By Reader Request: Miss “S” Asks About Intellectual Property Ownership and More.

Well, I asked and you answered.  I’ve got enough reader queries to explore on the blog that it should take me a good, long while to sort ’em all out.

Since I didn’t ask whether it was okay with you to reprint your names, I’m gonna go with abbreviations in these first few responses over the weeks to come.

Miss “S” asks:

“I have an idea for a new reality show and have it registered with WGA. Which should I look for first; an agent, a production company, or a contact with a network?”

The answer?  It depends.

If you’re brand spanking new to the industry, no one wants to talk to you unless you have a property they consider valuable and that they can’t make an end-zone run around.  If I walk in and try to sell a show about a family-owned junkyard, but I don’t have the family yet (or do, but don’t have any exclusivity with them), I shouldn’t be surprised if two years later a similar show finds its way to air without me.  Ideas are as free as the air.

If you’ve got a show that nobody else can do (as in, you’ve got an interesting star that you have some exclusivity agreement with along with a great premise), then you should start asking yourself the question that leads off this request.

Looking for an agent first doesn’t hurt, but you’ll need to understand that getting representation doesn’t magically kick down doors everywhere.  You’re only as good as your agent’s contacts and relationships, and there are plenty of agents out there who will sign you and then stuff you in a drawer until you start generating something on your own.

Finding a production company to partner up with is a little bit easier, but you’ll want to set your meetings through an agent or entertainment attorney.  Look for companies that have an existing relationship with networks that carry the kind of show you’ve created.  Avoid redefining the wheel unless you’re prepared to spend a long time tilting against windmills — networks usually prefer to play it safe, as they spend an awful lot of money researching their demographics and second-guessing what their regular viewers want to see.  Got a house-hunting show with a paranormal twist?  Don’t be surprised if a company primarily selling content to HGTV says I WANT TO LIVE IN A HAUNTED HOUSE isn’t up their alley.

S moves on to say that she’s already been given advice about seeking out a showrunner and selling the concept to them and the network OR retaining ownership of the intellectual property herself, “syndicating the content online, to broadcast, and to the networks.”

Most creatives straight out of the chute would be in quite a pickle trying to figure out how to do this themselves, but in this day and age, if you’ve got the resources and can afford to roll the dice, help yourself.  I don’t do it, but it doesn’t mean you can’t.  I don’t know the stories behind every success of failure out there, I just know how it usually gets done, which isn’t in a manner in which a creative owns the IP completely.

That said, S, I’d suggest that you do a little bit of research on how Byron Allen built his empire on shows that he created, owned and syndicated himself.  His example stands out in my memory as I can recall having my mind utterly blown by how he approached production and distribution.

Beyond the show ownership question, S asks:  “Is it really a good route to go? And if one does, then who is able to make a deal with a distribution company without getting chewed up and spit out?”  

The answer: You and your super-awesome entertainment attorney.  If the distribution company thinks they can make money off of your product somewhere on the planet, they’ll be interested, but remember that they’re in this to make money, too.  Don’t try to figure out the push/pull yourself and don’t look at any one offering as the cash cow that’s going to solve all your problems.  Going back to Byron Allen, that guy had more than two dozen shows on the air last time I checked.  Build a relationship with your distributor, and always be thinking about what you can bring them next.

S also asks about non-disclosure agreements:  “…does anyone ever sign a NDA?…I don’t know about asking an executive at a network, or an executive producer of a show, to sign an NDA.”

No, you don’t ask execs and producers to sign NDA’s when you pitch.  You set the meeting with them through your attorney or an agency, and everyone’s expected to be an adult about it.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t save email exchanges or records of where you’ve been with what projects.  I’ve had instances where I felt like something I pitched turned into a show later down the line, but I haven’t pursued litigation.  Sometimes your show is a lot like something already on the hopper or a production company thinks up a better take than yours on a general idea.  It happens.  Roll with it.

More from S:  “What is in it for the networks when the show is already, ‘in the can’, and offered to them for airing?”  Well, before I answer the question directly, here’s the thing… they won’t be able to change it.  They can’t offer you notes or fiddle with the show. Guess what? They pay people to do that kind of thing all day — layers of execs and marketing people tweaking the show based on their understanding of their audience and advertiser demands.  Ultimately, it’ll come down to whether they think they can make a buck, period.  I’d forget about network television, and even in cable, your options will be limited.

Finally, this:  “If I take a pitch to someone who has shows on TV and they like it, and they get a green light for the show from a network, what should I ask for and how do I get what I want?”

You should have your arrangement in place long before the production company goes out with your show, and remember, the network will have a lot to say about how they see credits and compensation once things really get going.  You can ask for certain credits “pending network approval.”

Here are some things to make sure you iron out with the production company you partner with from the beginning:

  • How long does the production company get to sell the show before the rights revert back to you?
  • Who has creative and financial control over the show?  (Usually, it’s the production company, but you can specify that you wish to have meaningful creative consultation.)
  • How will you be credited (subject to buyer approval)?
  • Will you have a per episode fee?  How will you and the production company share any back-end?
  • What are the agency packaging fees?

Hope this helps, Miss S!

2 thoughts on “By Reader Request: Miss “S” Asks About Intellectual Property Ownership and More.

Add yours

  1. Troy, what are your thoughts about the talent being involved in the production of the show. And by “show” I mean a solo personality driven show (e.g., Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations), not a competition elimination show (e.g., Big Brother) or a troupe cast type show (e.g., Jersey Shore).

    As speaking as a producer, if it is the only way you’ll get this talent to be part of the show, how do you deal with such? Do you run for the hills, deal with it, or welcome it? If you should run for the hills, why? If you deal or welcome it, how it is usually handled and, from your experience, best handled?

    Isn’t it also true that if the solo personality reality show is dependent on the talent, that talent is effectively and essentially the executive producer since you cannot replace them? They might not hold the title of EP, but they hold the power of one and over the “official” EP. I see this regularly happening with dramas. Once the show is a hit, the star(s) of the show have more power then anyone else since without them, there is no show and they then usually take over control of the show.

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