Steve Clarke discovers the vital skills required to win a place in a development team
As viewing habits evolve and the number of content platforms continues to proliferate, the art of developing ideas for successful TV shows is changing, too.
At an RTS Futures event, “Introduction to development”, a panel of experts gave advice to industry newbies and offered insights into the development process.
They provided suggestions on the dos and don’ts of pitching and how to secure that all-important access to people and places that audiences want to see (see below).
Some common themes emerged: the need to work collaboratively; think visually; research the requirements and tastes of channels and their commissioning teams; and, crucially, watch loads of TV.
The audience was reminded that TV is a business: production companies need to own and sell intellectual property (IP) if they are to grow.
Jonas Crabtree, Executive Producer, Development at Twenty Twenty, said: “Obviously, you are trying to come up with shows that get commissioned, but remember that TV is a business. You’re trying to create hits, particularly formats, that pay the bills.
“You can have a lot of commissions but not necessarily of things that generate IP. More and more, everyone wants formats, and these days they have to be more subtle.”
"Everyone wants formats, and these days they have to be more subtle”
In such a globalised activity as TV, production companies need to grab opportunities when they arise, even if some shows are unlikely to win awards nominations.
“Our company tries to make socially responsible documentaries that, hopefully, will move people,” said Nicky Huggett, Head of Development at Popkorn, part-owned by Channel 4.
“We have a 20-part series for UKTV, Deadliest Pests Down Under, which isn’t going to change anyone’s life but it does pay our wages.
“We’re making a film about survivors of the March 2015 Tunisian shootings. It’s never going to make any money but, hopefully, with the right director, will build our calibre as a company. There’s always that trade off.”
Both game-show specialist Rob Walker, Managing Director of Seven 8 Media, and Claire Morrison, Head of Development at ITV Studios-owned Potato, stressed that all production companies need cash flow if they are going to thrive.
“I can have the greatest idea in the world but, unless I have sold it, I won’t make any money from it,” said Walker.
When it comes to development, patience and persistence are vital. It famously took years to convince ITV to take a risk on one of the biggest TV hits of all time, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?
Repeated rejection is all part of what can sometimes be the smoke and mirrors world of successful development. Commissioners pay lip service to originality and risk taking but, arguably, they are more influenced by a particular hit show that becomes part of the zeitgeist.
“There’s a quite a lot of following the ball in commissioning,” admitted Crabtree. “Shows such as Gogglebox almost create new genres. These [breakthrough] shows change what everybody is looking for.
“On the one hand, it’s as simple as getting more stuff like that, but it also affects everyone’s brief.”
He explained that TV commissioners regard Gogglebox “as a really warm show, as opposed to shocking or dramatic or very serious and difficult subject matter.”
As a result, channels are keen on “warm shows” and, inevitably, programmes capable of cutting through the digital clutter.
“Overall ratings are going down, so there is a real and pressing need to come up with stuff that is genuinely arresting,” Crabtree said.
The growing sophistication of audiences and the huge choices they have present new challenges for people working in development.
“Broadcasters have to work harder to get people’s attention,” stressed Crabtree, who has worked in development for 13 years. He has helped develop such shows as Channel 4’s Benefits Britain 1949 and BBC Three’s Reggie Yates’ Extreme Russia.
Huggett explained that development is changing: “It used to be quite prescriptive. You would pitch an idea linked to a brief. Nowadays, the channels are much more open-minded. They say: ‘Bring us your best ideas.’ The brief always identifies the demographic that a particular show is aimed at, but don’t count on getting more guidance.”
Commissioning is also more audience- led these days, she added. Moreover, because competition for eyeballs is so intense, “there’s got to be a lot more packed into a show”.
“In development terms, it makes it harder to get a commission. The commissioners are a little bit scared. We do a lot more development and pre-production,” Huggett pointed out. Whereas, before, it was enough to present an idea on a single page, now it can be several taster tapes and proof that the access has all been agreed.
Huggett works alongside development researcher Simona Sborchia, who told Television: “Nowadays, there is a lot of emphasis on characters. We’re all used to dramas that are very successful, so commissioners are looking for factual shows that have strong characters.
“That means people that audiences immediately engage with. If you don’t have a good character you won’t have a good show. They have to provide something unique.”
Huggett cited the example of Channel 4’s show about mediums, Northern Spirit. She had pitched a similar idea and was unhappy that it was turned down, but admitted that the show greenlit by the broadcaster had a stronger character. “It was the central character, who was hilarious and very camp, who drew you in,” conceded Huggett.
Increasingly, casting is seen as part of the development process. So how do development teams identify and find great characters?
“Newspapers are still very good tools,” explained Sborchia. “A couple of weeks ago, we came across an article in The Times about a transgender dancer who we thought might provide the basis for a show.”
Social media then kicks in. “You look at their Facebook page and their Twitter feed,” she said.
Finally, don’t neglect to spend time working up the title. A stand-out programme title won’t, by itself, sell a show, but it will help get you a meeting with a commissioner.
“You can spend two hours coming up with a title and it still won’t be right,” said Huggett.
Lately, she’s been working on a title for a Channel 4 format in the vein of “Very British Problems”. “It’s getting a title that is a bit naughty and a bit unPC,” she explained. “But not so unPC that people won’t watch it.”
‘Introduction to TV Development’ was an RTS Futures event held at the Hallam Conference Centre, London, on 23 February. The producer was Jude Winstanley.
How to access all areas
Jonathan Meenagh, Head of Development, Shine TV: ‘Getting access used to be a lot easier. You’d just call up and get in somewhere.…Access is so difficult now. It’s very competitive and you’re not guaranteed to get real access.
‘These days, it’s more of a lottery. We spent between 18 months and two years trying to get access to a well-known company. We did loads of work and spent thousands of pounds – but finally realised the company had cleverly been leading us on.’
Claire Morrison, Head of Development, Potato: ‘I had never met a police officer or worked on a police show before I developed The Met for BBC One.
‘They met me and the relationship built.… We pitched it to the BBC. Danny Cohen, then Controller of BBC One, liked the idea and started working on it with me
‘A lot of people thought we wouldn’t be able to get the access.
‘My advice is always to do a very detailed brief so that yours stands out from all the others.
‘If you are passionate about an idea and you have no experience in that genre, don’t let that put you off. Anyone can have an idea. People on the street can have ideas that translate into massive prime-time shows.… I think it helps that I am pretty and blonde [laughter from audience].’