REALITY BEHIND REALITY TV: Writer’s Guide to Pitching Reality TV

joke-and-biagio-filmmakers-tv-producersJoke and Biagio make unscripted film and television, and invite their podcast listeners to pitch them shows. Wife-and-husband team Joke and Biagio have guided their company Joke Productions from living room start-up to established, full service production company. As both award-winning documentarians and seasoned large-scale reality TV producers, the married duo aim to bring their unique, hands-on blend of vérité, storytelling, visuals, and computer generated imagery to the wide variety of projects they undertake.   Past credits include MTV’s Caged, A&E’s Don’t Trust Andrew Mayne,  LMN’s Ghost Inside My Child, IFC’s Rhett & Link: Commercial Kings,  VH1’s Scream Queens, and MTV’s True Life Presents: Secrets, Lies, and Sex.   Joke and Biagio also served as Co-Executive Producers and show runners on  The CW’s Beauty and the Geek and NBC’s Science of Love.  Their award-winning documentary Dying to do Letterman played theatrically in the U.S. and is currently distributed by Oscilloscope. Snapped: She Made Me Do It is their latest series, which premieres September 9 at 10pm 9 central on Oxygen.  They podcast and blog about making unscripted television at http://producingunscripted.com, where they also accept unscripted television pitches through their portal. Connect with them on Twitter: @jokeandbiagio

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We’re reality television producers… and we freaking love writers.

You have:

  • A wicked way with words
  • Terrific story sense
  • Great research skills
  • An eye for the unusual
  • Really funny tweets

You might also be sitting on unscripted television gold and not even know it.

This post is meant to be a writer-centric, laser focused, “just-for-you” version of our free guide How to Pitch a Reality Show. It covers a lot of new ground specifically helpful to writers.

Our goal is to save you time, reveal reality TV material you may already be sitting on, and give you a shot at earning some extra income from unscripted television.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even pitch some shows to us.

First, let’s deal with the elephant in the room.

Writers’ Feelings About Reality TV

Many writers we know, meet or hear from hate reality TV.

The usual complaint goes something like, “Reality’s not even real, it’s just badly written rubbish, a cheap rip-off of the high art possible in scripted television…”

You might’ve heard or thought something like this at some point.

People working in the unscripted space hear these complaints, get defensive, and the conversation ends in fisticuffs (at least it would in a scene on your “typical” reality show).

Defining Reality TV

The problem is that, for many, “reality TV” has become a catch-all phrase. It covers everything from documentary series to large-scale game shows, factual crime to docu-soaps, makeover shows to paranormal investigations and even pseudo-scripted series.

Some of these shows are great and some are awful.

Either way, a lot of shows commonly labeled “reality TV” are completely different from each other.

Game of Thrones has about as much in common with Will & Grace as The Housewives franchise does with The First 48, but many people who peg something a “reality show” miss that point.

And while some production companies would take issue with anyone referring to their factual programming as “reality TV” we’ve decided to embrace the term and move on.

For the sake of this article, please know that when we do say “reality TV” we are discussing much more than bikini-clad girls puking in hot tubs.

There is excellent producing happening in the unscripted space. Every day, people with great story sense and an eye for character put their passion and hard work to use by bringing real stories to an engaged audience.

We believe that as writers you can and should bring your talents to the unscripted world (but it might not be in the way you think!)

So here it goes…

REALITY BEHIND REALITY TV: Writer's Guide to Pitching Reality TV by Joke & Biagio | Script Magazine

Overview

Today we’ll cover:

  1. A tiny bit about us
  2. Structure of reality TV
  3. Pitfalls for writers pitching reality
  4. Great pitches you might be sitting on right now
  5. Building your pitch portfolio

Our Reality TV Mission In Life

We’re Joke and Biagio (our real names, blame our parents).

We’re married, and together we own and run Joke Productions, Inc. Our company specializes in reality TV, documentary series, re-creation shows, and feature docs.

When it came to breaking into the industry, we did it the old fashioned way.

We lied.

They were little white lies. More “stretching the truth” here or there — just to get us through the door — but still. Who wants to do that?

So we made a promise to each other. If we ever found success, we’d make it easier for aspiring producers to pitch to us.

Now that we’ve produced over a hundred hours of television, we’re working to make good on that promise. Anyone who wants to pitch us unscripted concepts can do so through our free members only portal.

To increase the odds of success for those pitching, we put together a bi-weekly podcast with tips on pitching projects. We also reach out with articles like this one (thanks Script for having us!)

Producing Unscripted_ Make Reality TV Shows and Documentary Series with Joke and Biagio

Structure of Reality TV

Before you pitch unscripted television shows, it’s important to have under-the-hood knowledge of how reality TV works.

From a structure point of view, reality TV can be broken into two main categories:

  1. Self-Contained
  2. Arced

Self-Contained

Also known as “close-ended.” An episode of a self-contained show stands on its own. You can watch episodes of a self-contained show in any order.

For example, Kitchen Nightmares, or our own show, Don’t Trust Andrew Mayne, are self-contained. You get a complete story, with no loose ends, over the course of one episode.

A scripted equivalent would be the venerable Law and Order. You can watch a DVR full of episodes, all out of order (for the most part) and still have a satisfying viewing experience.

Arced

(Pronounced ARKED) Story lines continue from one episode to the next. It would make no sense to watch them out of order.

The Bachelor, American Idol, and Amazing Race are all arced.

Our VH1 acting competition show Scream Queens was arced. So was our “big break” show Beauty and the Geek (on which we were the Co-Executive producers and show runners for two seasons.)

In scripted, think of 24.

Story lines run from one episode to the next. Watching 24 out of order would be pretty bizarre (but might be a fun party game).

Whether a show is self-contained or arced, it will also fall into three further sub-categories:

  1. Format
  2. Docu
  3. Hybrid

Format

In our world, a “format” refers to a show that relies on repeatable, tentpole moments that occur at the same point in every episode.

Myth Busters is a self-contained format. Every episode the guys introduce urban legends, run scientific tests, and reveal if there’s any truth to them. When the episode is over, all stories are complete.

Survivor is an arced format. Each week features a reward challenge, immunity challenge, and tribal council. The full story of the season “arcs” over all episodes until one person is left standing and wins a million bucks.

In formats, the audience has a clear understanding of where they are in an episode due to the show’s often famous tentpole moments.

For example: Reward challenge? We’re in the front-half of Survivor.

Docu

With its roots in documentary, docu-style shows follow real people through their every day lives.

Hard Knocks on HBO is a documentary series. The Kardasians and the Housewives franchises can be thought of as docu-soaps. Duck Dynasty is a docu-sitcom.

For the most part, there are no repeating format elements that serve as tentpoles or drive story in a similar fashion each episode.

A scripted equivalent might be a show like Downton Abbey. While Julian Fellowes and team may follow a subtle structure each hour, there are no overt tentpole moments like you’d catch watching a Law & Order episode. There, you’d see a court room scene and immediately know you’re in the back-half of the show.

Hybrid

This is probably the workhorse of reality TV. In a hybrid, or “hidden-format” show, we follow real people in their every-day lives. However, there’s a story-engine ensuring we still get some format elements each week.

Think of Bravo’s Flipping Out. We not only follow Jeff Lewis and his hilarious employees through their lives, but we also get some kind of “make over” every episode.

On our own MTV show Caged we followed the lives of twenty-somethings in small town Louisiana. They all happened to be part of the local mixed martial arts scene, and every episode ended in a cage match. That was our “hidden format” element that made the show a hybrid.

joke-productions-a-reality-television-production-company

This idea of mixing formatted elements with character-driven scenes is nothing new to writers. Think of crime shows like Elementary, Stalker, or Rookie Blue. They all have a “case of the week” interwoven with character story lines that often bridge multiple episodes.

That’s how many unscripted “hidden-format” shows work. Often there is a “job of the week” or “client of the week” to provide a story engine for the series.

Understanding these basic structures makes it a breeze to discuss your reality TV concept with industry pros, so make sure you wrap your head around them before your pitch.

Pitfalls for Writers Pitching Reality

When writers pitch us show concepts, there are three big mistakes we see:

  1. An assumption that all reality is actually scripted
  2. Very long, elaborate treatments
  3. A heavy focus on large-scale formatted shows

Pitfall 1: Assuming All Reality is Scripted

We’re not going to stand here and tell you that in the history of reality TV no one has ever “cheated.”

We will tell you that, as award-winning documentarians, “fake reality” is not a business we’re interested in.

Also, this year at RealScreen (the giant Washington D.C. convention for factual entertainment) TV networks stated again and again that authenticity was crucial in all reality shows they’d be picking up in the future.

So when a writer walks in with a “reality” tape that’s completely scripted, or a beat-by-beat outline of what the “real people” they found will be saying, it doesn’t float our boats (although those meetings are often hilarious and the scripts well written).

Don’t look at your real people as actors who need scripts. Rather, use your story skills to recognize the great, real-life drama and comedy that exists in people’s lives.

We’ll point our cameras that way.

Pitfall 2: Over-Writing Treatments

In the early stages of pitching an unscripted TV show, in-depth treatments are over-rated. Production companies and network execs will only begrudgingly read a page or two (unless there are lots of big, pretty pictures.)

Unlike the scripted world, no one is interested in how you see a full season playing out beat-by-beat. Pages and pages of potential story lines don’t help at this stage, either.

Why? You’d just be making it up. This is reality TV, after all.

Likewise, if your show is based on real people, buyers don’t want to read seventeen pages about how they’re so amazing. They just want to meet them.

So there’s no reason to spend your precious time fleshing out all these details.

(As for what we like to see in an initial paper pitch, we break it down in Paper Pitches: 5 Steps to Awesome.)

Pitfall 3: Only Pitching Huge Shows

Most of the pitches we get from writers are on the level of The Apprentice or Shark Tank.

The problem with spending all your time creating concepts like these is that there are very few TV networks that can afford them. There’s also limited on-air real estate.

After all, Survivor, Big Brother and Amazing Race are still hogging up a lot of that air time after more than a decade. That means it’s even harder to sneak a new ginormous reality show onto TV.

The other issue with only pitching huge shows is one of value.

The best way to earn an income in unscripted television, whether part-time or full-time, is to make yourself valuable.

How do you make yourself valuable when pitching reality TV?

In our business, some of the highest value comes from providing access to film a real person, place, or thing.

Say you’re pitching another spin on The Voice. Are you also bringing a record company and access to top-notch musicians who want to host the show? Or are you just pitching words on paper?

When all you have is a written treatment it’s not worth much. (Especially when you consider that the network will completely change your original format by the time the show makes air.)

Pitching a concept without something real attached — and garnering interest from a buyer — is difficult.

In the scripted business what you write down paints the picture of your characters, their world, and how they interact.

In unscripted, bringing real people, places, and things to the table is what matters. Reality concepts rise to the top because of the access and talent packaged with them.

For instance, our show Scream Queens would not have been made without Lionsgate convincing the producers of SAW to offer up a leading role as a prize. That gave the show credibility and meant the winner would appear in movie theaters world-wide.

Without that, the concept was just a pie-in-the-sky paper pitch.

Hard to Make

'Scream Queens' Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina ... and a maggot infested dead body. Who said reality TV isn't fun?

‘Scream Queens’ Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina … and a maggot infested dead body. Who said reality TV isn’t fun?

Shows of this caliber require a lot of Hollywood power to make it to air. We’re repped by CAA (a big agency) and these shows are still difficult to package up.

For us to get excited by a “words-on-paper” only pitch, the concept has to be out of this world. Plus, we have to be willing to spend six months to a few years hoping to attach the right talent to make that show work.

That’s not to say we’d never consider big show concepts from writers (on the contrary) but it’s important to understand why these shows are long shots, and what you’re up against.

So wether you’re pitching a format show, follow-doc, or hybrid, the way to increase your odds of success and add value is to package someone or something real with your concept.

Great Pitches You Might Be Sitting On Right Now

As mentioned above, it’s difficult to add value to a large-scale format show unless you also bring a big piece of the puzzle with you.

For you super-successful screenwriters, that may be easier to do. For those who are still climbing the Hollywood ladder, it’s probably too hard.

Why waste all your time attempting to package up a reality idea that even big-time agents have trouble making happen?

Instead, there’s something else writers possess that makes them valuable when pitching unscripted TV projects.

Research and Connections

Most writers have a lifetime of interesting people they’ve met while doing background work on their screenplays and novels.

Connections with unique institutions, access to unusual places, and relationships with amazing people are all assets that can turn into unscripted TV projects.

For example:

  • What if you had earned the trust of several police departments while researching your true crime piece? You would have brought incredible value while pitching a show like The First 48.
  • Imagine you were doing research for a comedy about the great outdoors. You stumbled on some larger-than-life characters with crazy-long beards and millions of dollars from selling duck calls. Why not pitch Duck Dynasty?
  • Maybe you were prepping a story on reincarnation and discovered dozens of families whose children remembered dying in a past life. That’s exactly what happened to journalist Suzanne Stratford. She pitched us what became Ghost Inside My Child. We’ve now made multiple seasons for BIO and LMN.

This is why we say writers may be sitting on unscripted television gold and not even realize it.

What Pitch Materials Do You Need?

Video is the key to selling most kinds of reality TV or documentary series. But in the early stages (for instance, pitching to a production company like ours) all you need is basic footage and a short write-up.

If your real-life characters don’t pop on iPhone footage or Skype, they’re not going to become TV stars when we shove a $20,000 camera in their face, either. So short little interviews and some simple footage of what’s interesting about them is enough to start a conversation.

Sure, if you’re a filmmaker and can do a terrific sizzle reel, that’s great. But you shouldn’t shy away from pitching great talent if high-end filmmaking is not in your wheelhouse.

Most production companies (including ours) will pay to shoot a full sizzle reel if we’re excited about a concept. (You may be asked to donate your time, but never your money.)

What if Your Show Is Concept Driven?

It’s always best to build your show around a real-life expert or talent if you can.

But what if you’re dying to pitch a smaller format show that could work somewhere like History or Discovery?

For example, what if your concept was for a show like Taboo on NatGeo? (You should know that shows like Taboo are usually more difficult to sell, but networks still buy them occasionally.)

Taboo is described as “taking you around the world exploring behaviors and lifestyles that are acceptable in some cultures but forbidden, illegal or reviled in others.”

If you’re going to pitch this style of show, research and specific examples become crucial to your pitch (but don’t overdo it). Style your sample stories to have one eye-catching photograph and only a few sentences. Think visual first, words on the page second.

The length of a sample story for Taboo might look like:

Episode Title: Extreme Body Makeover

A compelling and occasionally cringe-worthy look at why some people drastically morph parts of their bodies — from neck stretching in Thailand to breast ironing in Cameroon. Motivated by historical, political, or ideological philosophies, or even by modern day trends, you’ll be amazed at how far the human body can be radically reshaped.

Include an appropriately eye-popping photo of some “radically reshaped” body and we’ll get it. Seven to twelve of these specific examples is a good number to aim for.

Again, and we can’t say this enough — you’d still have a better chance at a show like this if you had found the “Anthoy Bourdain” of all things taboo.

Yes, we realize we’re pointing to a show that’s already on air and not built around a charismatic expert. However, in today’s climate, shows designed around talent are an easier sell.

Besides, as writers you’ve already met loads of experts and interesting personalities while researching your projects. It’s easier to base your concept on someone you already know. That’s certainly quicker than starting with an idea and trying to locate the perfect talent.

What About Crime Reenactment Shows?

It’s safe to say that after Errol Morris put reenactments in The Thin Blue Line crime re-creation documentaries and series would forever have a place in film and TV.

The Jinx made a big splash for HBO.

Discovery ID has had major success in the past few years programming nothing but factual crime.

We ourselves join the true crime space on September 9th when our new series Snapped: She Made Me Do It premieres on Oxygen.

The hard thing about pitching true crime series is that whatever idea you have is probably not unique.

If you sat down right now and thought of every crime someone could possibly commit, and then created a show for those crimes, you’d be where a thousand other producers have already tread.

Of anything you could pitch, reenactment shows — especially crime reenactments — get pitched in such quantity that you’re likely to hear “we have something similar in development” on many of your concepts.

However, as writers, your language and research skills provide you a real leg up on most aspiring producers pitching true crime to the industry.

In a nutshell, here’s what you need to pitch a crime reenactment series:

A Killer Title

Discovery ID is terrific at this. Wives with Knives. Who the Bleep Did I Marry? Southern Fried Homicide.

Those titles cut through the TV landscape and instantly tell you what the show is about.

Our own crime show was originally titled She Made Me Do It. The concept of the show is built into the title. (We were thrilled when Oxygen decided to pick up the show and put it under their very successful Snapped banner.)

Initial Research

Hit the web and find out if there are at least eight to ten interesting cases out there that speak to your concept but play out in different, engaging ways.

Do those stories have twists, turns, or shocking outcomes that could carry an hour of television?

If you’re going to pitch Martian Murders you’ll first need to convince network execs there were enough murders on Mars (or earthlings murdered at home by martians), and that there was a big enough variety of said Martian Murders chock full of twists and turns to fuel a series through many seasons.

Write those up as described in the Taboo example above: short paragraph, eye-catching photo.

Cool Format Twist

Can you find a way to let the concept of your show inform the format?

For Instance, Redrum – Murder Told Backwards on Discovery ID is a fresh way to tell crime stories.

Our upcoming crime series takes a “he said/she said” approach to reenactments, showing them several times through the lens of different storytellers. That helped to separate it from other shows.

Anything you can come up with to make your show work just a little different that what’s already on TV will help. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

If your title is great and you’ve discovered real cases, a fresh format twist can put you over the top. And if everyone decides the format is too “out there” a great title and proof of existing stories can still carry the day.

Building Your Pitch Portfolio

In a lot of ways, pitching unscripted television is like playing the stock market. You want to be smart about where you place your bets.

Keep these tips in mind:

  • Spend most of your time building pitches around real people, places, and things you’ve discovered.
  • If so inspired, come up with a few “big swings” that might be the next Undercover Boss or Biggest Loser. Just don’t put all your eggs in the “grand-slam home run” basket.
  • Before you invest serious time and effort into developing a pitch, ask yourself if any TV network would realistically put your unscripted TV show on their air. Be honest. If the answer is “no” then why waste your time?

Wrapping Out: Writers and Reality TV

We hope this guide gave you a better idea of how you, as a writer, can find additional success in unscripted entertainment. To sum up:

  1. “Reality TV” has become a catch-all term for unscripted and alternative programming. Be aware of the different kinds of shows that rightly or wrongly are tagged this way.
  2. Understand the structure of reality TV, and how that relates to each concept you pitch.
  3. Avoid the common mistakes we see when writers pitch to us.
  4. Add value to your pitches (and speed up your process) by building concepts around research and connections you’ve already invested time in.
  5. Pitch materials? Basic video of your characters and their world, accompanied by a short write up is enough. If your pitch is purely “concept driven” it will be a harder sell and need more research. In that case, create a write-up with concise sentences and eye-catching photos.
  6. Balance your “pitch portfolio” so you’re not only pitching “home run” shows.

Not every production company is the same, but what we’ve shared here is representative of ours and many of the companies we worked for when we were coming up over the years.

It’s pretty easy to talk to us on twitter or find us if you’d like to pitch a reality show or documentary series our way. We’d be happy to hear from you.

Why?

When it comes down to it, one thing is true across all forms of entertainment. Every kind of project depends on people with great story sense.

Writers have that in spades.

~~~~~

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