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...

1 comment:

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