What to ask when you get that TV offer!
Let me say, to start with, that I am no expert in the ways of TV production and commissioning. But people, especially fellow academics (young and old), often ask me for tips they should have when they get rung up or emailed by TV companies, looking for a presenter or expert contributor (the contributor bit will come in a later post). Let's say we are talking documentaries, and that you are mildly interested in TV. If you are not, I am assuming you will end the conversation pretty quickly and need no tips at all.
So here are some assorted thoughts, based on a few years experience and participant observation.
To crudify a bit, you pick up the phone and it's a person from an independent production company called Whizz TV (I've invented that, so apologies if there is a real company of that name), who says that they are pitching a three-part series on Sex in Ancient Rome to Channel 5 and they would like you to be the presenter.
So hang on. Assuming that this is something you know about (and dont touch it with a barge poll if you don't), find out first if the person you are talking to knows anything about Roman sex, beyond perhaps Tiberius in his swimming pool, and who exactly they are in the company (a producer/editor or someone junior who's been given the job of ringing round). The most important thing, whatever their rank, is whether they have done any work on the subject and whether you can talk to them sensibly: it may be ok to give the job to a junior, but not to one who knows nothing, or hasnt taken the trouble to find out. And dont write anything down for them till you have got further.
MY rule with TV is that I talk for free, but I only write for a fee (they'll use it anyway, whether they hire you or not).
If they pass that test, then you need to discover what this company has done before (ask them and google them), and how they came across you (have they actually read anything you have written, why do they think you will be good at the job?). Don't worry that they are an 'independent company". Most documentaries are made that way now, but what is the profile of the channel they intend to pitch to (Channel 5 is different from BBC 4) and have they actually made any approaches and worked with that channel before. If not, you are probably, though not necessarily, a dupe.
Suppose you are still interested. Then ask to speak to the development producer, the "exec" or editor of this potential series. This s the point where you need to really find out if your views knit with theirs. I don't mean necessarily agree (some of the most fun times I have had with television people has been arguing and disagreeing) but if you have strong views they need to come outnow. At my own first venture into TV I said I would no way do a documentary with B grade actors dressed up in togas, saying "Pass the grapes Marcus". And I'm really glad I said that.
But this is also the time to ask who might direct this series. They wont yet know, but if they are serious they should have some people in mind (so look up what they have done).
And if this has all gone OK, it is the time to get an agent. It is, I believe, entirely possible to negotiate a book contract on your own, and I usually do (I have no UK agent, though confess am very well looked after by Inkwell in the US). But a TV contract is incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, so you wont know what you are signing away or what to ask for.
But I think at this point it is good to remember two things. First, there is no big money to be made for most of us here. Forget all those stories about mega-rich BBC presenters. Those are not us (and I dont think there are as many of them as we are led to believe). You might, if you are lucky, get a new bathroom out of a TV series, but you wont get a new house (as a friend who had done it put it to me). True, even that is a perk that many would understandably envy, but at an hourly rate you will have worked hard for it. Much more important, if you are looking at the financial benefit, is to stick with the day job, get promoted and get the pension (even now). TV won't pay the mortgage, and the day job will be there when TV has gone; so nurture it.
Second, it is only worth doing if it is fun (as well as dull at times -- there is an awful lot of waiting around), if it fits with your own research interests and if you get on well with those you are making the programmes with. To put that another way, it has to be a shared, collaborative, intellectually worthwhile project. Happily that has worked for me. Some of my best and most interesting friends in recent years have come through Lion TV, a great indie company who has made most of "my" programmes (and I mean "our") programmes for the BBC. I have been lucky -- but there is lots of fun for more to share, provided you keep your unstarry eyes open.