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First impressions last

By Steve Cheskin 20-11-2012

Believe it or not, your mom was right. Life is all about first impressions. This especially holds true if you’re trying to find love for your pet project with a network TV programming executive.

So you’ve received a pitch meeting invitation. Congratulations! But now you need to stand and deliver. This is not a time for excuses as you will not get a second chance. Remember, you’re just one of a hundred-plus pitches that a network hears weekly. So you’d better be ready or it’s one and done.

As a network executive and commissioner, I was always been amazed at how many producers would come into the pitch room with a weak treatment or footage that was sub-par at best. Equally incredible was how many pitches were made by individuals who had little or no clue about the network to whom they were pitching.

Assuming you want to get your show sold, here’s some advice – based on hearing thousands of programme pitches over the last 25 years – to help you improve your pitching strategy.

Do your homework
Understand your target. You’d better have a crystal clear understanding of the network you’re meeting with before you arrive at their offices. Watch the channel. Check out their website. Use your resources to figure out what is working for them, what they have in development, who is their core audience and what kind of shows they’re looking for.

Think like a programmer
Producer explaining their show’s concept to network executive: “Think of Pawn Stars meets Deadliest Catch meets Jersey Shore.” No, this is not a scene from The Player. And no, this tactic will not get you a pilot deal.

Look at the current line-up of the channel you’re about to pitch. Find a show your project would be most suitably paired with. Think like a programmer. Does your show fit and could it follow or lead into any of the shows on this network?

Make it professional
Your presentation reel needs to sing. Remember, no excuses. Keep it to a few choice minutes, in a treatment that includes music, graphics and strong editing.

Have a well-written treatment – one that does justice to your show and is well thought out. When I read treatments and find typos and grammatical and spelling errors I circle them and point them out in the next development meeting as sloppiness on the part of a producer. If they appear throughout the treatment, it’s unlikely that producer and I will work together. A clean layout and conciseness are key.

Show your character(s)
Characters have become all-important. Have video that reveals the charisma of your talent, or better yet, ask if it’s OK to bring the talent. If so, make sure to bring the talent to the meeting.

Your show’s video should highlight the lead talent, but not be limited to just the lead. Show the lead interacting with others in the ensemble. If the programmer is not enamoured with the lead, the whole concept may just play better by offering an example of how the other cast members interact with the lead character.

Make it snappy
“It’s a show about… how much time do you have to hear this?” You better be able to nail it in one sparkling sentence. If you can’t, then you really don’t know what your show is about. Rest assured, neither will the network.

Inspire confidence
If your production company has not previously worked with the network, provide a brief overview of the company and its projects to help paint the picture and build credibility that shows you can do the job. If you’re lacking a track record with the network, you may want to consider providing a demo, or even a pilot.

Know your numbers
Have a general budget outlining costs for a pilot in your back pocket. Do you visualise the show as a half-hour or hour in length? How many episodes in the first season? Your numbers need to make sense. Too high or too low and you will look like you don’t know your stuff.

Leave them wanting more
You have to be dead on, but it’s OK if your idea turns out not to be exactly 100%. That’s what the network’s development department is for. But both you and your idea have to show enough potential to secure a second meeting.

So how do you know if you have a successful pitch? Well, when I was at WE TV we had a producer come in for a pitch. He started off by saying: “Our show is about the experiences of American nurses during the Vietnam War.” Their reel showed footage of the frontline experiences that the nurses spoke about. It was so incredibly compelling, gripping and emotional, we knew right on the spot that this is a show we wanted to do. We had a real-life China Beach on our hands.

It boils down to making that first impression a lasting one. Remember you and your show will only get one shot with a network. Make it a great one. Mom would be proud.


today's correspondent

Steve Cheskin Consultant CableU

Steve Cheskin is a consultant for CableU. Formerly a senior executive with TLC, WE TV, Discovery and Travel Channel, he is probably best known for creating one of Discovery and cable television's most viewed programme concepts, Shark Week, and launching the poker craze with The World Poker Tour while general manager of The Travel Channel. Under his leadership, audience delivery grew significantly at each of the networks he worked.