While I was at Channel 4, we used to get about 20-30 spec submissions a week. We accepted unsolicited material (don’t know why) and promised to respond within six weeks of submission (not always true). I opened the post, logged the scripts (title, writer, date received) and then sent them to our script readers for their assessment (we used around four readers).
Generally, the scripts were sitcom pilots (we were the comedy department after all) while some were comedy-dramas and the remainder were sketches (some written on cardboard!). When the readers’ reports came back to me, I would type up rejection letters using some snippets of the coverage as a specific reason for refusal. Sometimes I’d skim some of the scripts just in case they had any promise or glint of hope. Then I’d put all the scripts and rejection letters on my bosses’ desks and they would read the reports, read my rejection letter, and then sign the letter or amend as they see fit.
Anyway, we could always rely on a few similar or regular ideas popping up in the pile. And we would routinely receive hellfire emails or damning letters threatening to sue because “Channel 4 had stolen my idea!!!” or the “BBC has nicked my exact script, word for word, so it must have been you who passed it on!”.
It’s easy to understand a writer’s frustration when one of their ideas suddenly appears on television or at the movies, and easier to empathise with their suspicion if they submitted something similar to the very same production company or broadcaster a few months before. We’ve all heard of the horror stories of producers/Hollywood/your gran nicking your blockbuster idea for themselves (ok, maybe not your gran) but in reality, how often is this true?
How original is your original idea? Could you really have come up with a concept so unique and distinctive that no-one on this Earth could have imagined something similar? And why would a producer/commissioning editor deliberately risk being sued by stealing your idea in the first place? It’d be easier to pay you a low fee (as you’re a new writer) and then kick you off the project. And producers regularly inform us: “please do not send us any unsolicited material. We can’t read them because you’d sue us if we did something similar.” That’s the main reason they don’t accept unsolicited stuff. The other reason is that most of it sucks-ass.
In the comedy spec pile, the most frequent sitcoms that we received were:
1. Flatshare sitcoms. Most were derivative and unfunny. The ones that were fresh and original and funny were Spaced, Friends, Men Behaving Badly etc.
2. Cupid. A sitcom following cupid around doing hilarious things. Not.
3. Student/campus sitcoms.
4. God/Devil. See Cupid. Although the animated God, The Devil and Bob tried hard.
5. Extras. Someone was grumbling about Ricky Gervais’s Extras recently, saying the BBC had nicked their idea. Well guess what? Take a ticket buster. Ricky Gervais earned the right to do what he wanted after The Office, and he chose Extras, and he and Stephen Merchant stamped their unique voice all over a familiar concept.
6. The Gay Friend/Straight Friend relationship sitcom. This emerged as a hot new trend towards the late 90s so some scripts had spark and interest. Then along came Will & Grace and that was the end of that. Also, see flatshare sitcoms.
7. Flatshare sitcoms. Did I say that already?
8. Funeral parlour sitcoms. “Putting the *fun* into funeral!” A funeral sitcom did make it on to BBC2 a few years ago I believe. I can’t remember the name of it. I think C4 had the script while I was there. It wasn’t great but it had comic talent attached, so that gave it some leeway.
9. The Mismatched Couple. See Gay Friend/Straight Friend sitcom.
10. Flatshare sitcoms.
So, next time you get in a strop about C4’s latest sitcom or BBC’s new comedy drama being EXACTLY like your script, WORD for FRICKING WORD, take a break. Relax. Breathe. And ask yourself, could it be possible that someone had a similar idea to me? Only they did it better or at least had more contacts? Hmmm. Strike it. Move on to the next brilliant original idea that no-one else could have ever dreamed of, not in a million years.