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Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

How Do Networks Select Programs? A Veteran Executive’s Ten Secrets. And How Producers Can Respond

At Realscreen 2014, I invited Michael Cascio to share his Top 10 Secret Insights into the day-to-day decision-making process for programmers at US channels.

  • I have long known Michael as a highly-respected senior programming executive for leading players in the channels business.  
  • He has been a notable pioneer in the evolution of nonfiction channel programming.

Here are his Ten Takeaways on the ‘real world’ of programming decisions, and how producers can respond to them.

by Michael Cascio

It always surprises me: Most people outside of the business don’t know how television networks really operate.

As a veteran of top positions at A&E, MSBNC, Animal Planet and National Geographic Channel:

  • I’ve often thought that suppliers seem to make the same mistakes over and over.
  • I’d say to myself: “If they only knew…”
  • Crazy stuff happens all the time, shaped by factors rarely considered by those who make the programming.

So I came up with ten secrets – actually, random observations – that may help explain some aspects of the otherwise mystifying process of program selection at a cable network.

Of course, there are exceptions everywhere (and you know who you are), but see if any of these ring a bell:

1. Try to have more than one executive in the room.

  • The person you pitch to could be gone tomorrow.
  • This is not a facetious judgment, it’s a fact of business life.
  • At stable companies, there is continual reorganization, reevaluation, promotion, hiring and firing.
  • At unstable companies, look for the bloodstains on the walls.  And protect yourself.

2. “Yes” isn’t always “Yes!!”

  • Sometimes they’re trying to be nice and don’t want to insult you.
  • Sometimes they’re genuinely interested but sober up a day later.
  • Sometimes they like it but don’t have the money.
  • Or their boss doesn’t like it.
  • Or they get fired before the deal is done.

3. “No” isn’t always “No!!”

  • Sometimes they’re in a bad mood, or they were overly affected by a budget meeting (see #5 below).
  • In the meantime, there may have been a change: A competitor is interested, or they have a hole on Friday night that they need to fill, or the boss really likes the show.
  • Admittedly rare, as most pitches are rejected.

4. Check the calendar.

  • The cost of a program is usually counted against its airdate, so don’t be surprised if your show doesn’t air until the next fiscal year.
  • If a network runs on a fiscal year beginning in July, things get tense during budget planning by the first sign of spring.
  • If it runs on a calendar year  – beginning in January – know that your contacts could be busy with spreadsheets in early fall.  Which means….

5. Never pitch a program just before a network budget or board meeting.

  • This is when Programming tries to bond with Finance, and you don’t want to get caught in the middle.
  • They’re also distracted by having to create PowerPoints.
  • Result: It’s easier to say “No!” to borderline projects with the excuse of “the budget.”

6. Always bring your laptop or iPad to show video.

  • I’ve never been inside a TV network where the video equipment worked properly.
  • Insurance companies have more reliable tech support.
  • Make it easy on the execs and yourself, and save them the embarrassment of working in television but not knowing how to use one.

7. Don’t worry about going up the ladder.

  • You can count on one hand the number of senior execs who don’t want to know about the latest potential hit, regardless of who brought it in.
  • If you have a relationship with the boss, and you’re afraid you’ll insult your lower-level contacts, don’t worry – just keep them informed and know that they’ll get over it if their boss likes the show.
  • Warning: The boss’s approval doesn’t always mean “It’s a go!” (see #2 above).

8. Make your rough cut look like a fine cut.

  • You’d be surprised how many times a senior manager looks at a rough cut and criticizes the scratch track audio or fuzzy video – even when they know it’s temporary.
  • During the production process, a slick-looking cut is less likely to be criticized.

9. Speed counts … and kills.

  • The pace of programming has become like Max Headroom – changes to the schedule are made hourly.
  • If you can deliver a good show quickly, you will be a hero.
  • But don’t promise what you can’t deliver.
  • No one gets rewarded when a show fails because it was produced too fast.

10. Management turmoil flows downhill.

  • Programming execs are human.
  • They are affected by layoffs of colleagues, rumors of layoffs, senior management shuffles, poor stock price, reports of a company takeover, bad press, and lack of nutrition…
  • If you’re pitching a show in the midst of disorder, make it a fun experience for the beleaguered network executives – they will appreciate the diversion.
  • Which may help the decision-making process, and ultimately make everyone’s life easier and more lucrative.


About Michael Cascio


  • With four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award, Michael Cascio has a noteworthy background in the creation of franchise TV programming, from Dog Whisperer to Doomsday Preppers, Brain Games to Biography.
  • Most recently, Cascio was National Geographic Channel’s Executive Vice President, Programming, supervising all programs for the network.
  • During his nine years with NGC, he was the driving force behind many of the network’s most successful programs, including the Emmy-nominated Inside 9/11, the network’s highest-rated telecast, and the award-winning Restrepo.
  • His previous senior programming executive responsibilities include Animal Planet, MSNBC and A&E.
  • Michael Cascio now consults for selected media and production partners through his company, M&C Media LLC.