Chad Gervich Interview, Part 3 - Complications Ensue
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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Crafty: Are any production companies looking for reality series pitches? Or are all of them generated in-house or by people they already know?

Gervich: Absolutely! Production companies and networks are looking for unscripted programming just like they're looking for scripted ideas! Broadcast networks tend to develop fewer unscripted ideas than scripted, but they're still looking… and many cable networks--like TLC, Food Network, MTV, Bravo, etc.--program ONLY reality series.

Likewise, some production companies--like "Big Brother"-producer Endemol USA--dabble in both scripted and unscripted shows, while others--like "Project Runway"'s Magical Elves or "Don't Forget the Lyrics"'s RDF--focus only on reality shows. Either way, most production companies--like networks--are almost always taking pitches for alternative television.

Crafty: What would a reality show pitch look like? How many pages? What format? What questions do you have to answer in your pitch? How much could the newbie creator reasonably expect to stay involved with the show they pitched if it gets picked up?

Gervich: As a writer, I've pitched both scripted and reality ideas… as an exec, I've HEARD both reality and scripted pitches… and I have to say: there's not much of a difference. Aside from a few pieces, a reality pitch sounds very similar to a scripted pitch.

A friend of mine used to be the showrunner of "Friends," and he once gave me some great advice; he said (I'm paraphrasing): "In the old days of ancient Greece or Rome, people used to gather round a bard or poet, usually sitting in some kind of circle, and listen to him tell a story. A pitch works almost the same way. The execs or producers usually sit in some kind of circle and your job--as the writer--is to, quite simply, TELL THEM A STORY."

To me, this is the basic tenet of ANY PITCH, scripted or reality. Use your words and storytelling skills to create a world that MOVES YOUR AUDIENCE… that sucks them in, enthralling them till they want to hear more. And--if it's a TV pitch--help them understand how that one world or story can generate an endless supply of OTHER stories.

Now, if you're pitching a reality show, you're not so much telling a story as you are creating an emotional world. Even though it's not a scripted narrative, you want your audience of buyers to feel the emotional premise of your series. This could be done by articulating an anecdote or observation from your own life… or by setting up a universal emotional truth. In classes that I teach, I like to use "Survivor" as an example. If I were pitching "Survivor," I might begin with something like this…

"We live in a beautiful world… a world full of beautiful people building beautiful homes in beautiful cities… driving beautiful cars… wearing beautiful clothes… raising beautiful children. But the truth is: no matter how beautiful anyone is… or the world they live in is… one thing always holds true: EVERYBODY WANTS SOMETHING.

"Some people want true love; others want a new house. Some want a dream job; others want their kids to go to college. Some people want to cure their father's cancer; others want to reunite with a long-lost sweetheart. And when it comes to their life's dream, most people will do ANYTHING to make that dream come true. They'll lie, fight, backstab. Betray their friends. Befriend their enemies. Whatever it takes.

"So this is a reality show where we take fifteen beautiful people, each with a life's dream, and strand them in the world's most beautiful place… then give each of them a shot at a million dollars--enough to make their life's dream come true. Then we sit back and watch… as each of them fights, claws, lies, cheats, steals, forms alliances and backstabs their way to making their one dream a reality."

Now, I'm not saying that intro is perfect… or I wouldn't tweak it… or it's anything close to how Mark Burnett pitched that show… but I do think it sets up the series, both narratively and emotionally. You "get" how the show works on a macro level. And once your audience has this understanding, it's very easy for you to give them examples of individual episodes, or challenges, that bring the show to life. They'll understand how forcing people to compete in a bug-eating contest fits into the larger narrative and thematic whole. They'll understand the types of characters and relationships the show will build and play with. They'll understand how and why we'll relate to the show on a personal level.

Thus, I think there are four main things to spell out to potential reality buyers:

• The emotional/thematic premise
• The kinds of "characters" who will be on this show, including what drives them and what's at stake (i.e., "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" casts desperate, downtrodden families who need a warm, safe place to live; "What Not To Wear" casts loveable people in need of a self-esteem makeover… by way of making over their fashion sense; "The Bachelor" casts lonely women desperate to find a partner).
• How the pilot works… or, more specifically, how a typical episode (which is what a pilot is--a typical episode) will translate your emotional/thematic premise into a dramatic series
• Examples of future episodes and challenges

Ultimately, these are the same things that sell a scripted series. So the key, whether you're pitching a comedy, a drama, or reality series… is to be like those bards and poets hundreds of years ago: SIMPLY TELL YOUR STORY AND MOVE YOU AUDIENCE.

Here's a quick link to another blog post which (I hope) offers some helpful into about pitching a reality show.

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