Talking to TV agents: baby steps & talking issues

Regular readers will know that I’ve been developing a television series based on my family history research. Like most things to do with the world of TV programmes, things move at a snail’s pace.  Which is a good thing, actually.  It gives everyone the opportunity to do thorough research, develop concepts more deeply, re-assess and gather the right team.

Three US-based productions companies are taking a serious look at my series idea. The Q&A sessions with each has been productive and, for me, highly informative.

At this stage, I’ve made a short list of TV agents who specialise in the world of docu-reality television programming.  Believe me, I appreciate the fact that I’ve spoken to 3 TV agents. This is a hurdle in and of itself.  Excellent and challenging questions have been asked and I’ve been thoroughly grilled. This is daunting for many people.  For me, it’s enabled me to really focus. At any rate, I’m becoming a master of succinct explanations and concept pitching.

Speaking to agents has been a surreal experience.  For those of you in the know, I’ve been in the entertainment industry for two decades, most of which has been in the music industry as a record label executive. However, I’m used to discussing my recording artists, their careers and their career aspirations.  The focus has never been on me – more on what the artists and my label can deliver.

So it’s a bit surreal to have the focus of an agent’s meeting solely and squarely on me. It’s an entirely different mind-set and experience for me.

Like anything else to do with careers and business, the agent-talent relationship is a critical one. Much like a recording artist and his/her/their relationship with a manager. The TV agent-talent relationship must be based on 100% candor, transparency and trust by both parties. After all, this is a person who will be handling key and major aspects of my career. Can we work together long-term? Does he or she have the right connections in the industry?  Do they have a solid and exemplary reputation? Will he or she have my back – and can I have theirs? Do they get me? Do they get the project? And do I get them?  Can we form an unbreakable and solid team? These are all critical considerations.

An agent, in turn, will need to know fairly standard things:  Am I reliable / professional?  Will I lose the plot (in other words, will it all go to my head)? Will i be ‘difficult’ to work with (the worst thing anyone in the entertainment industry can be tarred with)? Am i a team player?  Will I accept their counsel – actually, will I listen? Do I know when to open my mouth…and when to keep it shut? How familiar am I with the art of compromise? Can I keep a cool and level head in explosive situations?

If it sounds like meeting a serious personal relationship contender, it kind of is. At the end of the day, I’ll probably be speaking to an agent more than my other half.

This has been a great experience. The process of discussing the show with prospective agent gives me the opportunity of seeing my TV show concept through other entertainment professional’s eyes.

Like the production companies, the agents are excited by the concept, which turns genealogy/family history programming on its head.

The bits that equally excite and gives rise to concerns are shared by the production companies and agents alike:

  1. A show fronted by a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural presenter won’t float in the USA.  I think this is a sad commentary on the US.  I also think it under-estimates the general American public. Just because a show has an ethnic or multi-ethnic host doesn’t make a programme “ethnic”, hence diminishing its appeal with white Americans. No one would think a show like “America’s Next Top Super Model” is a show solely for African Americans merely because Tyra Banks hosts it.
  2. Americans might be confused or put off by a multi-ethnic American presenter with an English accent.  I kind of laughed this one off…and then had to think about it. I think it’s fair to say to that I’ve lived in England far longer than I lived in the USA. Over 20+ years of living in England, my accent has morphed into Mid-Atlantic English with a decidedly English accent. I think it’s a bonus. The US agents and product companies aren’t 100% sold on this.  I’m still considering the points they raised.
  3. The “Arabness” of my DNA might put viewers off.  It might.  I would be foolish to argue with this concern. However, I’ve broadened this conversation.To look at me, no one would guess my genetic ties to China, India, Sweden or the other ethnic finds I’ve discovered through DNA testing.  Indeed, my key message to the production executives has been:  If the Jewish and the Arab can peacefully co-exist in my DNA – as well as the African and the European, the Arab and European, and the Asian and, well, everything else – then that’s a fairly powerful message. There’s more that unites humanity than divides it.  The prospective production companies, agents and I are all mulling this point over.
  4.  An unknown presenter will find it tough in the US.  Of all the points of concern, no one seems overly bothered by this.  The production companies and agents have ‘put this out there’ and I respect them for that. It is an important factor and a consideration for them.  Thankfully, it’s not a deal breaker. The agents and production companies I’ve been speaking to have a solid track record in breaking new TV presenting talent.
  5. Americans will find an American who has lived abroad for so long ‘un-American.’ There was general laughter when this was first posited.  And then everyone on the conference call thought about it for a few minutes. I think this adds to the credibility of the program, a feeling that was echoed by others. Still, it’s probably a point that will need to be addressed for that demographic.  I don’t think the rest of the world’s population will really care. It’s certainly something that’s easily addressed in interviews.
  6. Can prospective ‘new TV talent’ deal with the pressures of the press and media without losing the plot?  Of all the questions pitched at me, this one was, by far, the easiest to address. A few of my music industry stories provided all the re-assurance needed. No Justin Bieber meltdowns…not from me at any rate.  Of course, there are always family and friends to think about.Certain ‘journalists’ know no bounds in the pursuit of producing colourful copy and stories (just think phone hacking, stealing rubbish bin contents and other wonderful practices by less scrupulous journalism practitioners). If they can’t get at me directly, this caliber of journalist wouldn’t think twice about hunting for a story involving family and friends. The ole ‘guilt by association’ red herring. *laughing* no one wants a “Real Housewives of” type media and press experience!This is an important consideration. I’m the one who has put himself for being in front of the camera and presenting a show…not my family or my friends. I know what I’m getting into and how things can go. They haven’t.  However, of all the concerns expressed, this is the most straightforward to address. It’s a simple matter of adapting the ‘how to protect yourself from the press’ talk I give all of my record label’s new signings.While this might not seem like a terribly important concern, it does give me an indication that the people I’ve been speaking with are taking things seriously.

Overall, this has been a genuinely exciting experience. Even if things come to naught, I have some excellent personal and career ‘take-aways’ from the experience.

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