So you think your show belongs on cable?

By Ruth L Ratny

Cable guru Ray Solley once produced for Ch. 11.

One of the cable networks has a slightly bitter underbelly to its shows and considers every film it runs a theatrical release. Another network is undergoing change and plans to run more series. Still another channel changed its entire programming stance with the success of an unlikely show.

The question is: How do you come up with a show that helps define a channel and wins you a sale?

The answer is: Attending Ray Solley’s all-day seminar, “The Power of the Pitch: How to Sell to Cable,” June 14, at Columbia College’s Ferguson Theatre.

L.A.-based cable programming guru Solley should know. His company, The Solley Group, “tries to find ways to give producers information they can’t get anywhere else, like customized advice for their needs,” he says.

“Attorneys close deals, agents sell jobs. We function as a bit of all those services for companies and production entities who want to know how this crazy business works.”

RUTH: How did you get into cable programming?
SOLLEY: After seven years of running my own programming company, Wm. Morris hired me to head cable shows. From 1995 to 2001 I sold 30 projects to about 18 cable networks.

RUTH: Wasn’t “South Park” for Comedy Central one of your biggest successes?
SOLLEY: Yes. And I also sold “Primetime Glick” to Comedy Central, “Bug Juice” to Disney,” the Eddie Izard “Dressed to Kill” special to HBO. “Biorhythm” and “Lyricist Lounge” to MTV, and shows to FX and the Family Channel.

RUTH: So, what’s difference between selling shows to cable vs. selling shows to network TV or PBS?
SOLLEY: The main issue is ? how does your show fit their brand, the image or personality that a cable network has spent years to define or redefine. Comedy Central didn’t know until “South Park” was a hit that, yeah, we’re radical comedy.

RUTH: I’ve written a movie that, in my opinion, ahem, is ideal for cable. What should I know if I want to pitch it to, say, HBO and Showtime?
SOLLEY: You have to remember that cable networks are constantly evolving in brand and personality. In my seminar, I tell what each channel is looking for. The worst thing is to develop a show in a vacuum.

RUTH: I’ve known you since you produced Ch. 11 shows in Thea Flaum’s unit and then headed the station’s production of national shows, such as the highly acclaimed “Sound Stage.” After a string of Ch. 11 and PBS successes, what motivated you to leave Chicago and go to L.A?
SOLLEY: I wanted to produce long-form shows. I knew more about L.A. than I did about New York, so L.A. it was. During the week I was there, I had 20 interviews.

One interview was with Johnny Carson as a talent coordinator on “The Tonight Show.” I auditioned long distance by doing research on Brooke Shields for a Carson interview. The producer then gave me a list of non-stars and said, “Let’s see how good you are at finding someone Johnny likes.”

RUTH: Who did you come up with?
SOLLEY: I found two little girls who told a joke if you gave them a penny. Carson booked them and I got the job. I was packing and the TV was on, and there were the two little girls. Johnny would drop a penny in a jar and they’d tell a joke.

RUTH: What followed after your six months with Carson?
SOLLEY: Development at Paramount, overseeing first-run shows like “Wheel of Fortune” and other game shows for CBS’ O&O stations. I went to the Goldwyn Co. where I developed “Body by Jack” and “American Gladiators,” which at the time were considered weird competition.

RUTH: Which brings us to cable network needs. What are some of the topics your seminar will cover?
SOLLEY: We’ll focus on the reality of what cable’s about. During the first half, we show how to analyze your strengths as a company or pitcher; what elements you need for the pitch; the mechanics of the pitch; leave behinds; the dos and don’ts of the marketing process.

The second half, we analyze the brands, channel by channel, trying to gain insight into the differences, nuances and changing needs of basic and pay networks.

When people bring you ideas, there’s a procedure. Some do it better than others. When pitching, there are things you want to say. When receiving the pitch, it’s what to you want to hear.

RUTH: So tell us, what are the brand or image differences between HBO and Showtime?
SOLLEY: HBO is celebrity-driven and likes its shows to have a slightly bitter underbelly. Showtime is in the shadow of the behemoth HBO and it tries harder. Showtime is going through some changes, one of them being it’s moving more into series to bring viewers back on a regular basis.

The $195 registration costs $150 for ReelChicago readers, and for members of various industry organizations. The fee includes a catered lunch from the Corner Bakery, a workbook containing proprietary information and a list of contacts.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Ferguson Theatre, 600 S. Michigan Ave. Register at