Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Lazy Person’s Guide to Working in the Media: Part 1: TV Development

Darth loved faciliating brainstorms: it used every one of his people skills.

My current must-read blog is the TV Controller who was kind enough last night to leave a comment about my Radio 4 insider intelligence that they’re not looking for talking animals (warning: the naughty controller uses rude words so don't click through if you dislike 'language'). Anyway, it turns out that the TV Controller (who featured in Saturday’s Guardian no less!) really IS committed to developing new formats involving talking animals for his 'yoof' channel and we may meet up. Who knows, maybe my original screenplay, featuring a strip joint where caterpillars mutate into butterflies in front of sparrows who pay extra for lap dances, will be on a digital channel near you soon…

Or maybe not. Truth is, I worked in TV development for too long to think anything ever gets commissioned. I haven’t really blogged about my old day job before and thought it might be fun (for me at least) to go through all the roles I had before I become an author, thereby offering a no-holds-barred guide to working in the meeja. It’s almost a year to the day since I left my day job so it feels the right time. Maybe you have kids or friends who want to go into TV: they should read this first…

I’ll go back, CV style, with most recent position first: TV Development Producer. This, in fact, was probably the most enjoyable time I had working in TV. It was also the most cringeworthy, most frustrating and most misunderstood.
TV Development: no, you really do have to be mad to work there..

The brief was to come up with new ideas for the 4 BBC TV Channels (because we were an in-house team, we weren’t allowed to pitch to the commercial commissioners), to develop them and then to try to sell them.

There’s a wide misconception in the industry that development people sit on bean bags clustered around flipcharts, free associating about, for example, anthropomorphism and society's deepest taboos, until they come up with a mad idea which they spend months researching, before pitching it to a singularly unimpressed controller/commissioner. Controller will then sigh, look at watch and mumble that, ‘well, yes, there was a morning three months ago when I woke up and told my secretary I thought talking animals could replace the entire genre of property shows [actually, the phrase they invariably use is ‘talking animals are the new hot territory’]. But then I had a skinny decaff latte and felt better. I never actually intended for anyone to work anything up.’
Own CBBC style jumpsuit an advantage for new applicants.

As with most misconceptions, there are elements of truth in this image. The horrible howl-round Chinese Whisper thing that happens as a result of almost any passing remark by a channel controller IS pretty close to reality. They cough: we research entire seasons around TB and respiratory disease. They mention having a scale and polish: we’re scouring the nation for tv-friendly, charismatic dental hygienists.

However…we also come up with our own ideas. Not ALWAYS sitting on beanbags (though never underestimate the power of the nicely planned brainstorm). The best thing about working in development is definitely the people: the job is actually an unsettling one, psychologically, and it can be circular because you are constantly evaluating, reworking, ditching THOUSANDS of ideas. Many TV people are very linear – they know what has to be done, to a strict budget and deadline, and they head towards it like Speedy Gonzales.
Most TV people have the attention span of a cartoon character.


You can’t be linear and be happy in development and that means the people who stay tend to be wonderfully creative and open people: brainstorms and ideas meetings involve ‘fessing up to dreams, habits, preoccupations that most of us keep hidden. Development People (DPs) are sponges: they soak up all the details of life, from culture, other TV shows, to chance remarks, odd behaviour on public transport. The partners and families of DPs tend to get used to that faraway look when a lightbulb goes on: ‘oh, no, you’re off again: I bet you’ve just turned my frustration with pickle jars that won’t open into a returnable six-part primetime show for BBC1, haven’t you?’

In that way, DPs are a bit like writers…

It means that no day among DPs is the same. Which is a lot of fun…you might have an idea of the bus, write it up and send it to a controller by teatime (though this is very rare, strictly for Archimedes moments). Or you might be out and about interviewing presenters and experts, filming ‘tasters’ (mini versions of the best bits of your programme idea), or rehearsing pitches with executive producers.
Party's over...

However, the fun has to stop somewhere. And that somewhere is usually the commissioning process. Look, I have a lot of sympathy with commissioners and controllers. They don’t REALLY know any more than we do what will be a hit and what will be a miss (it’s the same in books, music, movies) with the public. But they have to pretend they know, and choose from the thousands of ideas they’re pitched each year, and that’s where the problem starts. Some commissioners/controllers stay real and thoughtful and generous and give clear briefs.

Some find that being appointed to positions of power means they turn into Creative Despots, who give contradictory information for the fun of it, execute ideas at whim, and make decisions which they can't possibly justify (so they don't even bother to try).
Death sentence

Any last requests before your idea is put to death?

In writing there’s a phrase called Murder Your Darlings – which means that if you particularly like a sentence or section of a piece of your own work, you should probably cut it as it’s almost certainly ‘vanity writing’ or too clever by half. Well, commissioners take great delight in murdering OUR darlings: that’s life. What’s frustrating is when the ideas are sentenced to death without any indication of why they needed culling. But to get their POV, you do really want to look at the TV Controller as it is scarily spot-on. I don’t know who that guy really is but he knows his onions… (Ooh: idea! Know Your Onions – a new early evening cookery format for BBC2, presented by Ainsley Harriott, in which contestants search the globe for the best single ingredients before trying to cook the best dish using these. The judges are retired French Onion Sellers).

I loved it, most of the time. It’s also a more life-friendly job than most in TV: fewer late nights and weekend shifts, and more manageable if you want to work part-time. However, to work in development you have to be pretty resilient to the fact that most of your ideas will be discarded or rejected. You also need a very high tolerance of jargon – from ‘territories’ (TV word for ‘subjects’) to ‘watering holes’ (don’t ask), development has a language all its own.

It’s good for young keenies looking for a first break, as you get to meet senior people very quickly. Also good for oldies who find life on the road more tiresome, and for people with family commitments. It’s a rubbish job if you’re an adrenalin junkie OR if you don’t like writing OR if you think you’re always right.

The prospects:

Most DPs either: go back into production, or do the poacher-turned-gamekeeper thing and go to work in commissioning. Either way, development does train you to analyse ideas in a new way - I use it in my writing and planning to this day.

Essential requirements:
  • Scattergun brain
  • Cultural magpie
  • Healthy contempt for authority (accompanied by ability to schmooze)
  • Lightning fast writing ability
  • Genuine fondness for beanbags
Further information:
See this YouTube clip on trying to get a TV show commissioned. Spot-on!

In my next guide, I'll look at the least work/life balance-friendly job there is in TV: investigative journalism…

Novel Race:
Thanks for all the comments on the novel race and rules. When I get chance I promise I will take off the people who’ve said they’re not really active in proceedings. In the meantime, I think Zinnia’s suggestion to go round the blogs saying hi to lost sheep is a great plan. Zinnia, it’d be fab if you wouldn’t mind doing it the first time, to see how it works?

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Blogger Jane Henry said...

Kate,that is hilarious. TV development sounds like my kind of job... that mad pitching thing happens in publishing too...

Maybe I should switch careers...

9:43 am  
Blogger Kevin said...


Thanks to you the other patrons of the coffee shop are casting concerned glances at the old man chortling in the corner. Management hasn't asked me to leave, but you may have cost me my complimentary refill.

Re. Novel Racers:
The one I came in with is in front of an editor so I guess I'm not technically a racer at this point. Have a couple of short story projects to get out of the way, then I'll be putting together a couple of novel pitches for a game company on your side of the Atlantic so it'll be at least a month before I start another novel. However -- assuming the game company does not place an order for immediate delivery of a series -- my next novel will be original. Going into a project of that size without a contract in hand is a little daunting, so I'll probably need you guys as part of my support/sanity network.

Zinnia already drops by my blog on occasion -- and the rest of you are always welcome. Good point about the links to other racers' blogs as a token of community. I'm going to have to take the Live Journal tutorial and see how it's done. (No doubt it's inanely simple, but I tend to approach all aspects of the twenty-first century with suspicion. Still not convinced it's going to catch on.)

4:43 pm  
Blogger womagwriter said...

Really interesting (and amusing), cheers.

8:20 pm  
Blogger Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Can, and will. Not till Friday at the earliest, though, as I've got two funerals to do tomorrow so this week has gone all manic - aarrgghh!!!

V interesting to find out about what goes on behind the screens.

9:37 am  
Blogger Amanda Mann said...

You and the TV Controller eh, I'm dead impressed. Please, as an old favour to an old friend kwim cld you consider Hilary the hamster for your audition list?

10:40 am  
Blogger liz fenwick said...

Hi Kate, off to airport to have a weekend in Venice so missing this mornings coffee. Revision going well. Send my best to all :-)

7:48 am  
Blogger Marie said...

I did a year and a half in TV development and it was a fun job completely frustrated by the fact that most of my work ended up in the bin or in that hideous purgatory of "Maybe... Needs more work..." Case in point: *five years ago* I did research for the proposal for Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain, hitting your TV screens right now.

10:11 am  

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