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What the Broadcaster Saw: A Guide To The Perplexed

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A 2009 lecture for Reel World, I still use this to introduce writing students the the practicalities of writing for television.

A 2009 lecture for Reel World, I still use this to introduce writing students the the practicalities of writing for television.

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  • From 1990 to 2006, was Executive in Charge, then Deputy Creative Head of CBC TV Drama Saw ~ 8,000 pitches and screenplays Developed about 50 series, movies and miniseries The John Kennedy Story John Kennedy story from 1982. Ryerson, 3 rd year films. Black Rage – Invitation to pitch. I wanted to do a show on Jazz Lives – the great players and the stories behind their brilliant work. John’s eyes glazed over – John: Sm all demographic. Really expensive. Anthology??? Not for us. What can you beat on my schedule? David: Huh? I thought he was crazy. I thought that the world was waiting for the new, the important programs that no one had ever heard of before. Little did I know that his invitation was real – it’s NOT every day you get invited to spend time with a Creative Head at the CBC. But I didn’t know how to read that sign . And I didn’t know what to make of his advice, other than to see it as a rejection. I didn’t know what my next move had to be. How to pry open the jaws of that opportunity and walk through it. Hopefully this session will give you some of the information you’ll need to go after a network slot.
  • Few slots, most are filled in the US (for revenue), many competitors
  • A few more slots, Many more competitors. And note that most of the programs on Canadian TV are simulcasts. Just like today you didn’t have to be an American to pitch in the US, but you did have to be Canadian to pitch here. In 1990 I started at CBC as a development executive and shortly after that we went 100% Canadian.
  • And this is just one night!
  • It’s not that there are 57 channels and nothing on. It’s that there are 57 x 6slots x 7 days = ~1800 opportunities, and that’s just in prime time. Take away the few dozen shows that draw big numbers and you still have more than 1700 shows that you can beat. Then there’s the other 5,000 or so slots in daytime, fringe prime and night time - and we haven’t started looking at digital channels or web TV. The world is your oyster. All you need to do is to figure out how to get your show on air and keep it there.
  • CTV & Global bidding war for US programming; Corus’ Nelvana takeover is still dogging the balance books there.
  • All of which makes for more opportunities for existing shows and fewer for new shows. And therefore increases the need to come to the broadcaster with something really original.
  • Prime Time has shrunk to 10 hours per week. Saturday and Sundays are repeats. Local programming in fringe and 10pm slots. Same with the CW. Jeff Zucker’s been musing about NBC following suit. Local programming is often library programming or re-runs. The Simpsons, Cheers, stuff like that.
  • Women are the target. But this is being rethought.
  • Folks are making TV fit into their own schedules. Broadcasters are going to have to figure out how to make ads follow the product from screen to screen. As viewers fan out, we’re already seeing some of the old program associations starting to come back in the form of sponsorship. Fewer players, more mergers, fewer prime time hours. Broadcasters looking for the next big thing. TV doing what it does best: Big shows like The Sopranos and The Tudors, Heroes & Lost bringing fans to view on first telecast.
  • But not all is as it seems. Fewer than 200,000 viewers watched a movie on a small screen last month. What they’re watching is shorter and different. In fact, television programming is bigger and arguably better than ever. So much so that the new broadcasters are looking for, and developing core properties , following the exact same model as HBO did with Sex & City + Sopranos…
  • New Media has “fresh content” rather than “slots”. But they can’t do today what they did yesterday. New Properties, new creators, are the lifeblood of every form of entertainment today. And NBC is in the worst shape of the big 4 (which includes Fox). Those figures don’t include another $4B in operating profit from its cable channels.
  • WEB entertainment will not replace TV. It’s a completely different entertainment form. Just like radio and film and the novel, TV will not go away. Dramatic series are the lifeblood of TV, and for a dozen years or so web casters have been trying to figure out a way to put interactivity into it. I’ve working on that since 1998.
  • So you have to understand what they want and how they work to have a chance.
  • Th ey’re not there to run your program. They’re there to make money. 2 ways to look at the grid. Be ready to fit the concept to the network. Build your relationship with the broadcasters by showing: You understand their needs. You get their business. You get what they’re up against. Bring something you care about. Even if the project isn’t quite right for them, they KNOW YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY. Bring them something that fits their target and they know you care enough about what they’re doing to watch and study their schedule. DO THAT AND THEY’LL REMEMBER YOUR NAME. ETIQUETTE: For god sake don’t pitch them at a party or go after them in the park on a Sunday. Don’t show them how much you know. That’s not the sort of impression you want to make. Be VERY NICE TO THE ASSISTANTS. They set the tone for the meeting.
  • EYEBALLS ARE REVENUE MAKE SURE YOUR SHOW CONNECTS TO WHAT THE AUDIENCE IS GOING THROUGH.
  • SAVINNGS = PROFITS
  • Each of these is hard to do. SOLID? WHAT’S THAT MEAN? IT MEANS IT’S BUILT RIGHT.
  • > MOST OF ALL, IT’S A JOURNEY. SOMETHING IS CLEARLY LEARNED EITHER BY THE CHARACTER OR BY US. > A series is smaller. It’s characters are recognizable, comfortable and viewable. They key is in the way the characters connect, intersect, bond and conflict, not in the nature of the stories they face each week. The drama is in them, not outside them. > The world is - where it happens and the rules that govern it: A mobster’s community in New Jersey? A football-mad Texas town? A NYC fire hall. > The place has to have story potential - eg as above - another mob moving in on Tony Soprano, conflict between Paul and Michael etc. Friday Night Lights: there’s a game every Friday. Rescue Me: there’s always a fire. > POV is what the writer/producer jointly believe: eg: Wonderland - Justice is for those that can control it’s process. That people can let football - as beautiful as it is - get in the way of what matters. > Tone - a comedy, a tragedy, or something else? Rescue Me: one of the few straight-up tragic series. Desperate Housewives - a soap with attitude. > No need for several story examples. More important to know what KIND of a story it will be and how it will be told.
  • Favorite pitches: DV, SBM
  • I SAW: about 8000 pitches and scripts. Never insult them by telling them what they’re doing wrong. When the Nielsen's come in, the broadcasters are the first to know what they’re doing wrong. Only the dumbest people tell Network programmers what’s wrong with their stuff.
  • And those are the shows we did.
  • Because they are the most addictive form ever created for the medium. What they deliver is INTIMACY. Same as the NOVEL with its half-created character creation. Same as the MOVIES physical CLOSE-UPS THESE ARE THE RETURNING CHALLENGES. THEY BUILD EMPATHY.
  • The odds are stacked against you. You really have to know what you’re doing. 2. You have to have good partnerships with strong collaborators to get the green light. They’re looking for a guarantee that these scripts can be executed at a high enough level that they can win the slot. THE PROCESS: 3. There are a lot of people who have to be sold. They may be waiting to look over the balance of possibilities they have in hand against what your show brings. They may be testing something very similar and want to see how that goes first. They may have the exact same idea and they want to keep it away from the competition. The exec you brought it too may want to nail down something more important first. The exec may be on his way out. He may have poor relationships with the people he has to sell up to. And they will keep you hanging on. SO -- Get the deal or move on. Which is hard if you’ve hand made that show for that network. Easier if you have several projects looking for opportunities in several slots at several networks. 4. Broadcast interest is expressed as a development deal. No deal, no real interest. Be nice. Next time. Judging the quality of a writer is something that broadcasters have more experience with that producers. You may think you have high standards, but remember that they’ve seen a lot more writing than you have. Ask them for someone they like who can get across what you like about your writer. Maybe you’ve picked him for a specific quality that you feel the project needs. That should be the nature of the discussion. Broadcasters will want to change things that they see at odds with what they know about their audience, or add things that they feel might draw an ancillary market segment.
  • The broadcaster absolutely needs to have the comfort that you can deliver. The best scripts are crap in the wrong hands. GO FOR AN EARLY PICKUP - to have the pick of the best talent.
  • IT’S ALWAYS BEEN HARD TO RAISE THE MONEY IN CANADA. THE BEST THINGS YOU CAN DO ARE: HAVE SOMETHING THAT WILL DRAW TALENT. MARQUEE TALENT WITH OPEN WALLETS BECAUSE THEY LESSEN THE RISK AND MAKE THE REWARD MORE LIKELY. BRING MONEY. FLASHPOINT MODEL
  • Transcript

    • 1. What The Broadcaster SawA guide to the perplexed
    • 2. 1981 Canada: Prime-time Weekday TV MondayCBC Thats Incredible! CFL FOOTBALLCTV Private Benjamin The Two of Us M*A*S*H House Calls Lou Grant Tuesda yCBC Happy Days Laverne and Shirley SCTV Too Close for Comfort Hart to HartCTV Simon and Simon (Nov.) The CTV Tuesday Night Movies Wednesda yCBC You Can’t Do That On Tel evision HOME FIRES DallasCTV Mr. Merlin (Oct.) WKRP in Cincinnati Nurse Shan non (Nov.) ThursdayCBC KIDS OF DEGRASSI MAN ALIVE Threes Company Too Close for Comfort ??CTV Simon and Simo n (Nov.) The CTV Tuesday Night Movies FridayCBC Benson Mork and Mindy Magnum P.I. TOMMY HUNTERCTV The Incredible Hulk The Dukes of Hazzard Dynasty
    • 3. 1981 US Prime Time Weekday Schedule Mon dayABC Thats Incredible! Monday Night FootballCBS Private Benjamin The Two of Us M*A*S*H House Calls Lou GrantNBC Little House on the Prairie NBC Monday Night at the Movies Tuesda yABC Happy Days Laverne and Shirley Threes Company Too Close for Comfort Hart to HartCBS Simo n an d Simo n (Nov.) The CBS Tuesday Night MoviesNBC Fat her Murphy (Nov.) Bret Maverick (Dec.) Flamingo Road Wednesda yABC The Greatest American Hero The Fall Guy (Nov.) DynastyCBS Mr. Merlin (Oct.) WKRP in Cinci nnati Nurse Shan non (Nov.)NBC Real People The Facts of Life Love, Sidney (Oct.) Quincy, M.E. Thursda yABC Mork and Mindy Best of the West (Sep.) Barney Miller (Nov.) Taxi 20/20CBS Magnum, P.I. Knots Landing Jessica Novak (Nov.)NBC Harper Valley Lewis & Clark (Oct.) Diffrent Strokes Gimme a Break! (Oct.) Hill Street Blues FridayABC Benson Bosom Buddies Darkroom (Nov.) Strike Force (Nov.)CBS The Incredible Hulk The Dukes of Hazzard DallasNBC NBC Magazine McClains Law (Nov.) local
    • 4. Friday, April 10, 2009 7:30 PM 8:00 PM 8:30 PM 9:0 0 PM 9:30 PM 10:00 PM Wheel of Fortune Wife Swap Supernanny 20/20 >ABC Entertainment Tonight Ghost Whisperer Flashpoint NUMB3 > RSCBS Seinfeld Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Dollhouse Fox 5 News at 10 >FOX Access Hollywood Howie Do It Howie Do It Friday Night Lights Dateline NBC >NBC Family Guy Everybody Hates Chris The Game Americas Next Top Model PIX News at Ten >CW Tyler Perrys House of Payne WWE Friday Night SmackDown! My 9 NewsMNT Family Feud M*A*S * H Malice >WPXN < 12 Corazones Doña Barbara El Rostro de Analia Sin Senos no Hay ParaisoTLMD < Las Tontas No Van al Cielo Cuidado con el Ángel Mañana Es Para Siempre La Rosa de Guadalupe >UNI < CSI: Miami CSI: Miami CSI: Miami CSI: Miami >AETVAMC < Wolf Heat > < BBC World News America Mistresses Mistresses BBC World News America >BBCA < 106 & Park: BETs Top 10 Live Beach Rhymes Third Wheel Hair & Make-Up Do I t Or Dont Soul Plane >BETBRAVO < Lethal Weapon 2 Three Kings > < Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Extreme Makeover: Home Edition CribsCMTV Mommy < American Greed House of Cards Deal or No Deal >CNBC < Lou Dobbs Tonight Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull Larry King Live Anderson Cooper 360 >CNN Scrubs The Daily Show With Jon Stewart The Colbert Report Im portant Things With Demetri South Park Lisa Lampanelli: D irty Girl >COMEDY Martin < Tonight From Washington >CSPAN Hannah Montana The Suite Life on Deck Phineas and Ferb Herbie: Fully Loaded >DI SN How I ts Made Dirty Jobs Extreme Loggers Extreme Loggers >DSC The Daily 10 The Girls Next Door The Girls Next Door Keeping Up With the Kardashians Keeping Up With the Kardashians The SoupE SportsCenter Golf >ESPNESPN2 NBA Shootaround NBA Basketball That 70s Show That 70s Show That 70s Show That 70s Show That 70s Show Americas Funniest Home Videos >FAM < The FOX Report With Shepard The OReilly Factor Hannity On the Record With Greta VanFNC Smith Susteren > < Challenge Unwrapped Unwrapped Diners, Drive-I ns and Dives Diners, Drive-I ns and Dives Titans of Taste >FOOD
    • 5. …and… 7:30 PM 8:00 PM 8:30 PM 9:0 0 PM 9:30 PM 10:00 PMFX < The Hot Chick Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo > < Attack of the Show! X-Play Cheaters Cheaters Cops Cops 2.0G4 Pyramid Family Feud Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Family Feud Who Wants to Be a Millionaire The Newlywed GameGSNHALMRK < Skylark Love Takes Wing > < The Astronaut Farmer 300 Real Time With Bill Maher >HBO House Hunters Property Virgins Myles of Style House Hunters Bang f or Your Buck House Hunters I nternationalHGTV < Modern Marvels Modern Marvels Patton 360 Warriors >HISTORYIFC < Fast Food Nation Super Troopers > Reba Will & Grace Will & Grace Wife Swap Wife Swap >LI FEM AX < Juno The Promotion Live Free or Die Hard > < Hardball With Chris Matthews Countdown With Keith Olbermann The Rachel Maddow Show Countdown With KeithMSNBC Olbermann > < For th e Love of Ray J Making the Band 4 From Gs to Gents Real World/Road Rules Challenge >MTV Pearl Jam Ten Revisited Rob & Big Rob & Big Rob & Big Rob & Big Rob & BigMTV2 < Dog Whisperer Dog Whisperer Dog Whisperer DogTown >NGC iCarly The Penguins of Madagascar The Penguins of Madagascar SpongeBob SquarePants SpongeBob SquarePants George LopezNIKOXYGEN < Mrs. Winterbourne Raising Helen > < Steel by Design Jewelry NutriSystem Weight Loss Program Gardening Made Easy by Cottag eQVC Farms > < Stargate: Continuum Moonlight Primeval >SCIFI < Pretty Woman United States of Tara The TudorsSHOW < CSI: Crime Scene I nvestigation CSI: Crime Scene I nvestigation Deadliest Warrior Worlds Most Shocking Moments:SPI KETV Caught on Tape > Clean House Comes Clean Whose Wedding Is I t Anyway? Whose Wedding Is I t Anyway? Outlaw I n-LawsSTYLE < This Revolution The Hill Office Tigers Pulling The Life and Times of Vivienne Sleeping Dogs Lie >SUNDAE Vyle Seinfeld Family Guy Family Guy My Cousin Vinny >TBS < What Not to Wear What Not to Wear What Not to Wear Say Yes to the DressTLC < Law & Order Last Holiday Guess Who >TNT Star Wars: The Clone Wars The Secret Saturdays Batman: The Brave and the Bold Star Wars: The Clone Wars Ben 10: Alien Force King of th e HillTOON < Treasure Hunter: Kirsten Gum In vestigations of the Unexplained Ghost Adventures Most Haunted >TRAV
    • 6. TV is…» Overextended  Too many channels  Too much debt» Losing ad share» Competing with New Media  Web time is rivaling TV time
    • 7. The Recession has…» Removed slots that were once commissioned.» Increased acquisition slots.» Reduced commissioned budgets.  More library titles, fewer originals.  More reality, less scripted.  More repeats, fewer hours.
    • 8. Fox Is cutting down it’s Prime Time hours 7:00 p.m. 7:30 p.m. 8:00 p.m. 8:30 p.m. 9:00 p.m. 9:30 p.m. American Dad! Sunday King of the Hill (R) The Simpsons King of the Hill Family Guy American Dad! (R) Monday House 24 Tuesday American Idol FringeWe dnesday Lie to Me American Idol Local Programming Thursda y Bones Hells Kitche n Friday Terminat or: The Sarah Conn or Chronicles / Prison Break (4/2 4) Dollho use S a turday COPS COPS Americas Most Wanted: America Fights Back
    • 9. CBC Is flirting with Narrowcasting 7:00 PM 7:30 PM 8:00 PM 8:30 PM 9:00 PM 9:30 PM 10:00 PM 10:30 PM Sunday Heartlan d Movies and Specia ls CBC News: Sunda y Night Little Mosque onMonday Soph ie Just For Laughs the Prairie This Hour Has 22Tuesday Rick Mercer Report Wild Roses Minutes Corona tion Street Jeopardy! The Nationa lWe dnes d The Week The Women Went Being Erica ayThursda y The Nature of Things Doc Zone Friday Rick Mercer Report Market place the fifth estateS a turday Hockey Night in Canad a
    • 10. The Changing Schedule» What Schedule?» Look for shrinkage in TV providers.» Look for remakes.» Look for “Next Gen” shows  Mixed genres like:  Big Dreams, The Locator, Someone’s Gotta Go.» “Big” programming from Big players.  Dramatic serials & “must-see shows”  Summer Miniseries (BBC, etc.)
    • 11. TV Audiences are Roaming» TV is on the Web:  It’s TV - financed and 100% network dependent.  10 minutes average viewing. (<200,000 viewers)  Testing vs. Watching.  Active Grazing.» The web is on the TV.  The PVR, digital set-tops.» Mobile programming: ADD bits.» The New Broadcasters.  Beyond aggregating UGC
    • 12. But:» Broadcasters still have to fill slots.» So do unconventional ‘casters.» TV is still viewed in massive numbers  On the web  On the PVR  Via Rentals and Sales» Still dwarfing the web on revenue.  Social Networks: $2.5B Chats $450M  Games: $1.2B Casual Games $2.25B  NBC Alone: $14.7B, Profit: 4.43B (2008)
    • 13. Opportunities are still there» New Broadcasters.» TV is a unique experience & so is interactive.» TV will not disappear.» TV will focus on what it does best:  Time-based programming, such as: » Sports, news, politics, celebrity, fashion » Real-time reality shows. » Shared events: up close and slick.  Sitcoms…  Dramatic series
    • 14. So Why Isn’t it Easier?» Financing has become harder.» Distribution has contracted.» Competition is raising the bar.» Buyers are more cautious.  Harder to break in.  Tried and trusted have the edge.» Bigger, better, fresher is the rage.  You’ve got to be original.» Who said it was ever easy?
    • 15. Broadcasting is a business not a platform.» They are all about making money.» It’s NOT about you. It’s about THEM.» Pitch right. 2 approaches:  Target the network to fit your product  Look for the product to fill the network.» Connect with your buyer.  Your first pitch is an introduction.  Remember John Kennedy.
    • 16. What The Broadcaster Wants» Eyeballs  Must-see TV: » Passion & POV. » Episodic scripted drama & comedy series that resonate. Zeitgeist shows. » Low-cost/high-concept reality. » Talk, with must-see guests. » High-draw sports on it’s target’s radar. » News. » New formats.
    • 17. The Other Thing The Broadcaster Wants» Savings  Cost-effective programming » Reality TV » UGC on their websites » “Controlled” scripted programs  Fewer characters  Fewer sets  Fewer set-ups  Still watchable  Eg: In Treatment.
    • 18. The Creative: What the Broadcaster Can’t Live Without.» Fresh, Innovative, resonant.» Finance-able.» Execute-able.» Solid.
    • 19. Series Design» Focus on “our people”» Test the central characters» Build bonds not conflicts» Build the net of character, place & world» Tell the story through the prism of the tone.» The rest is just action.
    • 20. What’s in your pitch?» Series: a description of the web:  A pitch isn’t an idea. It requires:  Character dynamics & backgrounds. » Who are we going to watch do what?  The world of the series: Where are we?  The possibilities: What can happen?  The point of view: What will it say?  The tone: How will it be told?  The slot: Where will it fit?» Long form: The story and it’s characters.
    • 21. Pitching» Hone your pitch.  Pitch it to the intended audience!» Deliver the essence of it in one line.  Ensure that the POV & tone can be heard.» Be prepared to answer any question about the characters, the concept.» Know how a typical episode will unfold.» Be brief.
    • 22. What This Broadcaster Saw» Like-a-shows. No POV, no passion, no ideals, no characters.» Edutainment. Good for you TV.» A lot of stuff that fit the old CBC. (The Beachcombers II?)» CBC - Fix shows. “I can beat X show” is better than “you guys stink”.
    • 23. What This Broadcaster Didn’t See» Things that were really entertaining.» Motivated characters.» Things that worked really hard.» Things that broke new ground.» Exceptions: Wonderland, The Newsroom, Dragon Boys, DaVinci’s Inquest, Human Cargo, Fungus The Bogeyman, etc.
    • 24. Why Series?» We get to live in other people’s lives.» We become intimate with heroes, not “normal” people.» We prefer the ideal over the real.» Reality is a curiosity; Ideal is necessary.» We experience grandeur and challenge.» We sharpen & invigorate our dreams.» To make live more tolerable, productive, joyful.
    • 25. Development» <4% of pitches get developed.» ~4% of those are produced.» The process is slow.» Interest = $  Rule of Thumb: Silence is "no”» Process: budget, writer, collaboration.» Development is their low risk phase.» Smaller budgets, fewer scripts, more failures.
    • 26. The ExecutionJust to be considered:  Who’s on your team?  What have they done?  Why are they right?» Who are your writers? Cast?  Same questions.» Who will guarantee that the script is delivered as we imagine it?  The EP. The Cast. The Director. Designer, PM
    • 27. The Financing Anyone have $19M for a PT series?» The trigger.  The broadcast letter.» Decision time takes too long.» The Funds, Tax Credits, Distribution.  CMF, Cogeco, Shaw, etc.» Co-production.  US, UK, RSA, Ireland, etc.» Downgrading.
    • 28. What the TV Producer Needs To Do» Get many irons in the fire.» If you get in development, learn how to listen to what the broadcaster says.» Stay with your show if you get a green light.  Time to do something with your other irons.» Look at what you can do on the web.  A low budget/great script can play there.
    • 29. It’s a Hit!» It’s hard to keep a show on air!  Competition  Promotion  Boredom» Remember that the genius is the show!  You WILL get bored.  But is the audience loving it?  If so, keep delivering the show.  Don’t do what they did to “Moonlighting”

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