Road to the Emmys 2012: Reality & Nonfiction

Every year, Original Prods. CEO Thom Beers leaves the cell phone at home, and spends a week at an ashram.

“It’s a cleanse,” he says. And, in theory, it’s a way to dodge the barrage of reality show ideas he’s pounded with every day. But a few years ago, he met pitchman Anthony Sullivan at the retreat, and snapped into work mode.

“By day four, the woman who runs the ashram catches us with a piece of paper where I’m diagramming the show,” says Beers. “She says, ‘If you sell this series, you owe me a car.’ ”

“PitchMen” ran for two seasons on Discovery. Beers sent her a black BMW.

Ideas are everywhere for the savvy reality show producer. It has inhouse development teams, partnerships with international shingles who funnel hits across the Pond, and of course its own personal, constant observations of the world that generates spitballs for future series.

“Our lives are development,” says Lauren Lexton, who with Tom Rogan is a founder of Authentic Entertainment (“Ace of Cakes,” “Toddlers & Tiaras”). “You go to a party, you pay attention to what people are watching, what they like, do they know someone who could make a good reality show.”

“I come up with ideas nearly every minute of the day,” says Leftfield Pictures (“Pawn Stars,” “American Restoration”) owner Brent Montgomery. “A wedding, in the shower, getting up to use the restroom at 3 a.m. I email myself on my phone during the night, which wakes up my wife and gets me in trouble.”

Producers can train themselves to be hyper-aware of possible show notions, parse demos to figure out what audiences want to watch and, for many, draw on their journalistic backgrounds. Montgomery, Kinetic Content (“Hardcore Pawn,” “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers”) CEO Chris Coelen and Bunim/Murray chairman Jonathan Murray (“The Real World,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”) all have communications or direct journalism degrees and experience.

“It’s the exact same process, getting ideas for reality shows as it is for working in news,” Coelen says.

But when outside input fails to provide gems, going internal can prove valuable: Murray recalls how his head of music Dave Stone pitched the 20 questions-reminiscent “What’s in the Box,” which ultimately was sold to the BBC as a children’s program.

That said, he notes, “There a lot of good ideas, but it’s hard to come up with something nobody has thought of before.”

Duplicate shows do make it to air: “Hoarders” exists alongside “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” and “Pawn Stars” and “Hardcore Pawn” are out-pawning one another simultaneously.

“It’s natural when you have so many producers that you’ll have ideas that are similar,” Coelen says. “We all live in the same world and see the same things and read the same iterations of the same magazines and newspapers.”

What differentiates a good idea from a dead idea is the development process.

“A lot of it is down to execution,” Coelen says. “It’s not just about a logline; it’s about the mechanisms that are in place. Within shows that are similar, they are often very different inside.”

Whether a producer feels personally invested with an idea appears to be optional. Many producers say they couldn’t, or wouldn’t do a show they weren’t interested in, but Screaming Flea Prods. (“Hoarders,” “Sell This House”) exec producer Jodi Flynn is more egalitarian: “A great development person has the ability to look into worlds that might not speak to them, but will speak to a viewership of a particular network,” she says.

Ice Road Truckers” was just such a show; Beers recalls being dumbfounded when History president Nancy Dubuc asked him to put it together.

“I thought, ‘Is she out of her mind?’ ” he recalls. “It’s five guys driving in a straight line for hours. There’s no show there, but against all my better instincts, I took the show on and it was successful.”

“Shows that are developed for a specific network are better,” insists Murray. “Otherwise, you’re watering down an idea if you don’t have a network in mind.”

Where these ideas come from, the well doesn’t appear to be running dry any time soon. Producers, it seems, just can’t stop … producing.

“I remember about three years ago I was constipated for three days,” says Beers, referring to a brief fallow period. “That was about it. I was taking painkillers. That’s the closest I’ve ever come. Not having ideas? That’s never been an issue, knock wood.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: Reality & Nonfiction
And here’s the pitch. . . | Fundraising a huge obstacle for documakers | Hinterland heroes all the rage | ‘Frozen Planet’ proves cool for Discovery | Why we watch: Personalities that keeps auds glued | Reality: A genre bursting beyond the seams
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