I have an idea for an educational-type reality-based TV show and would like to pitch it to some production companies. What is the process involved with pitching an idea? What do we need to have written up? Is there a good resource of general guidelines for writing up this kind of proposal? How can we ensure our idea won't be "stolen"?
Great timing! I'm also pitching an educational series, so I can tell you the steps I've taken, and offer a few others that might be available to you as well.
1) First, lots and lots of people are always working on the same idea at the same time, no matter what that idea might be. There are hundreds of different more-or-less educational, more-or-less reality shows in development. So the core idea itself isn't copyrightable -- and in fact you don't need to worry about it getting stolen. It's not steal-able. What is worth protecting is how you plan to *execute* the idea.
You have a particular vision for your show. You know the details: how you'll convey the information (host? narration? animation?), who the target audience is (kids? teens? college students? adults?), how you'll fill the hour or half-hour (experiments? following one particular professor? different segments? interviews?) and what the cohesive, operating principle will be. This last part is more or less the philosophy of the show. How would you describe the show's mission, in a sentence? More than any other single factor, that's going to shape your show's content. Also, the more you have a sense of mission and purpose, the easier it will be to pitch the series -- because at heart, pitching is about clearly conveying your vision to someone who might share it and want to play with you.
2) All that -- your vision of what the show will accomplish and what a typical episode will look like -- should be written up as a treatment. This can run three to eight pages, including short blurbs on sample "upcoming" episodes. This should be registered just like a script with the WGA, west; check out their website at http://www.wga.org.
The good news on treatments: there's no one right answer. There are guidelines, but few hard and fast rules. Here's the breakdown, in order, of how I like to put one together:
The treatment should be fun and engaging, and if you can swing it, should be in the same tone as the show. It's a sales piece, as well as something tangible to register.
3) A couple of other things you should think about are:
What's the venue for the show? Network, PBS, cable, educational outlets (like direct distribution to schools?) This won't just have an impact on how you design the show (for instance, network half-hours are only 22 minutes long; PBS half-hours run about 28), it will also open or close doors on funding.
How do you plan to fund the production? Some funders are strictly nonprofit; others want a certain size audience that only cable or network can provide.
Funding will be a discussion, of course, that you'll have with the production company. You don't necessarily have to know how to get the money, but you should have an idea of where it might come from and how much you need. Otherwise, it's tough to tell when a production company really knows how to raise the funds or when they're talking pie in the sky. And of course it is easier to get the producing partner of your dreams when at least partial funding is already in place.
With that thought in mind, who do you already know (in either the non-profit or corporate world) who might be willing to foot all or part of the bill? Even if you're not prepared to have a sponsorship conversation with them, now is the time to start initiating, developing and deepening those contacts.
4) Finally, the most important part of pitching any project is knowing, and being able to convey, how you personally are indispensable to the success of the project. What is your expertise? How is your vision so entwined with the show's concept that it simply wouldn't work without you? What contacts do you bring to the table, both as potential guests for the show and as potential funders? Coming up with a great initial idea isn't enough; you need to know how you'll be intimately involved and how that involvement is critical to the series. And you need to be able to clearly communicate that to funders and potential producing partners. Don't overstate; for instance, if you plan to write, star in and direct every episode, people might think you're nutty rather than visionary. But if you can clearly and, for want of a better word, sanely convey what you bring to the table, both you and your project will gain legitimacy and respect.