5 Rules for the Hands-On-Producer Making their Own Reality Television Pilot

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In our previous two posts in the Should I Produce My Own Reality TV Pilot? series, we’ve looked at the pros and cons of funding your own reality television pilot. If you choose to dive in head-first, these 5 rules are essential:

1. Watch TV.

In an earlier post, we discussed why it’s important to actually watch TV. When prepping to produce your own television pilot, Tivo time is more important than ever. The worst thing you can do is to work in a vacuum, hoping your show will end up looking legit. (For advice on getting out of the vacuum, be sure to see our free guide about turning reality ideas into sellable pitches.)

The worst thing you can do is to work in a vacuum, hoping your show will end up looking legit.

Find shows on TV similar to yours. How are they edited? What do the graphics look like? Is the music a specific style? Are the interviews beautifully lit or captured on-the-fly in the field? Pay attention, take notes, and don’t be afraid to steal ideas you like. Your pilot should never become a clone of something that’s already on the air. However, if it looks like it could be a companion piece to a pre-exisitng show, you’re in great shape.

2. Develop Your Skills.

To become a Hands-On-Producer, it’s important to develop ability in every area of production. Are you a great writer? A superb editor? Great shooter? Awesome. Start strengthening your skills in other areas as well.

On your pilot, do as many jobs as possible. Remember, you’re not just trying to sell a show, you’re learning what it takes to make a show. The more bits and pieces you complete 100% on your own, the better. That said, it’s important that you…

3. Know Your Limits.

You’re investing a lot of time, resources, and maybe money into your own TV pilot. Don’t make a bad show just because there’s something you’re not good at. If you can’t frame a shot to save your life, find a shooter who will do you a favor for little or no money. Editing not your thing? Maybe an editor is someone you invest some cash in. Better yet, invest in an editing class, book, or training DVD, and come back to the pilot when you’re a bit more confident. Approach every aspect of production this way.

Don’t make a bad show just because there’s something you’re not good at.

While the two of us handled every job (literally) on our first pilot, we’d also been developing our technical skills for several years before we took the plunge. If you just can’t wait to produce your pilot, but don’t have the pro- or semi-pro-level skills to pull everything off, get help. Just be sure that you…

4. Don’t Go Broke

Making a pilot you’ll likely never sell isn’t a wise financial investment. The trick is to produce it for as little out-of-pocket money as possible. If you’ve decided to become a Hands-On-Producer, you’re saving money by doing most, if not all, of the jobs yourself. That means there’s no one to pay.

Additionally, when you find solutions to production issues by using creativity instead of cash, you build your producing bag of tricks. Those become very helpful later in your career when a network asks you to make steep budget cuts!


Just remember…the credit card or ATM machine is your LAST resort. As a guideline, when we started we never spent more than $500 to complete any of our tapes, including our 22 minute pilots.

We did, however, already have a DV camera and a computer to edit on. I’m not counting the cost of that gear in the above figure. If you don’t have a camera or editing software, you have a friend who does. Pinky swear.

5. Make it a Learning Experience

Let’s be honest: there’s a chance your pilot will turn out lousy. After all, even big network shows turn out horrible sometimes (if you’re watching TV, you already know that.) If you end up with a pilot you don’t want to show to anyone, don’t fret.

Remember Thomas Edison’s philosophy:

Every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.

As long as the time you spend on your pilot is educational, and you improve your producing skills, you’ve come out ahead. You’ll be one giant step closer to achieving your producing dreams.