We only have to look at the success of Survivor now in its 22nd season with Redemption Island to realize reality shows are all about great story telling. In a recent speech, Survivor creator Mark Burnett suggested that everyone should read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. This book, very briefly, outlines the hero’s journey as creator, destroyer, conqueror, and savior.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when you are pitching reality shows – characters, the setting or the world where your characters live, the inherent conflict and showing all of this on tape. Of course, you always have to dig around and do your homework on the network or brand you are pitching your show to. What is the network or brand putting on the screen that you can enhance? Everyone is looking for originality – something different. Your job is to show how your concept and characters take their viewers on a journey they haven’t seen before.
You need to have a strong demo reel. It can be anywhere between 3-8 minutes. You can’t sell a reality show without one.
Great, charismatic characters are the stars of that demo and they are the key to successfully pitching reality shows. For instance, Mark Burnett casts people who want to be heard and are noisy in their group of peers, from bankers, to butchers to bakers. He’s bringing back some of those same people for Redemption Island. Why? The camera and the viewers love them or viewers love to hate them.
On TLC, Cake Boss is not about the food. It is about the characters. Or the brides on Say Yes to the Dress have to balance their own desires with those of their relatives, friends and salespeople – a very stressful and conflict-ridden experience. With Jersey Shore, the cast jumped off the screen.
The key for casting people is authenticity – making sure that the characters and the story line are real, like MTV’s 16 and Pregnant or Teen Mom. Families really work in reality because they are less fake and have real conflict. The emotional stakes make us invest in the characters. Sam Mettler, the creator of Intervention talks in this video interview about the way he pitched that show: not an easy task, as Intervention tackles the topic of addiction.
Transformation with all its vibrant obstacles and triumphs shows the arc of the story. That’s why before and after shows work so well in reality TV. Again, the strength of your pitch takes the listener on that character’s journey.
Pay special attention to the world your characters live and work in. Buyers like shows where ordinary people are doing extraordinary jobs like Police Women of Dallas. Or the unique and bizarre worlds of Toddlers and Tiaras or Sister Wives or LA Ink that the viewer may never experience. The exoticness of these situations draw viewers into watching, but characters and how they react is the real reason people tune in every week.
Mickey Rogers takes part in the Expert Roundtables: Meet the Tutors session at MIPTV (April 4, 11.00). Her website is a mine of information and advice on pitching and new TV projects. You can also order her book, From Start to Screen; The Essential Guide to Pitching Creative Ideas from the site.