Getting the greenlight for a TV show can be an uphill struggle. Jon Creamer asks five heads of development at leading indies about generating programme ideas, building them and selling them

Every indie with a successful show on screen, even a long running international hit, knows that nothing lasts forever. The ratings winners of today will one day run out of steam and be cancelled.
Indies need to keep up the push to generate and develop new ideas or lose momentum and come to a dead stop. So all indies have to make sure they aren’t just sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike.

The development team is charged with creating a system, or an environment where programme ideas are constantly generated, thought through, tested, pitched, and hopefully, commissioned. But in straitened times, broadcasters are expecting ideas to be worked up to a much greater extent than in the past before they’ll sign on the dotted line.

So the journey to the pitch, and to the greenlight, is getting longer with indies having to put more work into making sure their programme ideas will get the crucial second tick from the channel controller.

But there is no one way to generate ideas or develop them. Much depends on the channel, the programme, the target audience and of course, the genre. All indies take their main cues from briefings with commissioning editors, but they also need to listen to what the commissioners want, but then try to come back to them with something that they weren’t quite expecting. Or come back to them with something they didn’t even know they wanted in the first place.

Paul Woolf
Maverick tv
head of development

We use a variety of ways of generating ideas. We’ll work on generating ideas as a full team, sometimes break into smaller groups or we might ask people to think individually.  Sometimes a commissioner needs an idea on particular topic, or we might decide there’s a gap in the market for a particular type of show and then brainstorm that. Everyone on the team is drawing from different sources – the newspapers they read, the social media they use, the friends they have. We have access to bits of market research and information about audiences and we definitely draw on those but they tend to inform the way we shape ideas rather than the way we source ideas.

Often development works best when it feels like a creative collaboration with commissioning editors. We’re responding to their steers as well as taking them ideas we’ve generated without their input. What doesn’t work well is when you go back to the commissioning editor and almost repeat their brief to them. Commissioning editors are capable of coming up with their own ideas so we’re not doing our job if what we go back with is so generic that they could get it from any company they talk to about it. Our job is to marry their brief with what Maverick does well, so we go back to them with something fairly unique. Part of our job is also to figure out what might work well in six months or a year’s time when the programme we’re hopefully going to make for them is on air. It’s about thinking ahead and trying not to repeat what’s working on the channel at the moment.

Caroline Hollick
Red production company
head of development

The ideal way [to generate ideas] is for a writer to come to you with an idea they passionately want to write. But in a changing market, with so many new channels and other production companies and so many people to compete for the writers’ time we have started generating our own ideas in house too. The easiest ideas to generate in house tend to have a factual basis. The very good writers are very busy and the more you can do for them in advance the more you might be able to make them think ‘I see the story in that’ rather than, ‘Oh God! I see six months of research.’

Often one of the department will go through every series on TV to see which writers they liked. We talk a lot to the Royal Exchange about up and coming playwrights. With new writers it’s a long-term game. You’re unlikely to get a brand new writer a TV series but you want to start the relationship and be supportive and talk to them about how television works and hopefully, when they 
have the clout to move into television, you’ve got a relationship with them so they’ll come back to work with you.

We have a big slate which has projects on it in different sections from those about to go into production down to two lines from a writer we’re in discussion with. We also have a whole rejected section, nothing ever goes off it. We go through that often as there are plenty of projects that we have made that have been six or seven years in the development process so they’ve probably been rejected quite a few times.

Dom Waugh
Remarkable Television
Head of development

The bread and butter of our pitching comes from commissioner briefs. Development is a strange place to be when you have a blank page. You end up thinking up ways to give yourself boundaries in which to work otherwise you get slightly lost. Even if you come up with a concept out of the blue you still need to say that’s a nice thought but what if it was for C4 at 8pm or BBC1 at 9pm? How would that affect what you’re doing? It’s about knowing the audiences coming to that channel and how the idea will be affected by that.

Gameshows are quite self referential. You want to bring something new to the table so that people get excited but if you went completely off piste it would be hard for audiences to take in what’s going on as there’s such a grammar that runs through them. There has to be  cosiness and a familiarity.

You find out with game shows quite quickly what doesn’t work. You can have what you think is a great idea and within a week it falls flat on its face because of a format point. You need those moments of jeopardy and entertainment but sometimes, even though it sounded like a good idea, when you run it through it’s really boring. Game shows aren’t worth the paper they’re written on until someone’s seen the run through. We spend a lot of time talking to the commissioner throughout the process of development but you have to do the run through for them. If you just sat down and wrote a pitch document for a game show it reads more like an instruction manual.

Juliet Denison
head of development

The most important thing is to put together a good team. It’s also about not keeping them forever. That sets us apart from other genres with longer development periods or more research based development. The team I’ve got now will not be the same team in five months because after you get to know each other you bring things to the conversation that you know someone else is going to like or laugh at so you’re almost self editing. Even though it’s a real pain when you’ve got a lovely team, I always make myself do that because it works for us. A lot of people come back but then they’re working with different people so you’re always looking for a different dynamic.

Commissioners are the ones with the big picture not just in terms of that channel and what the brand values are or what the slots are or even just the personalities of the people they work for. If you know that what you take away from that meeting with the commissioner is crucial, you get better at asking questions that are not just ‘what do you want?’ It’s about discovering what’s worked for them, why do they think it has worked, what’s at the heart of that successful show, what were the insights about the audience that they learned? It’s about asking around what they want. It’s lazy to say ‘what do you want?’ It’s up to us to try to solve that problem. Most of the channels do a lot of research and it’s about trying to extract that from them.

Whether they’re vox popping or bringing people into brainstorms, all the teams are encouraged to get to know the audiences those commissioners care about. The audience is at the heart of everything we do. If someone came to me and said ‘I’ve got this great idea’, I will say ‘Which channel is it great for and which audience is it great for?’ If they can’t answer that, it’s probably not so great. We’re fortunate in that we’ve got a research department in Fremantle and we ask for help from them. They have a relationship with Ipsos MORI and we can sometimes ask for some specific research. Everything’s got to lead to getting to know the audience.

We never pitch until we’re really ready. You can do all that work and you’ve got one hour in the room. With a panel show, like Sweat the Small Stuff, we went in and talked about the area and the talent we wanted to bring in. They wanted us to work that up on paper but we really pushed for a run through because if they don’t like the talent on a panel show there’s no point working it up. If the chemistry’s right then we’re confident we can get the content right. But there’s no point coming up with loads of content because if the commissioners don’t like the talent, that show’s not going to go any further.

Tim Harcourt
Studio Lambert
Head of development

We run awaydays and brainstorming sessions but often the starting point can come from an observation in your everyday life. You listen to what your friends talk about, what people on the tube talk about, what’s in the papers, magazines. We don’t use specific market research as a starting point for ideas. We’re pitching into the terrestrials first and foremost, so we’re trying to keep things broad – good ideas that are well made and populist. There’s no definite technique for coming up with ideas. One good way, though it’s not fool proof, is colliding two pre-existing thoughts, shows, ideas or genres. There’s probably no new idea in itself under the sun. It’s all about reversioning what’s familiar to the audience and making it feel unfamiliar. Tastes don’t change massively. People want things presented to them in fresh ways but the core concerns don’t change.

The commissioners may say they want something quite specific. I tend not to get involved in those ideas. It’s so crowded because then everyone’s trying to pitch into that. My attitude is we come up with the ideas that we love and that we can maybe make for more than one channel and try to back those. We will respond to specific commissioner’s briefs if they approach us but it’s thinking about what we think they need or might like. If you take them an idea and it’s not one that lots of people are pitching, it will feel fresher to the commissioners. Everyone’s always after the next big thing but neither the creatives or the buyers will necessarily know when they’ve got that in their hands. The next big thing certainly won’t be commissioned as the next big thing.

Of the shows we’re really passionate about at any one time there’s around a dozen on the slate. The process of selling is a lot slower than it used to be but sometimes when there’s an idea that’s so great we might throw everything at it for a week or two to get it in a pitchable condition because its burning a hole in your pocket. Some we’ll make a sizzle tape for and take it out to pitch. Commissioners are increasingly busy and they’re having to sell up to the channel heads all the time. If they’ve got a sizzle or a little bit of film, it makes it easier for selling internally.

Some shows only really have a home on one or two places. When we pitched Gogglebox in my mind that show was Channel 4 or bust.With some ideas there are one or two homes and they need slightly reskinning for each channel. Undercover Boss probably could have worked on all four of the main channels it was so universal. It’s not our sole ambition but a big part of the company is creating formats that can work around the world. You can’t bank on it but it’s definitely at the back of our mind.

Jon Creamer

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