Reality TV programs are for the most part unique stories, stunts, or social experiments reflecting our world.
Now, with the Internet connecting Producers to the rest of the world, Reality Television has become the most viable genre for new Writers, Creators and everyday people with great ideas to break into the Industry. Producers look for interesting subjects, people, professions, and original formats to purchase and produce as new shows. No longer can Producers be limited by their own development team. They must reach out to outsiders who can create and deliver unique concepts for TV.
We are witnessing the renaissance of the Hollywood system with many producing deals being landed by new concept creators, and several projects produced and broadcast globally on major networks.
When you first set out to create a reality TV show idea to pitch, you’re going to propose either a formatted concept, or a documentary style concept.
A format has a specific structure that takes place in each episode and provokes dramatic or compelling competition, typically resulting in one person winning. “Survivor”, “Top Chef”, “Wipe Out”, and “The Bachelor” are all competition formats, each with a different structure and premise. One is about survival, another is about cooking, another is about stunts, and the other is about romance and relationships. “Survivor” pits all contestants against each other, with one person voted off each week by the group as a whole. “The Bachelor” has contestants competing for a relationship with one or more voted off each week by the star of the show. “Top Chef” has contestants competing each week, with judging and eliminations done by “Experts”. Each of those series evolves and progresses over the course of a season (an Arc). “Wipe Out” is a straight competition series with the fastest finisher winning the show in each episode. The series has “self contained episodes”, with new contestants and challenges each show. This is similar to “Fear Factor”, with both shows translating well for syndication because viewers don’t have to follow the progression of a story and competition over multiple episodes.
A Format will be set within either a “Self Contained” or “Arc Series”.
“Self Contained” means that each episode has a structure and story that concludes within itself. It doesn’t evolve to continue in the next episode. Syndicators like this type of format because they can air any block of episodes without needing the audience to follow a longer story arc. Some great examples of Self Contained series would include “Fear Factor”, “Extreme Makeover”, “American Pickers”, “Hotel Impossible”, “Wife Swap” or “Undercover Boss”. In “Undercover Boss”, for example, each episode follows a new company CEO where he goes undercover in his or her own company, learns how hard the job is, learns the personal stories and struggles of the employees, discovers fundamental problems with the business, then ultimately reveals his or her identity to the employees and gives them each a surprise “gift” that relates to their personal and/or professional challenges.
An “Arc Series” may still have structured episodes with key moments, but overall there will be an arc that evolves to a final conclusion (winner, or revelation). “Survivor” is perhaps the most popular example. In each episode there are challenges participants face to win immunity, along with personal conflicts and strategies building between participants, all leading to a vote for elimination. The episodes progress and evolve with the participants dwindling, and personality conflicts and tactics becoming more intense as it concludes with one lone survivor as winner. “The Bachelor” follows a similar format. The structure of each episode includes following the Bachelor on dates he’s paired with, and the giving of roses to all except the one he eliminates. This all progress to later episodes in the season where large format elements come into play when he goes to meet the families of each of the final few women he’s considering. The final episode typically involves the final two women meeting him separately, not knowing if the other has been eliminated, and learning if the Bachelor has chosen to pursue a life with them. These are dramas fueled by a format with ingredients that always entertains.
Docu-style reality series are finding unmatched success with Networks right now, and this is perhaps the most viable sub-genre for new Creators to pitch and sell as a reality TV series. Producers look for unique “worlds” and “characters” in real life that are entertaining and interesting to watch. This can be a unique profession or business, an odd or funny family, a certain lifestyle, a social club, real people on an adventure, or any area of our lives that may be interesting to watch. And they can be pitched by anyone. Reality docu-style series ideas has been sold by Housewives/Mothers, Car Salesmen, Plumbers, Tire Salesman, Magicians, Doctors, Lawyers, Air Traffic Controllers, Performers, Process Servers, and other “real” people from outside the Hollywood system. They were either the subject for the show, or they had access to a subject for a show. None of them had any formal training or experience as a creative writer. They simply pitched the unique aspects and scenarios of their proposed idea, and Producers were able to see the entertainment value. Given the right subject, people, and approach, the Production Company knew they could sell a Network.
Here’s one trick in helping identify potential subjects for docu-style series- They are essentially Sitcoms and Drama Series’. Regardless of the genre, it is always and only about “Story”. “Duck Dynasty” could also be a great premise for a sitcom. “Deadliest Catch” could be the premise of a great drama series. So when you look at your world and the world around you, look for areas of activity and people that generate incredible moments and stories. And remember, it’s not all about drama. Humor goes a long way in any pitch, and we’ve all seen the success that an odd or funny family can find on television.
Pitching a reality TV idea starts with communicating a Title, Logline, and Synopsis. This applies to all formats of reality-based ideas. The title should hit on what we’re seeing, but may be a play on words. It can be as simple as “The Restaurant”, or clever as “Around The World In Eighty Dates”. It needs to give a direct clue as to the subject we’re watching. Movies can have obscure or ambiguous titles, but television is an advertisers medium that demands quick capture of attention, so the viewer knows generally what the show may be about. Loglines are perhaps the most important aspect of pitching. A logline is the short pitch that communicates the high-concept of the show in one or two sentences. Any Producer reading a pitch for a reality TV series needs the logline to tell the unique premise and agenda of the concept. Too often new writers will create a logline that reads more like a movie tagline, hitting on themes or general ideas. For a TV Logline, the writer needs to be more specific about communicating what we’re actually watching. What is the premise, and what is the plight? Keep it simple and clear. Once you establish that your logline tells what what the show is, then you can refine it to read in a more clever style. Visit our page on Creating Loglines that Sell to learn more.
Writing a Synopsis for a reality TV show pitch is all about communicating the unique and important moments in the show, in a very efficient and original manner. This is where you establish your originality of the format and content proposed. Communicate what we’re potentially watching, detailing the progression of story or format beat for beat. A Reality TV Show Pitch may be 1 to 4 pages long, depending on the concept. In a docu-style series pitch, you’re pitching that specific world, and the unique people involved. The first paragraph should be about the main character, their situation, and what they do. Then expand into the details of their daily challenges, and the most interesting events or circumstances they may encounter. Remember, what is filmed in the series hasn’t happened yet, so you need to first talk about what makes the subject interesting, but quickly get into proposed scenarios and events that are likely to unfold. You’re pitching “proposed content”, based on the real activities and lives of those involved.
If you’re writing a pitch for a reality TV format (competition, elimination, or other variation), then you’re writing a very clear step-by-step overview of how the series progresses. Often new writers will get bogged down with paragraphs and pages of writing that is “justifying” or “educating” the reader on why the idea works, but in fact isn’t telling us specifically what we’re seeing unfold in the show. Example; Don’t spend a page telling us about the chemistry or conflict that contestants will face in the relationship series you’re pitching. Instead, describe the specific moments of decision and ultimatums that create that chemistry and conflict. Those are the moments that captivate us, and propel the show. Those are the moments that Producers create and control to deliver that end result of “chemistry” and “conflict”.
Another important technical skill to keep in mind when creating your pitch for a reality show is to be efficient in your writing. Good writers may also get caught up in writing too many descriptive passages or expository writing simply because they’re good at writing, and they feel they have to hammer a point home by describing it in more detail and length. Here’s the golden rule; If it takes a page to describe, cut it down to a long paragraph. If it takes a long paragraph to make the point, cut it down to one or two sentences. When you hit it hard and efficient, you make impact, and then you move to the next beat in the show. This keeps the reader engaged. Especially if a Producer reading your pitch is already sold on the concept, they don’t want to be turned off by having to read a lengthy section that isn’t moving the story or format forward.
When a Production Company wants to buy your idea for a new reality series, know what you can ask for. We always recommend having an experienced entertainment attorney negotiate any deal on your behalf, but its also very important to know what to expect, and what Production Companies may be willing to give. Assuming you’re a new Writer/Creator, and your concept is being “Optioned” by a Production Company who will then sell the show to a Network, here’s what to look for. You should expect some form of Producer credit. This may be Consulting Producer, Co-Producer, or similar. A “Created by” credit is also appropriate as you are the original creator of the unique concept. Often a creator will also share such credit with certain parties at the Production Company since they’re the entity physically creating the show. So be open to a “Co-Creator” or shared “Created by” credit. As such, you should require a “Per Episode Fee”. This may be a percentage of the per episode budget, or it may be a flat fee. How much financial success you’ll gain from selling a TV show idea, depends on the success of the show.
Production Companies always hope for additional seasons ordered, and successful ratings will equate to bumps in fees and residual income. Another thing to keep in mind is that a Production Company may be successful in selling the project to multiple countries and varying networks. Make sure your deal applies to any network or third party broadcaster sale, and that a different network equals a different run of fees.
Often we’re asked, “When is pitching season for new reality shows?” The great news is that there is no specific or limited period when Producers secure new TV show ideas for development. They scout year-round, every day of the week, and even on vacations when they still have time to review new projects. Of course there are specific events in the industry that take place annually, where Production Companies debut their new projects for sale to broadcasters, but at the point of creating and selling a reality show idea to Producers, it is a process and period that doesn’t end. They buy projects all the time. We appreciate the dedication and creative drive that so many of our members have, and we look forward to assisting all new writers in the process of creating and pitching new reality TV shows to top Producers in the television industry.
Can I sell a show with a written pitch, or do I need a produced reel? Either or both. Each is a specific and fundamental element in developing and selling a series, but you can’t produce a proof-of-concept reel if you don’t have a clear plan, and a production company considering your idea won’t invest their time and resources if they don’t know specifically what the potential content is that you’re pitching. It all starts with a solid written pitch that gives clear information on the unique premise of your show, its agenda, and potential content. This may include details about the subject being covered, the personalities involved, descriptions of access to people or places, or any specific format the show would follow in an episode or season arc. You’re pitching the potential content based on specific components that together make an original TV show. This helps any production company purchasing your project understand what, why and how of producing any pilot or presentation tape to a Network. Its also important to know that many production companies will pre-sell a pitch to the network with hope of getting the Network to finance the pilot or proof-of-concept reel.
What is important to understand is that there are many stages of development- each capable of being the catalyst for selling the show. Depending on what stage a person comes into the fold will determine where their interests are. None can deny the necessity of the other. The most important goal is the task of setting up your TV pitch with a production company who has the best shot at getting a series order from a Network and who has strong ties to major outlets. Those companies have deep history with many networks and the right resources and connections to package and deliver a project to the Networks who has confidence that they can deliver a series at a high level of quality, on time, and on budget.
Following was the process for each of the individuals who sold their ideas and saw them produced and broadcast globally
- They wrote a great pitch communicating the potential content we would be watching in the series.
- They signed deals with production companies based on those proposals.
- The production companies funded proof-of-concept “sizzle reels” produced for the Network.
- The production companies sold the series to major outlets including Lifetime TV, Discovery Channel, SyFy, A&E and others.
- Those networks ordered and financed production for multiple installments of the series, which ultimately aired globally.
The Future of Reality Television
The creators and producers of Reality TV are people that think “outside the box” to begin with, and many have been vocal in explaining that the genre of reality programming only broadens the possibilities of various forms of hybrid shows, which we’ve witnessed consistently. There has always been an appetite for event-type programming. And when real people are involved, viewers will watch with the same addictive appetite as those who are hooked on soap operas. What’s more powerful in even the highly formatted reality-based programming with situations that are set up and driven to deliver a result for content, we are still watching people with real emotions in circumstances that create real drama.
As long as we continue to be fascinated with the human condition, and have an appetite for entertainment, there will always be some evolving format of a reality show. We’ve also seen the evolution of documentary-style programming with hit cable shows becoming extremely popular. The viewing audiences’ appetite for experiencing lives and worlds they’d otherwise never know or see in their own reality is what pulls them to these programs.
Producers are reaching out to discover real people with fascinating lives, businesses, and families to create and produce as new shows. People are now pitching their own lives as reality-based programs, and many are succeeding. We feel that as long as people have passion, and a drive to create, prosper, and pursue adventure, there will always be original reality TV programming.
We welcome anyone with a unique idea for a television show to register and submit a new project in our marketplace.
Submissions are now open for The Write Project!