How to pitch a winning programme proposal

How do you get a great programme idea out of your head and onto paper?

Chris Loughlin was an Executive Producer at BBC Religion responsible for many high profile TV shows. He has advice on how to turn your idea into a commission.

As a programme-maker I’ve often sat late into the dying light with fellow creatives, contemplating how to encapsulate the brilliance of our latest TV proposition in mere words. As an Executive Producer I’ve also sat on the other side of the table while producers tried to persuade me of their stunning film idea, while I tried not to wonder too much about whether I should have the curry for lunch or go for the healthier salad option. I also have the benefit of having been sent (by the BBC) to be trained in how to sell a programme idea. The course was run by a former double-glazing salesman with a huge gold watch– so we figured he knew what he was talking about.

Hence – I offer you some thoughts from both sides of the fence to ponder en route to that winning proposal.

Good ideas don’t necessarily sell

I’ve turned down lots of good ideas – not because they weren’t that good, but because they weren’t the kind of good ideas I was looking for at the time. Your idea is only REALLY good if it solves a current problem for the commissioner.

Get the basics right.

If your programme proposal is badly presented, the commissioner will probably assume you’ll be sloppy in your programme-making too. So use your spell checker. If you’re dyslexic or terrified of grammar, phone a friend or ask someone to proof read for you. Don’t get fancy with the graphic design, unless you know you’re good at it. Stick to one clear font and leave lots of white space on the page.

Know your controller

Find out everything you can about the person who you’re selling your idea to. What kind of programmes do they like? What have they commissioned before? Who are their favourite directors? What do they have for breakfast? What keeps them awake at night? Then in your writing and your development thinking – be very conscious of them as your customer. What can you do for them? Are they looking for more 16-25 year olds in the audience? Make sure your pitch shows how that will happen. They’re looking for more family shows? That’s what you have to write into your proposal. Don’t be too proud to shape your idea to needs of the channel or the controller – or you will wait a very long time for a green light.

Short is good

My father had a pre-meal blessing which went: “3 words good as 10. Tuck in. Amen.” It may not have the poetry of Shakespeare, but it the food was hotter and tasted better than when my Father-in-law delivered one of his rambling 2 minute blessings. Remember that when you write a proposal. Use headlines. Use pictures. Don’t repeat. A busy controller is more likely to read 3 tight paragraphs than 3 pages of dense 12pt Ariel Black. If you need more 2/3 of a page to sell your idea – it’s probably too long. So leave them wanting more. If they’re excited they’ll ask for it. If they’re not grabbed by the time they’ve got half way down page 1 – then frankly you’re sunk anyway.

Know the audience

The commissioner will eat, sleep and drink information about their channel. If you don’t know what their current challenges and needs are – then you’re on dangerous ground. But you may also know something about the audience that they don’t. So have statistics to show just how many of the audience are desperate for more on 16th century sporting rituals (or whatever you’re selling). Come up with some surprises if you can. (Did you know 20% of Atheists pray regularly?) But show them you know the audience and have their interests at the heart of your proposal.

Don’t fall in love with your idea!

Love is blind. When you’ve written; re-written; and slimmed it down to what you think is perfection, get someone else to read your proposal and see if it grabs them. Your mother / aunt / brother who owes you money – are not the best options for this as they’re unlikely to feel entirely free to tell you if the opening paragraph is incomprehensible. Ideally find someone who’s not at all like you – and unafraid to speak their mind. You can always ignore their opinions – but they MIGHT just have a point..!

Try recycling

If one commissioner is foolish enough to turn down your idea, don’t give up. It may work for another channel. But don’t just cut and paste your proposal. It will need to be adapted and re-written so that it fits the audience and the new commissioner’s needs.

Finally – as the poet said: “Nil illegitimi carborundum”. However brilliant your idea, however brilliantly written your programme proposal, however talented you are – you’ll likely end up banging your head on quite a few brick walls. Just remember, someone turned down the Beatles. A lot of publishers turned down JK Rowling. Someone once told me I’d never be any good as a TV producer. But that was just a lucky guess. And if it’s any additional consolation – quite a few terrible ideas get commissioned too. So there’s hope for all of us… Good luck!