How to Pitch a TV Show: Making Your First Reality TV Sizzle Reel
The film and television industry offers dozens of opportunities to tell stories in unique, impactful, and colorful ways, showcasing ideas that connect with audiences nationally and often, worldwide.
One of the most prominent and successful forms of visual entertainment that has made its mark in the media landscape is Reality TV and one of the best ways, as an up-and-coming Producer, to develop and pitch a new concept is with the Reality TV Sizzle Reel.
In this article we’ll cover these 8 steps to pitch a tv show:
- Create a sizzle reel
- Find & secure the Talent
- Sign option agreements
- Keep the crew and gear simple
- Edit your sizzle reel
- Write a one-page treatment
- Setup pitch meetings
- Find the right production company or exec
Create a Sizzle Reel
Similar to documentary filmmaking, a reality TV sizzle reel is a 3 to 5-minute video produced and edited with the intent of showcasing three main elements of your half-hour or one-hour TV series.
First, it should be structured to highlight the idea, or “thesis.” Now, even though the term “thesis” is often not spoken in a pitch, it should be the central concept working in the back of your mind while developing your reality TV concept. It is often thought of as an “if / then” statement and it’s the seminal concept all reality TV shows are built upon.
For example, when thinking of a successful reality TV program like Discovery’s Naked and Afraid (a TV show this Writer has produced), the thesis may be: if 2 typical survivalists are literally stripped of their worldly possessions and needs including clothes, food, water, and tools – and placed in one of the planet’s harshest environments in which they must find essentials like food and water while fending off the worst mother nature has to offer (including extreme weather and wild animals) — all in 21 days (the longest a human can go without food), then how will they utilize ingenuity and survival smarts to last 3 weeks?
Second, the sizzle reel should be built around the Talent. Nearly all reality show pitches are sold based around strong, interesting, and dynamic Talent. This Talent, or “the cast” must be outspoken, strong-willed, and brave enough to be vulnerable; willing to reveal their wins as well as their losses. Talent who isn’t 100% on board with revealing their true selves will only hamper the final sizzle reel and production companies and TV network execs will have doubts about a cast’s willingness to be honest. Audiences can smell a fake a mile away and anyone pretending on a reality TV sizzle reel will simply not connect with audiences.
Third, the style should be clearly depicted in the sizzle reel. What are your camera angles? Is this a run-and-gun, fly on the wall reality concept shot handheld with more of a focus on the verity style of the show or is it a cleaner, more thoroughly planned production with pedestal cameras and jibs like a singing competition show in the vein of The Voice?
These are all decisions that should be made before anything is shot. Knowing the thesis, the Talent, and the style before you shoot is of the utmost importance if you want to produce a sizzle that catches the attention of production companies and TV execs.
It’s All About the Talent
All reality TV shows are built on the Talent. Take, for example, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, the very successful CNN travel show that focused on culture and food and stemmed from Bourdain’s successful book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. It’s important to note that Bourdain wasn’t an overnight success. He toiled in kitchens and struggled with personal demons before writing and publishing his book and his willingness to reveal himself in a vulnerable and honest way led to his first show, A Cook’s Tour on Food Network that eventually lead to No Reservations on the Travel Channel. His entire brand was built on his nomadic, poetic, and blue-collar approach to food, travel, and culture. Bourdain wanted to get embedded with people around the globe, discovering what made them tick on a day-to-day basis, discovering how all of our lives are built around food, family, and fun. When conceptualizing your reality TV show sizzle reel, it’s important to define the traits of your character or cast. How does their passion for a lifestyle become the heart of your sizzle and hopefully your show? That’s the essential question a strong sizzle reel answers. It’s what will sell your idea and potentially make you a paid Reality TV Producer.
Find and Lock-in in the Talent
Finding the Talent may be the biggest struggle in developing a reality TV sizzle reel. Without the Talent, it is nearly impossible to sell an idea. Hundreds of aspiring Reality TV Producers have very similar ideas. Having a singing competition idea in and of itself is not enough to compete with the myriad of singing competition ideas swirling around the ether of reality TV concepts. That’s why a show like Fox’s The Masked Singer now exists. Its predecessors (like The Voice and American Idol) paved the way for reality singing competition shows and there is a proven track record for this type of show. Television audiences love to see the fumbles and successes of everyday Singers competing for a chance at stardom. The concept had nowhere else to go until a show like The Masked Singer. It blends humor, bravado, and yep, costumes, for a fresh spin on an existing and successful concept.
But don’t stress. Your idea doesn’t have to be so overwhelming when you’re starting out. Your idea can focus on smaller concepts found among the headlines in your neighborhood newspaper, Facebook, YouTube, or even from friends you know. It doesn’t have to include already recognizable celebrities like Adam Levine or Carson Daly.
Take for example the long-running History Channel reality show Pawn Stars. That show’s origins started small when the producers of Leftfield Pictures were fascinated by the myriad and motley world of Las Vegas pawn shops, which eventually lead them to the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop near the Vegas Strip. It’s a shop that had been featured in a PBS documentary and on Insomniac with Dave Attell. The owner of the pawn shop was itching to get a reality TV show about his establishment produced. Now keep in mind, there are thousands of pawn shops that could have been produced into a show, but the characters at Gold and Silver Pawn — plus their willingness to participate in a reality show — led to the successful sale of the show, now in its 16th season.
That’s what it takes: a strong idea and an interesting and willing cast.
Once a Reality TV Producer has negotiated the terms of shooting a sizzle reel, he or she must have all the Talent sign at least a 1-year option agreement that allows the Producer to shoot a sizzle reel and prevents the cast from working any side deals with other Producers or production companies. A huge mistake for a Reality TV Producer would be to shoot a sizzle reel without the option agreement. A Producer could put in a ton of valuable time interviewing, shooting, editing, and pitching only to discover the cast has signed another deal with another production company – and that is bad news. Do not risk losing your concept to someone else who may have more clout and connections in the television industry. Essentially, if you own the option to Talent, you own the idea and can freely pitch and potentially sell your concept. For an existing Talent option agreement that can be modified to suit the specific needs of your reality TV sizzle production, click here.
Interviewing Your Cast
Interviewing your cast in their natural habitat is essential to showcasing your cast. When I co-produced a reality TV show concept about a comic book store in Orlando, Florida, all of the interviews were done on the fly in the comic book store. The interviews are usually shot one of two ways: on the fly (OTF) or sit-and-lits, in which the subject being interviewed is sat down in a formal setting within the environment (in this case a comic shop), lit professionally, and interviewed. I personally appreciate OTFs more than sit-and-lists because it can give the interviews real dynamic energy while also getting important information about the subject and the subject’s world. Regardless of how you decide to shoot your interviews, the interviews are the glue that ties the entire story together. While a great reality show doesn’t rely on interviews alone to show a story, they can be essential to helping the audience understand the story and what’s going on inside the heads of the cast.
Verity Moments Keep the Action Interesting
While interviews help viewers get inside the heads of the cast, it’s the action of the cast that makes the sizzle interesting. What do your subjects do, how to they interact, how do conflicts arise, and how does the cast battle, deal with, and potentially resolve those conflicts? The only way to truly show (and showing is always more impactful than telling), the Reality TV Producer and his or her team must follow the cast trying to accomplish a goal. Let’s take a look at a show like Nailed It! With a Google User Like Rating of 95% and a 7.3/10 on IMDB, Nailed It! showcases home bakers who are typically terrible in the kitchen and challenges them to re-create an “edible masterpiece” in a competition for $10,000. Whichever baker does the best, wins. It is a simple, joyful, and “against-the-clock” style reality show that connects with viewers by pitting everyday folks against each other in what’s essentially a bake-off. That’s how clean and precise the focus of your sizzle should be. Get to the point and get it in 3 to 5 minutes (the length your sizzle reel should be).
Crew and Gear: Keep It Simple
Although the actual production team of a sold reality show will most likely be larger, depending on the scope of your sizzle reel, your production team should be almost ENG style. ENG stands for Electronic News Gathering and comes from the world of news. It typically consists of a Camera Operator, an Audio Operator, and a Producer/Interviewer. In some cases, lighting is required, but many sizzle reels are shot affordably and the less you spend on paying for crew and gear, then the better. Remember, as the Producer, it is your responsibility to fund your project and you should never ask crew to work for free (unless the crew also want to be Producers, who hopefully end up inking a deal to work on the show). On the low end, you may be able to typically hire a Camera Operator with gear for around $300 a day. Just note that full-time Camera Operators make more money working budgeted shows; sometimes $500 a day and sometimes $750 a day, depending on the production. Audio Operators with gear usually come in on the low end at $600 day on budgeted productions. You may be able to get one to come to the table for less, say $300, but in both cases – with Camera and Audio Operators – you run the risk of losing them if they get offered a higher paying gig.
In terms of gear, as long as you’re shooting in high definition at least 2K with a wide angle lens, you should be good. In the world of reality TV sizzle reels, it’s not about the cinematography or video quality as much as it’s about the quality of the story. Story is everything. Executives and production companies interested in new reality TV concepts are less concerned with how flashy your sizzle reel is and more interested in the cast and stories you’re bringing to the pitch. Some affordable camera options can be found here.
Editing Your Sizzle Reel
Currently, there are two editing platforms used in editing Reality TV shows: AVID Media Composer and Adobe Premiere Pro. AVID runs about $1,300 and Premiere comes in at about $240. Personally, my use of Premiere has served me well and the lower price point makes it more affordable. There are also lower-priced monthly subscriptions options, with Premiere costing about $30 a month.
When structuring your edit, fall back on the basics of storytelling: setting, characters, and plot.
Your sizzle reel should introduce the setting clearly with exterior and interior visuals of the world in which your show takes place. Recently, I camera operated on Discovery’s Homestead Rescue, a reality TV show about the adventures of the Raney family – expert homesteaders from Alaska – who visit homesteads around the United States and help solve their toughest issues including getting clean water to the homestead, fending off wild animals like wolves, and building efficient and safe houses on their land.
The setting of your sizzle must set up that world with vast shots of homesteads, details of animal threats, and shots of things that need to be fixed up. Often, interviews or simple narration can help establish the setting so the viewer understands what he or she is looking at.
Next, introduce your cast. Have them talk about who they are and what they do and why they are the best — or at least very interesting — at what they do and how they think. Not only can the introduction of the characters be shown with interviews, but also with actions. Let’s see them at work. Remember, showing is always stronger than telling.
Finally, set up the conflict and the goals. In the case of the Raneys, the patriarch Marty Raney, a gruff and strong-willed Alaskan, will disagree with kids and partners Matt and Misty, and that’s great for story. In a sizzle reel, allow the natural personalities and disagreements to flourish. It is conflict that will compel the story and engage audiences. Conflict doesn’t equate cruelty, as some reality shows do. Great conflict is typically when passionate people have strong opinions and equally interesting methods to solving problems. In fact, cruel reality TV is not recommended. Viewers are drawn more to genuine conflict that arises from circumstances and not from manufactured conflict created in post-production.
So, while editing, you are essentially excavating and “mining” for the best moments and interview bites. You are boiling your edit down to the essentials of storytelling. Just get to the point by depicting the setting, characters, and plot. You may be in love with some things that are repetitive. It’s important to hit the high notes in a sizzle, so ask yourself: am I repeating themes too much in my edit? Do I need to show five conflicts, or simply boil it down to the one to three best conflicts in the edit? Executives and production companies get it and that is why less is often more.
It’s also important to note that the music for videos in your sizzle counts, but shouldn’t cost you money. In fact, it is OK and accepted to use music from anywhere that drives the visual story of your sizzle reel. Yes, you are trying to sell a show, but the sizzle can typically have existing music since the sizzle should never see the light of day on TV or on a subscription platform like Netflix. It’s only for the pitch and if you sell a show, then the production company will pay for published and licensed music before the show actually airs.
Writing a One-Page Treatment
Even though the sizzle reel is the flagship of your idea, you still need a one-page (sometimes you need one to five pages depending on the show concept) treatment that explains your concept. It should be structured by explaining the setting, characters, and plot and it should also be visually interesting with photos of your cast and locations.
The Log Line
Open with a strong Log Line: 1 to 3 sentences that clearly state what your show is about. Be brief and be concise. Examples include:
“A group of women (or men) will court and compete to win the affections of one man who will narrow the selection until he must decide on his one true love.”
1 to 3 paragraphs that clearly illustrate an episode arc. This builds on the logline and more clearly shows the nuts and bolts of an episode’s story.
“Coach Snoop follows Snoop Dogg as he coaches California youth football. The Snoop Youth Football League encourages at-risk kids to be involved in football as an extracurricular and focus on goals instead of getting into trouble. The show gets personal with kids in the league, with heartwarming and tear-jerking moments that will have you invested in the players not just winning the game, but winning against a system designed for them to fail.”
The Seaon 1 Series Arc
Even though your sizzle will showcase the general premise of your reality TV idea, you should still be thinking ahead with a series arc based on what can actually be captured in the field with your case.
A simple list of six to ten episodes, each with its own logline, will show that you are coming to the pitch with a fully conceived season of episodes.
Setup pitch meetings with the right people
New Reality TV Producers pining to break into the industry will have a tough road to getting their sizzle reel in front of the right people. Who are the right people? Production companies and network executives who already produce reality TV with strong connections and successful shows on the air.
However, it is not impossible and it happens – hence why there are so many reality shows on broadcast and subscription TV.
Finding the Right Production Company or Exec
Step 1: Get on Their Radar
Ask yourself, what other reality shows are like mine? Make a list. After making that list, use Google and IMDBPro to discover which production companies are producing shows similar to yours. Then try to find out who is in charge of acquiring new ideas and productions. That is the individual you want to target. One way to find that person’s email address is by searching the company’s website or by searching LinkedIn. It’s OK to essentially cold email these folks because they are always searching for new and innovative ideas and if you have a sizzle reel that clearly and impact-fully shows your concept, you have just hurdled over the biggest obstacle: proving you have something worthwhile.
Step 2: Take the Meeting
Many production companies and execs will not get back to you. That is the harsh reality of trying to sell a reality TV show concept. However, some may and those are the ones you want to try to partner with. They see something in your work and are willing to carve out time to meet.
This is why you must know your idea inside and out by being able to casually and confidently pitch the setting, characters, and plot verbally while also sharing your one sheet and sizzle reel in a room with prospects. They want to know that not only do you have a solid idea but that you’re also a reliable and professional source. They want a partner they can count on because for at least a year, you are the connection to the optioned Talent.
Dress the part! The entertainment industry is often a casual one, but you want to put your best foot forward by showing up dressed business-casual, ready to present, and ready to impress. Think about all the time you put into packaging your pitch: the optioned Talent, the production, the editing, a treatment, and a sizzle – don’t blow it by showing up sloppy or too casual.
Step 3: Ink the Deal
If you get to the point of signing a contract, don’t be too trusting. Find an Entertainment Lawyer to review the deal, make sure you are 100% clear on what you’re getting out of the contract and how involved you will be in the production, and create a deal in which you feel like your road to becoming a full-time Reality TV Producer is paved for your future. If you can’t afford an Entertainment Lawyer, then at the very least, read the contract and don’t be scared to negotiate. Executives and production companies expect negotiations, even from newbies.