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Q: An idea for a TV show ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   6 Comments )
Subject: An idea for a TV show
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Television
Asked by: hagen-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 18 Aug 2003 00:12 PDT
Expires: 17 Sep 2003 00:12 PDT
Question ID: 245877
What can a lay person do who has a great idea for the next big hit
prime time TV show? Should I write a letter to ABC and alike, possibly
giving them the idea for free or should I hire a concept writer and a
producer who then pitch the idea first and once someone is interested
basically just sponsoring the production team (investing capital
wouldn't be the problem)?

I would like to see some options explained in detail (let's say at
least three) and and how they compare in terms of involvement,
pay-off, complexity and risk.
Subject: Re: An idea for a TV show
Answered By: nancylynn-ga on 19 Aug 2003 01:22 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello hagen-ga: 

I've found some very helpful links for you on how to pitch a TV show.

But first, let's consider expense: You don't have to worry about
coming up with funds to cover production costs. The production company
and/ or network will assume those expenses. It's similar to, say, if
you sold a manuscript to a publishing house, the publisher wouldn't
expect you to pay for the actual costs of printing and marketing the
book. (Unless of course you self-published the book, but I'm not aware
of any vanity or do-it-yourself TV networks!)

The only option that would involve any expense on your part would be
hiring a writer to write the treatment (summary/ proposal of 3-5
pages; really, a written pitch). If you feel you will need a pro to do
that, there are many resources available to you:

According to the Writers Guild of America (WGA), East (scroll down to
TV rates): 
as of May 2001, the minimum union fee for a TV treatment appears to be
about $1,400 - $3,600. I'm going by what they're categorizing as
"Polish" (as opposed to writing a full teleplay), because I don't see
separate fee rates for just treatments.

Please note that these are the minimum rates production companies and
studios must pay union writers. You can probably hire someone for less
money, but you may have to settle for a young writer who's in college,
or just out of college, and hoping to start a career as a
screenwriter. You may also attract experienced copy or features
writers who want to try their hand at film and TV, and who are willing
to work for less than scale to get a treatment credit on their resume.

You can advertise (for what I believe are fairly reasonable rates) for
a professional writer at quite a few sites, including:  (the National Writers Union)

Many writers are scrambling for work these days, so you'll get a good
response. You may have to choose between spending a bit more than you
wanted to, or settling for a less experienced treatment writer. My
advice is, hire the writer who is most experienced and whose
background seems most in sync with your proposed project.

I'm a professional writer, so I'll admit to a bias: Unless you have
considerable writing experience, I think you're going to be better off
having a professional writer write the treatment, or at least finesse
your draft of the treatment. (No, I'm not auditioning for the job! The
only TV writing I've ever done was narration and I don't have any
experience in entertainment television, other than watching it.)

Whether or not you decide to hire a writer, I strongly advise that you
not approach any production company or network until you have an agent
representing you. (They probably won't consider an "un-represented"
proposal anyway.) An agent will also advise you on how to fine-tune
your treatment to increase its chances for success, and may even
recommend a writer who's perfectly suited to your project.

BE AWARE: reputable agents don't charge upfront fees, sometimes called
"reading fees"!  If an agent charges any such fee, turn and run! Many
agents do pass along long-distance faxing and telephone, and copying
expenses to writers they represent; that's standard practice.

Most agents take 15% of the money they get for you as their fee. (And,
as those personal injury lawyers love to say: they don't make money
unless you make money! A reputable agent will never charge you for
their time; only for results.) Good agents also negotiate fair
contracts for their writers and are on the lookout for contractual
clauses could hurt and haunt you.

So, the only expense you risk in approaching agents would be mailing
fees. You solicit agents with what's called a query letter, which is
really a pitch for a pitch. You want to send a letter that, in 2-3
paragraphs, sums up your idea for a TV show, which you hope to pitch
to a network. Then close the letter by offering to send the agent the
treatment. Enclose a SASE for the agent's response.

What you'll have to decide is, is your pitch good enough for an agent,
or is it worth spending about $1,000 - $1,500 (or, a little less or
maybe a little more) to have a professional polish the treatment for
you? For a little extra money, that writer may also agree to write a
template query letter for the project. Only you can evaluate the true
strengths and weaknesses of your writing abilities. Even though
queries and treatments are short, if they're not concise and "grabby,"
they're bound to result in a form rejection letter.

If you decide you can write the query yourself, check these samples of
query letters to agents and how-to advice:

"Writing The Query Letter":  

The WGA's "The Quest for A Winning Query Letter" (this article is
geared to film and TV projects, and to screenwriters, but the
parameters apply to your needs): 
Another word of advice on queries: don't "oversell" it. If you state
"sure to be the next big hit" it will likely be a turn-off. Agents
want clients who are who are innovative, talented, hard-working,
even-tempered -- and very realistic.

For agents who handle scripts and TV projects, go to your local
library and consult the newest edition of Writer's Market Guide. You
can also peruse their Web site at:

You can search the WGA's database of agents at: (at left see menu of links and click on "List of

As for approaching a network directly, without an agent: as
cryptica-ga mentioned, most networks and production companies won't
even read your proposal, just as most book publishers won't look at
any manuscript or proposal unless an agent submits it. Some of the
links I'm about to list for you may challenge my stance on that, but I
firmly believe that any writer (or "idea person") without an agent is
utterly exposed to the wolves. A good agent is worth far more than the
15% he or she will charge.

But if you can't get an agent and you want to forge ahead, find
contacts at the Hollywood Creative Directory:  

If you then obtain a meeting with a development director at a network
or production company, and your idea sells, immediately hire an agent
(an agent who turned you down before will now gladly get onboard), or
an entertainment lawyer, before you sign the contract. Don't use just
any lawyer; you need an attorney who specializes in

Ok, here's that promised list of sites offering advice on how/ where
to pitch your idea for a TV show:

"So You Wanna Pitch A TV Show?"

Pilot Project (contest in which you pitch your idea to judges):

See more about Pilot Project in this June 2003 Seattle Times article

"The Sundance Channel's TV Lab":
(Of course, Sundance is so prestigious, I wouldn't worry about
participating in this event without an agent.)

NAPTE runs boot camps where you can develop TV show concepts, and then
pitch them to actual TV executives. The fee for non-members is $460:  
See the June 25 press release detailing the event, which is held every
August. Unfortunately, you missed this summer's camp, but you can
e-mail to see when boot camp will be held again.

Some advice from a former movie executive about breaking into TV:

This June 2003 article from The Business Journal of Phoenix, aimed at
entrepreneurs developing a business plan, will give you some insight
re: what TV executives are looking for in a pitch: 

Read this writer's account of a pitch session gone wrong, at:

Here's a discussion group composed of experienced TV writers and those
hoping to break into TV:
This board would be a good place for you to ask what the standard fee
is for writing a treatment.

As far as assessing risk: show business is, by its nature, a high-risk
game. Any business that involves such steep sums of money is basically
a minefield (not to mention, a crap shoot). I can tell you that, over
the years, I've continually heard and read that most literary agents
and publishers reject 90-99% of the proposals they receive for
non-fiction books and novels. From what I learned researching your
question, I'd say that ratio correlates to TV and, I'm sure, film.

That doesn't mean your project is likely doomed, but you may have to
wade through a lot of rejection slips until you find the agent or
executive who believes in your project. If your idea is a good one,
and if you're focused and tenacious, then there's always a chance
you'll ultimately be successful.

Good luck! (Or should I say, "Break a leg"?!) 

Search Strings:
"how pitch idea TV show"
"writing TV treatments" 
"query letter agent"

hagen-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Very informative, a good starting point for my idea. Thanks very much!

Subject: Re: An idea for a TV show
From: probonopublico-ga on 18 Aug 2003 03:58 PDT
You need to be very careful.

There are A LOT of folks out there who would steal your good idea,
without so much as a thank you.

Good luck, anyway
Subject: Re: An idea for a TV show
From: cryptica-ga on 18 Aug 2003 16:01 PDT
One of the researchers will give you an in-depth answer, but a brief
note:  TV networks usually don't accept unsolicited ideas or scripts
without the sender first signing a release form.  That way they are
protected in case you decide to sue them for stealing your idea. 
Which is why if you have a strong concept/script/pitch, you should
look for a reputable producer or production company or agent, who will
represent the project.  If you have a script, you should also register
it with the Writer's Guild of America (WGA).  You don't have to be a
memeber to do that.  They have a website that will explain.  I think
it costs about 20 dollars.
Subject: Re: An idea for a TV show
From: probonopublico-ga on 19 Aug 2003 12:16 PDT
Hi, Hagen

Agents are VERY important in book publishing. Both my UK and N
American publishers tell me that they get dozens of unsolicted books
EVERY DAY and, unless there's a SAE, they go straight in the bin.

Now, if you have an agent, they are prepared to look.

Subject: Re: An idea for a TV show
From: nat1973-ga on 10 Oct 2003 19:01 PDT
I work as a Development Producer for a an independent TV company.  I'd
love hearing pitches and often meet people to talk about things.  If
the idea is good I will write it up and advise as best I can.  Then
it's off to the networks and cable channels to sell it (we also use
agents to pitch for us - it's a two-pronged attack!).  If we get the
commission, everyone is a winner, if not you can take the pitch
elsewhere - I would generally have you sign something to that effect
before putting pen to paper.
There are a few things to remember:
1. A killer idea will not make you rich/famous/irresistible to the
opposite sex.  Production companies make money by making the program
and then marketing the brand or format in other (often overseas)
markets.  To get the show made, you will have to trade some ownership.
2. The networks and cable channels will copy your idea at the drop of
a hat - it's often easier to move on, come up with a new idea and
forget about it...hard as that may be.
3. Big networks do hear tonnes of pitches all the time - sure you can
hire a writer to write your proposal, sure you can hire an agent...but
unless you want a career in TV (and even then...) I'd say the easiest
and cheapest route is to seek out a reputable indie.  Check credits
online to see who makes your favorite show or who makes the show that
most resembles yours (there is an industry joke that the only programs
that get made are the ones that most resemble other, successful,
shows!)...then phone 'em up.
Subject: Re: An idea for a TV show
From: derekjetter-ga on 14 May 2004 14:50 PDT
I have 6 show ideas that I'm preparing to pitch at the NATP producers
workshop. I have 2 pilots available for viewing. I'm also building a
website to support one of the shows. I'm looking for an agent to help
me with the pitch and a writer to help refine the treatments.
These are some hot shows. I have one show airing on local cable. Very
good response. I sent out 50 query letters to agents. 0 response!
Subject: Re: An idea for a TV show
From: lawriter71-ga on 01 Jul 2004 14:22 PDT
Hi There-

Here are two links to protected databases used by screened and
established production companies scouting new concepts for all formats
of TV. Writers can use either for informational purposes, or for
registering a project in their database:

Hope that helps. :)

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