‘You think: are we really doing this?’: how TV’s strangest shows get made

Who green-lit The Masked Singer, or dreamed up a dating show about Prince Harry? Insiders reveal how madcap ideas go from page to small-screen sensation

Nine years ago, TV developer Park Won Woo was taking a break in a car park after shooting auditions for a South Korean talent show. He had worked on number of similar programmes throughout his career, but had come to feel uneasy about their format. “They’re not always fair,” he recalls thinking, because on numerous occasions, people seemed to win because of their looks, not their talent. A solution popped into his head: what if the singers wore masks?

For three years, nobody wanted Park’s show, the idea for which evolved to feature celebrities behind the masks. The 48-year-old had 24 years’ experience in the TV industry, but his idea was rejected by network after network. “I felt sheer desperation,” he tells me.

Eventually, a lone producer at one of South Korea’s top three television networks, MBC, gave Park a chance. The producer liked the idea, despite his colleagues being “strongly opposed”, and green-lit a pilot. His show debuted in February 2015 as Miseuteori Eumaksyo Bongmyeon-gawang – you probably know it better as The Masked Singer.

The pilot was an overnight success; the show was given a weekend primetime slot that it has now maintained for over six years. Today, more than 50 countries broadcast their own version of The Masked Singer, which sees unidentifiable celebrities performing in elaborate mascot-like costumes of mythical creatures, foodstuffs, and the occasional anthropomorphic purple blob. Part guessing game, part talent competition, the show attracted 5.2 million viewers every Saturday night when the UK version debuted on ITV in 2020. Kevin Lygo, the network’s director of television, says “there wasn’t any doubt” about a second series, particularly with household names like Mel B and Glenn Hoddle eager to climb on board. The show’s final in February had 8.6 million viewers, making it the most watched programme on British TV of the year so far. “It’s going from strength to strength.”

Illustration of TV show ideas scrap book
Outside the box: I Wanna Marry Harry, The Masked Singer and Naked Attraction. Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Guardian

I speak to Park on Zoom with the help of a translator. He says ideas such as The Masked Singer get rejected because there’s a lack of imagination among TV commissioners. “If it’s difficult to understand, or you can’t imagine what it would be like, it means it’s new and its possibility of being accepted is low,” he says, from a conference room in Seoul. He wears a black hoodie and fiddles with its white strings as he talks. Some producers told him celebrities would refuse to sing with covered faces for fear of being mocked. “One producer even asked me to revise the proposal – without the masks.”

But not all TV commissioners lack imagination; otherwise, creators wouldn’t be able to sell ridiculous-sounding concepts such as “a TV show where families are filmed watching TV shows” and “a dating competition where you see people’s genitals before you see their face”, or ones with deliberately provocative titles such as The Undateables. How do developers convince commissioners to get on board? And how can commissioners distinguish between a potential hit and a definite flop?

Tim Harcourt, creative director of independent production company Studio Lambert, describes pitching as “like treading water and trying not to drown”. He has identified the “slow no” phenomenon – when commissioners ask for a two-page follow-up that “disappears into the ether for ever”.

Harcourt is a New Zealander who has lived in the UK for 20 years and helped mastermind two of TV’s most-talked about shows, Naked Attraction and Gogglebox (of which he is co-creator). Though both now have firm fanbases, Harcourt recalls the press originally branded Gogglebox “the end of civilisation”.

To be fair, it doesn’t sound great on paper. Who wants to watch other people watching TV? On paper, there’s no Leon and June snug in their armchairs; no one accidentally dipping a crisp into their best mate’s tub of facemask; no one calling their dog a “knobhead” for hitting them on the nose. And yet Harcourt relied entirely on paper when he went to sit opposite four Channel 4 commissioning editors in 2012 – he didn’t prepare a presentation or a teaser trailer (known in the industry as a “sizzle tape”). “I was just hoping that I could paint enough of a picture with storytelling,” he says.

Jenny and Lee on Gogglebox
‘I told Channel 4: the national conversation takes place in front of people’s TVs’: Jenny and Lee on Gogglebox. Photograph: Jude Edginton/Channel 4

Harcourt came up with the idea for what was then called 242 Minutes – the amount of telly the average person watched a week – when watching news coverage of the London riots in the hot summer of 2011. He found himself wondering how different people up and down the country were reacting to the footage. When pitching to Channel 4, he said, “You always ask what the national conversation is. I don’t know what the national conversation is – but I know where it happens, and it happens in front of the nation’s TVs. That’s where people break up, it’s where they fall in love. That’s where they lose their jobs, it’s where their hopes and dreams are made.

“I’m sure in everyone’s mind, if they’ve seen Mad Men, they see Don Draper saying, ‘Lucky Strike: it’s toasted’ and everyone sort of raises their glass. It’s nothing like that,” he tells me.

Like Park, Harcourt found that you only need one person to give you a chance – “Somebody with either sway or money or preferably both”. In Gogglebox’s case, this was commissioning editor David Glover. “He actually had to leave the meeting [for another commitment]. And then he came back 15 minutes later to say he loved it.” Later that day, Glover gave Studio Lambert a £60,000 budget to create a pilot.

It’s rarely that easy. Bafta-winning director Russell Barnes, founder of independent documentary company ClearStory, nicknames telly “the rejection business”. “In our first couple of years as a company, we pitched 96 ideas. I think we got three commissioned,” he says. Joe Mace, entertainment commissioner at ITV, says that his team receives more than 1,000 pitches a year: “It’s a bit like panning for gold. On the average day, you’re probably looking at five pitches.” Adrian Padmore, Channel 5’s factual entertainment commissioning editor, says he rejects 98% of ideas.

Most commissioning editors hear pitches from producers with proven track records, though there are regular emails from the public. Once a meeting is secured, there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to behave, though Padmore recalls with a groan that one producer once pitched him 30 ideas in a row (he said no to every one). ITV’s Lygo says things regularly descend into the I’m Alan Partridge sketch in which Partridge, trying to interest a BBC commissioner in ideas over lunch, becomes increasingly desperate before finally offering up: “Monkey tennis?”

Padmore says he normally makes a decision “within the first line” of a pitch. “If you can pitch in one line, you’ve probably got a very, very good idea, because the best ideas are simple,” he says. He points to a show he came up with that aired in 2019 – Trawlermen: Celebs At Sea. It is exactly as it sounds. ITV’s Mace also prefers things short and sweet: if he can relay an idea to a stranger and they immediately get it, it passes the first test.

But that doesn’t mean producers don’t try hard to stand out. Harcourt says two people famously danced the Argentine tango in front of BBC commissioners during the pitch for Strictly Come Dancing. In pitches for The Masked Singer, Park would play a song by a male singer with a feminine voice (“When the identity of the singer is revealed, every single person is surprised”). Mace says he’s had pitch meetings “where people have played ideas out with Lego figures”, but equally, he’s also sat through “100-page PowerPoints”.

Arguably no one has a more outlandish pitch story than Danny Fenton, CEO of ZigZag Productions, which has created shows such as Dawn [Porter]… Goes Lesbian and Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men. Ten years ago, Fenton pitched a hidden camera prank format to an American buyer who was concerned about acquiring the right talent for the show. Fenton invited him to a disastrous lunch in the West End of London – the waitress spilled food on the buyer’s lap, the chef got his order wrong, and to top it all, the cloakroom assistant lost his coat. “At the end of the meal, he was quite frustrated by everything and said, ‘Look, we need to talk about the talent,’” Fenton recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, you’ve met them all.’” The blundering staff members were actually Fenton’s cast.

More audaciously, Fenton had filmed the whole thing via a hidden camera in his paisley tie. “He actually went ballistic,” he says of the buyer’s reaction. “I think he’d said some things over lunch that he didn’t mean to say or were private, and he demanded I hand over the tape.” Was the show commissioned? No.

Fenton’s biggest success was much more easily won. In 2013, he woke up with a four-word title in his head. When he got into the office, his staff unanimously agreed that it was terrible. Undeterred, he rang his agent in the US and revealed his title: “I Wanna Marry Harry”. The programme, Fenton said, would follow American women as they competed for the affections of a Prince Harry lookalike who they believed was the real deal. Later that night, Fox commissioned the show. “It happened within a day, and that ended up being a $15m commission for four words.”

Illustration of TV show ideas scrap book
Hot hits: Love Island, Dogs Might Fly, The Undateables and Trawlermen: Celebs At Sea. Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Guardian

So what are commissioning editors actually looking for? What are the secrets to success? Kelly Webb-Lamb, Channel 4’s deputy director of programmes, says she values innovation – though she doesn’t always know exactly what she wants until it lands on her desk. “Things will be in vogue for a long time, like swaps – there was a time when everything was a swap, whether it was Undercover Boss or Wife Swap,” she says. “You go through this period, but what you’re really searching for is something else.” Webb-Lamb says her favourite part of the job is banking on innovative, risky ideas. “You have to trust your gut at the end of the day, and you have to do that knowing that sometimes you’re going to be wrong.”

Of course, it helps if the show in question is already a proven success; Lygo green-lit ITV’s Masked Singer after seeing America’s Emmy-award-winning version. Would he have commissioned the show if it had been presented to him in the abstract – a couple of lines pitched over a conference table? “A huge element of this is the costumes, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought of what they now look like,” he confesses. “I would have thought of a much more parochial British pantomime costume. And so you’d be going, ‘I’m not sure that costumes are going to do it, are they?’”

It also helps if the producer themselves is a known quantity. Park’s latest pitch sounds even stranger than The Masked Singer. “You will do a handstand,” he says mystifyingly over email. I ask for clarity on our call, but things become more cryptic. “What he wants to do the most now is to have dancing, but by an invisible person,” his translator says. “How?” I ask. We all laugh before the pair chat for a moment. “We can’t tell you any more, I’m sorry,” the translator says. “But we will find a way.” It’s likely they will, now Park has a global success under his belt.

Lygo describes himself as Emperor Nero, giving the final thumbs up or down, and Webb-Lamb is in a similar position: both hear pitches after they’ve already been OKed by commissioning editors further down the chain. For these commissioners, their job is more than a simple yes or no. Commissioners hone a show’s concept, and most shows undergo months of development.

Liam Humphreys, former head of factual entertainment at Channel 4, helped shape Harcourt’s Naked Attraction into what it is today. When Harcourt first pitched the show, it was called Naked At First Sight and involved naked contestants living in an Alpine valley. Humphreys dismissed it as “half-baked” but felt it fit with Channel 4’s then-mantra, “Do it first. Make trouble. Inspire change.” Over the course of nine months, Humphreys and Harcourt honed the concept until it became a studio show in which a clothed person selects a date from naked people whose body parts are revealed bit by bit. “I remember sitting at my desk for two hours thinking about whether the camera should reveal their bodies upwards or downwards,” Humphreys recalls, “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m being paid to do this.’” Eventually, he decided the genitals should be revealed before the face.

“There was just something about it that was fresh and funny,” Humphreys says of his decision to commission the show. Harcourt’s reading is slightly less generous: “I think Liam just thought, ‘This is going to rate and lots of young people will watch it.’”

Having an idea is one thing; proving you can do it is another. Caroline Hawkins, creative director of Oxford Scientific Films, reveals that one of her hit shows also arose from conversations with a commissioner. “I was at Sky and I opened up my laptop and showed the commissioner a video of a dog driving a car,” she says. “He turned to me and said, ‘What else can you train a dog to do?’” After Hawkins did some research, Sky commissioned Dogs Might Fly, a six-part series in which rescue dogs learned how to fly planes. “Obviously, there were a number of unknowns,” Hawkins says. “It was a very risky commission for Sky because there’s so much aviation law that had to be dealt with.”

Similarly, Fenton says, with I Wanna Marry “Harry”, questions arose about whether the royal family might object. “We were very careful. We never said he was Prince Harry. We basically found a guy with ginger hair and put him in a castle.”

Still from TV show Five Guys A Week, showing woman lying on a bed with five men's hands offering wine, tea, chocolates and a rose
Five Guys A Week: ‘Potential cast members loved it, so we knew we were on to something.’ Photograph: Ryan Mcnamara/Channel 4

The more pioneering a show, the more difficult it can be to develop. When production company Label1 set about making Hospital – a series that takes the public behind the scenes of the NHS – only one hospital in the country agreed to take part. Label1 co-founder Lorraine Charker-Phillips says she regularly writes “access letters” asking people if they’ll take part in her shows – in a way, they’re another type of pitch. Before pitching Five Guys A Week, a dating show in which women invite five men at a time to live in their homes, Charker-Phillips filmed some potential cast members, old and young, talking about how they’d feel about dating multiple guys. “They went, ‘I love it’… and so we knew we were on to something.”

What happens if an idea isn’t given this development time – if it’s just signed off because it sounds pretty good? ClearStory’s Barnes found out the hard way when he made Sex Box for Channel 4 in 2013. On paper, Sex Box is unmissable telly: couples have sex inside a box and then talk about it on a studio sofa. Channel 4 green-lit the idea “pretty quickly” and only when the set was being constructed did Barnes think, “God, are we really doing this?” “You kind of persuade yourself that it’s going to be fine,” he recalls. “When we finally started recording, we realised the British don’t really like to talk about sex.”

While 1.1 million tuned in for Sex Box’s premiere, 200,000 switched off after about 15 minutes. Stilted conversations were one problem. Another was that the show was surprisingly tame. Ultimately, Barnes says, “you didn’t see anything” (the sex box was opaque). “It was chaste.”

Barnes is one of the few producers willing to share failed ideas. (When Harcourt says, “I’ve pitched a couple of tasteless things before,” he is sternly interrupted by his PR.) Barnes wanted to create Follow The Fiver, a show where a microchip was placed inside money so it could be followed up and down the country. Another idea envisioned a camera crew switching lights on in previously unexplored caves, with the results aired live. “I think the danger was – what if it’s a bit shit?” Barnes laughs. “Suddenly, you switch the lights on and, ‘Oh, it’s a great big wall of green algae.’ We had lots of reasons why it would still be fascinating, but it’s very hard to persuade people.”

Of course, shows are regularly rejected simply because they’re bad. “You get people with the blandest ideas,” Lygo says. “They say it would be great if two men walked across the countryside, and you think, ‘Well, that isn’t an idea. That’s just two men walking.’” Humphreys despaired when people said things like, “It’s a cross between MasterChef and The Apprentice” – “You know it’s going to be a Frankenstein’s monster of different old shows. That’s the moment you die inside.”

But sometimes, commissioners get it wrong. Humphreys regrets rejecting celebrity travel series The Real Marigold Hotel, while Harcourt “howled with laughter” when he heard another development team’s idea for Strictly Come Dancing.

So could you or I have a shot at pitching TV’s next hit? Padmore and Mace both accept ideas from the public, but neither has commissioned one. Mace recalls a married couple bringing 10 flight cases to the ITV offices, forcing him to book a bigger meeting room. “Essentially, what he brought with him was a prototype of this game that he’d been working on for 30 years.” Heartbreakingly, Mace turned it down (though he won’t say why, for fear of upsetting the couple further). In truth, the TV business is like many others: commissioners prefer to work with people with a proven track record. “For me, half of it is the idea and the other half is who’s pitching,” Lygo says.

Sometimes though, it can just come down to luck. Fenton says one producer famously brought her staff to a pitch dressed like a wedding party. The commissioning editor took one look and said, “I hope you haven’t come to pitch me a wedding idea. I just commissioned one yesterday.”


Amelia Tait

The GuardianTramp

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