How to Develop a Reality-Show Concept

As much as everyone says how much they hate them, reality shows are hot and getting hotter all the time. If you think you've got the next "Survivor," follow these steps to see if your idea has legs.

Come up with a million-dollar idea. Think: "Wouldn't it be great if . . ." Let your concept sit for a while, then finesse it until it feels right. Decide if it's a half-hour show or a full hour.

Outline at least two sample episodes. Writing up additional episode ideas proves the show has legs. They can each be just a few pages long.

Develop the treatment. Paint a picture of what the show's all about in a thesis statement. Entice your readers, but make the treatment as straightforward and clear as possible.

Identify your audience in the treatment. The single most important element of a successful show is to judge accurately what the market is buying. Is your show the next "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"? Articulate very clearly which market you're targeting, on which channel, and for which demographic group. For example, say "this is an organizing and makeover show on TLC geared to adults ages 24 to 64."

Decide if your idea is a high- or low-concept show. High-concept shows have a twist, a hybrid element that has never been done before. So although surrounding an eligible bachelor with 25 young women who have absolutely no self-respect is not new, abandoning the whole gang in a snow cave with only shotguns to get food and then seeing who wins the guy would be. Lowconcept means the show is straightforward without a twist, such as "The New Yankee Workshop."

Shop your concept around. Since networks won't buy from some Joe Schmoe, pitch your idea to a production company, an agent or even a hot talent (host): If you're peddling better buns in 30 days, you'll want Kathy Smith on board. Make a verbal pitch, but use any visual aids--photos, a short clip that you filmed, storyboards-- that would help explain why yours is the next hot show.

Take a deep breath if the network decides to develop a pilot: You've made it to the next step. Since the network is a vast animal with many parts, a 10- to 25-minute teaser tape (a pilot presentation) may be filmed to pitch it within the network or to show its syndicators. If a network decides to develop a full pilot, you may be asked to rework it--several times even (and possibly on your own dime).

Congratulate yourself if your series gets picked up. Now comes the real work of developing a budget and preparing for production. And . . . action!


The National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE.org) holds a convention every year. All the program managers attend to see what's new and hot, and decide what to buy. Your pilot presentation may be shown there, as well as to people within the network. It helps if you have any onboard talent (include photos and bios). The most important facet of network programming is advertising. Which companies would most likely sponsor your program or provide product placement? Are there natural product tie-ins? Every reality show has wellplaced product endorsements-- no matter how great the concept is, the network won't buy it if they can't sell it. Include examples in your pitch. If the production company or network options your show, it may take three months to a year or more before it's slated in the schedule. You may get paid for this time or not, depending on your contract. During this time, the network may kick it back to you for redevelopment, redevelop it themselves, or pair you with someone on their staff to do the work.

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