A former TV exec who spent 70 years in the business shares his top tip for spotting promising TV pitches — and identifying duds

  • Former top Fox TV studio exec Harris Katleman, who recently published a memoir, told Business Insider how he distinguishes promising TV pitches from duds.
  • “If they spend too much time trying to describe it, nine times out of 10 it’s not going to work,” he said.
  • “The Simpsons,” which Katleman helped developed into a TV show, was such an example of a hit, resonating thanks to its focus on the family and current events.
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Harris Katleman, former president and CEO of 20th Century Fox Television, developed hit shows like “The Simpsons,” “LA Law,” and “NYPD Blue,” during his 70 years in the TV business. He started his career at age 19 in the mail room at the once-great talent agency, MCA, and rose to lead TV production at MGM, Columbia, and Fox studios.

Katleman, who recently released released a memoir, “You Can’t Fall Off the Floor: And Other Lessons from a Life in Hollywood,” still consults on TV deals today, at the age of 90.

He told Business Insider that, in the era of peak TV, there is still one surefire way to distinguish a promising TV pitch from a dud:

“My mantra for what’s a good idea is if you can describe the idea in two or three sentences,” Katleman said. “If they spend too much time trying to describe it, nine times out of 10, it’s not going to work … The normal TV viewer has a very short attention span, and the quicker you can get to the point, the better off you are.”

Take “The Fall Guy,” a 1981 TV show starring Lee Majors. It was pitched as an action-drama about a stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter. The concept was easy for audiences to wrap their heads around. The show became one of creator Glen Larson’s biggest hits, Katleman said.

“The Simpsons” was an immediate hit with audiences

“The Simpsons,” which was an animated short on the variety show, “The Tracey Ullman Show,” before becoming the longest-running scripted show on primetime TV, is another good example, Katleman said. It was about a dysfunctional family as well as a show about what’s happening in the world.

Creator Matt Groening and producer James L. Brooks wanted to turn “The Simpsons” into a TV show. They brought the project to Katleman, who helped sell the series to Fox’s broadcast network.

It was one of the highest-performing projects with audiences that Katleman had ever tested, he said. Seven, one-minute episodes, made for $1 million total, were screened for audiences in Los Angeles before the series was picked up. The presentation scored a 98 out of 100 with two separate, randomly selected test audiences.

Audiences are still enamored with “The Simpsons” today. The first 30 seasons are set to go on Disney Plus when Disney launches the service in the fall.

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