If you’re going to work successfully with the networks to create great kids programming, you need only two things: A unique vision that shapes your shows, and the passion that sells them. (Fortunately, these two components don’t have to be in the same body. I’m known as the creative half of Lynch Entertainment and my brother John as the business expert-but we both sell shows with great passion.) Okay, there’s more to it than that. Here’s how we at Lynch have been doing it with some success (he said modestly) for more than 15 years.
The back story
Know your buyer. I’m always amazed when writers come in to pitch us scripts for a Lynch show, when they’ve never watched our shows! Likewise, how could you go in to pitch a network if you don’t know their programming? Your concept must fit in with the network’s demographics, with their vision (for example, Nickelodeon’s ‘kids rule’ philosophy or Disney’s legendary family-friendly brand) and with the shows that will be wrapped around yours.
Know their needs. There are fewer buyers today than 10 years ago, but we still work regularly with 40 or so at the various networks and in syndication, and we make sure to have a good sense of what each of them needs. Where are the holes in their lineups? What are they looking for? What do they want-or what don’t they want? (That’s usually easier to answer.)
Know yourself. Once you know what they’re looking for, look to yourself to fill that gap. You should be working from a true love of kids entertainment-not from the idea that `If I start with kids shows, it’s just a short hop to the Thursday 8 p.m. slot.’ Kids programming today is a happening and profitable industry in its own right. It’s also, in my opinion, the most creative area in TV today.
Each Lynch series begins on a very personal level; in fact, I think of them as ‘Lynch shows,’ not as Nick or Disney Channel shows. For instance, I came up with The Secret World of Alex Mack-about a teenage girl who develops superpowers after being exposed to a top-secret chemical in her father’s laboratory-because my father was a nuclear physicist and I always wondered, ‘What if. . . ?’ When I was 13 years old, I camped out in a buddy’s garage for a couple weeks; I remember how much I missed my family, and that feeling of separation eventually led to The Journey of Allen Strange.
Know your audience. Our shows deal with issues that today’s increasingly sophisticated kids can relate to: Identity, self-esteem, alienation, fitting in. Multilayered storytelling and rich characterizations give kids something to invest in, something that makes them watch not just this week, but next week-then tell their friends, then watch it again in reruns.
Know your style: You want a look that’s unmistakably your own. Lynch shows spring from everyday life-with a twist. For instance, every town has a bully, and you know that bully is one day going to get his comeuppance. On 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd, the Lynch bully doesn’t just get turned in to the authorities. He gets turned into a dog.
We also think of our shows as films for the small screen. Alex Mack was the first series we started shooting exclusively on film, and it added a reality and a depth that has served as our signature style ever since.
Moving in for the pitch
Pitch high. Once you’ve got a show you love and that’s perfect for the network, take it as high up the food chain as you decently can.
Pitch passionately. We’re not making sausages, we’re making magic: If you don’t love your show, you’re wasting your time. How are you going to convince the network executive to get behind you as producer of this show if you can’t project enthusiasm for it?
Pitch succinctly. You’ve got three to five minutes-which is about the length of a kid’s attention span, so this is good practice. It helps to use shorthand that quickly sets the tone of the show. We described Caitlin’s Way, for example, as ‘the Nickelodeon version of My So-Called Life.’ (Those of you who saw The Player saw hybrid descriptions taken to a satiric extreme-’It’s Pretty Woman meets Out of Africa!’-but the truth is, it works.)
Pitch knowledgeably. Know your show and its characters like you know your own family (maybe better, depending). Describe the premise and the main characters, as well as the characters’ parents, friends, siblings. Indicate the arc of the show across 100 episodes; this demonstrates how well you’ve thought it out (and plants the seeds of ’100 episodes’). Sometimes having a spec script helps, but don’t go so far as to bring a demo tape: Its roughness and low quality in most cases will only tarnish the image you’re trying to project.
Pitch globally. In several cases, we’ve sold the international rights to our shows before we took them to the network. This meant we were able to say to a cable buyer, for example: ‘The cost of this show is US$400,000-but we’ve already got US$200,000 covered.’ If foreign rights are not a big issue for them, they appreciate our track record, they like our enthusiasm and it’s going to cost them half what it normally would-how can they say no?
Pitch flexibly. Without selling your soul, you can incorporate changes that don’t threaten the integrity of the show, but which help the network in ‘getting to yes,’ as the negotiating experts say. For example, I originally envisioned Alex Mack as a boy (I’ve got four sons, what can I tell you?). Herb Scannell at Nickelodeon said they wanted a girl protagonist-an idea I embraced immediately. We sat down and rewrote the character, and in the process created a smart, enterprising teenager who’s now considered a significant role model for girls.
The end…or is it?
The pitch meeting’s over. If it’s a no-go, consider this: You’ll go on to pitch another day, so learn from your experience. If you got the green light, congratulations. Now you can begin the really hard work-keeping your show on the air.
It is hard work, but the rewards are extraordinary. When a kid runs up to me and says, ‘I love that dog on Eddie McDowd!’ or ‘Can I wear that jersey?’ or ‘Do you really know Allen Strange?’ or ‘Alex Mack is my hero’-those are the things that make my life magnificent.
Lynch Entertainment is a leading producer of live-action children’s television programming, with four series currently on-air (100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd, The Secret World of Alex Mack and The Journey of Allen Strange on Nickelodeon, and The Jersey on Disney Channel). A new Lynch series (Nickelodeon’s first drama), Caitlin’s Way, debuts in January. Lynch’s Allen Strange TV film, Alien Vacation, launched Nickelodeon’s new series of ‘Nick Flicks’ in early December.