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Ten tips for TV researchers

March 23rd, 2005

Dr Petra

Most social, health and natural scientists have at some point been on the receiving end of a TV researcher’s pitch. But they often have to turn down the fifteen minutes of fame on offer, and it’s regularly down to the TV researcher’s style of approach.

So researchers if you’re reading this, here’s how to get that pitch right…

Start on the right foot
If you make initial contact by telephone, state clearly who you are, the company you’re calling from, and if it’s a convenient time to call. Make sure you call the expert by their full title, and check pronunciation of their name. If they are okay to talk to you, briefly outline the programme you’re making and see if they’re interested.

Give them time to think
Many TV researchers jump in with a full on pitch then expect the expert to immediately sign up to their show. Most experts are busy, and also want all the facts before they make a decision. After your brief outline, offer to send as much information as available to them by email, and arrange to call back in a few days (at a time convenient to the academic/expert) to discuss.

Don’t expect them to do the work
Colleagues and I frequently get what we call ‘mystery calls’, TV researchers who leave cryptic phone or email messages. Things like ‘I’m________ from _________ can you ring me back on _________’. Busy academics don’t have time to cope with the work they’re paid for, so if there’s any chance of weeding out tasks, mystery messages are certainly the first to go in the bin. People won’t get back to you if they’ve no idea what your programme’s about. Provide information about the show or series and your details. You may want to give them one more reminder email or call, but if you get no response assume then it’s safe to assume they’re not keen. A polite expert should always have the courtesy to let you know they’re not able to contribute to your programme. But they won’t bother if they’ve no idea what the programme’s about.

Be specific
If an expert seems interested in your programme, then email them the following…

An outline of the programme, who it’s being made for, and who the target audience will be

A statement about whether it’s been commissioned, is in production, or is just in idea form

What the format of the programme will be (e.g. case studies, a game show, docudrama, fly on the wall)

Where you see the expert fitting in (e.g. present the show, be a consultant, or perhaps a talking head)

How much time commitment will be required from them, and what your budget is to pay them.

Don’t bullshit
Once an expert’s had a few calls from TV researchers, they get used to blagging. Every TV researcher always says how marvellous you are, how they want you involved, how you’d be perfect for the show – and if you could just send over a few pages of ideas for the programme, that would be fantastic. Of course, you never hear from them again.

Canny academics/experts know you’re calling up anyone and everyone in a similar position. It’s wise to listen to the ones who’ve got questions about your programme (although understand their asking questions doesn’t necessarily mean they’re interested, it just means they’re checking you out).

Resist the temptation to fob off experts about the nature of your programme. Most are constrained by fairly strict professional or institutional guidance, so if you mislead them you could end up getting them (and possibly you) into hot water.

Only call if you’re willing to listen
Many TV researchers call experts to pitch ideas that are so flaky they have the academic squirming. Pitches are frequently badly thought out, and based on unscientific, and unethical ideas. If you’ve got a set plan for your programme that cannot be changed, make this clear at the outset. It saves the academic wasting time trying to talk you out of it. Better still, liase with them when planning the programme, so it can be based on kosher ideas, not shoehorning science in at a later stage.

Consider ethical standards
Okay, your programme idea, or production company you work for probably doesn’t think about ethics as much as most academics do (which is a shame, but that’s a different story). Most academics/experts with links to professional organisations are not able to take part in programmes that are…

Judgemental about the public or celebrities

Put people in situations where they could be physically or emotionally harmed – or coerced or mislead

Based on unscientific, outdated, or incorrect information

If an expert is unlikely to get ethical approval to research the things you want to cover in your show, they shouldn’t be prepared to be part of it.

Keep an eye on what your colleagues are doing
Certain TV companies have a very bad reputation amongst academics. We talk to each other, and we’re aware of rip off companies or those who make poor quality programmes. Currently one TV company is promoting a forthcoming show based on their research which apparently is ‘bigger than Kinsey’. As a result, several of my sex researcher colleagues are no longer going to deal with that company. The same goes for the company trying to get experts to help ‘cure’ gay men to become straight. If other people working for your organisation spam people with programme ideas, or continually promote poor quality or unethical shows, or just waste experts time, you can be sure that academics get to hear of it and won’t be keen to work with you.

Be professional
Your reputation and that of your company proceeds you, but so does any incident where you’ve badmouthed an expert. I’ve heard TV researchers slate other professionals, and it doesn’t make me want to be part of their programme. Remember, academics working in the social or health sciences recruit and interview people, and complete research as part of their job. They’re quick to spot and easily put off if a TV researcher lacks these basic skills.

Treat them with respect
All too often academics/experts are called by junior staff with little or no idea about the programme they’re making. They’re trying to get a group of potential experts involved, and they want any additional information as well. Academics are proud of their work, and can become slightly prima donna-ish if they have an unqualified person telling them what they should be saying for a show, or asking them to sign up to something every fibre in their body knows is wrong.

So if you’re not prepared to listen, be respectful, or do your homework about an academic/expert first, it’s probably best not to call.

Of course, if you do get someone onside – particularly if you call while you’re developing the programme, and pay an academic/expert to inform your show or series – you will end up with a fantastic programme, and one happy expert.

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