Pitching A Show: Like Dating Without the Free Meal

Due to popular demand, we’re moving this blog post up in the rotation for all the many millions who weren’t able to get into the event.

This is exactly what it looked like.
This is exactly what it looked like.

The Gatekeepers of Children’s Television event was such a hot ticket item that president Sarah suggested that scalpers were selling tickets outside and I wouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be true.

We had 4 beautiful minds from different networks in the room:  Linda Simensky – VP of Children’s Programming at PBS; Teri Weiss – Exec. VP of Preschool Original Programming at Nickelodeon; Adina Pitta – VP Content Acquisitions and Co-Pros for Cartoon Network and Boomerang and Andrew Beecham – Sr. VP, Programming for Sprout. Moderating the event was the wonderful Linda Kahn who wasn’t afraid to keep things moving along and ask the tough questions!

The evening started with an overview of the different networks.  All the panelists agreed that in order to pitch you have to know the company you’re pitching to.  I’ve seen a lot of show creators who have never watched a kid’s show in their lives and it’s really not the way to go – do your homework.  I am a little tempted to make the rest of the blog just that sentence written over and over again.  But don’t worry, I won’t.

I hope this stern pony is intimidating enough.
I hope this stern pony is intimidating enough.

I suggest checking out all the networks online but here’s the 10-cent version:

Sprout is a cable network that’s designed to help parents get through their busy lives especially during the often problematic bedtime.  They program with one story instead of a 0:22 block (most preschool shows are packaged as two 11:00 stories) and they have an on demand asset that you can go to when the kids get drowsy that shows all the Sprout characters sleeping.  Brilliant!  They’re doing mostly licensed content at the moment but are getting into original co-pros (Pajanimals with Henson) and original shows The Chica Show and Noodle & Doodlehttp://www.sproutonline.com/

You're welcome, parents.
You’re welcome, parents.

Cartoon Network doesn’t program for preschool.  They’re targeting 6-11 year olds and have become the home for boys though they’re not trying to alienate girls.  Their shows are action oriented, have wish fulfillment and are not risk averse.  They also do a lot of digital programming.  And they are the home of Ben 10.  Awesome.  www.cartoonnetwork.com

Kid's watch gives him superpowers and he's not late for school!
Kid’s watch gives him superpowers and he’s not late for school!

PBS programs for 2-5 year olds and 4-8 year olds.  They’re looking for smart, fun and funny and these shows are definitely educational.  Lately there’s been a focus on math, science and literacy.  Shows like Martha Speaks, Curious George and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.  They look to books for inspiration and a baked in curriculum.  http://www.pbskids.org

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Nick Jr. brands themselves as “The smart place to play.”  They look for creator driven series with appealing music.  They’re home to The Backyardigans, Team Umizoomi and Peter Rabbit and of course Dora the Explorerhttp://www.nickjr.com

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So now that you know what the networks have, what are they looking for in a pitch?

Most of the panelists agreed that they’re looking for story driven shows.  They want to see how the idea can sustain 100 episodes.  Adina emphasized not changing your pitch in the middle to try and please the room.  Come with whatever you have and that’s the beginning of a conversation.  While they do expect you to have a solid, well formed idea they don’t want to see pilots and they’ll spend time working with you if they like you and your idea.  Be concise.  Be able to sum up the essence of your show in a sentence or two.  No one wants to read overly long pitches.

As for the specifics?  Sprout has a fairly small budget at the moment and they don’t hear unsolicited pitches, they simply don’t have the time or resources to review it all.  This year they have put out an RFP (request for product) to certain production companies, creators, etc. they want to work with and they’re hoping to continue with that model.  They’re particularly looking for animation.

Linda says she has a designated person that fields calls from folks who aren’t already in the industry but she likes to talk to folks who are already in the kids’ universe.  She’ll listen to an idea and tell a creator if it’s right for PBS even before there’s a fully formed pitch.  Also please don’t send her large files, her email gets clogged up!  It’s hard to get a puppet show on PBS because they tend to skew too young but they take live action and animation.

Nick has a website where you can submit pitches:  http://www.Nickpitches.com and Teri assures us that people are looking at all the submissions.  They’re looking for great ideas and are willing to pair up writers and designers or writers and production folks, etc.  You don’t have to be the complete package, just have a great idea.

Adina said that she wants to make sure all the pitches she receives get feedback so creators can understand why the show is or isn’t working for Cartoon.  Cartoon is looking for great ideas everywhere.  But they prefer animation to live action.

Then we talked about the buzz word of the century:  Transmedia.  Everyone is thinking about it and looking for it.  If you can learn from a show how can you extend that learning to video games, books, apps, etc?  Networks sometimes use apps and interstitials to gauge the reaction to a character or idea as a less expensive way than creating a pilot.  It’s like going on a date for a night as opposed to going away for a weekend together or getting married.  They’re not a huge commitment time or money-wise and digital platforms have the ability to reach lots of people.

TheTransmediaSphere_1

When asked about programming trends, Andrew in particular mentioned wanting to know how an idea can go cross platform.  Linda mentioned that everyone is getting into the business now including folks like Amazon.com and shows don’t necessarily need to be seen on traditional television channels anymore.  Ratings have become meaningless.  “We’re building the plane as we fly it.”  Teri said that networks are learning to be more nimble and learning to make content faster, “The democratizing of ideas is a great trend.”

Whew, panelists if you’re reading this I hope I did you justice!  There was a lot to absorb!

Main Takeaway: Gentle readers, if you have a chance to see one of these panelists speak – take it.  These folks are so passionate about what they do and they are warm and kind while being open and honest at the same time.  It’s difficult to describe the vibe in the room but you get the feeling that we’re all in the same boat and while it’s difficult to get a show on air these folks only want to help create wonderful content for kids.

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Personal Takeaway:  I don’t know how personal it is but it was my favorite thing that was said all night.  The panelists summed it up as such:  The Disney Channel kid is the kid sitting in front of the class raising his hand; the Nickelodeon kid is in the middle of class, looking at the teacher; the Cartoon Network kid is in the back of the class throwing spitballs; and the PBS kid is at the front of the class giving an enthusiastic presentation on rocks.

These are the kids who watch C-Span.
These are the kids who watch C-Span.

Inappropriate Takeaway:  Linda said her favorite transmedia platform is the yard.  That statement definitely brought back memories of me in my backyard, pretending to be Obi-Wan’s Jedi daughter.  For the record, I was also He-Man’s daughter and a My Little Pony who could shoot lightning boots out of her rear flank tattoo (see image above).  See?  I had to go into children’s media, who else would take me?

Take that, Darth Daddy!
Take that, Darth Daddy!