How to win the reality TV show sweepstakes

Peter Hamilton, center, with hosts Tim Horsman of NextVision and event host Michelle De Long

So you live in the Midwest, and you have a killer idea for a reality show, what does it take to get it on the air? 

To answer this question to 60 eager producers assembled to hear consultant the experts – New York’s Peter Hamilton and local production vets Jonathan Towers, Mike Schmiedeler and Live Well Network’s Peggy Allen — explain how to get into the reality business.

Chicago’s first Unscripted TVU event was held last Thursday at Fletcher Chicago, organized by Michelle De Long of Mimi Productions, a reality show producer, and Tim Horsman of NextVision.

The tipping point for De Long came when she realized, “Most TV programming is directed at the Midwest. And almost all of the production companies are anywhere but here.” 

Hamilton used the sizzle reel for the History Channel’s mega-hit “Pawn Stars” to illustrate what a network programmer needs to see.  As the reel showed, every major character, their role, their stakes and the basic layout of every show was introduced in just a few short minutes. 

“Pawn Stars refreshes the format made popular by the long-running PBS hit Antiques Roadshow,” said Hamilton. “Instead of the experts, Pawn Stars puts information in the hands of working class guys with attitude.”   

Jonathan Towers of Towers Productions advised on non-fiction pitchesJonathan Towers and his VP/development Mike Schmiedeler revealed the secrets to their company’s 22 years of success: highly factual writing, great storytelling, and revealing the steep odds of getting anything on the air, even for a company with a track record – for every show Towers gets on the air they pitch 50.

Finally, there actually is one fairly recent national network being programmed here in Chicago and it is growing: ABC’s Live Well Network.

Currently, it is broadcast in nearly 30% of American homes’ digital stations. Peggy Allen, VP of Programming, stated they expect to reach 50% penetration by the end of this year.  This means that Live Well Network will be able to demand standard advertising rates and beef-up its modest budgets. 

Allen was a former Lifetime executive hired last fall to fine-tune Live Well’s programming. “We want positive programming that laughs with women, not at them.” As Live Well moves from knowledge programming to entertainment, Allen will listen to pitches for new shows. 

The overwhelming message, however, is that producers need to understand that this is a business for the long haul.  

If you have an idea for a project, subscribing to Peter Hamilton’s excellent blog about the documentary development process and business,, is a good start. Look for more events from Unscripted TVU.

Carey Lundin is the Supervising Producer of  “Treasure Hunters Roadshow” which airs on the Live Well Network. She can be reached at: