StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

How to Pitch and Sell Your Project to a Network. A&E, #2/3. “Death is the Ultimate ‘High Stakes'”

By Erin Essenmacher
Part 2/3.

A&E director of Development Stephen Harris spoke at Silverdocs and WIFV panels that were moderated by’s Peter Hamilton.  
Will It Really Matter in 18-Months?

Harris emphasized that the best ideas aren’t necessarily the most controversial:

  • “We’re looking for programs that aren’t just topical but sustainable
  • “Series that are ‘ripped from the headlines’ don’t always work
  • “I’m always asking: ‘Will it still be relevant 12-18 months from now?’ “


Filters: ‘Death’ is the Ultimate ‘High Stakes’

Harris outlined the Four Filters that A&E uses to determine if a show is a good fit:

  1. Big Characters
    Do the main characters register? Do you remember them? “Any of our characters, if they walked into a room you’d remember them, even if they weren’t celebrities. Think of Dog the Bounty Hunter. Kirstie Alley. Tony Danza. They just stick with you,” Harris explained
  2. High Stakes 
    “What is the ultimate in high stakes?” Harris asked. “Death!”  Think of programs that feature characters defying death (Criss Angel Mindfreak), tracking toward death (Intervention), investigating death (First 48), or risking death (Dog the Bounty Hunter). High stakes also includes stories about overcoming great personal obstacles (Kirstie Alley’s Big Life)
  3. Unique Access 
    “Does the program offer something you couldn’t otherwise see or experience?” Does it feel exclusive?  Harris used several of the programs from A&E’s existing and upcoming schedule as examples: “You can see Steven Segal play a copy in the movies, but here’s a show where he is a cop, or you see Tony Danza being a real teacher. Gene Simmons was this guy who was spitting fire and gargling fake blood on stage – but you get to see this other side of him.  If we had been pitched a show about following Kiss on the road, we probably would have passed. But seeing Gene at home, telling his son to take out the trash, now that’s different!”
  4. Resolution 
    “We’re looking for a close-ended story arc. It must have resolution within each episode.  Every show we green light, we want to see go to multiple seasons,” Harris explained, “But we also like to have the flexibility to air the latest episode from Season 4 but then be able to program an episode from Season 1 right after, and have it feel seamless. We don’t want competition formats like America’s Next Top Model that aren’t repeatable and have a short shelf life.”


Harris emphasized that for him to even consider a pitch, a show idea must present all four of these qualities:

  • “It’s like in Vegas where you need all cherries to hit the jackpot. Don’t come to me with a three out of the four!”

The concept must also pass a budget credibility test.

  • Are the costs for the talent, music and locations aligned with A&E’s budgets and resources?

A&E’s Development Process: Getting to ‘the side of the bus’

Stephen outlined A&E’s stages in the development process from first pitch to ‘On-the-Side-of-the-Bus’

  1. Title
    Create a great title, like Pawn Stars
  2. Elevator Pitch
    A&E’s development exec compresses a producer’s 3+/- page treatment to 3-5 sentences. “It eloquently and sufficiently explains – versus ‘describes’ – what the show is about.”  This is a proprietary effort, and AETN doesn’t share its internal ‘value-added’ thinking with producers
  3. Internal Pitch
    The development exec makes the elevator pitch to the direct report, and afterwards to the development team. A “Yes/Maybe/No” response, with detailed explanations, strengthens the feedback loop – even when a project is marginal
  4. Back to the Producer
    If it’s a “Yes”, the producer is asked to develop a detailed budget, establish proof of critically important access, show talent agreements, and so on
  5. Senior Executive Review
    The project is presented to the senior executive team, including Marketing and Ad Sales. Their approval is captured in an official document known at AETN as ‘The Pack’
  6. Offer to Producer
    The producer receives the official green light to create the approved deliverable: a sizzle reel, pilot or series
  7. Production Supervision
    The development exec who championed the project “puts one in the win column”, and goes on to supervise the completion of the project.

A guest post by Erin Essenmacher, The Film Panel Notetaker
(Adapted for the WordPress format with added notes taken by Peter Hamilton during prep sessions.)

More about the Development Process from

 Next Post

  • Stephen’s Takeaways for Producers
  • Greenlit projects for 2010-11
  • And more

***************** ‘Sweet Spot’ Report

Purchase our original research findings about the ‘Sweet Spots’ for 25+/- U.S. channels including A&E.

The ‘Sweet Spot’ Report covers:

  • Network budget benchmarks for original commissions
  • Several levels: Signature, High, ‘Sweet Spot’ and Low
  • We cover ‘the biggies’ and diginets



  1. I want to pitch a show. I am a foreman for NYC Steamfitters local 638. We do all the installation of commercial airconditioning and heating units up on the roofs of nyc ‘s sky scrapers and mechanical rooms. I believe the public would like to see how these nyc blue collar union workers spend their days installing all the copper piping and units in these buildings. This is a very dangerous and stressful job. Please if you agree contact me and I can explain further. I actually am the one who runs our crew , i have 8 mechanics that your filming crew would follow. From watching me giving all the work details to the guys to watching the work get done.

  2. I would like to pitch a show . Kinda the same idea as a US show but in austraila pig hunting with dogs where the host would travels from town to town challenging the best hunters around to show there stuff with a prize money for biggest pig . Hunting with dogs is a very dangers sport and interesting to watch . The hunters would be more then will to compete for the right to call them selfs the best of the best . The coast would low cause of the challergs surpileing the dogs and the places to hunt on . There has been many DVDs made of hunting in oz but there has never been anything like this done . I have lots of ideas let me know how to put them to u thanks mate

  3. Hi..
    I would like to pitch a show and /or movie about my life and my families lives. Starts off with a happy family life until divorce strikes. Once divorce happens all hell breaks loose and the real intrigue begins. The ex husband commits crimes to clear out all accounts (well over a million dollars) that his ex-wife was entitled to in the divorce. He leaves his job, kids, etc and just jumps a plane. At this point, he then flees the country where now the FBI (because his crimes were federal) are now involved also local police, attorneys, bounty hunters, etc. He skips from country to country in South America trying to avoid being caught and extradited back to the US. He is on the run for about 15 yrs.
    All the time his money, he has hidden in “fake” off shore companies or in the Bank of Switzerland where he has nothing under his name and even if located, the US has authority over that bank. So many details, twists and turns that I could write forever.

  4. Doyle chandlerdoylchand@

    I would like to pitch a new show call the hunting chandler about a hunting family on a working farm Ian the head of the family my nick name is the hammer think I have a good tdea

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