Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Development hell part ii

OK, so thinking more about development stuff, as I posted yesterday, here are my completely-random-but-I'll-find-some-logic-in-'em list of how to think up a tv show. And I'll try to do one as a go - but a puposely rubbish one so you, dear reader, can't run off and make it.

As Location (x3) proves, title is crucial. [An aside: notice how it's just Relocation, Relocation not x3. Hmm. Discuss] A catchy title is everything or - more importantly nowadays - one that does as it says on the tin. The Boy With Two Heads, for example. Was Hitler Gay? (Answer: no, but it took 52 minutes to get there).

So let's think up a title. How Big Is My Pan? Now the pan could be a toilet or a cooking implement, the show about kitchen inspectors, or eating too much, or giant speed-eating competitions or something. We don't care at this stage.

No use thinking of a great factual series called The World's Dirtiest Perversions if the channel is looking for a 7pm slot. Or, equally, Sell My Shit From The Loft For Some Spurious Reason wouldn't work at 8pm - it's more a daytime show (which already exists, obviously)

Channel is important too - Oops, My Fake Boobs Have Exploded! isn't really a BBC One show (although until recently BBC Three might've been the place). Equally ITV1 won't commission A History Of Bathmats, unless it was presented by Sir David Jason.

I think How Big Is My Pan? (or HBIMP in tellyterms) is a crossover show, daytime or early peak, 3pm/7pm BBC Two / morning BBC One, daytime ITV 1, not C4, 8pm C5, any time on all the various satellite channels.

Presenters are key to any show - although interestingly in daytime they're more interchangeable. Look at the various people who've presented Bargain Hunt, or the 152 property shows. Or, indeed, This Morning [another aside: they're spreading This Morning to seven days a week, with hour-long shows at noon on Sat and Sun... er, a show called This MORNING (clue) on in the afternoon: well done ITV!!!!)

Finding a new factual presenter is the holy grail to a show like HBIMP? There was some bloke in the Guardian at the weekend who presents a series on eating loads of food in the States. We'll get him, or 'a British equivalent' (ie we'll go round the eating competitions - they do exist - and find someone who can be vaguely articulate as they stuff twelve Big Macs down their neck) But we'll need a non-speed eater too, a pair of presenters. Let's say Steve Jones. He's pretty and competent, looks nice, can read an autocue, has worked live, has lovely teeth, appeals to mums and teen girls, blokes and that, nice hair... note how appearance matters here, specially if the other guy is fat and/or lardy.

Until we know what we've got to spend, we can't decide on the format. No use having HBIMP? in a huge studio like The X Factor if we're on £25K an episode daytime money.

Finally, format - content - the actual show. You need a structure, building to a climax at the end. If the show is an hour, the lots of recaps, as viewers apparently forget what they're watching and enjoy the same 'highlight' being show 4 times before we get to it at the end. Ahem.

HBIMP? is a studio-based gameshow where people compete to cook vast amounts of food for the ENTIRE studio audience, so it shows the difference between making catering quantity portions to normal dinners. Why anyone would care about that, I have no clue, a format issue you could rightly point out... er... well, the audience are entirely owners of restaurants so they'd want to know. And us as viewers all go to restaurants, yeah?

Hmm. Either that's actually a good format (and God knows, we need another foodie format on telly ahem) or it's even shitter than I originally envisaged.

Obviously I've done this order to illustrate just why shows on telly might not have the best thought-out format. Some people - good ones - work out a format first then make it fit the first 4 points above. It might involve some shoehorning in, but if you've a strong format idea in the first place it's a help.

Not to point any fingers but some formats are just shite on a stick. I mean, did no-one at the BBC ever really acknowledge that Bargain Hunt has the slight format flaw that people are buying at retail prices and selling at wholesale ones? Hence them hardly ever making money. You could argue it destroys the format - I wouldn't, as it just destroys the PRETEND climax. Like those people on Cash In The Attic, they don't need the money for that long-awaited holiday, they really don't, we know it. Or Time Team - "we've three days to excavate an entire site"... why is it just three days? If it's proper interesting real history, they should be able to get longer. Or turn up earlier.

If you can write a show with a REAL climax, then you're better than most, I have to say. Even Grand Designs fails when the house isn't finished at the end - after all that we don't see the final result. It's like a porn movie where they are at it for 53 minutes then stop and have a chat about how incredible their climaxes would've been if they'd kept going.

Now, where's Steve Jones' number? I can see the HBIMP? logo now, a giant pan.... obviously...

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Thinking up ideas for the television

Working in development is either the bestest telly job in the world or the worstest - and I should know, as at various points of my career I've thought both.

My first few months as a 'development producer' were some of the best of my telly career. I got to watch telly as research. Then I had time to write up almost anything that came into my head. And I went to meetings with my three bosses where we talked about what each channel or com.ed. wanted, and I designed ideas around them. Or we went to pitch ideas and the com.ed. would steer us in a different direction, and I got to do that.

I think the main reason I liked it was that I found it much easier than actually producing a real show. Everything was fictional, from the big-name presenter we assigned (probably not available), the set (it'd be tiny in real life) or location (nah, in a studio mate, on that budget), the contestants involved if it was a gameshow (pretend, usually named after my mates for ease of remembering who was who) to the staff who'd make it (allegedly).

There was also the fact I'd got twenty-nine years of watching telly under my belt, and an entire three years of making it, and therefore I was full to bursting of new, original, unique ideas.

Well, that's what I thought.

Fast-forward a year, through coming up with hundreds of ideas across almost every genre. And a few commissions here and there - pilots, one-offs, even short series, so not a total flop. I got a dab hand at writing a treatment, organising the information in a way that caught the eye of a com.ed. and told them all they needed to know in as few words as possible

And I cut out pictures from magazines to make the docs look pretty (before the interweb you see). Nice fonts. Careful layout. Glossy copying.

I enjoyed the pitch meetings more than I'd ever expect, realising the com.eds were mere mortals like me - and, for the first time, thinking I could work for a broadcaster too.

Being in with proper writers to talk about a drama. Or meeting legendary figures from TV like William G Stewart, to plan one of the first reality gameshows. Making a pilot with Leslie Ash and a sheep giving birth. Writing a sitcom script.

It was a lot of fun.

But it was also... well, I feel silly complaining, but it was relentless. When you're writing yet another daytime gameshow, or reformatting a factual entertainment show around two of the trendiest presenters of the moment, or trying to work out what new spin to put on pets (I had to do that five times - I believe one segment was called Pet Shop Toys... sigh)

Eventually anyone simply runs out of steam, a mixture of "nah, that isn't original, I wrote something like that a month ago", or overloading with too much research TV and accidentally copying something, or one too many times sitting saying "this is a new spin on the dating show" to be told "oh, we've just commissioned a dating show" - it gets incredibly wearing.

And anything and everything can be a TV show - well it seems that way, from an article in the Daily Mail to a throwaway title idea on a scrap of paper.

I think I reached my nadir when I was writing a show about shopping for someone. It had been specifically requested anyway. I wrote a thing called Shopping Central, a vacuous bland show in a different shopping mall each week, with a 'compare 3p a tin Lidl baked beans to £5 a tin Harrods ones' and... urgh, the rest has faded from my memory.

I was pasting John Leslie's head over a magazine pic of a man standing in front of a shopping mall, as - yes - he was our chosen big name presenter (ahem) when it occurred to me that sitting with a stick of Pritt, scalpel and John Leslie's dismembered head wasn't quite what I expected when being promoted to 'Head of Development' for a reasonably sized indie.

That's when I applied for the job on the mad cable station where all the ideas had to be twisted and weirdo, not proper and normal, got it and just about saved my sanity.

Nowadays I concentrate on other areas of telly but I still can turn out a shiny-floor Saturday night game show in a couple of hours, or a daytime relationship thing in an afternoon. I even quite enjoy it now, as it's not the be-all and end-all of my life.

As for the quality of the ideas on telly, well.. they somehow seem more derivative than ever. How many ripoffs of Come Dine With Me is it possible to produce? Harry Hill has fun with the four or five he's covered so far (most of them on ITV channels). We're in dire need of a revolution in ideas, that hopefully the death of the property show will unleash. I think the last new set of interesting formats sprang from Faking It and Wife Swap (Secret Millionaire being the latest here, or Undercover Boss in the US).

Me, I'm happy with Antiques Roadshow, The Soup, Glee and Archer. More on the latter soon...