Reality Shows - From Pitch To Pilot
Mark Cronin (Founder & Producer) gives expert video advice on: What is a reality show 'pilot'?; Does a network ever buy a show without making a pilot?; Should I put my own money into producing a reality show pilot or series? and more...
If a network likes a reality show pitch, what is the next step?
After you've pitched your reality show, if you're going to the next step, there are a lot of different possible next steps. It could be that they want a treatment, meaning that they'll pay you a little bit of money to actually write it up and describe to them what all the episodes are going to be like, or how you would produce it, or do basically a written document of what you imagine the full television show would be. This is much more detail than you could get in a little pitch reading. Another next step might be past that one and right into: "You know what? We'll give you fifty thousand dollars, or ten thousand dollars, to do some tape of that concept." That happens when you're trying to pitch, for example, a funny workplace-based reality show. For example, "I've got this motorcycle shop, and the people who make the motorcycles are crazy, kooky people. They're so funny, and it's this great reality show. It's the relationship with a father and son that is so conflicted, and it's really interesting." You can get the network all excited verbally, but they will probably say to you, "That sounds so great that I'm going to give you ten thousand dollars. You come back with a tape of these people and show me who these people are, and what they're like in real life at the motorcycle shop."
What is a reality show 'pilot'?
A reality show pilot can take several forms. If it's a game show, it's probably an episode of the game show from start to finish. The pilot is usually a little lower budget than the real series would be, so the set's not quite as nice, and the graphics aren't as nice, and you may have not found the perfect host yet, so you've got somebody filling in. There might be aspects to the reality show that aren't what the real show would look like, but the closer you can get your pilot to what you actually envision the real television show to be, the better for you. It's better to have the right host. It's better to have good graphics. It's better to have the nice-looking set. But it's understood that you may not have all those things because the pilot is lower-cost, and it's meant to be a demonstration of an episode, a sample episode of the show, in the case of a game show. Recently I've been doing pilots for my customers in which I lay out the entire ten-episode series in one half-hour presentation. I'll shoot for three days in a house with fake contestants and fake games and fake challenges and fake elimination ceremonies. In three days I'll take the show from the twenty initial contestants to the one winner, and show, through a narrator, what the network will be buying in all ten episodes that they're buying. I actually do a full season pilot for the reality show. It's not super-common, but it does happen that way. Most often a pilot is a sample episode, and in that subset it's the sample first episode.
Does a network ever buy a show without making a pilot?
A network will rarely buy a reality show without a pilot. Usually when it happens, it's because they have no choice. Examples of that are when you're in a competitive pitching situation where you've got something so unique and interesting that everybody wants it. Because multiple networks want the reality show, you can leverage them until you get somebody to say, "I want it so much, I'm going right to series. A recent example of that might be with David Beckham and his wife, who have just moved to the United States. Everybody wanted the show, so they didn't have to do a pilot. It was simple. The network that won that show simply committed to doing it as a series, trusting that they're big enough and interesting enough stars that they'll get their money's worth going right to series and not wasting time to do pilots and all of that.
Do reality show pilots make it onto TV?
I've never done a pilot where I didn't learn something and then made changes to the final reality show series. Very rarely do you want to even air the pilot because it's somehow different. It's got a different set, or it's got a different look to it, or it's got a different feel to it, or something's wrong. Occasionally a pilot will air. Usually this happens in game shows, and occasionally with talk shows. If that the pilot had the same host that the series has, and had a great guest, there's no reason not to make it into a real episode. That occasionally will happen, but most often, reality show pilots will not air.
What is a reality show 'sizzle reel'?
A reality show sizzle reel is just a fast moving presentation of something. You're trying to sell something, really. It's another sales tool. Often it's used in terms of a talent, when you want somebody to think that you've got the hottest talent out there. For example, if it's a musician and they've got 15 number one hits, big Grammys, and big videos. You want to cram everything into this fast moving five minutes that cause a network to think, "That's the biggest star I've ever seen in my life because look at all those number one hits and Grammys and movies they've made. That's a big star." That's a sizzle reel in reality television. It's exciting and under five minutes - possibly under three to two minute - with just a barrage, trying to convince somebody of something.
What makes a successful reality show pilot?
Who and how is this reality show pilot going to be evaluated? Who is the audience for your pilot? If the audience is a focus group, my advice is: don't do too many ground-breaking things in your pilot. Give them something so that they understand what it is right off the bat, with a simple premise, a simple concept or a simple presentation. If your audience for the reality show pilot is simply a roomful of network executives, presidents of networks and things like that, you can be a little bit more creative and splashy. They're usually used to seeing a lot of similar pilots, and so if yours stands out, then that's where you want to get creative. You have to know who's evaluating your pilot to determine what's going to make it successful.
Should I put my own money into producing a reality show pilot or series?
There is another way a reality television show can get funded, and that is from a big, giant conglomerate entertainment company. They may deficit the show, meaning that they pay for the production, or half of the production cost, and the network pays the other half. The reason a company would want to pay to produce their own show is so they could own it, and sell it overseas, and sell the DVD, and make the spin-off movie. There are a lot of reasons why you might want to own it. My advice to anybody new in the reality television business is don't even try any of that. Get your show completely funded by your network, and deliver your show and go the traditional route, until you become a big enough player that owning the show could mean something. Because the truth is, if you're new in the business, owning your show is meaningless. You will not be able to exploit it, as a novice in this business. You will not be able to sell overseas rights. You won't know how. Honestly, if you don't have a hit show, nobody wants it overseas anyway. You're only going to get a hit reality show if you sell it on a network. My advice is to sell the show, take the funding from other people, and don't use your own money. I never use my own money, even to make a pilot or a presentation. I feel like if it's a good enough idea, somebody will pay you to make it. The people who pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into their own pilots are really wasting their time.
Is the amount of funding given for a reality show pilot negotiable?
If you're lucky enough to sell a reality show pilot or a TV series, everything is negotiable. The budget is negotiable, within limits. Small networks, little cable networks, have less money to spend, but occasionally they will stretch their own history and they will pay more for a pilot or series than they have ever paid before, but it's usually not that big a quantum leap; it's just a little bit more. If you are at a big network, one of the big four or five networks, you may get a lot more money. In fact, that's the way to get the most money for your reality show. But it is always negotiable; every show is looked at uniquely, every show has its own particular production issues or things that might make it more or less expensive. For example, some reality shows come with an A list star attached, and that A list star equals money. The network is going to have to pay for that person to come and do the television show and be on their show, so they know that's going to be more expensive. Some shows are expensive to produce because they have to be done in an airplane traveling the world. That's going to be a more expensive show to do than one shot in a house. What the reality show is helps to determine what the budget is and you can always negotiate. There is always some way, depending on how much leverage you have with the network.
If a network produces a pilot for my show, does that mean I've sold my show?
Every network is different in the number of pilots that they do versus the number of series that eventually go. Some little networks do very few pilots and buy almost everything they pilot. That's usually rare. Most networks buy a lot of pilots to buy actually very few reality TV shows. In general, I'd say the ratio is probably ten to one.