Film & TV

How to Pitch a Television Show: Tips from Judd Apatow and Shonda Rhimes

Written by MasterClass

Apr 5, 2019 • 7 min read

You have a great television show idea. You’ve done your research and realized there’s a market out there for what you want to do—and how you want to do it. You’ve asked for advice, consulted with collaborators, and decided to take the next step into Hollywood. Now what?

Pitching a television show is an art form onto itself. Competition in the entertainment industry is stiff, especially if you’re not an established name. TV series get commissioned for their originality, longevity, and long-term profitability. A solid pitch will demonstrate your creative point of view as well as how your idea fits into the market.

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What Is a Television Show Pitch?

A television show pitch is a comprehensive document that includes a logline (or “elevator pitch”); the “bible,” which provides a rough outline of where your series will go in the first season; and a completed pilot script. Some pitch documents may vary in their contents, but all should give network executives or production companies reviewing the pitch an idea of the show’s core idea, as well as a sense of your writing style.

The 4 Components of a Television Show Pitch

  • The logline, also known as the “elevator pitch.” This is a short summary of your TV show idea and needs to be one or two sentences at most. It must clearly demonstrate the core concept of the show. The term “elevator pitch” refers to the idea that it has to be short and snappy enough to pitch to an executive in an elevator. For example, Vince Gilligan’s logline for the AMC hit Breaking Bad may have read something like this: “A terminal diagnosis leads a cash-strapped, loving father to the hostile world of illicit drug manufacture and its deadly associations.” Learn about how to write loglines here.
  • One-sheet. This is halfway between a resume and a condensed version of your idea. The purpose of a one-sheet is to give something to the executives after you’ve left the building so they’ll remember you. Executives hear hundreds of pitches per week, so the idea is that you make a good first impression with your actual pitch, but the one-sheet will serve to keep that impression going after you’re not around. A one-sheet should include your name, contact details, essential elements of your pitch such as name, genre, and logline, one to three short paragraphs outlining your idea and what it is trying to say, and any other relevant biographical information—for example, if your show is about working in a mine and your father worked in a mine for 20 years, that is a good relevant detail to include.
  • Series bible. This is the most comprehensive part of the pitch. It should include details on your characters, the dramatic arc of the series, and more. Ideally, it should be no less than seven pages. You can start by including the title of the series, followed by the logline. Then, a detailed synopsis covering the broad strokes of the entire series, what it’s about, where it is set and the main point you’re trying to get across. You should then include a section on the key characters in the series—who they are, why they’re important, what drives them. How do they relate to the world of the series, and other characters? Do they have any quirks or personality flaws that make them interesting? Next, include a breakdown of the pilot episode you’re submitting—what happens, where, and why. Finally, don’t forget to include a list of all the episodes in the first season. Two to three sentences for each episode to give those reading your script an idea of what the general arc is (and to show them you’ve thought about the rest of the show in detail).
  • Pilot script. You must submit a finished pilot script to give anyone reading your pitch the chance to evaluate your writing style and make it easy for them to visualize what would happen in that first episode. A pilot is crucial because it also gives executives a good idea of how the audience will react to your show.

8 Tips for Pitching a TV Show

  1. Write a pilot before writing the full pitch. Sometimes, an agent will need to send around the pilot script to networks; networks will then decide who they want to meet with for an in-person pitch based on the strength of the pilot script.
  2. Practice your pitch. Know that most TV pitching sessions are less than 30 minutes. You’ll have that time to run through the entire pitch.
  3. Know what happens after the first season. Network executives will want to see that you have the ability to talk through what two or three seasons of the show will look like—this shows them you have faith in your project and are ambitious enough to sustain a long-running show.
  4. Talk about what your show is really about. Not just what happens, but the larger ideas and concepts at play. What is your show trying to say? What’s the big picture?
  5. Do research on the networks you’re pitching. Network executives will want to see you’ve done your homework. Be prepared to talk about how your show will fit into an existing network’s current lineup, and why it’s a good fit for that network.
  6. Bring energy and passion to the pitch meeting. Sometimes, executives will sit through over 50 pitch meetings per day. If they can see how excited you are about your own idea, the energy levels will carry.
  7. Try not to rely on visual aids. Development executives want to hear from you, not a PowerPoint presentation. Most pitch meetings will require you to speak directly to the network executives for the full 20-minute session.
  8. Be meticulous in your documentation. If you have a great idea that you want to utilize, register your intellectual property (IP). Keep all records, including time-stamped Google documents, and any emails or correspondence showing your planning and development process. If a network is interested in your idea, they’re going to want to see that it is original—and that no one is going to try and sue you after your show airs.

Judd Apatow’s Tips for Pitching a TV Show

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  • Keep it short, show how it’s marketable, show how it’s emotional, know how it ends, and sell yourself.
  • You should be able to describe your story in three minutes or less—don’t give a play-by-play.
  • The people you’re pitching to will be thinking about sales, so let them know you’re already thinking about how it would be marketed to audiences.
  • Stories with strong emotional underpinnings hook audiences, so make sure to illuminate your story’s emotional core.
  • If you don’t have an ending to pitch, you’ll lose the faith of the studio. Make sure you walk into the meeting with a sense of how the story will conclude.
  • Your listeners not only have to like the project—they have to like you. A movie can take years to make, and a television show certainly does. Do people want to be around you for that long? If not, work on it. Get comfortable, centered, and try to be fun. Look at rejections in a positive light; if they don’t understand your project, they might ruin it anyway.

Discover Judd Apatow’s approach to pitching here.

Shonda Rhimes’s Tips for Pitching a TV Show

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  • A great pitch is well-structured, visual, and quickly and easily conveys your show’s concept and central characters.
  • A great pitch should incorporate all of these steps, and last no longer than five to ten minutes: Start with the premise of your show. Explain the world of your show. Introduce your characters. Explain what happens in the pilot. Say it’s going to be funny, moving, or romantic. Talk about how many episodes you have planned. Wrap it up and thank your listeners.
  • Don’t pitch specific actors or songs, because you never know the relationship the producer, the studio, or the network may have with that actor or musician. Maybe the artist you want to use in your pilot is too expensive. Maybe the studio has a bad impression of that particular actor. These thoughts may pull your listeners away from the main part of your pitch: your story.
  • It never hurts to put yourself in the network or studio’s position. Remember—they ultimately want a show they know they can sell and market to an audience. What creative ways can you describe your show in market-friendly terms?

There’s more to making it in Hollywood than simply knowing the right people. Creating an entertaining and solid pitch is the first step in landing your first television series deal. (Get a deeper view into Shonda's tips here.)

Shonda Rhimes's Top Trick for Practicing Your Pitch