5 Things You Learn About TV (By Trying To Sell A Show)
About eight years ago, I helped create an objectively rad TV show called Man vs. Monster with my friend Eddie Doty. If you're thinking, "I've never heard of that show," that's because, after a long and insane development process, it never quite made it on the air. Producing a TV show is like baking cupcakes with Steven Seagal: It's difficult in unpredictable ways, you can't trust anyone, and there's a very real risk of Steven Seagal trying to masturbate on your feet. Actually, I can probably explain it better in the form of a comical numbered list. Here are the five things I learned trying to sell a TV show.
No One Buys An Idea
If ideas had any value, you could pay for meals by whispering "car toilet" or "holiday comedy about conjoined twins on different hockey teams" or "Sex Ham 2000." But since even a brilliant idea, such as "a haunted house for cats," is worthless on its own, you sort of need to finish making your show before anyone will pay you to start it. And speaking of brilliant ideas, let me tell you more about ours. Our elevator pitch was something close to "Deadliest Warrior meets Clash Of The Titans, but hold on, I need 20 more minutes to explain it."
Every episode focused on the host -- me -- battling a different mythical creature. The first act was almost educational. A team of experts made up of an evolutionary biologist, a combat master, a fantasy artist, a filmmaker, and a noted used karate trophy collector -- me again -- would decide what each monster could do. It was like five different geek backgrounds combining into Voltron, except nerdier than that sounds. Or if you have no reference for dork things and need a sexier analogy, it was like a bikini model, a pervert, a plastic surgeon, a baby, and a dairy farmer holding a seminar to create the perfect titty.
Once the "rules" for a monster were established, we broke into two teams. One team simulated the monster with robots or props or a stuntman on stilts, and the other team focused on preparing me to kill it. We originally pictured this part of this show as teaching the viewer new martial arts or weapon skills, but quickly decided it was more of a crowd-pleaser if I just got fucked up. So instead of a Greek historian teaching me how to thrust a spear into a Minotaur, we would film me getting mauled by a bull until it was funny. In a lot of ways, the show was a way to get paid for the dumb shit I was doing with my day already.
At the end of the episode, we revealed the winner between man and monster, but not with a cute voting ceremony. We revealed it by watching the loser die in a glorious battle generated by motion-capturing me and our monster stuntman. So to sum up, Man vs. Monster was an educational mythology show with martial arts, crafting, humiliating stunts, and one battle to the death. More important than its entertainment value, though, it would have been the first show about Bigfoots and ghosts that dealt with kicking their asses instead of stumbling into their lairs and getting very scared.
Getting a network executive to sit still and listen to this whole pitch, even if I perfectly delivered the titty analogies, would have been impossible, so we produced a sizzle reel. This isn't a full-on pilot episode; it's more like a commercial. We were already partnered with a production company, and the director, editor, and on-air talent were working for free, but our three-minute reel to be shown to a few dozen people still ended up costing about $20,000. That was probably somewhere in the medium price range, and maybe even a great deal, considering how many actual deadly weapons we had on the set, but I don't want the absurdity of this process to sneak past anyone. Every day, artists are throwing millions of dollars away to make commercials for their ideas that will only be seen by a tiny group of rich people.
Everyone Wants To Make Changes
Once you're done fully exploring and developing your idea and you've spent tens of thousands of dollars to turn it into compelling promotional footage, it's time to sell it. This is rarely as simple as getting a yes or no. Nearly everyone we showed it to had ideas on how to "improve" it for their audience. For instance, Discovery liked it, but wanted it to be less "nerdy," which was a weird note from the network whose only non-nerd show is about ice road trucking. Oh, is your super tough show about chubby dudes sitting in the cold? Ours is about punching Minotaurs in the dick! Wait, I'm starting to see their point.
The tiniest of changes can ripple through a concept like a time traveler dropping a tampon. Because even Lord Tampax, hail wet-scented Tampax, can't simply "add a female co-host" or "cut it down to 15 minutes" without rethinking the entire thing. My favorite note came from MTV, which loved the idea but wanted to turn it into, like, maybe a game show where I forced two contestants to compete in monster-themed challenges. It wasn't an "idea" so much as it was a waste of cocaine, but it brings me to my point: What hardworking, competent artists create after months of discussion and research can all get undone by a fleeting thought from the co-executive producer of CBS' Circus Of The Stars.
I'm not saying you shouldn't give artist notes. You know better than them, and if there's one thing I've learned from two decades of professional writing, it's that you should always start with a badly structured, unfinished idea, and then fix it based on the comments of dumb people with strange expectations who took a quick glance at it. But in our case, even the decent notes ended up being our undoing.
After a few near misses and a few hard passes, Fuel TV wanted to buy the show. They were willing to spend $200,000 per episode, which required a few compromises, a new line budget, and for everyone to stop wasting cocaine. Then we got a pilot order with a $75,000 budget, which required double advanced compromises. Then the executives decided they wanted more of the show to be CGI monster fights. We loved this note, but it was well past the point of impossible. Over half the budget was already animation studio costs, and there are no clever accounting tricks to turn, I don't know, human slaves into animators?
For almost a year, we screwed around in negotiations and holding deals and option agreements beyond my interest or expertise. When it became obvious it wasn't going to happen, we decided to take our show elsewhere. This led to an entirely new problem.
About Those Changes ... You Don't Own Those
Once we cut ties with our production company, we received an official letter. It let us know that many of the changes in the show's format occurred while we were working with them, and as such, the show wasn't exactly "ours" anymore. The president of the company told us it that was an overzealous junior executive and we shouldn't worry about it, but the same guy also tried to convince me some of my talent fees would be paid in, and I quote, "making me into a star." What I'm saying is that you shouldn't even share cocaine with someone in Hollywood until you've spoken with a lawyer and put on two condoms.
We weren't exactly sure which changes they thought were theirs. Like, would we be legally able to make a monster show with someone else so long as we didn't put Robert Pattinson's face on a watermelon to simulate kicking a vampire's head into fruit salad? Because fuck you, we're taking that idea with us.
By the way, that throwaway gag went about as badly as possible when I discovered mid-kick that the prop master used a four-inch metal rod to attach the watermelon to the tripod. So heartthrob Robert Pattinson got the last laugh as a chunk of my shin exploded along with his watermelon head. I remember thinking it didn't bode well that we hadn't started principal filming yet and the lead stunt performer was already squirting blood out of the most durable part of his body.
The letter did turn out to be nothing, and you may be happy to learn the ownership of our idea did not transfer to some people who owned a building we went to after we developed it. Still, it's troubling that it's standard practice for random assholes in a company to send empty legal threats without their bosses' knowledge.
Keywords And Demographics Are More Important Than Content
We kept working to sell the show, and came close several more times. The main problem we ran into was how our show had enough elements that everyone had something at least kind of like it. Spike was interested, but decided it was too close to Deadliest Warrior. History seemed pretty crazy about it, but they already had a show in which dinosaurs fought. We heard similar things from SyFy, NatGeo, NutPump, FX, and Ovation, and NutPump is the only one of those I made up.
This wasn't a matter of producers trying to avoid too many shows about similar subjects. I mean, it might have been, but for the most part, TV networks don't want to advertise against their own programming. To explain, let's say SyFy has a show called Baton Rouge Gator Fuckers, wherein swamp men find love in the gnash and froth of bog wrestling. I'm not ashamed to admit that would attract the exact same audience as Man vs. Monster. That's not great for the sponsors. Diabetes Jackson's Throwing Star Warehouse, University of Southern North Korea Online, and the new DiGiorno Blue Cheese Diarrhea Pocket don't want to spend twice as much money to advertise to the same people.
This brings up another point about marketing. Despite a bit of academic mythological discussion, the tone of our show was pretty stupid. If you have a TV, you know this isn't a dealbreaker, but it does mean you can't charge as much for advertising, since the stupid already spent their money on dalmatian ambassador robes in case dogs ever form their own country. We had also, deliberately or not, made a show for "dudes," which made sponsors like Maybelline or Tampax -- hail pearly eternal Lord Tampax -- a hard sell. I'd heard people talk about oppression, but I never truly understood it until I didn't get hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a monster-fighting TV show because I was just too manly.
You Need To Change Everything Again
When we started pitching the show, my main hobbies were dune buggy accidents and hangovers. Now I might need three days to recover if I don't properly stretch before a sneeze. So if we get back to pursuing this project, we'll probably have to rewrite the "dumb fucker jumps through window" stunts to "safety-harnessed man swings briskly past green screen" stunts. But that's barely the beginning of the changes we'd have to make.
Ours was clearly a longer development cycle than most, but media is destroyed and rebuilt every couple years. Between the time you conceive an idea and the time you pitch it, everything is different and every producer is playing catch-up at a different rate. Whenever we shopped the show around, they were each chasing a completely different buzzword and wanted to adapt the show around it.
For a while, "appointment TV" was important, because no one saw commercials otherwise. So maybe the monster fighting could be live? Had we considered a three-minute format to encourage social media sharing? What if the monsters were not there and Carmen Electra and I lived in Tampa and solved cold case horse murders? I'm making it sound too fun. Maybe you haven't had the pleasure of learning the importance of "retention" and "bingeable content," but I have, and it's like a personal finance class crawling into your brain and laying boredom eggs.
We kept getting interest, but streaming services and internets and 45 new networks a day meant everyone's budget was shrinking. And most producers are just confused, panicked cocaine wasters trying to not get fired for as long as possible. TV gets excited for originality, but that's always tempered by fear, and the longer we talked to a producer, the more he or she hacked away at the weird, rough edges that made our show fun. In the end, we all went on to other projects, but I can't help but wonder how many Frankenstein crushings our show could have helped prevent.It still makes me happy how many times this stupid shit almost became our day job.
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