How to Write, Prep and Pitch Your Unscripted Show

Posted on: Oct 17, 2023

Photo Credit: Frame Stock Footage // Shutterstock

By Gabrielle Glenn

Believe it or not, unscripted TV has been around since the late 1940s. Starting with Candid Camera in 1948, audiences have been interested in watching real people live their real lives. In the many decades since, reality evolved into many different formats and genres that captivate viewers across the globe.

Development and Pre-Production

Development is a marathon and not a race. Developing an unscripted idea takes time, effort and a whole lot of belief in what you and this project can offer the market. If you’re not excited enough about this idea to see it through to pitch, then it’s not the right one. In development, you must trust your instincts. Write down and organize your ideas so the ones that you’re excited about get the most attention. File the other ones for another day, or discard it all together. Don’t dwell too long if you find yourself stuck on an idea.

Development can take months, if not years to complete. It may ask a considerable amount of your own money and for sure a lot of energy to produce your own pitch deck and sizzle reel, which is a highlighted overview of snippets from projects you’ve worked on. Take stock of the things you naturally love. What TV shows can you watch without getting distracted? What books do you like to read? What topics of conversation make you talk non-stop? The answers to each of these questions reveal where you should begin your development journey.

Observing Trends

When researching unscripted ideas, it’s important to test out the validity of that idea in the marketplace. Get intel from industry insiders like agents, unscripted development professionals and network executive teams. Follow industry news via Google Alerts and social media hashtags and read about what’s getting and what got renewed. Observe which shows were canceled and research why the show wasn’t picked up for another season.

Watch what’s currently on TV and pay attention to the ratings. Some of these higher-rated shows get renewed again. See what, if any, common themes run among the renewals and highly rated shows. When in doubt, follow your gut. You never know who might love your idea. All it takes is one person.

Taglines & Loglines

Now that you’ve identified the key points of your pitch and what makes it unique in the marketplace, it’s time to write. I like to write the least amount about my pitch, starting with the tagline, then the logline, before working my way up to writing a detailed pitch deck.

A tagline is a short description of your idea’s premise. The tagline is very important as it is the calling card for producers and investors to get excited about your idea. Keep your tagline concise, punchy and straight to-the-point.

A logline is a concise summary, typically one or two sentences, that encapsulates the core concept or essence of a movie, TV show, or literary work, aiming to capture the attention of potential audiences or investors. Reference similar movies in your genre on IMDB for good (and bad) examples.

Below (Pitch) Deck

The pitch deck is a how-to guide for the world of the show you’re creating. Leave no stone unturned, giving as much information as you can about the idea, but keep the language concise and exciting. Keep the blocks of text to about 3-4 sentences max. As far as length, I’d say keep the pitch deck between 10 to 15 pages. Less is fine as long as it’s detailed enough, but it’s best not to go over 15 pages.

In the first two pages, it’s essential to mention the hook or what makes this pitch stand out from the rest. For example, write about a group of people we don’t normally see that’s the focus of this idea, or a location we rarely see in unscripted TV. The next part of the pitch deck focuses on the episodic breakdown page(s), which describe examples of episodes we’d see if this idea were to be broadcast as a series.

The episodic breakdown is fundamental because it gives an emotionally 3D picture of what your show is. People can really envision what they read here.

Casting & Characters

If your show involves contestants or participants, you’ll want to introduce them and explain why they are compelling and relatable. Describe the casting process and how you plan to find the right people. This shows that you’ve thought about how realistic it will be to cast this project and since the network will be cutting the check, they like to know where their money is going.

While knowing the casting archetypes is important, it’s even more important to know who the target clientele, or audience, is. Know how you plan to market your show to reach this audience. Include any relevant data or research that supports your claims about the potential success of your show.

Helpful stats include engagement. Know how many posts appear for a particular hashtag. The more followers a topic or hashtag has, the more visible they are, and that information is very advantageous to the pitch.

Contact Sheets

The contact sheet so they can contact you directly or your representation. This is very helpful if you’re an independent producer. Don’t forget to mention your social media handles so others can see your portfolio of work and reach out to you via other channels.

After the writing is done, you can focus on the look and feel of the pitch deck. Write down adjectives that describe your pitch. These words will inform the colors and font you use for your pitch deck. Look up color theory for ideas on using the best looks to compliment your pitch. Experiment with different fonts until you fund the one that speaks to you.

Sizzle Reels

A sizzle reel is also called a ‘proof of concept’ because it’s proof of the execution of an idea. Start with what you have, hire help where you think it will pay off and continue from there. Other options include shooting it on your phone and editing it yourself.

To prepare, learn the basics of composition and fully plan out the shoot so you’re not too stressed on shoot days. Think about what interview questions you’ll want to ask and what you want to capture for B-ROLL, or non-interview footage. What’s most important here is capturing the emotion of your characters and how they interact with each other.

Adequate lighting and good, quality sound are basics that cannot be overlooked. Bad sound or dark images will sink your project. Reels should be about 2-4 minutes.

Pitch Perfect!

Before you send your project out into the universe, make sure your paperwork is on point.

Attach any talent to your pitch to you as a producer by having them sign a holding option deal with you. This deal gives you exclusive right to pitch a talent as they are attached to this project for a finite period of time. The duration could be somewhere between 6 months to 18 months.There are also clauses where both parties can extend the deal if that is what they agree upon.

You may also protect your ideas by registering it with the Writers Guild of America West. The cost is $20 for non-WGA members, and $10 for good standing WGA members. The guild keeps your registration on file for 5 years.

Another alternative is to copyright the idea with the U.S. Copyright Office. This does not take the place of the WGA registration, but it documents the ownership or rights of written work.

Here is a list of copyright fees:

If you have access to an entertainment lawyer or unscripted agent, all the better because many production companies will not accept submissions from individuals. Also having a lawyer or agent submit your work creates a paper trail that can better prove submission. If you don’t have representation, production companies will have you sign a submission document that protects them in the event they develop an idea like yours. Signing this document is 100% optional, but weigh whether forgoing this document is a boon or hindrance to your project.

Pitching is a skill that can be honed through practice and refinement. Rehearse your pitch multiple times to ensure that you can deliver it confidently and effectively.
I find it helpful to practice my pitch in front of a mirror or record myself.

Remember, a great pitch is not just about the content, but also about the way it is delivered. Once you’re confident pitching alone, you may attend pitch fests where creators go to pitch their ideas to executives and each other. This is a good way to get honest feedback and network with potential partners.

Pitching Etiquette & Best Practices

When it comes to pitching, there are certain etiquettes and best practices that can increase your chances of success. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Be professional: Dress appropriately, arrive on time, and be respectful to everyone you encounter during the pitching process, including the security guard at the gate.
  2. Be adaptable: Be prepared to adapt your pitch based on the feedback and suggestions you receive. Showing that you are open to collaboration and willing to make changes can leave a positive impression on decision-makers.
  3. Be concise: Keep your pitch concise and to the point. Avoid rambling or going off on tangents that are not relevant to your show.
  4. Be confident: Believe in your show and confidently convey its potential. Confidence can be contagious and can help decision-makers see your vision more clearly.

By incorporating these tips and lessons from successful pitchers, you can further enhance your pitching skills and increase your chances of success. Check in periodically, be patient and control your emotions when facing disappointment. Distract yourself by developing and producing other projects in the meantime.

Pitching a TV show can be a challenging and competitive process, but with the right knowledge, strategies and preparation, you can increase your chances of success. A strong pitch is key to catching the attention of networks and production companies. Practice your pitch so it becomes second nature, be professional and confident during your presentations, and always be open to feedback and collaboration.

Gabrielle Glenn is an unscripted TV producer and development professional.

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