Creating an L.A.-based television show is a strange enterprise. In certain ways, it’s like every other creative endeavor that begins with an idea in someone’s head. If the head belongs to a writer, there is the blank screen, the medium for realizing the idea in words. For a composer, there are the notes, for a painter, the brush strokes, and so on. But for the TV producer, the immediate next step after the idea is taking the pitch to network officials.
Major industry players aren’t the only ones who have to pitch network officials. Anyone working on any show at any time has to come up with ideas and pitch them to the people running the shows.
One show about reuniting lost friends and lovers, called Lost & Found, was pitched to the FX network in its very early days. The show’s staff met to go over potential stories.
“What about former models, maybe they were pals in Paris and haven’t seen each other in awhile?”
“Perfect,” said the show runner.
“There’s bound to be emotion, and drama, and divergent paths.”
“How about reuniting a marine biologist and a dolphin?”
A few laughs from the group. A derisive guffaw or two.
“If you can find them, you can do that story.”
Sometimes it’s the unusual or the unexpected that succeeds. Sometimes it’s the clear, the simple, the of course idea that succeeds.
Rupert Murdoch came to America and bought half ownership in Twentieth Century Fox, a film studio. Murdoch then recruited Barry Diller, newly arrived from Paramount, to start the Fox Television Network. Diller had very specific ideas about pitching. All he wanted to hear was the promo—the condensed version of whatever show was being pitched. Diller gave you ten seconds.
If you were not able to distill the idea to ten compelling seconds, then the idea wasn’t well formed enough, nor was the idea worth continuing to think about.
Everything Mr. Diller did, he did in a concise fashion. Interviewing job candidates, he asked three questions: What do you watch on television? What magazines do you read? And what radio stations do you listen to?
Early in the life of Diller’s new network, a documentary made by a local Fox station scored well in the ratings. Fox broadcast it nationally. Suddenly there was an idea for a series of similar documentaries. Both Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller were listening in on the pitch, in a conference room with Stephen Chao, the VP of development for reality programming, and me—my title was director of development.
“What about the dark side of Horatio Alger—Larry Flynt.”
“Why Larry Flynt?” Mr. Murdoch wanted to know.
“What’s the promo?” asked Mr. Diller.
“Rags to riches First Amendment crusader, considered pornographer by some, shot and maimed, turns to drugs and outrageous media stunts while battling the Supreme Court.”
Close to ten seconds, but a bit long, and not super concise, actually.
“Let’s develop that one.”
It was never made.
The people who were supposed to make it came up with an even better pitch.
“We put a bunch of cameramen inside police cars for a week and edit the best stories into one show each week”—which became the Fox series Cops.
What is the dumbest idea you can think of? Maybe that’s what’s required for success. There are plenty of shows on television that make no sense. How did they get made? How were they sold? Someone had the dumbest idea ever and sold it. And now it’s on television, making money. Is there any idea too dumb for television?
The MTV offices are in Santa Monica, a short distance from the ocean. In the lobby we passed by a perfect early sixties Airstream trailer, parked on artificial turf. There was a sign saying “keep off,” and, in the wall, fifteen televisions running the various channels that make up the MTV Networks. We were escorted by a young person to a conference room with a glass wall facing the waiting area on one long side and overlooking the tree-lined street below on the other long side, and a television on one short wall, and a blank wall on the other. The executive arrived, bringing with her bottled waters.
“So what do you have?”
“It’s a competition show, with a fun twist.”
“Two teams are given a list of items to procure.”
“They can’t buy them. They can’t steal them. They have to be given to the teams willingly.”
“Got it. What are they?”
“Panties. The name of the show is Panty Raid.”
“Love the title.”
“Here’s how it works. Each team has three people. Usually in a group there are one or two super chatty types, and at least one quiet one. That one gets the camera.”
“They film themselves?”
“There’s one camera person—a real one—that follows each team. Two camera people total. But for the other angle—the team member films everything.”
“I like that. User-generated.”
“Will people really give them their underwear?”
“Depends on how they’re asked. And remember—there’s a real camera there too—most people love the idea of being on television.”
“But do most people love the idea of giving a stranger their underwear on camera?”
“How does it start and end?”
“We’re thinking very simply—designed for an affordable budget. The two teams are in a parking lot of a shopping center. A cool car drives up—a ’69 Camaro, for instance—the host gets out, says hello, hands each team their target list and a camera, and tells them they have twenty-four hours. The team with the most panties—wins.”
“Who’s on the target list?”
“It’s different each week. Crossing guard, nun, bus driver, librarian, policeman, waitress—the whole gamut.”
“How does it end?”
“The teams return to the parking lot. The host has a clothesline strung up, and counts the panties as the teams hang them up.”
“Huh. I’m not sure I would give up my underwear. Would you?”
“Depends on who is asking, and how they ask. We’ll cast for pure appeal.”
“I get it. I’ll take it to the group, and see what they think.”
“Great. Thanks. We think it’s one of those great, simple ideas.”
A children’s-focused TV network was adding live-action nonfiction to its cartoon lineup. I was there to pitch the network executive, whom I’d never met, in a meeting set up by my agent.
“You know I’m a really big fan of everything you do,” he said. “We have to do something together.”
“Okay,” I said, “Great. Then I have something perfect for you. The title is Monkey Behind the Wheel.”
“Gotta stop you right there. We did a pilot with a chimpanzee last quarter, and it was a disaster. No monkeys.”
I’d seen this scene in the movies, and on television, where the person pitching an idea (in this case me) has to improvise. But I had never been so completely shot down so immediately after starting.
“Do you have anything else?”
“One thing,” I said. “No monkeys, but there’s still a car. It’s based on a remote-controlled car. But full-size.”
The executive sat forward in his chair.
“Can you really do that?”
“Absolutely,” I said, full of actual confidence, and not faux bravado. In fact, my very first episode of Monster Garage entailed building a full-size remote-controlled car in five days. And it worked.
“Great! What happens with the car?”
I love how this is going so far.
“Well, there’s two kids—it has to be a competition, right?”
“So one of the kids builds the car . . . while the other kid BUILDS A MAZE.”
I’m really happy—I like this idea, thought up right on the spot. In fact, I like it a whole lot more than Monkey Behind the Wheel. I imagine the entire scenario of massive television success unfolding right before my eyes. I’ve only had one near-death experience, and some of my life did flash before my eyes—but not as completely as this I-conquer-television fantasy.
“That’s awesome. What kind of maze?”
“The sort of maze that’s difficult to drive through. It’s a competition, right? So the remote-controlled car builder has to get through the maze, and the maze builder has to build the maze to prevent the car from getting through.”
“I love that! What’s it called?” And I come up with what I still think is a perfect title: Maze of Doom.
“Fantastic. When can you send me something on it?” Because clearly I don’t have a DVD, a PDF, or even a piece of paper—which isn’t necessarily odd, but usually you walk in to pitch a show with a few audiovisual aids.
“Few days. I’m still refining the idea a bit.”
“Great. Let’s get this going. I really want to make this series with you.”
Big handshakes, man-hugs, and I leave his office astonished and amazed.
Luckily I still remember that feeling, because after that, it was, as is so often the case, all downhill.
We had three more meetings, several phone calls, exchanges of email offers and counteroffers, and nothing ever came of it. No monkeys. No remote-controlled cars.
And no maze.