7 steps to take your idea for a TV show from pitch to production

Blog 22 March 2023

There has never been a better time to tell African stories made for TV. Homegrown platforms like Multichoice are expanding their local content and looking for fresh African stories.

There has never been a better time to tell African stories made for TV, according to Sanele Shibe. An award-winning commissioning editor at Multichoice, Shibe joined r Africa No Filter Presents: From Pitch to TV Show with Multichoice fireside chat aimed at inspiring storytellers to think about TV as a platform for their work.

“As Africans we have the capability, stories and knowledge to be quite powerful in the world and that we also deserve to be cultural producers and not just consumers of other cultures. We can export our culture.”

Shibe said this  is how you can take your idea for a TV show from pitch to production.

1.What it takes to tell a compelling story: Other than being passionate about storytelling, you also need to understand the dynamics of a powerful and compelling story. “Studying Audio-Visual Communication taught me that every bit of audio, video and picture out is essentially communicating an emotion to the person on the other side.” Always remember that it’s never just a piece of content, so use pictures, words and video to make an emotional connection throughout the pitching processes, from coming up with an idea, refining it, pitching it and ultimately producing a TV show.

2.Understand the market: All platforms have a mandate that determines programming decisions. The mandate of a paid TV service like Multichoice is to entertain. “People are paying for your service, so you have to make the pain of paying worth it for your viewers. If viewers are not entertained or getting something from your offering they won’t see the value proposition of it. Always look for content that will drive the viewership numbers and ratings.” Relevant content  drives ratings, which turns viewers into ambassadors who watch a show religiously and also amplify it through word-of-mouth and on social media.

3. Stick to the pitching process and guidelines: First impressions last, even in the pitching process. This is why it’s important to structure your pitching document properly. Each platform will have their processes. For Multichoice, there are regional portals for submissions depending on where in Africa you are based. You can see this submissions page for more information and guidelines. Only ideas submitted through the portal will be engaged with Multichoice has to work through a process that can be audited.

Commissioning Editors vet ideas based on the current climate, research insights,  audience taste and to address some needs that the audience might not be able to articulate. Ideas are also vetted based on the channel’s three and five-year plans, as well as the kind of story being proposed and available time slots. If you meet these requirements, you’ll be invited to pitch your show. In this meeting, you’ll have 20 minutes to present your story, followed by 10-minute questions and answers. The Q & A is always story related.

4. Structuring your pitching document: Your pitching document guides Commissioning Editors when they read through your proposal. Start with the show’s title. “Try to make it as punchy and as captivating as possible,” Shibe said. This is followed by a logline; two or three sentences that encapsulate what your story is about. “It should communicate the main character or characters, what they are looking to achieve, what’s standing in their way and their hook  — the central conflict that’s so compelling, it’s worth following,” Shibe explained. “A logline should essentially give us the story without giving us the story.” Your Logline is followed by a Controlling Idea behind your show. This is the framework that guides your show. It can be that love conquers all, or that family ties are never fully broken. Whatever your controlling idea is, make sure that it's powerful, compelling and uses archetypes that the audience can easily identify with.

Next in your pitching document is a Dramatic Question. “We need to know the framework that guides your show,” Shibe said. He added that one of the best dramatic questions he has encountered in a concept for a show asked: “What if Jesus was raised by the devil? It gets you thinking about what this means. It was essentially a story of a baby swap.” Shibe said to find an answer to your dramatic question, look at signposts or archetypes that you can use to help the audience identify with the story. He used the story of the Titanic movie as a case in point. Its producer David Cameron struggled for years to get studios to buy into the movie. The turnaround happened when he used this Dramatic Question to tell Titanic: “What if  Romeo and Juliet were on a boat?”

After your Dramatic Question comes the Episode 1 outline, if you’re pitching for a series. “Make this as visual as possible. That first image that we see needs to be quite strong, your ad-break structures and cliffhangers also  need to be strong. We are looking for content we are going to see, not read. `Make sure the bits you summarise highlight emotional points as opposed to plot points. If you’re pitching a movie, you need a synopsis from beginning to end instead of episode outlines. “Only add critical information that’s going to drive the story.” Now you are ready to submit your idea.

5. Bring this to the pitch: Your presentation needs to be visual with just key phrases instead of using too many words. You also need to have a strong first episode and a summary of dramatic moments and cliffhangers for the rest of the series. You need to show the emotional needs of your character or characters, the journeys they will go through and how these drive the story. Highlight your production team if you have them. If you don’t have them yet, Multichoice will ask you to find qualified people in the field to partner with, and try to help you find the right production partners.

6.Pitching Dos and Don’ts: Equally important is being on time, and staging a dry run of your presentation days before the pitching meeting. You must also do a tech test for meeting platforms you are not familiar with, as well as a dry run with five people. Also make sure you know your story and can tell it well. Shibe suggested presenting the story to friends and family to see if your concept and idea are strong. Make the story  so simple even a three- year-old can understand what’s about. Be as clear. Time  our pitch and have clear structure with a start, middle and ending. You also practice your delivery through dry runs. . Others do’s: dress smart casual, be confident and passionate,  show your unique voice as a storyteller, be persuasive and find a fresh way of telling stories. Don’t make  your presentation wordy, read instead of engaging with the audience, go over time or become defensive when you get feedback.

7. Elements of a good story: Shibe said it’s important to remember that, “in drama much of the enjoyment comes from sympathising with the undeserved suffering of the lead character who is better than us in some way”. This is why you need memorable characters and simple, and understand why. Once you have lead characters, ask the seven whys. Engaging with the motive of their actions will help you get to the root and core of your characters. Shibe added that you must always remember the stakes and increase the conflict in your story. “Remember that when we design characters we see what’s on the outside but they have their norms, assumptions, beliefs, behaviour and values that drive the story. Look more into the invisible parts of your characters so whatever you make visible makes sense and drives your story forward,” he said.

Shibe’s parting shot? Make your story easy to follow, make the events exciting and the twists unpredictable. Make some characters do the unexpected, always sell emotions and have fun.

WATCH ANF Academy Presents: From Pitch to TV Show with Multichoice