Creating Reality TV Concepts
Writers Vault is the television industry's first and
only website to bring new Reality TV Show Ideas to global
broadcast from Writers & Creators outside of the
Hollywood system. In this article, we share insight on
conceptualizing and writing pitches for reality TV.
When marketing an original reality-based project to the
television industry, be sure to explore the following
points before you create and pitch your concept:
The Reality of Reality
| What They Really Are...
If you look at most of the reality show ideas that get
produced, they most often revolve around a specific
issue or event that everybody can relate to, and out of
that is built a game. They are in essence, game shows.
But even more importantly, they are big fun, and often
dramatic social experiments. Another thing to remember
is that some things are fun to play, and some things are
fun to watch. To truly connect with an audience and have
entertainment value in a show, you need both. The
quality of a reality-based show can span from awful to
inspiring. But the reason viewers tune in is because we
have an insatiable appetite for witnessing and being
entertained by the human experience.
Conceiving and Creating:
Learn what Producers and Network Executives look for in
new projects. Read our exclusive interviews with
Here. Be Specific in your concept, and try several
approaches- Here's a typical scenario that will give you
an idea of why being specific and unique is important:
"Ms. Network Executive" gives a production company
executive the inside scoop that they would love to find
a show that places contestants in some sort of
"fish-out-of-water scenario" and would like it to
involve a family. That in itself is a generic idea, but
it does send the creative mind in a specific direction.
What she's hoping is that you will be the one to deliver
an approach to that concept that is totally unique and
something they never would have thought of. They may be
spending time trying to develop the concept internally,
while also taking pitches from a handful of producers.
Many producers will create two or three variations on
the same concept. And each of those will give you a
different result, a different experience as a viewer,
and therefore they are considered by any executive
taking stock- different shows. So don't be afraid to
work on several shows within the same theme. It can only
increase your chance of making a sale.
Choose concepts and subjects that are highly marketable-
Titles are very important, they should
roll off the tongue easily, provoke conversations, and
simply tell you exactly what you're going to be
watching. "The Bachelor", "The Apprentice", "Gold Rush",
"Wife Swap", "The Biggest Loser", "America's Got
Talent", "LA Ink", "Flipping Out", "Blind Date", "Little
People, Big World", "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy",
"Pawn Stars" are all good examples. Word play is always
a good way to grab attention and create curiosity. "Meet
the Parents", "Wife Swap", and "Blind Date" are all
specific to what their show is about, but use known
phrases to create new titles that peak curiosity.
movies- "Story" is a critical element to define
when developing a reality-based project. When you look
at movies, look at the core concept and story elements
of the film, and a reality show just might be staring
you smack in the face. "Cannonball Run", "Meet the
Parents", "Around the World in Eighty Dates" "The
Fugitive" are all specific examples of film concepts
that have translated into reality-based shows for
Unique Professions or Lifestyles: One of the
simplest and most successful sub-genre of reality show
is the documentary style series covering unique
professions or lifestyles. These stories serve the
insatiable curiosity viewers have to gain insight into
other peoples lives and jobs. Bravo's "The Real
Housewives of Orange County" is a guilty-pleasure
glimpse into the spoiled and faux-glamorous lives of a
certain group of women in Orange County, California.
Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" takes us out on
the high seas with Alaskan king crab fishermen battling
giant waves and wind as they fight to pull their catch
and earn a days pay. Both of these series are covered in
documentary style format, so if you have a subject or
idea for a reality series that fits into this style,
you've got to have the actual people involved to pitch
it. Repo men may have a compelling profession, but
you'll need to have the stories of the actual, specific
repo man that would star in the series. Again, it's not
just pitching the idea, but pitching the specific person
and profession that the series would be focused on. For
help in this area, feel free to contact Scott Manville
at the TV Writers Vault for some expert advice, and read
more about pitching docu-style reality series' Here.
They are plays in morality or social experiments.
"Survivor", produced by Mark Burnett Productions, is a
microcosm of our society. We are stuck living together,
therefore we must get along. Each person must strategize
to win, but must do so without creating enemies, because
it is their neighbor that votes if they can continue or
if they get kicked out. It isn't always fair, and
therein lies the fun. In that pressure-cooker atmosphere
we see the players true character rise to the surface.
Even though the show is set up, you get real drama.
Another example: To put a group of young adults together
in the same house that are strangers, living, working
and playing creates an inherent "soap opera" for the
audience to watch. That was Bunim/Murray Productions'
"The Real World", and it opened up the young viewing
audience to a new form of compelling TV.
Documentary-style coverage of a set-up situation.
"The Apprentice", another Mark Burnett brainchild, has
similar game elements to that of Survivor but takes
place in a different jungle- the corporate jungle.
Aspiring business mavens must work together under the
scrutinizing eye of Donald Trump. Poor performers of the
weekly business task face Trump in his boardroom where
each week one person is fired. A marketing person will
tell you that people will tune into this show to see
Trump fire someone each week. True! But the reason
viewers find it compelling to watch is because of the
specific moments of drama that come out of situations
and challenges that face us all. As in most dramatized
pieces, it is a "heightened reality" that makes it
entertaining to watch.
A show that branded the cable network of Bravo with a
"Network Hit", "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was a
simple and entertaining formula that brought opposite
worlds together when hapless straight guys are thrown to
the mercy of five gay experts in all that is hip and
chic, in hopes of resurrecting their lifestyle and
appearance. The result of bringing these two mismatches
together.... comedy and quality entertainment. The lynch
pin in this show isn't the obvious "comedy that ensues",
but the heart strings that the show touches when
someone's life is changed for the better. You'll notice
this as the root of any successful makeover show. It's
not about the makeup and furniture, it's about changing
Another show that received great critical acclaim in
reality programming is "Wife Swap" on ABC. Beyond being
a "fish-out-of-water" concept, the show is built on
casting "oil and water". Husbands and wives discover the
grass ISN'T always greener when they swap husbands or
wives to experience family life through someone else's
perspective and practices.
One example of a good concept that didn't find life as a
franchise was the WB reality series, "High School
Reunion". A production executive went to their high
school reunion and experienced the organic drama and
issues that are alive at any high-school reunion. That
was the nucleus of what became a prime-time reality
show. The show keys on the characters we all know; the
beauty queen, the jock, the nerd, the bully, the loner,
the gossipers, the rockers, etc. They chose to build the
show around a ten-year reunion because having most of
the people at age 28, they'll find a large chasm in the
career and life progress of each person. Some will
already be huge successes, some will have taken turns
for the worse, most will be insecure and frustrated.
Again, it is all built for drama. And you can be sure
that there will be humor with revenge fantasies played
out, unrequited love rekindled, or even a grudge match
between the ex-nerd turned judo champ and the ex-bully
turned couch potato. It's something we all relate to,
and fun to watch.
ABC's hit franchise "The Bachelor" is both simple in
concept and execution, but what the Producers of the
show know how to do is pull drama from specific moments
of tension and anticipation. It's classy, it's romantic,
and again- it's real drama that we're watching. And one
thing that puts it a cut above the rest is that it isn't
necessarily a journey of breaking hearts as much as it
is a journey of two people finding true love with each
other (that hopefully lasts beyond the air-date of the
show). The show romanticizes the courting process and we
can't get enough of it.
Another form of reality-based programming that came back
into play has been the hidden-camera show. A few of the
more popular shows have been "The Jamie Kennedy
Experiment" and "Punked". The segments are semi-scripted
for direction, but improvised by the actors involved
with the "marks" that the joke is being played out on.
The concept is simple but limitless- You have very
talented improv actors posing as a variety of characters
in varying situations that are all fabricated, and
always funny. Unsuspecting "marks" become players in
what is essentially an unscripted scene of comedy and
The following is a simple structure (content not
included) of presentation for any project, and is
similar to the registration/submission form used for the
Television Writers Vault. Most project outlines
describing a show will be 1 to 3 pages in length:
TITLE OF SHOW:
LOGLINE - 1 or 2 sentence description
of your concept. Similar to what you might see in TV
Guide or on a poster for a movie, but a bit more
descriptive of content.
- A detailed description of your show as we would see it
on TV. Usually 1 to 5 pages in length).
It's important to be efficient with your descriptions,
yet give enough information to provoke interest of the
reader. The golden rule: Show the reader what we are
There is no "right" way to form a TV pitch for the
various reality-based and scripted genres in television.
However, there are philosophies and formats that will
help the buyer see more clearly what your TV show idea
is, and it's potential. Following are a few samples of
written pitches for reality show concepts. These are
very basic synopsis' written. A more developed and
expansive version can be written at any point in the
[Sample Treatments/Synopsis' For A Reality TV Show
Proposal: The following original concepts are protected
by the Creators Vault and Writers Guild of America.]
(short pitch):"Waiting For Guffman" meets "American
Idol". A flamboyant Broadway director and choreographer
descend on a small town, infiltrating the local play.
One performer will be taken back to Broadway for a
featured part in a real Broadway show.
[content should be 3 to 7 paragraphs outlining the
content of the show as it unfolds, otherwise known as
the "arc" of the series played out over the season. Be specific and
original in your execution]
A Docu-Style Reality
Series for Television.
In every small town, there are big dreams.
In Washbuckle, Missouri the regional theatre holds open
casting calls for their annual musical review. Some
members of the troupe have dreams of making it to
Broadway or Hollywood. Others are content in being the
star of Washbuckle, Missouri hogging what little
limelight there is year after year.
But what happens when, just one week before opening
night, a ruthless Broadway Director and Choreographer
drops into town with the agenda of taking control of the
small town production while scouting for talent to find
his "star"? It's a fascinating look at big dreams in
small town America. The personal stories and
archetypical characters that collide as opening night
approaches. The ego-maniacal local theatre director
getting systematically pushed aside by the big-city
Broadway director. The humorous moments as the
city-slickers struggle to tolerate the small town ways
and mentality. The infighting among potential cast
members. The panic that ensues as the cast,
choreography, and production are turned on it's tail at
the eleventh hour. The inspiring moments that rise to
the surface amidst the chaos of opening night.. And "the
decision". One person from the cast will be chosen for a
spot in a hit Broadway production, a trip to Hollywood
for a spot on a soap-opera and every chance they could
ever hope for being famous?
1. Meet the town folk. Get to know the key characters
and the theatre group. We'll also watch in parallel the
merciless Broadway Director in action in New York,
seeing the contrasts in both characters. We'll take a
humorous look at the awful auditions for the small town
play. We'll see the announcement (or rumor) of the
impending arrival of the Broadway Director scouting for
talent, and witness the anxiety that is infused in each
of our small town characters fighting to get into the
2. In-fighting, tensions escalating, accusations, the
director starts feeling the pressure. People are cast.
Hearts are broken, hopes are sparked. They have a first
run-through with the cast. The mysterious Broadway
director in black sits in the back. (Imagine a Simon
Cowell) snapping from the back row, "Stop! Every one of
you STOP!!" He then marches down the isle. An imposing
figure. He introduces himself and delivers the news that
he has come to find talent. And someone from this town,
in this play, will be chosen. He goes on about how he
sees nothing but problems. The play will be re-cast, the
production will stop now! (One week before opening
3. The new director and small-town director fight. Cast
members protest. New auditions are held, and
performances scrutinized. A new cast is announced, and
from that cast will come his "star".
4. The pressure is on to bring it together for opening
night, we'll cover four days of rehearsals, as well as
the personal struggles surrounding the production.
Anticipation, anxiety, resentment, hope, adrenaline.
Opening night! We see the performance and the reactions
of our Broadway director. Cliff-hanger for his decision
on who will be Broadway bound!
5. Re-cap of the series, the performances, the
arguments, and finally. the decision. One of the people
that landed a role, large or small in this little play
is chosen. We share in the afterglow, the elation, and
the disappointment of others. And sharing a dream come
true for that one person selected.
6. Broadway New York!! Our winner is whisked around like
a star. Taken backstage of a REAL Broadway production,
immersed in the whole lifestyle. Meetings with Hollywood
talent scouts, directors of other productions, agents,
7. We see our small town hero take his leap of faith,
jumping headfirst into a Broadway show. A dream is
Title:"The Last Tango"
Five soon-to-be engaged couples will face their fidelity
as their relationships are tested, ultimately proving
their readiness or rejection of the biggest commitment
of their lives. Temptation Island" meets "Around the
World in Eighty Dates"
Synopsis: Five soon-to-be-engaged
couples will be brought together for a
relationship-altering journey. In this series, each
person will explore and discover what their relationship
is really made of when faced with The "Last Tango".
Those couples cast will be currently involved in a "long
engagement" or living together as boyfriend/girlfriend
for an extended period. All will be at a turning point,
or breaking point in their relationships.
Each couple will be separated into groups of five men
and five women. We will then follow each group of men
and women on a romp-around-America Last Tango before
marriage. Locales will be Hawaii, Las Vegas, Nashville,
New York City, Beverly Hills, and Miami. On their
journey they will be set-up at events, outings, and
other social adventures where they will meet and spend
time with a variety of tempting prospects or "dates".
Each of our couples will be privy to fear-provoking
information about their significant other's activities
while they themselves are in the midst of their own
journey of temptation, or perhaps the discovery of a new
love. It's a triangle of conflict that will boil over
into the final episode when our couples are reunited.
[SAMPLE EPISODE SEGMENTS SHOULD BE DETAILED IN THIS
Final Episode: One person of each couple does not know
they will return from their Sabbatical to face an
ultimatum by their partner on Live TV. It is at that
moment they will be confronted by their significant
other who poses the ultimatum; "Marry me now, or lose me
Each relationship faces peril or a prize; to part
separate ways or get married at that moment. Ten
adventures, five couples, five ultimatums, all leading
to five moments of drama on Live TV.
For some it will be the final straw. For others, a new
"Can your relationship survive The Last Tango?"
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