Don’t touch that dial: how to pitch and write for broadcast

Don’t be afraid to rework your scholarship for a mass audience. Find the narrative in your research and build relationships with commissioning editors, says Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders's avatar
University of Sheffield
12 Apr 2023
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Film slate for a television documentary written by an academic

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Academic writing is generally seen in very narrow terms and is usually synonymous with peer-reviewed articles and books. These professional “scientific” outputs are not designed with a broad public audience in mind, and this is reflected in the specialist terms, labyrinthine language and dense referencing that they contain. Writing for broadcasters – and therefore a broad public audience – is a completely different endeavour and challenge.

First of all, do not be thrown off course by the sneering of scholarly snobs who will say that writing for broadcasters and promoting your research through documentaries don’t count as academic work. Academic life is evolving to emphasise and reward public scholarship. The engaged scholar need not worry about the validity of their academic writing because it is not a zero-sum, this-or-that process, but one framed around writing for multiple audiences in multiple ways. Hence my encouraging scholars to “triple write”, making multiple drafts of a piece of research to appeal to different audiences.

So, how do you turn a body of academic research into a project a broadcaster might be interested in?

Turn the tables on how you think about your research. As academics we generally regard our work as fascinating, but what is there about your work that might connect with a viewing or listening audience? A broadcaster is generally focused on audience size, just as a business is interested in profit. The broadcaster will therefore be looking for a clear and sharp “hook” on which to hang a documentary.

Writing a documentary demands that you have a beginning, middle and end – a clear and engaging narrative that allows you to take the listener or viewer on a journey. This might sound like a cliché, but it is true. Think deeply about the story you want the documentary to tell.

Documentaries need to offer a connection. And these are generally built by linking the topic to the everyday lived experience of the listener or viewer. The often abstract and theoretical approach of scientific research – whatever the discipline – therefore needs to be grounded and granular.

The public are unlikely to be interested in your academic research per se, but they will be interested in why it matters to them and their lives. The art of writing for a broadcaster is to make that very clear.

Remember the ‘two-second rule’. Broadcasters work on the basis that potential listeners or viewers engage with a programme for two seconds before they decide to turn off, change channels or continue listening.

You have two seconds to get your core idea or argument across and persuade the public to stay with you.

This need to pique the public’s interest can introduce a very real challenge – how to frame an idea so that it is thought-provoking enough to secure an audience without losing sight of the underpinning research or slipping into sensationalism.

This can be a tricky balance to achieve, but it is one that every documentary maker has to grapple with. The key here is to invest time in not just discussing your ideas with commissioning editors but in building a relationship with those key institutional gatekeepers, such as producers, editors and researchers. Learn to see and hear the world through their eyes; understand the variety of broadcast outlets; gauge the existence of different audiences; ask them for ideas and themes that could potentially be worked up as a partnership.

Relationship building is key. And it is fun. It leads to an understanding of a different research-related environment that can deepen and broaden your skills and expertise as an academic. Broadcasters also want to uncover new research talent – they tend to embrace equality, diversity and inclusion in ways that make universities look prehistoric.

That said, commissioning processes can be messy and hard to understand. “Hot” projects can be dropped without explanation or “cold” projects suddenly reinvigorated. And most pitches will be rejected. A thick skin is therefore necessary, but forging relationships can very often create structured serendipity. For example, your pitch or idea for a documentary might be rejected but a commissioner thinks you would be perfect to help with a project that is already under development.

Five final thoughts:

  1. Writing a pitch for a documentary is an art form. A good pitch document is likely to be fewer than 200 words. It will state very clearly what the documentary is about and why it would be of significant public interest. The pitch must be simple and succinct and try to take into consideration how a story can be told visually or through sound.
  2. Broadcasters like anniversaries and events that are likely to create a window of opportunity for a documentary on a specific topic. Horizon scanning for a special date that relates to your expertise can create momentum and added value around a pitch.
  3. The pitch is only the beginning of the writing process (but also the most important). If commissioned, you’ll be expected to write a full script for the documentary and help with the recording and possibly even the presenting. But you’ll have a whole team around you to carry you through the process.
  4. Writing and producing documentaries is a fantastic way to connect your research with a global audience of millions of people. But it can also be time-consuming. The general assumption is that one minute of broadcast outputs equates to one day’s work. So the demands of even a 26-minute documentary will involve weeks, not days, of commitment.
  5. Finding commissioners and producers is easy. Find recent documentaries that you admire and which broadly connect with issues you are interested in, then simply use the credits to identify the key people to approach. Engage in a little polite persistence and remember that face-to-face meetings are really important in terms of relationship building.

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield and vice-president of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom. He has written and presented a number of documentaries for BBC Radio 4 including In Defence of Politics, When Comedy and Satire Collide, University Unchallenged and The Legacy of a Scandal.


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