The keys to success in reality TV: ideas, access and relationships

So as a developer/producer of reality television you are just as good as your ideas, your access and your relationships.

The idea is the idea – and these are seemingly ten a penny.  They are floating in the air to be plucked.  Throw em against the wall and see what sticks.   And if you can’t think of one, you put two of someone else’s together: The Biggest Loser meets The Voice, Storage Wars meets Strange Sex and so on. 

The idea will ultimately be carried by the on-screen talent.  This is where the oh-so-essential authenticity and heart will come from. They are what will make or break the show.  So when you head into your pitch, the most important piece will be your sizzle reel that critically introduces us to those people whose job it will be to rivet us to the screens.  Get them in your buyer’s face ASAP and remember that it is faces that work for you – so no doctors or firemen with face masks or shields hiding their essence.

Then it’s all about access. Two ways: to the sub-cultures, undercover bosses, axmen and wacky families on the one hand, and to the network execs on the other (who can often seem like their own wacky sub cultures themselves). 

You have to be clear that not only have you identified the compelling and addictive characters who will be at the heart of your show but that they have agreed to do what it takes.  Will the Amish allow your cameras in?  Do you have the trust of the gypsies or the Addicts or those Real Housewives of NYC, MIA, ATL, Orange County etc?  Will Honey Boo Boo’s mum play ball? (is that how she lost the weight?)  And most importantly: do you have a written commitment from them that they will participate. If they need persuading, have them talk to other talent that you have worked with who can share how well it worked out for them.  Business boosts for bosses who went undercover, Pawn Stars’ Chumlee getting to meet the girls of his dreams etc.

Even though you may eventually have the network do the talent deal directly, you need to get the talent to commit to you as a prodco – or you have nothing. Be aware that you will be dealing with people who will have read about “Snooki Money” (reportedly she’s getting $150k an episode) – but you’ll point out to your aspiring stars that when they make it to Season Six they may be coining it, but for now it’s all speculative.  

The third piece is the relationship – by which I mean with the networks. This is not just about who will take your call and listen to your idea.  The networks are very open to new good ideas.  What the relationship does is build trust – and it gets you to the fount of the key information: what is a particular network looking for this month? What is its mandate? What is its brand?  Do your homework of course – but get what you can from your contacts – understanding this is critical so you are pitching the right ideas to the right people.  If you waste their time once through lack of preparation, you likely won’t get a second chance.  So be smart and sensitive to their needs du jour and you will be on good ground. If you can’t bring yourself do it on your own, there are agents and companies like Gary Lico’s CableReady who can bring you all the relationships and inside dope you could want.

And for the networks, these prodco relationships means having trusted producers to depend on to turn the ideas into audience gold.  They will steer work to people they know. And if they don’t know you but they love your idea, they will match you up with a producer with whom they already have a track record.  Co-pro is often the way to go.

According to Eileen O’Neill, Discovery President, Discovery is generating up to 50% of its own ideas and handing them out to see which of their production pals can do something with it.  For example the idea passed out one day from their TLC channel was: “Cake.  Everyone loves cake.  What can you do with it?”  The result is Cake Boss, now in Season Five.