Ruth McGarahan worked in Development for Blue Peter. Here she shares some advice about how to create unique programme ideas:
Due to the nature of my background, most of these thoughts are probably particularly helpful for those working on general ideas in television but obviously much of it can be applied to other platforms and within specific or specialist programmes.
When you’re under pressure to be creative, the normally prevalent fresh flow of ideas and inspiration often completely dries up and it’s hard to think of any ideas, let alone killer ones that necessitate an hour long documentary! That’s why it’s really helpful to immerse yourself in stuff that can help inspire and trigger thoughts that can be worked up and turned into exciting programme ideas. Often an initial thought will take you in a completely unexpected direction – as far as possible, try and be flexible enough to let that happen – sometimes the most innovative ideas come from unusual sources and surprising angles.
When you’ve read/ seen/ visited/ experienced something that has inspired you, take a specific element of that discovery and pull it to pieces. Try and find something unique in the idea – what part of it has never been done before? What angle have we not seen this from? Is there a different story to be told/ personal element to emphasise? Could you feature a non-obvious character? What if you start at the end and then come to the beginning? What if you turn the idea on its head? What if you super-size the idea/ add a twist? E.g. could we try this idea in the dark/with multiple contributors/ with children/ with hands tied?
It sounds glaringly obvious but flicking through newspapers and news channels is often a helpful way of starting to find ideas. Particularly if you are working on a magazine show/ daily or news orientated progamme, tying an idea to a topical event can be a great start. It’s worth looking at a variety of different news outlets – tabloids in particular often have quirky stories/ strange facts that can offer a potential trigger for an unusual idea.
Keeping abreast of the news also ensures that you are aware of what is going on in the world around you – what are hot topics/ discussion points? What are people listening to/ reading etc? What new discoveries/ gadgets are being made? Likewise, it is also worth noting what stories have been done to death and what people are sick of hearing about. People don’t want to watch/ listen to programmes about things that they think they already know enough about so unless you have a new insight/ different angle, there is no point covering old ground. Again, if another programme/ channel/ production company has made a great show about a particular topic, there’s no point trying to replicate what they have done and probably not as well!
As we live in a digital age, a great way to discover the above is to look at internet trends, social media etc. Once you’ve identified topics of interest, you then need to assertain what part of that you can delve deeper into or what element/ angle/ story you can research further and work into a feasible programme idea.
Making a calendar of key dates and events can be a great help when trying to think of topical ideas. There are lots of things you can potentially tie ideas into – important events (Olympics, elections, coronations etc), book releases, film releases, single releases, religious festivals or key anniversaries (births, deaths, 100 years since a product’s creation etc). If you’ve got a great idea but you can’t find a peg/ reason for doing that idea, it is often worth checking dates to see if you can find an appropriate and interesting hook.
The internet and PR companies are a good way of keeping across upcoming events – there are some paid subscription sites (entnews.com yearahead.com) which might be worth signing up to but there are also some free ones such as:
I know it’s annoying to be inundated by emails/ post but signing up to carefully selected PRs, events companies, record labels, film distributors etc could really help with the above and trigger ideas even if you’re not interested in the actual event they are putting on.
On top of news items, reading books, journals and magazines can help trigger ideas. Particularly helpful are niche and specialist magazines such as The Grocer, Good Food, New Scientist, History, National Geographic, Disability Now, The Gymnast, Your Dog, Rolling Stone etc – Unique Magazines has an extensive list of magazines http://www.uniquemagazines.co.uk/stores/magazine-subscriptions).
There are also lots of interesting websites that can trigger ideas – again it’s good to view a range of differing specialists from science to art, music and new technology.
http://www.wired.com/ is good for a variety of things – culture, reviews, new technology etc.
http://www.thecoolhunter.co.uk/ is again good for general inspiration
http://www.ted.com/ is worth checking out for a variety of different talents, stories, interesting people.
http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/ is great for keeping across all showbiz, music, film, gaming news and releases
http://www.launchingfilms.com/ informs you about upcoming film releases
http://www.newscientist.com/section/science-news is good for science/ tells you about new discoveries/ scientific research
http://www.trendhunter.com/ is good for trying to anticipate new trends/ looking at what people are interested in
http://www.instructables.com/ is particularly interesting for anyone that is looking for an idea that involves making/ creating something.
There are also some subscriptions site that might be worth signing up to such as http://www.knowuk.co.uk/jsp/marketing/nonsub.jsp
Consuming existing media
Watching existing television shows, listening to current radio programmes and reading articles, blogs etc will hopefully help inspire you. Depending on the ambiance of your office (and the temperament of the colleagues around you!), having programmes on in the background while you’re working might prove helpful. Magazine shows can be particularly good triggers such as The One Show, BBC Breakfast, Blue Peter, Daybreak, This Morning, Countryfile, Countrywise, Paul O'Grady, Alan Titchmarsh, Top Gear, The Gadget Show, Watchdog.
Adverts are also quite interesting as they often offer inspiration for how to cover things in a different way.
Reading press releases, scouring websites etc are all very helpful but sometimes actually going to see things for yourself - museums, exhibitions, concerts etc can give you further insight or inspiration. Visiting potential contributors and locations can also provide this.
Start with you
Obviously your viewers/ readership/ listeners etc will sometimes be quite specific and completely unlike you but it is often helpful when generating ideas completely from scratch to begin with yourself as a starting point - what do I want to know more about? What completely fascinates me? What are all my friends talking about? Perhaps thinking about what programmes you enjoy might get those creative juices flowing. What specifically do you like about those programmes? What elements work/ don’t work and why? If you have put yourself in the shoes of your audience to think of a general idea or theme, perhaps have a think about what particular aspect of that topic interests you as an individual – how can you find out more about that element/ work up that idea further/ delve deeper into that issue/ discover an inspiring personal story along these lines?
Actively seek feedback from your audience and try to find opportunities to pitch potential ideas to them (e.g. if working on a teenage magazine, taking some ideas into a school/ youth group). Incorporate their feedback into your changes when working up the idea – try and find out reasons behind their likes and dislikes as this will help more generally with ideas in the future. As well as trialing specific potential ideas, it is also worth taking a more pie-in-the-sky approach and asking them for any ideas they have generally, maybe on specific themes/ around particular areas. It might even be worth doing a questionnaire to ascertain their interests, consumption of media, reading habits etc.
Brainstorms/ sharing ideas
I’ve written a separate article about this here http://www.themedianet.org/article?article=d58bb283-47a9-4177-99ac-e57dffa5c930 but it is worth taking your ideas/ thoughts to a wider team to see if they can add anything/ fine tune certain elements or steer you down a different angle. Brainstorms are also particularly good for generating ideas from scratch and creating kernels of ideas which then get worked up and become more concrete after further research and development.
Further research/ pitching
Depending on what you need the idea for and how your production company works, you will probably need to develop your initial idea, research it further and shape it into something that you can pitch.
Pre-pitch, it is often worth contacting potential contributors, locations etc to find out more information/ work out logistics. This can help further form the idea and give it the structure and details often necessary for a pitch. Make sure that in these initial stages you don’t get anyone’s hopes up – emphasize the fact that your call is only preliminary and that your item is subject to change, get dropped etc.
Even if your production company doesn’t require a pitch form, it is helpful to work within some sort of form/framework to ensure that you have thought through the logistics and taken various considerations seriously.
Questions to consider are What’s the story? Whose story is it (character)? What is/are the main incident(s) in the story? How are you going to tell it (structure)?
What is the story? You need to be able to sum up your idea in a short engaging headline. Perhaps think about what is written in a programme billing (radio times/ iplayer, telvision info etc). It may be helpful to think in terms of a main intention question – what question do you want answered by the end of the item/ programme? E.g. Will the contributor(s) battle against all odds to reach the top of Ben Nevis?
Whose story is it? This could be super obvious but it might need some consideration – what voice will you use? Which angle do you want the story to be told from? Who or what will resonate with your audience most effectively?
What will actually happen – what are the key moments in the idea? What will we see, hear, experience? Will there be any sub stories, incidents?
How will the item be communicated? Will it be funny, moving, fascinating? How will it start, end? What do you want the audience take out to be? What do you anticipate them feeling/ thinking/ discovering/ doing?
You also need to consider the logistics and practicalities of making it – when will it be? Where will it be? Have you contacted contributors already? Are there any health and safety issues you need to consider? If so, how will you overcome these/ ensure the safety of everyone involved? How much will your idea cost? Will you need specialist equipment/ experts etc? If it’s really expensive, is there a way that you can bring those costs down? In these initial stages it is worth bearing in mind that any ideas involving music, water, sport, theatre or special effects are generally a lot more costly because of extra equipment and personnel so perhaps try and think of ways around these costs e.g. if you were going to have a performance piece in a studio, you would normally have to pay every performer, costume, make up, set designer, choreographer etc. Although potentially not as impressive, if you are on a very tight budget, you could play their EPK clip (Electronic Press Kit – montage of footage from the show/ press comments/behind the scene interviews etc) and get the performers in the studio to do an illustrative interview where they explain what they’re doing as they do it.
It might be worth considering the topicality of the idea - why now? Why could you not make a film about it next year? Why couldn’t the programme have aired a few weeks ago? What ties the idea to the date that you have in mind?
Sell your idea
A great idea is only as good as you sell it. If you don’t pitch your idea properly, you could have ruined all your hard work.
When pitching, make sure you know your idea back to front so that you can speak about it confidently without having to refer to your notes. Make sure that you are prepared for questions from the people you are pitching to – there will inevitably be things that you won’t know but asking yourself the above questions will hopefully minimize your lack of knowledge.
Ensure that you have readily available information – website links, footage, clips, sound bites, press release material etc. This will further demonstrate your idea/ story/ contributor and will help sell your idea.
It will sometimes be helpful to bring in props to make it easier to visualize the idea – if there’s a piece of equipment that is integral to the idea or your idea involves making something etc.
Be confident when you are pitching – if you don’t believe in your idea, they won’t!