

Just like Oprah (when it comes to pitching)

Personality-driven shows derive story and conflict not from a format, but from a set of characters, or "personalities," so compelling and engaging that people want to watch. There's no weekly format to Jersey Shore, for example, but those "characters" are so outrageous, so hilarious, so repulsive, so larger-than-life that audiences can't turn away. It doesn't matter what those kids are doing… sitting around the house, getting drunk at a party, going on vacation, getting dressed for a date… people want to watch them. The same goes for the Kardashians, the fishermen of Deadliest Catch, even Oprah Winfrey. No one tunes into Oprah because it has a compelling format; people tune in because they love spending an hour a day with Oprah Winfrey. If you keep her show exactly the same, but replace Oprah with a different host, no one would watch.

(Scripted show work the same way. Some, like 90210 or Mad Love, are based on characters and their relationships; others, often procedurals like CSI or Criminal Minds, use a specific formula to generate story and conflict. Just like with Wipeout or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, you can replace the characters in CSI or Criminal Minds with other characters; the procedure, or format, still generates compelling stories.)

Why is this distinction between shows important? Because format and personality-driven work totally differently; their "story engines" have almost nothing in common…

…which means they're sold completely differently.

The key to selling a format-driven show is convincing execs or producers you have a format—a specific pattern of gameplay, a unique form of competition, etc.—that can generate an endless amount of compelling conflict. This does not mean simply suggesting a typical competition in a specific industry (even a "recession-proof" industry)… like "American Idol in the world of shampoo-designers." It means designing an actual game or format, complete with unique rules, examples of challenges, etc. to show how this format generates conflict and story in a new way.

 How "The Amazing Race" was sold?

How "The Amazing Race" was sold?

Showing this may mean producing a smaller "board-game" version of your show to play with execs during the pitch. It may mean you put together a larger "live-on-stage" version that can be played in a bigger way. (I know some successful game show producers that do this regularly; they build a rudimentary set and let the execs actually play—just like on television!) Or it may mean you simply need to articulate precisely how the game is played, giving examples of challenges and illustrating why they're exciting to watch.

The key to selling a personality-driven show is convincing execs and producers you have "pieces of talent," or personalities, charismatic enough to carry a long-running series. Your "talent" could be a warm, inspiring individual like Oprah… or a group of fascinating, compelling people like the kids of Jersey Shore. Either way, your job is to show buyers why your talent is immanently watch-able… which means you can't pitch a personality-driven show unless your talent is available, attached, and committed to the show.

Some producers take their talent to the pitch meeting itself, letting execs meet them in person, feeling the talent's charm and personality first-hand. Other producers shoot a "sizzle reel," a 3-4 minute demo illuminating the characters, their lives, their relationships, etc. Sizzle reels often look and feel like well-produced trailers for a show… even though the show doesn't yet exist. (Joke Productions, one of the production companies behind Beauty and the Geek and Scream Queens, produces some of the best sizzle reels I've ever seen; you can check them out here: Scroll down to "Selected Video Pitches.")

Now, bear with me; I'm going to pick on you for a second…

I've said all this because it's imperative to know which type of show you're pitching… you can't produce or sell a show unless you're absolutely certain… and frankly, it's impossible to tell from your quick description.

Granted, it's brief and incomplete… but American Idol and Keeping Up With the Kardashians are two totallydifferenttypesofshow. In fact, they're so different… and the kinds of stories they tell are so radically different… it's impossible to understand what kind of show you're pitching at all. It's like saying, "I have an idea for a great invention—it's a waterski meets a laptop!" No matter how brilliant the idea may be, it's already been positioned as something so utterly foreign that it's tough for your buyer to visualize the show or follow your pitch. You've lost before you've started.

So your first step in selling this show is identifying precisely which type of reality series you're actually pitching.

Is your reality show based around a special host, a comedian, a celebrity, or a unique group of people?

 Can you bring THIS to life in a pitch?

Can you bring THIS to life in a pitch?

If so, your first priority is to show execs why these pieces of talent are so wonderful. Are they best captured in a short video that follows their daily lives and interactions? Is your talent a stand-up comic who shines most when performing onstage… and you can invite buyers to a showcase? Or is your host at her best when she's just being herself, one-on-one… and the perfect vehicle to highlight this is to let her participate in the pitches?

On the other hand, if your show is format-based, how can you bring that format to life for potential buyers? Is your format based on an actual game, like Scrabble or Monopoly (both of which are currently being produced as TV game shows), which you can let execs play and enjoy themselves? Is it a large-scale competition best illuminated using exciting props or photos? Or does it employ large Survivor-esque challenges best described with an enthusiastic verbal pitch?

This, C. Brown, is where you need to start: identifying the show's precise story engine, and figuring out how to best bring it to life for execs, producers, and buyers.

(And don't tell me—or yourself—that the show too complicated or "extravagant" to boil down to a single story-engine or type of show. Just as every story throughout history can be boiled down to a single sentence, every reality show can be distilled down to a single story-engine. If it can't be, there's no show, because you haven't identified the most important element of all storytelling: the source of conflict.)

Once you've done this, selling a reality show requires the same elements as any other type of show:

  • Strong premise – a brief (1-2 sentence) description of the overall show
  • Character descriptions – Even if this is a format-driven show, you need to articulate what types of people you'll case. American Idol casts starry-eyed dreamers; Top Chef casts talented, successful, savvy restaurateurs; The Price is Right casts regular people familiar with prices of everyday goods.
  • Pilot outline/format explanation – A step-by-step walk-through of a typical episode's format or story. Even if you're pitching a personality-driven show, be able to walk buyers through a typical episode. What kinds of stories or segments might they see?
  • Sample episodes – Short one-sentence descriptions of potential storylines. If you're pitching a format-driven show, like The Voice or Jeopardy, you need examples of challenges or questions.
  • Show sustainability – TV shows are designed to run, in theory, into eternity… so you need to show buyers how your show is infinitely sustainable. Simple game shows are easily repeatable, but shows like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are tougher, because they depend on potentially unreliable characters to generate story. Is your idea self-sustaining, like Family Feud? Or do you need to suggest ideas for new takes on future seasons in order to keep the show fresh and engaging?
  • Emotional hook – Every show—or, rather, every piece of art—needs to be some kind of reflection of audiences' lives. Does your show tap into viewers' own aspirations and dreams, like American Idol? Does it reflect family dysfunction and sibling rivalry, like Keeping Up With the Kardashians? Does it utilize the universal desire to find true love, like The Bachelor?

While it's important to know all of these elements, I do NOT recommend putting them into a written "treatment" or "leave-behind."

ONLY PITCH VERBALLY—and never ever send a network, studio, or production company a treatment before pitching them verbally. (You can write a document, if you wish, but use it only for your own internal development reasons. I do this often—just because it helps me organize my thoughts.)

I talk more about this in my August 30th post, "How Should I Lay Out Episodic Format in My Written Pitch?"

Anyway, C. Brown… good luck with the pitch and the show, and thanks so much for the question! If you or anyone else has other questions, please don't hesitate to email me at or tweet me at



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