How to make a fortune with one hit telly idea
As the new TV season starts, top franchised shows like 'Secret Millionaire' and 'MasterChef' are making a mint for creators. Ed Power finds out their secrets
Have you ever sat on your sofa watching Secret Millionaire or MasterChef and thought: "I wish I had thought of that idea?" Well, the reality is that someone somewhere did just that. And there's no reason why you couldn't come up with the next brilliant concept for a TV show that would be a worldwide hit -- and make you a fortune.
All it takes is a little spark of inspiration and a lot of hard work to make the dream real.
MasterChef and Secret Millionaire -- two of the most popular new season shows -- have earned millions for the companies who thought them up. More than 20 versions of MasterChef are being shown around the world while localised editions of Secret Millionaire are a prime-time staple in America and Australia.
Irish audiences will also remember home-grown editions of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and The Weakest Link, in which Gay Byrne and Eamon Dunphy respectively occupied the host's chair. Elsewhere, shows such as X Factor and Big Brother have also mushroomed into huge international franchises.
In an industry where original ideas are like gold-dust and competition for viewers is cutthroat, television production companies are always looking outside the box for new ideas.
If your bright idea sets their antennae tingling, there is every chance they'll be interested in a chat.
"We get a good few suggestions and we read every one that comes in," says Stephen McCormack, chief executive of Straywave Media, the independent producer behind such hits as Fade Street and Celebrity Salon.
"There's an awful lot of shite and dribble. But only two weeks ago, a random guy threw in something. I was on a bus reading my email and thought, 'Now that's quite good'.
"He was sitting at night watching television and had an idea. I met him and we are going into development.
"If you are person at home who has a quirky idea that could make a lot of money, well it's like anything ... staying on the couch isn't going to get you far," adds Seán Ó Cualáin of production company Sonta.
"You have to go and talk to a local TV company. They are always looking for ideas. Look at their websites -- there's always a bit where they say 'We are the company to fulfil your ideas potential'."
Where the producer's expertise proves invaluable is in being able to tell straight away whether an idea has potential or not, says McCormack.
"Within one or two readings, you know it's good or bad. Take Secret Millionaire. It's such a simple thing. We take a millionaire and put him undercover. You can explain the whole concept in under two minutes."
When a broadcaster such as TV3 or RTE buys the rights to a franchise such as MasterChef, it is usually obliged to closely follow the original format. That's why MasterChef Ireland is a virtual facsimile of the British and Australian versions.
The Irish Apprentice looks and feels much like the British edition, down to the tension-ratcheting music played in the boardroom scenes. The original formula was successful for a reason and the parent broadcaster will be anxious it isn't tinkered with, for fear the wider brand might suffer.
Straywave's Stephen McCormack points to the extraordinary career of Mark Burnett, creator of perhaps the world's two biggest reality shows, Survivor and The Apprentice. Though he nowadays counts Donald Trump and P.Diddy as friends and lives a jet-set Hollywood life, Burnett's roots are far from glamorous.
From the rough and tumble Essex suburb of Dagenham, he served in the British army before emigrating to America where he initially worked as a chauffeur and nanny. His only experience of television was watching it on his couch.
"He was a squaddie who served in Northern Ireland, with absolutely no background in television," says McCormack. "He is probably the most successful format guy of all time. And initially he had nothing to do with the industry. He had an idea and ran with it.
"He took it to 52 companies and they all told him to clear off. Eventually he got through. So people in television aren't arrogant -- we don't think we've got all the ideas. We'll take all newcomers."
That isn't to say all you need is a good idea, says Ciarán Ó Cofaigh of production company Rosg. You also have to be prepared to slog and hustle your way into meeting the people with the power to green-light your project.
"A good idea will definitely get you a conversation," he says. "But while it takes a certain amount of inspiration, a lot of perspiration is required also. You will generally have to go through a production company. They will pitch it to a television station.
"It is difficult for someone outside the industry to get directly to a broadcaster or commissioning body. That said, certain broadcasters are more accessible than others. For instance TG4 would generally be more accessible in an Irish context."
The closest thing in Ireland to a Mark Burnett is probably Andy Ruane, a former 2fm DJ who has made millions by bringing his Lyrics Board idea overseas, to Denmark, Indonesia and Lebanon and elsewhere.
In The Lyrics Board, each team was captained by a piano player,who was accompanied by two guest singers. Teams chose a number from one to five from a board, revealing a word.
To stay in 'control' of the board, they would have to sing a song featuring that word. In addition if they sang a 'secret' song on the board they scored a point. At the end of each episode, the highest scoring team was declared the winner.
This year, the show has been reborn as Sing! and is broadcast as part of RTÉ Two's afternoon children's schedule, with Brian Ormond hosting.
In recent years, other shows have also created a splash abroad. The Restaurant and Take On The Takeaway have been sold to Italy and Britain respectively, whilst Straywave is in talks to take Celebrity Salon to the US.
"Something like MasterChef ... it's a good product but you do like to have your own ideas too," says McCormack. "We developed Celebrity Salon. It was our idea and format with some input from TV3. We are in talks to sell that into the US now.
"If your show becomes a hit, there is opportunity to make money. And the thing about entertainment hits is that they continue to generate money long after they are made. And that's what we all want, isn't it?"
If you have an idea for a TV show you can contact Straywave Media at straywave.com