5 Ways to Make Sure Your Television Idea Will Sell

by Ken Miyamoto on March 11, 2016

Laurie Scheer has been a television industry d-girl, producer (ABC, Viacom, Showtime, and AMC), and network executive (former Vice President of programming for WE). She is currently a media consultant, author, and director of a major writers’ conference. Her latest bookThe Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre addresses storytelling and pitching for our 21st century transmedia marketplace. Learn more about her HERE

A very long time ago a great writer named William Goldman said “Nobody knows anything... not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one” within his seminal publication entitled Adventures in the Screen Trade. He was speaking of the film industry but this statement continues to apply to the film, television, and digital entertainment industries alike.

I can assure you that all television — broadcast, cable and streaming networks — development departments would be at a loss to answer your question “What are you looking for?” directly. In fact, never ask them that question — just know that they are looking for content that is going to bring their network more money, more publicity, more viewers/consumers than ever before and more viewers/consumers than their competitors. It’s that easy to understand.

Now, how do you provide them with ideas they’ll want to buy?

1. Tell them that you have THE series idea that will put their network on the map

Back in the beginning days of cable, if a show became popular it was known as a “flagship” show, meaning that it would be the main show that would carry the rest of the programming for a network. Think Talk Soup for E!, The Real World for MTV and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for Bravo to name just a random few.

These shows were so liked that they defined the networks themselves. Rest assured that the network executives did not always consciously plan this. Most network development — especially cable and digital networks — is a process of let’s throw the pizza dough on the wall and see what sticks. In other words, make a few episodes and if there’s a buzz, then we’ll make more.

2. Revive and put a spin on a genre

Broadcast networks are always looking for ideas that will appeal to all demographics. They know that certain genres such as police/detective procedurals, crime/mystery thrillers, youth-driven sit-coms and the occasional breakout series, such as Empire on Fox, have the potential to play to many different eyeballs.

If you look at the basic concept of Empire, it is just a prime-time soap opera in the vein of the old-school 80’s hit Dynasty, but instead of taking place in the big oil industry, it takes place in the contemporary music industry. Smart idea — let’s take a tried and true format and bring it up to date for the diverse audiences that are currently watching television content.

What are some other past prime-time (and daytime) soap operas that could be revived with a spin?

3. Punch up the “wow” factor

We’ve seen just about everything on television these days. Certain shows have been signposts in the past few decades that have paved the way for the current marketplace — South Park (pushing the envelope of sophomoric humor with social commentary), Will & Grace (introducing gay characters into the mainstream), The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad (introducing leading men as flawed anti-hero characters), The Wire, Orange is the New Black (taking the audience into the special worlds of prison), etc.

All of these are examples of shows that broke new ground when they first appeared and established themselves as key series with many others that followed in their paths. Each revealed some new element to the formats that audiences were watching yet today no one blinks at flawed characters, raunchy humor or scenes of gay sex — in fact, audiences have said they want more of these types of realistic scenarios in their television entertainment.

4. Catch on to the coattails of a hot trend

Let’s face it, superhero and comic book heroes have been starring at our local theaters for some years now. There has always been a fascination with this world and the networks have jumped on and off that train the past few decades. Some of these shows do well, others not so much.

Nonetheless, networks develop superhero shows such as The Flash, and the most recent Supergirl from time to time. This is an example of how the networks trail what the box office is up to.

5. Keep producing what is working for them

It is a fact that if a series is doing well, network executives will be looking for similar programming. The wildly successful 10-part documentary Making a Murderer on Netflix has already announced more episodes and many new crime-investigation and justice-system stories are being developed on all networks as a result of its success.

Does your idea fit into a traditional drama or sit-com format? Does your idea introduce something new to the television landscape? Do you feel that you have an idea that is straight out of some other media arena (like a new spin on the superhero genre)?
Or maybe you have created something entirely new and authentic? Bravo to any and all of these types of ideas.

Use these little insider secrets to your advantage and make those production and network executives see that your idea is what they need for their network.

Be prepared. You’ll need to do a little research.

Track your genre — what has been done and what hasn't?

Track the production company or the network — what have they been doing regarding their programming and has it been working? If it has, you can either join them in their latest trends or introduce something new.

The main thing is that you’ll be able to know that your idea will sell because you’ve done this work. You tell them that your idea is right for them right now. That’s how you know your idea will sell because remember, nobody knows anything and you’re not just pitching — you’re telling them what they need.

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