What Recruiters Can Learn From the TV Industry

Sep 26, 2012

image from the UCLA Film & Television Archive As the new fall television shows are starting to air, viewers across the U.S. are deciding which shows they want to check out. This sort of judgment process is nothing new to recruiters. In fact, the recruiting process is much like getting a new TV show on the air. Television is broken down into three primary areas: the pitch, the pilot shoot, and the acquisition of viewers, all of which contain valuable lessons that recruiters can learn from.

The Pitch

Writers get at most 10 minutes to convince a network executive that their ideas are worth pursuing. A good pitch is a lot like a good job description: dynamic but concise; intriguing but clear; persuasive but direct. Here’s how to pitch a position:

  • Know your product. No TV exec ever buys a pitch based on a fuzzy idea of what the final product looks like. If you don’t have a good idea of what the job entails — not just general duties, but specific day-to-day behaviors, tasks, and outcomes — then you need to get it clear. Your descriptions don’t have to be as involved or in-detail as this one, but your core knowledge of the position does.
  • Write for the applicant you want, not the applicant who wants the job. Network executives like a pitch describing a show geared toward a specific demographic. Top talent like a job description geared toward them. Avoid pre-packaged, “universal” descriptions, and be precise throughout. Asking for applicants with “good communication skills” is tantamount to pitching “a really funny comedy.” Business jargon alone will not suffice. Instead, discuss the various outcomes inherent to employee and company success. Truly qualified applicants will know how to achieve them.
  • Elicit an emotional response. Writers don’t pitch how much work a new TV show will be. They pitch returns. Use positive descriptors for job duties, and start the description by emphasizing why the position is desirable. Getting a positive response is much easier if the applicant has strong feelings for the job from the start.

The Pilot Shoot

Shooting the pilot is a lot like a job interview. Just because a pilot gets made doesn’t mean it will air. Even if it does air, it might not get picked up. It’s got to go well the first time, just like an interview. Here’s how you can plan like a producer:

  • Look beyond a big name. Star power alone does not guarantee success. Hugh Jackman is definitely a big star, but remember what happened when he was cast in the show Viva Laughlin? No one else does either: it was cancelled after two episodes in 2007. George Clooney was a virtual unknown when he was cast as Doug Ross on ER. Don’t select candidates to interview based on buzz alone. You may miss out on the real star performer of the future.
  • Look beyond a name, period. Many actors and actresses change their name to broaden their appeal (for example, Sir Ben Kingsley was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji). Making assumptions when faced with a name can make you miss out on well-qualified people or hire the wrong person. A study performed in 2009 for the National Bureau for Economic Research indicates that resumes with “white-sounding” names are 50% more likely to receive a call-back than those with a name from a specific ethnicity. Not only is this illegal, it’s poor recruitment. Don’t let a candidate’s implied ethnicity affect your image of the candidate, either. A Hispanic last name does not necessarily indicate fluency in the Spanish language; a worthy job candidate will indicate any linguistic proficiency on the resume itself.
  • Create the right environment. A compelling pilot must immerse the viewer in the show’s environment immediately, and the environment of the shoot itself is carefully controlled to facilitate this participatory illusion. An interview isn’t an illusion, but it can be designed to replicate the position itself, when you ask the right questions. Use behavioral questions that address the qualities associated with success in the position, and keep the interview environment as close to the work environment in as possible.

Attracting Viewers

Viva Laughlin failed for one simple reason: no one watched it. Either no one had heard of it by the time the pilot aired, or the pilot was so weak that no one tuned back in for the second episode. In order to find the right person for a job, you’ve got to attract active as well as passive prospects.

  • Push the limits. The pilot episode of The New Normal attracted more than 7 million viewers, despite (or perhaps due to) the fact that it features a nontraditional family. It has already been removed from its prime-time slot by the Salt Lake City NBC affiliate in protest, but this attention did give the show a lot of publicity. Recruiters in competitive fields (or with overwhelming quotas) can also attract top prospects by going bold.
  • Revise, revise, revise. TV shows are dynamic products; a mass of writers, producers, and other industry professionals shape every single episode in response to the ratings and viewership of the one before. If your initial job description isn’t attracting qualified active prospects, tweak it. If your first round of interviews flops, don’t be afraid to switch things up and start asking different questions. Finally, be open to exploring your failures. Ryan Murphy, the producer of Glee, American Horror Story, and The New Normal, has created more than one pilot that flopped, but he embraced failure and learned from it. Now he is one of the most sought-after producers of our time.

Recruiting and hiring the perfect candidate can be quite a production. Much like in television, the longer you’re in the business, and the better your reputation, the easier it can be to get the person you want. The TV industry can offer a new outlook on recruiting and help you find the next star.

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