Over breakfast, our little team reviews what should be said in what order at the four pitch meetings we have scheduled for the day.
Ann, the agent from William Morris, tells Jed and Bennett and me that some execs at these meetings will have actually prepared for the meetings. They’ll have listened to tapes she’s sent of This American Life and watched Bennett’s film. But many of them won’t have prepared. It’s our job, she says, to politely ignore it if they know nothing about our work.
Ann explains: The way one handles this situation is to tell them everything you think they need to know about your work, prefaced with the phrase “As you know already.”
“Everything in this town is pitched with the phrase ‘as you know already,’ ” Ann declares, between bites of omelette.
We talk about what each of the networks we’re pitching is probably looking for. The WB only wants a younger demographic. A third of Showtime’s audience is African-American. This goes on for a while and finally Bennett pipes up. “Not to be crude, but isn’t there some part of their brains that’s concerned with winning awards and getting critical acclaim? Wouldn’t they view this as an opportunity to buy themselves some integrity?”
That’s the spirit.
At our first network meeting, the execs all start to lose interest when I say the word “pretty.” This is Ann and Jed’s diagnosis in a coffeeshop afterwards. They could feel the mood in the room change, and soon execs were talking about programming the show at midnight on Sunday night, if at all. That is the power of the word “pretty” to strike fear in men’s hearts.
I used the word in response to a direct question. An exec who listens regularly to This American Life talked about the fact that one thing that’s exciting about the radio show is that one doesn’t see the people in the stories. One is left to imagine moments which are described. Could we retain that feeling in a television version of the show?
I replied that I thought we could if the pictures for some of the stories were more impressionistic, more suggestive. If they were more like a rock video, more pretty, less like 60 Minutes.
That scared them, Ann said afterwards. It made it sound too arty. Arty is bad.
By the end of the meeting, she and Jed turned it around, mostly by talking emotionally about making something entirely new on television, something as compelling as a great TV drama, with the irresistible narrative arc of a TV drama, but that happens to be nonfiction. Bennett argued that the current TV newsmagazines all seem to have a rather moribund and formalized sense of how to tell a story. I talked about a TV story I saw on Civil War re-enactors. The researchers who worked on the story had found interesting people to interview, but none of these interviewees stays in the report for very long. The story just flits from person to person. Incredibly, they even found an African-American woman who joins the Civil War re-enactments as a slave. But even she gets only a few moments in the report. There’s no space for us to actually get to know anyone, and hear the real story of what happened to them and how it changed them. We never get to know anyone well enough that we can imagine what it’d be like to be in their situation. We never feel much empathy at all.
We continued on these lines for a while, then Ann brought up the idea of winning lots of awards, and soon the meeting was at an end.
Afterwards in the coffeeshop, we reworked the pitch. Ann told me that like anyone else, these execs need to be spoken to in their own language. That we need to compare what we’re proposing to 20/20 and ER and The Sopranos.
So, what to do about “pretty”–the word that nearly scotched the deal? How to avoid the word “impressionistic”? What should we say if we’re asked again what the show will look like?
We brainstormed, all of us, for a while, five minutes or so.
Finally here’s what we came up with. Instead of saying the shots will be pretty, we’d say: “In contrast to TV newsmagazines, this show will not be shot on video but on film. We’ll have a real director of photography, just like a movie has, to create more dramatic effects.”
“Say ‘more dramatic,’ not ‘more artful.’ ” Ann and Jed warn me. “Say whatever you want. Just don’t say pretty.”
Three hours later we’re driving across town to another pitch meeting, and we pass the Will Rogers Park. It’s all palm trees and bright, gorgeous flowers under a perfect sky.
“That’s pretty,” I say.
From the back seat Jed declares, “Ira! That word!”
In the driver’s seat, steering gently, not moving his eyes off the road, Bennett gently suggests, “I think what you mean to say, Ira, is that the park’s shot on film.”
The little coffeeshop meeting after our first meeting pays off in the second. In less than 45 minutes, we seem to completely win over the network execs here. They seem truly excited to try something so different on network TV. They’re one of the networks that chose not to pick up The Sopranos, which is generally regarded as the best drama on television this year. Since then, they’ve been trying to make more daring programming choices. This helps our cause.
It’s an amazing feeling, when something like this goes so well. At the end of the meeting it feels like we’ve all been on a really great date, all warmth and a sense of common purpose. “We want to be your home,” they declare, standing and shaking our hands.
Later, Ann says the time has never been better to pitch an unusual vision for a TV show, that because of The Sopranos, and the competition from cable and the Internet, and the ratings erosion at the traditional networks, everyone in television realizes now more than ever that trying things no one has ever done before may be essential to their survival. Perhaps for this reason, our other two meetings also go very well.
At day’s end, our leading contender is still the second network we saw. If they make an offer, though, we’ll still try to get other offers. The goal is to get several bidders, so we have more leverage to structure the deal the way we want.
We had a lovely first date with that second network, they declared their feelings for us, we really liked them.
But tomorrow, in the cool light of a new day, will they call?