How to Pitch a TV Show

June 4, 2019
The actor/producer documents the bumpy ride to getting a show commissioned by an Australian network.

Like all great pieces of work, a cracker TV program or film starts with a great idea. You think of an idea which you believe holds promise. After trying your hand at a couple of scripts you send them to the other members of your production company, a production company which, at this stage, is basically a loosely held-together group of creatives who all want to make the world laugh.

Your idea is the story of doctors working in a sexual health clinic. Even though your draft scripts are mostly puns and a repetition of funny-sounding words like ‘genitalia’, your colleagues can also see the potential. They go off and write outlines for more advanced and nuanced stories within that world. You’re happy with that. You’re an actor and writing isn’t your strong suit. Lesson one: know your strengths.

Meanwhile, putting on your producer’s hat, you turn your attention to the upcoming launch of your TV series. It’s a shortform scripted comedy which follows the lives of the DJs inside Australia’s worst radio station. It’s about to premiere on New Zealand’s largest Free-to-Air broadcaster and, shortly after, a major airline’s inflight entertainment system. You are one of the lead cast members. It’ll introduce you to one of the largest audiences you’ve ever had. Just try not to get too excited.

The show launches on Australian flights and New Zealand tellies, goes on Youtube and another TV network picks it up for Canada, the UK, the US and France. Objectively, it’s a ‘successful TV show’. But for you, it didn’t reach the heights you had hoped for inside your head.

Meanwhile, your writer colleagues have come back with some first draft scripts of the sex health comedy. They are pretty funny and you definitely see the potential, starting to push the idea out to health organisations and funding bodies. Simultaneously, you decide you want to try a different career path for a time, and apply to nearly every police force in the country. Looking back, you’ll realise this was your ‘quarter life crisis’ moment.

As scripts for the new show develop, you part ways with your acting agent and get down to the final few in your round in the police force. Your creative colleagues are surprised at your move away from the acting industry but, as you tell them at the time, your cynicism for the industry is overshadowing your passion for telling stories. Despite this, you’re still shooting off dozens of emails and constantly cold calling funding bodies, broadcasters, production companies, actors, producers, private investors and organisations about the project because you can still sense there’s something there. Lesson two: persistence is key.

It’s early August 2016. The gruelling tests that have led you down to the shortlist have ended with yet another ‘No’. You stand, crying, out in the freezing blackness of a random beach, on the phone to your mum. You lament the fact that you’re about to turn a quarter of a century, you feel like a failure, you’ve constantly been rejected in the acting world and now you couldn’t even find acceptance in an unrelated industry. Your family and friends support you through everything. Lesson three: surround yourself with lovely people.

When you get back to Melbourne (why on earth did you move there from Queensland, what was the point!), you get a call for a marketing job at an arts university. You barely remember applying for it, and upon looking at your Seek application you realise you actually attached your hospitality CV. Still, your three-plate-carry must have impressed the selection panel.

You attend an interview in Melbourne for the job, accidentally drop some swear words in the interview, get offered the job (it’s actually quite a creative role) and it pays well.

You start the job the day before your 25th birthday. Lesson four: enjoy the journey.

Randomly, a colleague and now friend in another department remembers that you have done acting and film & television before. She mentions her friend is acting in a short film, and that the director of that film is looking for a Melbourne-based producer. She asks if you would like to be put forward. You say yes.

On a Skype call with the director, you realise he’s a very established actor, that this is his first time directing and the cast and creative team already attached are very experienced. He’s written a fantastic script as well as being an all-round lovely person.

Your last series that you had previously deemed ‘a failure’ now acts as a showreel of your work not only as an actor, but a producer. You get the gig. Lesson five: everything leads to something.

The short film you produce will go on to win many awards over the next few years. The stellar cast includes a prominent Aussie performer, and at the wrap party they ask you ‘what’s next?’. They offer to take a look at your CV and forward it on. Lesson six: stay for the wrap party.

You go back to your marketing job, but now the fire for film and television has been rekindled. A month later, you get a call for coffee at one of Australia’s most successful production companies; they’re working on a second season of a top secret show about bringing people’s true and amazing stories to life. You quit your marketing job, work your butt off on an initial two week contract and two years later, you’ve been working fulltime in television, mainly comedy.

The TV show you were working on back in 2016 has gone through many iterations from super educational to super absurd, and one of the health organisations you were working with offers use of its clinic as a filming location. You shoot a Proof of Concept on Grand Final Weekend.

Once edited, you tell the networks that you and your director are flying to Sydney and have something to show them …but only in person. It’s been almost three years since you’ve met with them but in a way, that is what has increased the chances of your pitch meeting request being accepted. You’re still here and you’re still badgering them; you’ve demonstrated your persistence. Lesson seven: see lesson two.

You observe the decision makers watching you act in scenes on an iPad and tell them it’s okay if they don’t laugh. Luckily, you receive positive feedback to the pilot and ultimately a Network makes an offer. The cast and creative team attached grows, and funding bodies say ‘Yes’ to supporting the project.

You then start down a whole other rabbit hole of challenges that face a production once it’s been greenlit … but that’s another story.

You know that your leading role in an upcoming TV series is going to be super fun, super hard work and may or may not lead to the next thing – but you now feel constantly grateful as a result of your past experiences. You know how lucky and privileged you are and enjoy the fact that you get to tell stories for a living. Lesson eight: be grateful.

Top tips for having your TV show made:

  • Identify a solid idea and objectively evaluate it
  • Know your strengths
  • Be persistent
  • Surround yourself with nice people
  • Enjoy the journey
  • Embrace the low points to appreciate the high ones
  • Balance a social life
  • Invest in filming a proof of concept to show people what is in your head.

Riley Nottingham is an Australian actor, singer/songwriter and producer.

Humdrum Comedy’s Metro Sexual, an eight-part series for 9Go! and streaming platform 9Now will screen in 2019.

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