The Pitch

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

The main reason that television sitcoms are so bad is that too many educated people are involved in creating them. The television development process works like this: writer comes up with idea; writer pitches idea to studio; studio "gives notes" -- that is, suggestions for changes and additions; writer and studio then go to network to pitch idea; network then either has no interest, or does, in which case it "gives notes" writer and studio come back to network with refined idea, incorporating network notes; network then either has interest, and "green lights" the project, in which case writer begins writing script, or network loses interest and tries, instead, to interest writer in a show that the head of the network came up with about a talking dog who can only be heard by a mildly retarded little girl.

Years ago, we wrote a treatment for a television series. This was an unusual thing to do. For some reason, it's considered eccentric for writers to actually write. We're supposed to pitch. But that has always seemed vaguely humiliating to us.

So our agent sent the treatment to a network, and before we knew it we were sitting in the office of some kind of network vice president.


We are holding tiny bottles of expensive water and sitting on a soft leather sofa that is both oversized and slippery, so that it's impossible to sit without sliding slowly off the cushions. It's an infantilizing piece of office furniture. My bottle of water sweats tiny droplets onto the arm, which pleases me in a petty way.

The vice president sits facing us. She smiles mirthlessly. She taps the treatment.

This is hilarious. Hilarious. We loved it here. Didn't we?
She turns to her staff. They nod and smile robotically.

Tell me about the show.
Well, it's all right there in the treatment.
Great. But pretend you didn't write the treatment.
Why would we do that?
I just want to get a sense that you're passionate about the project.
But....I mean....we wrote a treatment. Isn't that passionate enough?
But that's just writing. I like talking.
What she wanted, of course, was a pitch. Which we don't do.

The whole point of writing a treatment - or, better yet, writing an entire script - is that there's very little confusion left about what, exactly, the show will be about and what, precisely, is or is not funny about it.

But when you pitch a show, you pitch into the wide blue sky. You pitch the general idea, the concept - whatever that means - and you naturally smooth the sharp edges and tailor the pitch to the involuntary reactive facial muscles on the face of the highest ranking decision-maker in the room. It's almost impossible not to. A pitch is like a performance by a raggedy subway clown. He just wants you to love him and toss him some change.

So the network hears what it wants to hear: that your show will be perfect for an actor they have a deal with; that it will concentrate on family life, snugly fitting into an open 8:30 slot; that its point of view will be single people, or urban dwellers, or blue collar, or married with childrens, or whomever the target audience is for that network, on that night, that week.

But you go back to your office, mysteriously forgetting the shabby desperation of your pitch. You start writing the idea that was in your head before you started talking to the impassive face of the network executive, before he or she started grinning slightly, before the first laugh, before you made the sale.

And in the ensuing weeks - and sometimes months - between the sale of the script based on the pitch (which usually takes place in October or November) and the actual writing and delivery of the finished draft (sometime in January or even early February), the difference between what they bought and what you sold becomes enormous, and unbridgeable, and eventually becomes a show about a talking dog and mildly retarded little girl.

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll take a meeting.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long