Pitching Game Shows? It’s All in the Mechanics

Long before anyone can say: “Survey says…” or “Is that your final answer…?,” some clever content creator has had to conceive of the concept, design the mechanics and successfully pitch their game show idea to make it television “reality.” But demonstrating perspective gameplay “in the room” can be awkward and even the most perfect trivia questions can be tedious distilled as an element in a live presentation.

If anyone has worked out how to best pitch games shows, it’s Murray Boland. A BAFTA-award-winning executive producer and Creative Director for CPL Productions. His knowledge has been hard-earned over two and a half decades of developing, pitching and producing all sorts of non-scripted programming – but especially game shows.

 “Quiz shows are almost impossible to pitch verbally. They sound terrible. Any attempt to describe them is usually a disaster,” Murray shares.

Across all genres and formats: the higher the concept, the more marketable; the simpler the premise, the easier it is to pitch verbally – the whole way through the marketing labyrinth to advertising to the viewing public. It used to be far more common for producers to have their prospects actually play the game or even hire actors to play it “in the room” (i.e.: during the official pitch meeting).

“Ten years back,” Murray remembers, “we saw incredibly involved pitches, Strictly Come Dancing for example, brought ballroom dancers into the pitch room. Generally speaking though, this isn’t a great idea. It can be off-putting to a commissioner.”

 Game Show Proof of Concept Pilots Dwindling

 “Most quiz shows can be impenetrably difficult to pitch cold,” Murray concedes. Some producers invest speculatively – up front – in their shows, shooting proof of concept segments or “pilots” of actors or everyday people playing their game.

“People do that,” Murray acknowledges. “They go off and invest their own money – but it’s often a waste of time. Shooting a pilot before the broadcaster is engaged tends to be unhelpful. They’ve had no input on its journey. You want to spend as little in development and put as little pressure as possible on the commissioner initially. It’s less financially onerous for you, too.”

Playing the game in a pitch meeting isn’t out of the question – especially for unique, key elements that might be fun and engaging – or even running through a rehearsal with prototype contestants – but these activities are more appropriate after your financier/distributor has expressed initial interest. But how do you get from here to there?

Animated Sizzle Reels = the Hot “New” Solution

Cleverly written animated sizzle reels can effectively lay out the mechanics of the format – especially of quiz shows. “They’ve been used increasingly. David Young, creator of Eggheads [and The Weakest Link among more than a dozen game shows] does this brilliantly. He was one of the first people in the UK to do it,” Murray reveals. “He’s brilliant at laying out quizzes. They’re very simple: just writing words down in an animated fashion. It’s much easier to pitch via an animated sizzle reel as an initial point of contact to get them interested. Then you can get people in a room and run it.”

Proposed big physical challenges can be especially cost-prohibitive to shoot. Animated schematics intermixed with Internet footage and stills can cost-effectively offer a sense of the show at reasonable stakes for all parties.

Beat Outlines Never Go Out of Style

Beat outlines can highlight the show’s concept and effectively tease the inner workings of its architecture. Murray advises: “It depends on how simple or complicated the show’s mechanics are. If it’s a simple show, I would definitely use a beat outline: just a simple headline and walk through no more than four of five sets of key beats.”

Game Show Treatments (Simple is Best)

“We pitched A League of Their Own on paper,” Murray explains. When asked for more specifics, he generously shared: “Six pages. The first two pages set up the idea. The remaining offered a brief outline of what an episode would contain: five rounds, a straightforward sports quiz. The key to getting these things on paper to work is to bring it to life via the joy of the examples. The treatments that don’t work are dry. Provide an incredible number of fun– but brief – examples (of the trivia questions, obstacles, etc.).”

 Social Experiment Shows Much Easier to Pitch

Social Experiment shows such as Married at First Sight are much easier to pitch verbally (like most other factual programming). They are far more research-based and almost completely contingent on the Producer’s credibility in producing like programming. In these cases, the initial pitch might be best served as a top note thumbnail sketch to ascertain a channel’s interest, listen to and implement their feedback and come back more fully fleshed out and customized specifically for their outlet’s demographics.

 Cooking Shows: It’s All About the Chef

“Cooking shows tend to be very talent-based. You either have a big-name chef or an exciting new one. It’s very rare to get these shows off the ground if you don’t have either.” Notable format twists include shows like Ready Steady Cook that pair celebrity chefs with everyday audience members in fun cooking competitions.

 Prank Shows? It’s All About the Twist

“Prank shows are incredibly specialist,” Murray explains. “There’s a very specific approach to doing it. Once you’ve pitched one (and made one), it’s much easier to get others set up. There have been so many different variations of Candid Camera over the years, if you’re going to build a hidden camera show, you have to show us subjects or territory that hasn’t been tackled in the past. We’ve seen the handicapped version, old folks, parents pranking their kids, magicians pranking the public – you have to show us something new.”

 Celebreality Always Comes Down to Access

If you’re basing the strength of your pitch on having famous sports stars, chefs, high-profile hosts or other celebrities attached or interested, your connection needs to not only be solid – but one that others couldn’t easily replicate.

For All Star Mr and Mrs. CPL secured the rights to produce this classic game show in the UK: “No one had made it in a long time. What clinched it was the host agreeing to do it. That was what tipped ITV over the edge. Getting the right talent attached.” (Re: Host Phillip Schofield, the famous English television presenter).

“There are two main elements that can get you the commission,” Murray discloses.

“relationship with talent who wants to do something or a great idea. We spend a lot of money coming up with shows from scratch. That’s why we like co-productions.  If you come in with a great idea off the bat – and there’s no development expense for us – we’ll come up with a co-production deal to work together.”

No matter who you’re pitching to – or what kind of format: hook them with your headline idea – then take them somewhere.

Heather Hale is a film and television screenwriter, director, producer and consultant. Her next StoryTellers on WalkAbout retreat is in September in Lucca (Tuscany) Italy. Her How to Work the Film & TV Markets is due out June 2017 (Focal Press) and Story$elling: How to Pitch Film & TV Projects is due out next February 2018 (Michael Weise Productions).