I discovered a foolproof formula for creating hit television… and now you can too!
Don’t get all coy about it mate, I know you’ve got one. I know that in less-guarded moments you’ll beckon someone closer, look about yourself conspiratorially and then whisper in their ear “I’ve got this idea for a show…” Then you’ll get sheepish again, weighing up whether or not you can trust your confidant, whether you’ll kick yourself if you let the idea slip now and then turn on your telly a couple months down the line to see your idea beaming back at you.
There’s also the other thing. The chance that this person will think it’s really quite a bad idea, and that won’t do either. This idea is your ticket to the big time and there’s no sense in letting it get ripped up in front of your face. Far better to sit on it like a mother hen, biding your time till its ready. “Actually… nevermind.”
That’s the difference between you and I. You’re a coward, and I’ve got loads of million-dollar-TV ideas I’ll happily share with whoever cares to listen. In fact, I’m going to give away 14 for free in this very article. Why? Because I think I’ve worked out a formula that will let me come up with infinite million-dollar TV ideas.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say: every single show on television these days is the best show on television. Ex on the Beach, Survival of the Fittest, Just Tattoo of Us, Game of Clones, Naked Attraction, Beauty and the Geek, Your Face Or Mine, Change Your Tune… all inarguably fantastic. So how do they keep pumping them out at such a phenomenal hit-rate? Well, I’ve cracked it.
They just go through a list of idioms and sayings, come up with a pun or two, then reverse engineer the premise of a hit show. That’s it.
They go: “Romance…. Romans…. Bromance… Bro…mans??” And then they’ve made an Ancient Rome-themed reality show about friendship between bros called Bromans. And it’s wicked, obviously, but the fact remains that you could’ve come up with it, if only you’d thought of the pun first.
At first I thought: it can’t be that easy. Then I Googled “sayings” clicked the first site that came up and bam! Just three sayings into the 1,800 promised by the site: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”
That is, of course, both the title and 90% of the premise of The Weakest Link, a show that ran for 12 years and 1,693 episodes in Britain alone, has been syndicated in 46 countries, was named as the world’s second most popular ‘format TV’ franchise in 2013, and almost certainly made the creators more cash than I have.
I want more cash. So I decided to come up with every popular new show for the foreseeable future using the Formula, and in order to test it for rigour, I took them to a panel of bona fide television people from Viacom’s Channel 5 and MTV, between them responsible for overseeing the likes of Celebrity Big Brother, Blind Date, The Million Pound Drop, Make or Break? and The Generation Game.
Doused in enough brylcreem to drown Don Draper and clad in my one smart shirt, I unfurl the future of television in front of an assembled room of pensive commissioning gurus and ask them to give me ruthless feedback, as though I were a real tellyperson, rather than a chancing journalist.
This is what they had to say.
Sort of like Great British Bake Off, in that contestants are tasked with producing fabulous dessert dishes (and only desserts.) Unlike GBBO, sabotage is actively encouraged. There was one infamous incident on GBBO where someone’s baked Alaska was surreptitiously removed from a fridge and thusly collapsed, and apparently this was the best episode.
Contestants are split into teams and compete in cooking tasks. For instance, there might be a task where a ‘client’ has ordered a cake, and whoever delivers it first, wins the task, but there might only one of everything: one oven, one fridge, one set of ingredients - and they all have to scrabble over it. If you lose, your baked goods are thrown on the floor and stamped on in front of you.
Sean Doyle: I wouldn’t be keen. You’re taking something that’s quite warm and crowbarring on something incredibly mean to it. Bake Off works because of it’s warmth, and that one story about the conspiracy of the baked Alaska is sort of the outlier. The injection of meanness into it, I don’t think it would be for a mainstream audience.
I’ve ruined Bake Off.
Couples would go on first dates while riding a tandem bike around lovely scenic locations - cute enough, right? But attached to the frame of their bike is a sidecar, containing an outside agent. This could be a friend of one of the singletons, or a parent, or even a love rival. The ‘third wheel’ is also in charge of navigation for the trip. When there is a love rival, there must be a decision of who to take on a second date. The losing rival is placed in the sidecar, which is symbolically unattached at the top of a steep hill.
Adrian Padmore: I feel like I’ve seen this parent-on-a-date thing before
Nic McNeilis: Or My New Best Friend type, Would Like To Meet, and those sort of shows.
AP: Where you’ve got to get rid of one person when you’re on a double date, or a triple date as this would be. When you look at First Dates, dating shows have kind of moved on. When they tried to remake Streetmate, it just didn’t really run, because it was such an old format.
NM: You need to be really clever with the next big dating show format.
AP: Because First Dates isn’t really about dating, it’s about something we’ve all done, but actually it’s about those layers of stories - someone losing a parent, or changing gender, and how that has made them the person they are now. It’s that story.
Despite the forward momentum generated by the bike, this is a fundamentally backwards-facing dating show.
On The Rebound
Newly single contestants live in a sports village throughout the duration of the show and are made to compete with and against each other in a sporting event (basketball, golf etc). The idea would be that these already people would have no choice but to build bonds with one another - and the physical exertion would make their defences come tumbling down and make people more open to being vulnerable.
SD: I actually thought the area of newly single couples was quite interesting. I’m not so sure putting them in a sporting environment would appeal to me. The idea isn’t great, but the area of the newly single people ‘on the rebound’ is quite interesting.
AP: I’m thinking about Seven Year Switch. That’s not newly singles, but it’s closer to that. You need something that’s so extreme that it makes you want to watch. Like Married At First Sight, where there’s two single people meeting, but of course, they’re getting married.
NM: There’s not enough to this. It’s very one-note, isn’t it? It’s a great pun obviously, but beyond that…
This might nearly work if I stuck less rigidly to the pun, or else came up with a less contrived double meaning for it.
Skeletons In The Closet
Contestants gamble that they’ve lived a clean and scandal-free life. A private detective then attempts to find salacious dirt on them. Faced with the accrued dirt, the contestants would then have to choose whether to go public with the dirt, or forfeit a massive cash prize.
SD: I don’t really fancy this, it’s a bit mean for me.
NM: It’s too mean for me.
SD: And I think also, if you’re the detective, and you discover all this stuff about you, and you go ‘I’m not playing!’ - as a viewer, it’s ever so slightly unsatisfying, because I’ll never find out what you’ve been up to.
NM: You’d need to bin the entire show! There’s no denouement. It’s like: what is it?! Are they a murderer?!
SD: You’d be very hard-pushed to cast it. I think a lot of people wouldn’t want to risk their jobs or their families.
NM: It’s logistically impossible, I think.
Would be hard to get murderers to come forward for this show, would probably make for ‘harrowing’ rather than ‘lightly entertaining’ telly. Another idea that’s too mean-spirited.
An impossible-to-win gameshow. The finale of this show would involve £22k being fired out of a cannon and contestants can only keep what they catch. Any money that falls on the floor is discounted But there’s another catch. They must also catch it in a receptacle (a bucket, or a glove or something.) This receptacle would be constructed in various challenges before the finale. All of the challenges are deliberately borderline-impossible-to-complete, a la Takeshi’s Castle.
AP: That one I can see, Catch-22. It’s very simple.
NM: It is simple.
SD: That seems like the one you could see at MIP. MIPTV is the big TV format conference around the world. It’s where the bigwigs in the world of ideas, formats and distribution congregate. So, ideally you go there and say: ‘Oh, we’ve got this new show, it’s called Catch-22, Channel 5 have been behind it since day one, it’s done two series, we’re showing it to the wider world, I think you should all buy it.’ It’s a buying conference. That’s the sort of shit you see at MIP, you know, that sort of line: ’Catch-22, the impossible gameshow’. And everyone goes: ‘I should have come up with that.’
NM: Keshet and Endemol would be all over that sort of idea. We made The Almost Impossible Gameshow when I was at Endemol for ITV2. It was similar. Things that are really very difficult to do in a comedy way, and we filmed it on location, like a Total Wipeout vibe. We had comedians doing the voiceover, and I think you’d have to get another layer out of it. Is it really funny? Is it really jeopardous, like Million Pound Drop? What’s the USP, beyond it being impossible to win?
This is worryingly, tantalisingly close to a legitimate hit and I might need to ‘work on it.’
It’s Loose Women, but in Magaluf. You get hungover women to discuss the burning issues of the day, live from Magaluf.
NM: Magaluf’s Women is a funny kind of comedy sketch or a funny strand on another show. It’s a nice pun.
SD: It feels very live TV.
NM: A lot of your ideas are more strands in wider shows, as opposed to full shows themselves. It’s a fun comedy strand, a nice 5 minutes where you’d cut to Magaluf, and there’s someone with Vicky Pattison sat next to them. It’s funny, innit? I like that. You’d get them to debate really hardcore political topics and hope they’d do themselves justice. And some of them would, some of them are a lot cleverer than you think.
Only about ⅙ of an entire show.
Jump The Shark
Ridiculous D-list celebs do mad stunts, like when Fonzie waterskied over a shark in Happy Days. It’s sort of like Splash! and The Jump, but the stunts are Hollywood stunt-coordinated, and not necessarily ‘jumps’ - they can be fight scenes, car crashes etc. Could be cool if they’re recreating famous stunts from movies. In front of a live studio audience.
SD: A bit too similar to The Jump, and Splash has just been cancelled. It did okay, but I think they’re quite expensive to make those shows.
NM: I’ve made a couple of them. They’re really expensive to make, and impossible to cast. The Jump is like something that a lot of people do when they go skiing. This, no one has done this. No one has ever literally jumped over a shark.
ShortList: It would be recreating how they performed the stunt not jumping over an actual shark!
NM: People have looked into stunt shows a lot, but the sheer level of training required rules it out on a logistics and cost basis. I did a celebrity showjumping show years ago - Only Fools On Horses - and showjumping is very dangerous. We just about made it in the time period, but they needed to train for a long time. In The Jump, they deliberately cast people who can ski. No celebrity is secretly a stuntperson, so you’re looking at years of training. But it’s a funny title, I love Biggins jumping the shark.
It’s too costly and the risk of accidentally killing Biggins on live telly is too high.
A bunch of singletons are sent to live in a ‘haunted’ mansion for a couple of weeks. If they have relations with someone, and later want to date someone else in the mansion, they must stop acknowledging their current partner for the entire duration of the show. No talking, no communicating, maybe not even eye-contact. If they break this agreement, they face spooky punishments.
Meanwhile, loads of ‘spooky’ stuff happens (stuff moves of its own volition, disembodied voices can be heard drifting in and out, etc) to really ram the theme home.
SD: Someone pitched me a haunted house dating show recently.
AP: There’s a lot of ‘ghost’ stuff around at the moment.
SD: With us, we have Blind Date as our main dating show, basically, so we wouldn’t be mad keen into another dating world. As a channel, we don’t really have enough slots. We’ve already got Make Or Break.
AP: Dating shows are hard to cut through at the minute because Love Island’s set the bar so high. It’s like having a really big competitor before you even start.
SD: If you’re aiming at 16 to 34-year-olds, or 16-to-24-year-olds, I think they’re savvy enough to know “Oh, they’re just trying to do Love Island, this is their version.” They can smell a rat very quickly. You look at what young audiences watch, and a hell of a lot of it is factual TV. Bake Off, Planet Earth… Love Island is actually the quirk.
Not a strong enough draw to ween the damn millennials off brilliant damn Love Island.
Gone To The Dogs
Struggling entrepreneurs are given two sets of consultation. One is a genuine business expert, who tells them how they can turn their fortunes around. The other is a gambling expert, who gives them a hot tip. The entrepreneurs can only go with one or the other. If they choose the former, they have to implement the advice exactly. If they go with the latter, they are sent to a dogtrack or a racecourse with half their company’s money, and a hot ticket!
AP: Business is so difficult on telly.
NM: It’s risky. Literally.
SD: Plus I don’t think compliance would let you sign off on betting.
NM: You’d find it impossible to cast, because you’re asking people to put their entire livelihood on the line!
SD: I was quite interested when the BBC did their access to high street bookmakers. At a time when high streets were closing down, the only thing springing up were betting shops. If you do it as an access piece, it’s an interesting documentary world, but the gambling side - every gambling ad now has a ‘Bet Responsibly’ badge on it. This might be ever so slightly counteractive to ‘betting responsibly’!
NM: It’s against the Ofcom regulations. Fundamentally.
It’s fundamentally against the Ofcom regulations.
Stag Me To Hell
An inverse Don’t Tell The Bride hidden-camera prank show. Having been set up by the bride/best man, a husband-to-be is sent on the worst possible stag holiday, based on the info provided by friends, family and bride. A mixture of Punk’d, Blue Go Mad In Ibiza and the Hangover film series.
AP: Don’t Tell The Bride, is great, because it’s car crash but ultimately the bride normally likes it, because they’re still getting married. Whereas that one’s just pretty mean.
SD: Plus stag and hens aren’t massively watchable.
Listening back to my pitch back in the dictaphone, I had a horrible realisation that I don’t think I explained this idea properly at all. Still think it’s a hit.
Manage A Trois
Middle-management types are sent on a corporate training day with a difference. They are tasked with directing an adult entertainment film and running the entire set. This is like an Apprentice task, but a lot randier.
NM: I mean great title mate, great title. But, I mean…
AP: There’s probably ‘certain’ channels that would go for it!
SD: Channel 4 have just commissioned this show Sex Tape. It’s a show from STV and it was a format that was sold around at MIP. It’s couples that are at breaking point, and they film themselves having sex and then play it to the wider group. So you can go “actually, you’re a greedy lover” or a lazy lover type thing! It’s fairly out-there, but having said that, there has been Naked Attraction and Naked Dating which - when you watch - is fairly in your face, but it is watchable. You watch and you go “Oh jesus!-” but you’re still watching it. I imagine people will probably watch Sex Tape, but talking your boss into doing a porno, is that what it is? (Laughs) I mean at Channel 5, it’s one thing we wouldn’t be keen on.
AP: But! If you put it on a certain channel, you could…
‘Certain channels’, get in touch…
Punch Above Your Weight
Two eligible bachelors have a date while sparring in a ring. Who will have their defences up? And who will be a knockout??
I stopped explaining this midway through the pitch to say I’d lost faith in the idea completely.
This one is completely stupid.
It’s No Woke
In these relatively enlightened times, stand-ups would watch their old material back, sat alongside the targets of their routines to see if they feel ashamed, contrite, or stick by what they said.
SD: I think there’s something in it, I don’t know if MTV is the right place for it. And if you were doing it on BBC or Channel 4, I don’t know if you’d call it ‘Woke.’ But, if you took say, Jim Davidson, and you do it as a sort of documentary.
Claire Wigington (Channel 5’s Senior Publicity Manager): Even like Russell Brand, someone who has changed so much. Would he still stand by some of his early stuff?
SD: I think that’s a really interesting idea, and I don’t know if we would do it at Channel 5.
AP: If you can get a big enough name for it…
SD: I think it’s a great BBC2 or BBC4 proposition. You’d make it less confrontational, less aggressive.
NM: I would have said casting will be quite difficult. They’re very serious types, stand-up comedians.
The ‘idea’ is nearly there, but we’d have to lose the pun, and that would be catastrophic for the integrity of the TV Method. (Please note that I will abandon the TV Method in a second if the BBC love it.)
Documentary series following the lives of cemetery caretakers, gravediggers, coffin makers etc. I haven’t found any subjects yet, I just find the whole funeral business real interesting.
NM: There has been an op-doc on funeral directors before, hasn’t there?
AP: ITV did one a few years ago
NM: I liked it, it had really great casting. It all depends on the casting, which works both ways. Someone could come to you and say “we haven’t done a graveyard op-doc for ages” so you send your casting and access team off to phonebash and find the best ones by pooling literally everyone across the land. Or you go to nanna’s funeral, and it turns out the fella digging the grave is hilarious, and it goes that way round.
SD: From day one, I’ve been pitched scaffolding companies. People think scaffolding is really interesting…? If it was people doing scaffolding in Dubai on the skyscrapers… super-scaffolding, billionaire scaffold jobs… then you’d do it.
NM: It’s all about characters, isn’t it? Do you remember there was a great op-doc about a company who made hot tubs. On paper, you’d think it wouldn’t be interesting, but it was actually fascinating, it was a massive hit, because they were hilarious. What you’d do [with Graveyard Shift] is go find the characters, get them on tape.
Looks like I’m gonna be spending my free time chasing coffins and bothering mourners until I film gold.
Noticing that I’m wearing the expression of a dog at dinner time, Sean attempts to manage my expectations. “I rarely commission a show straight off paper, where you say ‘that’s absolutely perfect, let’s see you in 12 weeks when it’s made.’”
And so I leave the room without fistfulls of cash cascading from my pockets, having failed to pitch a perfect show in 14 attempts, but I do so now full of hope.
There was almost something in Graveyard Shift, Magaluf’s Women, It’s No Woke and On The Rebound, and they inexplicably seemed to believe there would be international interest in Catch-22, if I only bothered to go away and ‘develop’ it ‘properly’. But why bother to do that, when there’s flimsy enough evidence here that the TV Method works? Why waste my time studying the art of television, researching demographics, wrestling with financial constraints or legal ramifications, when I could simply throw all those ideas in the bin and come up with loads more at the drop of the hat?
Meat and Two Veg? A mix of Come Dine With Me and Dinner Date where a man has to cook for two vegetarian women! A Load of Cobblers? Just Would I Lie To You? but the entire panel is made up of cobblers! Pearls Before Swine? Great works of art are displayed to farmyard animals to see if they have any emotional reaction! Cat Out The Bag? A cat is released with a salacious secret attached to its collar and whoever catches it first, gets to know the secret! Man After My Own Heart? A bunch of people in need of an organ compete for the affections of a single donor, who will give it away to the person they like most!
Works every time! Try it yourself! And if you get commissioned, you owe me an exec producer credit!
P.S. I have not thrown those ideas in the bin yet. I am still ‘developing’ a few of them, in fact. If you work ‘in television’, hmu.
P.P.S. If you nick any of these ideas, you will feel the full might of ShortList’s legal team.
P.P.P.S Turns out that Man After My Own Heart is extremely illegal.
(All images: Getty/Channel 5/MTV/ShortList)