How network television pitching season is like March Madness
by Mikhail Nayfeld
Every summer, Hollywood gets together to participate in the time-honored tradition known as “network television pitch season.” It’s exciting. It’s visceral. There is no other annual event that offers the same level of joy, suspense, and sometimes-agonizing heartbreak except maybe … March Madness.
For the uninitiated, March Madness is a single elimination basketball tournament that grips America in its clutches every spring. It doesn’t matter if you’re ranked first or last, anyone can win if you get hot at the right time, and you, too, can be this season’s Cinderella story. Like the tournament, many enter “pitch season” with high hopes of winning it all, knowing full well that the odds dictate that most of them will go home empty handed. Yet, year after year, when the smell of BBQ smoke clears, and the last fireworks are fired on the 4th of July, the hopeful come en masse hoping for a little taste of victory in the form of three little words from the network: “We’ll buy it.”
It all begins with a writer, brimming with excitement and that “great idea,” eager to sacrifice his or her no-brainer concept to the TV gods. Maybe last year didn’t work out, but you convince yourself, “This time it’s going to work! This time I’m going to be the Cinderella story!”
The development process begins, during which the idea must run a gauntlet of managers, agents, and producers’ notes until the writer feels like they just passed through a random TSA strip search and survived. Regardless, this collective dream team of sales professionals have spearheaded hours of dedicated preparation, methodical practice, and perfectly executed plans that all but guarantee victory.
As this is going on, word of the other games begins to filter in. The blue chip teams easily win their games, not surprisingly; they’ve got the big name talent. We knew they would be advancing to the next round. We’re not worried. We can beat the odds. Then it happens: a few of the underdogs begin winning. Each announcement builds the anticipation. If they sold a show, our show is a lock for sure!
With the clock running, we make our move. Ironically, our unshakeable confidence is quickly orphaned when the first pass from a network arrives. When you come up short in the first period, everyone is shell-shocked. “How did this happen? Who was in the room? Were they paying attention? Did we wait too long to get the shot off? This is a no-brainer show for the network! How could they pass?”
Inevitably, someone is obligated to utter the words, “Should we rethink the pitch?” What?! We’ve been prepping this game plan for weeks, months even, why would anyone in their right mind abandon a carefully thought out, fully vetted plan of action in favor of a last minute, improvised, buzzer-beating half court heave? Because there’s a huge difference between target practice and being dropped in a war zone with bullets flying back at you. Adrenaline is pumping.
Your life (i.e. career) flashes before your eyes. You improvise. You adapt. You do what is necessary to survive. This is the big dance, and no one wants to go home early.
You make adjustments, but the second and third periods are no better, each one a near miss that offers little guidance in locating the path to victory. “They loved the pitch, but they’re passing, because they’ve bought too many shows with brunettes this season.” “I could fix that,” you protest, “we could change her hair color to blonde.” “Yeah, you could, but in your heart they know you wanted a brunette.” What does that even mean?
So it all comes down to the final period. You’ve tried everything. You’ve made it this far, and it doesn’t matter if they’ve already bought three shows in a similar arena. Our show is different!
You steel yourself for one more run. It comes down to the wire, and you’ve got the ball. The clock is slowly winding down, this is your chance to claim what you’ve worked so hard to achieve. And as you prepare to take the final shot, a smile creeps over your face, as you realize that, win or lose, you’ll be back next year to do it all again … because everyone wants to be the next Cinderella.Tags: Cinderella story, Entertainment industry, Hollywood, March Madness, Mikhail Nayfeld, Television pitching season, Writer