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The Right Pitch: Aiming for the Majors

By Toni Petniunas

A cartoon shows an explorer holdings coins, disoriented on what direction to go to as the sign in the background lists a variety of outlets-- like PBS and HBO.

Any successful documentary maker will tell you that it’s much easier have a brilliant idea, than it is to get a brilliant idea produced—particularly for television. Despite the growing number of exceptional nonfiction outlets, it can difficult to find just the right niche for your show. How can filmmakers discern what the people with the checkbooks really want? The answer should be obvious to any documentary producer: Just ask.

We posed this question to highly placed television executives from HBO, A&E, DISCOVERY,TLC and NOVA in an effort to determine exactly what they do want to see in terms of product and pitch method. Their responses revealed that there’s a lot you can’t pick up by simply watching their programs on TV.


We first turned to IDA Trustee Sheila Nevins, Executive Vice President in charge of Original Programming at HBO, who led us to Nancy Abraham, Vice President of Programming.

According to Abraham, "Anybody can and does send in ideas because we have a pretty open submission policy.” These shows are also produced independently, or with HBO’s completion funding.

What is HBO looking for? Abraham specifies that, "In general we select documentaries that in some way shape or form won’t feel‚ to the audience like documentaries they might see on other channels." She added that in general HBO is looking for long-term, cinéma-vérité work, rather than the latest development in a news story, and prefers subject matter that is evergreen. “With lead time as much as three months in advance, short turn-around projects are impractical,” Abraham maintains.

Abraham hesitated to suggest subject categories for fear of limiting the imagination of people submitting projects, however, she alludes that anyone familiar with HBO would intuit the sort of projects that make it to air. You might not guess, however, that movie-related documentaries aren’t sought by HBO executives. "We’re not looking to make reference to the films on Cinemax or HBO,” she says. “There are a lot of film history and cinema topics on other channels, so that’s really not interesting to us."

Projects with co-funding or marketing support already attached are not a problem, but not necessarily a sway factor. According to Abraham, "It depends how much we can put toward the project, or, if a marketing partner might make more sense. We’ll consider material that’s already produced, but we might not pursue a particular idea if we felt it was somehow compromised by sponsorship."

Abraham also advises that your pitch should be simple and to the point. "Between the various production executives and staff we get about 3,000 tapes and pitches a year, so the general rule of thumb is limit your pitch to three to five pages. More back-up material may or may not be appropriate, but, regardless, it’s good to present a short summary up front."

Does splashy packaging work? “Be creative about the idea, not the packaging!” Abraham laughs. "I don’t need anything fancy – it’s too hard to file. People send all kinds of things—bows, gilded packages." Obviously, all that glitters is not gold, concept-wise. If you do decide to pitch to HBO, you can expect a lot of competition. Of all those submissions, HBO only accepts 12 AMERICA UNDERCOVER ideas, and two or three miscellaneous projects per year. DOUBLE EXPOSURE and CINEMAX REAL LIFE are monthly series.


Before the emergence of cable as a documentary outlet, one entity brought exciting, nonfiction programming into American homes: NOVA. Executive Producer Paula Apsell referred us to Melanie Wallace, senior producer for acquisitions and co-productions. We asked Wallace what makes NOVA unique.

"Topically, NOVA considers the entire realm of science, technology and medicine," Wallace explains. She differentiated NOVA from another WGBH production, Frontline, explaining the latter tends to cover science topics from a policy perspective, as in a recent show on global warming.

Says Wallace "A lot of documentaries tell you what happened, but we prefer to show you. We try very hard to craft the story as an intellectual and emotional experience, rather than an essay. Ideally, every NOVA is an eclectic, hour-long story-film. An ongoing action has to unfold, and the audience must be pulled into the process. Your concept needs to play out with dramatic impact over a 52-minute hour."

Wallace cites a NOVA production on the subject of comas as an example. The producer and VP waited on beepers, then followed a doctor as he treated a little boy who’d been injured in a karate accident. It was a heart-wrenching case driven by an emotional story—but replete with exposition about the latest developments in coma studies. (To everyone’s great relief, the child survived.)

NOVA’s early investment in Internet technology has recently lead to some unique programming opportunities for would-be producers. In 1996 Liesl Clark was working on a live on-line adventure about climbing. The climbers that year underwent widely publicized tragedy, and Clark sent back live, daily updates from a satellite link at base camp as the disaster unfolded. The following year NOVA used some of that material in Everest the Death Zone, which has since earned an Emmy nomination and a Silver Hugo award. NOVA plans to host four on-line/television adventures every year, and welcomes pitches that fit in with this plan.

Wallace says that in any NOVA project, visual beauty is important. Most often programs are 16mm with an occasional Beta format show. There’s even a hi-def project in the works.

NOVA’s budget supports the look. "Relatively speaking, we have a lot to spend,” Wallave explains. “Our programs on average cost $400,000 to $500,000.” NOVA will consider partially produced or fully produced shows and can provide a whole range of funding and partial funding.

Although they control their own budgets to a great extent, NOVA must adhere to PBS guidelines, particularly as they relate to marketing partners and co-funding. "If some money comes from a foundation already approved by PBS, it’s no problem," Wallace says. "Other money must be considered on a case-by-case basis because NOVA is underwritten."

So, who can pitch to NOVA? Anybody—but be prepared to explain why you have the expertise to do the work. "Why should I do this particular show with you? The films that we make are really complicated," states Wallace. "They work on a lot of levels, and, as I said, they’re not just exposition. For NOVA to accept your proposal, we have to know who you are, what you’ve done and seen a sample of your best work.”

"Don’t email materials," Wallace warns. "I will accept a one-page letter stating the particulars of your idea, but I would prefer it if you don’t send all your research right away. We will contact you and ask you for full details if we’re interested. Please feel free to follow up with a phone call if you haven’t heard back in a reasonable amount of time."

Of 600 submissions per year, NOVA produces 20 new shows—10 of which are original, and 10 which they don’t fully control. NOVA does always retain complete editorial control, however.

One final tip: If you possibly swing it, Wallace invites prospective producers to visit her and dozens of other international documentary film production entities at the World Congress of Science Producers. The meeting will be held in London this year (you may be able wrangle a grant to make the trip), and the congress convenes in North America next year.

Most of us are familiar with A&E’s high-profile series BIOGRAPHY, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS and AMERICAN JUSTICE, as well as the channel’s many assorted specials.


According to Michael Cascio, senior vice president of programming, A&E gears most of its material toward contemporary issues and people, now that the History Channel has taken root. Also, A&E generally leaves nature and wildlife topics to others.

Although A&E is attempting to capture the widest possible audience, they avoid "psychobable," and prefer stories which involve a broader subject matter, rather than an individual incident. Cascio adds, "Everything we do is at least an hour or two or more in length, so by definition, you have more depth. We’re trying to advance something slightly different, which can be difficult. For instance, we did one show on IRS horror stories. The topic would have been suitable for Dateline or 20/20, but we were able to go into greater detail about the implications of the problem."

Cascio stressed that work should be "objective, fair and balanced, journalistically responsible and comprehensive." Although he did not want to discourage submission of a wonderful idea, he warned that A&E usually comes up with original concepts in house then commissions appropriate producers to execute them. "Often, it’s a producer who’s worked with us in the past," he states.

This is particularly true of BIOGRAPHY because, after all, there are a limited number of famous contemporary figures to cover, and the team at A&E has already considered most of them and come up with an advanced plan for detailing their lives.

The same rules apply for shows under Bill Curtis. Curtis is a producer, host and reporter for A&E, but ideas for AMERICAN JUSTICE and may occasionally come from outside sources. If you should happen to be selected to produce a documentary for A&E it would most likely be because you have special expertise or intimate knowledge of a particular figure or subject.

Cascio explains that you should state your credits and other information clearly and succinctly in your proposal. "The proposal consists of something like a page or two. If there’s more, that’s okay too. Explain not only what the idea is, but why you? What do you bring to the project that nobody else can bring? For instance, ‘I have the only exclusive home movies of John F. Kennedy before his assassination,’ or, I have contacted Neil Armstrong, and he’s agreed to speak on camera for the first time.’ If the A&E team likes your idea, they might commission you to do it, or assign one of their producers to work with you.

As for the financial aspects, it really doesn’t matter if you have marketing partners or seed money attached. The A&E producers will consider each project on a case-by-case basis. Submissions should go to the A&E staff: Coralann Dolan, Bill Curtis, Ed Hersh or Amy Briamonte.

Discovery Networks

Discovery Networks is one of the most specifically categorized groups in the media today. The umbrella organization includes the Discovery Channel, TLC, Discovery Animal Plant, Discovery Kids and most recently, The Travel Channel, Discovery Health Channel, and Discovery Showcase Networks.

As such a complex web of documentary product, it was impossible to find one single person to speak for the specific needs of all the channels. We started, instead, with the written guidelines, available on request from Discovery.

According to these guidelines, your proposal should conform to some basic criteria, regardless of which channel you target; suit the network’s current programming needs in terms of topic and format; provide your production teams’ credentials and background; spell out your budget requirements; justify the suitability of the project for the network and explain the uniqueness and originality of the topic.

Here are the main points to consider:

The Discovery Channel accepts nonfiction programming proposals for one-hour programs, limited series (10 episodes or fewer, either hours or half-hours) and full series (13 hours or half-hours). Genres include science, technology, natural history, paranormal, exploration, world cultures, home improvement, cuisine, travel and adventure. Don’t send drama, instructional or industrial ideas.

The Learning Channel seeks science, technology, real-life adventure, paranormal, history, exploration, human behavior, pop culture and travel, again in the format of one-hour programs, limited series (10 episodes or fewer, either hours or half-hours) and full series (13 hours or half-hours).

You may want to target Discovery and TLC daytime, but unless you can demonstrate experience in producing bulk programming, you probably won’t qualify. They accept proposals for half-hour and one-hour series of 50 episodes or more in the lifestyle, home improvement, travel and adventure, self improvement, preschool and children’s genres.

Animal Planet is unique among the group in that seeks programming ideas for fiction as well as nonfiction on any animal subject suitable for families. Producers should submit series ideas (13 episodes – half-hours or one hour) in the form of documentary, drama, how-to magazine format, game shows, events coverage, talk and entertainment.

Discover Kids appears Sunday morning on the Discovery Channel and targets ages 6 to 12. Science, technology, natural history, history and human adventure are all considered, primarily in the range of half-hour series of 13 episodes or more. You can submit game shows, reality based dramas, and even magazine-style shows.

The Travel Channel emphasizes unique and compelling protagonists stressing breathtaking visuals. These aren’t straight-laced journalism, but rather informative storytelling in the areas of domestic, international, adventure, sports, luxury, bargain, romance, family, educational, alternative, eco-tourism, singles, seniors, travel cuisine and first-person journeys.

Discovery Health Channel is relatively new, and selects from proposals of the limited series, hour program and full series formats described under the Discovery heading. Although the channel wants to stress credibility and in-depth reporting, the subject matter is quite broad, including mental health, medical innovations, ethics, behavior modification, elder care, child care, healing, wellness, natural therapies, alternative treatments, stress management, fitness and nutrition.

Discovery People also adheres to the format guidelines, but is geared toward "a breadth of programming and approaches" profiling the most influential and intriguing people of the present and past.

Discovery Wings accepts programs regarding aviation, from nostalgia, sports, news technology, danger, escape, and so on. Space themes are also accepted. Stick to the format guidelines for the Discovery Channel.

Besides the many avenues of submissions available, this programming group requires you to include a very specific packet of information in your pitch.

You must get a release letter from the network, sign it, and submit it with your project pitch include a one or two-page treatment detailing:

  • the format
  • the production team and the job each member will perform
  • résumé with credits for each key member
  • a demo tape showing a sample of the producer‚s work as well as the host in action if possible.
  • (Regarding the demo tape, it’s best to send an entire show, not a snippet. Send any video format except Beta.)
  • You’ll need to send a budget summary showing what the network will need to contribute
  • a list of co-production partners
  • a production timeline.

As you can see, the opportunities—and pitfalls—are nearly endless. You’ll have to put a great deal of energy and time into fine-tuning your pitch. But isn’t it worth it for a really brilliant idea?

Toni Petniunas is an L.A. based writer/producer and multi-hyphenate who hosts her own bimonthly online humor website at