The AV Club has a fantastic interview with Bill Lawrence, co-creator of Scrubs, Cougar Town, and Spin City. The whole thing is worth a read, but one passage that caught my eye dealt with the genesis of the entire series.
I couldn’t get a passion project of mine sold. With my track record, I couldn’t go to the networks and say, “This is a project I’m passionate about.” Because it wasn’t hooky enough. It was just about a father and a son. So a room bit started where I said, “You know what sucks? I can’t sell my passion project. But if I go to [ABC President] Steve McPherson right now and said”—and this was just off the top of my head—“‘I’ve got a Courteney Cox comedy, she just got divorced, she never had her 20s, and she’s gonna fuck younger guys, and it’s called Cougar Town,’ I could sell that without doing any more work than I just did.”
And it became a joke in the writers’ room, where instead of having cuts between scenes, a claw would just rip it. Just rip the image right off the television. We kept joking about it week after week. And then, finally, after three weeks, I was like, “Should I do this?”
And Kevin Biegel, who was on Scrubs and was a smart young writer, said, “I’ll do that with you. I don’t care. I’m in.” And we convinced ourselves, so it wasn’t totally a sham, that you could to a campy, Ab-Fab type comedy with a woman discovering her 20s for the first time. But I will say that I went into ABC, I said just what I told you, and I sold the show. When I went into networks four months earlier, with a full outline and a good track record, I couldn’t sell it. So Kevin and I, when we get twisty about the title—I don’t know that I could have sold the show by saying, “Hey, it’s about adult friendship, and it’s about people in a cul-de-sac drinking wine, and it’s called Cul-De-Sac Crew.”
I've said stuff like this before - if it's hard even for proven writer/producers to get their passion projects sold, what chance do any of us have when we venture too far outside the box? In the eyes of the buyer, high concept is almost always going to trump "this is different and therefore it scares me."
Know how you can package your idea so that it sounds "high concept." It's not enough to come up with a good idea - you have to be able to sell that idea. Lawrence's story is just further evidence of this. You can't write the idea and then let it speak for itself. You have to be a salesman, a pitchman and a cheerleader for it. Most of all, you have to speak their language. Lawrence joked about an idea that would trigger all the network's impulses to "buy" and he was right, even if the initial idea struggled to be sustainable.
But then he's also got a point in that while the original concept for Cougar Town is something of an albatross he's spent the better part of the last three seasons apologizing for, had he tried to sell what the show eventually became, there might not have been a buyer for it.
Good ideas don't always make for good sales, but a good writer can make a bad idea into a great sale.