Format maven Beers helps Fremantle connect with broader audience
Thom Beers knows what men want on TV. The former actor-turned-Turner Broadcasting executive has spent more than a decade using his Original Prods. banner to create testosterone-heavy hits like “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers,” capturing enviable ratings if often gender-lopsided demos. In his new chair as FremantleMedia North America CEO, Beers has expanded into scripted series and is figuring out what women want to watch. Good news so far: Fremantle’s “Tomorrow People” pilot (from Greg Berlanti) has a pickup at CW. But mainly Beers, who was nearly ready to retire before this new job offer came along, remains practical about what he does, and does not, know. Working at Turner for 11 years, he notes, taught him a few things. “The whole lead, follow or get out of the way (mantra) — that was (Ted Turner’s), and that’s what we do.” Beers spoke with Randee Dawn about the importance of Fremantle developing a scripted presence, the company’s overall plans for growth, and why getting pounded in a boxing ring is a good way to start the day.
Randee Dawn: You’ve got years of experience as an executive, but you were an actor first and still do voiceover narration for several of your shows. Was running a global idea factory like Fremantle always an ambition?
Thom Beers: To be honest, I was kind of done. Last December, my contract was going to be up, and I was looking at jumping on a cruise ship to wander the world with my wife and kid and a tutor. I had turned down several job offers. So when this job came up, it was an absolute surprise to me.
RD: Why did they want you to take the place of newly promoted CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz?
TB: I can only assume I got offered this job because over the four years since I sold (Original Prods.) to Fremantle, I had quadrupled (OP’s) profits. (Fremantle has) huge hits on the air, but (hasn’t) really developed anything internally or created a really successful format in a long time. They wanted to do a big, bold stroke and find a creative person who has a good sense of business to run this company and come up with the next great hit.
RD: OK. What is the next big hit?
TB: Only America can decide that, but we have a good shot with the programming we’re developing. Look, network television is a different beast than cable. I had one network show on the air, “America’s Toughest Jobs” at NBC, and it pulled down a 2 in the demo in about 7 million homes. Networks would kill to have that number now for the cost. So it’s a different beast here. I need to figure out how to cater my storytelling to women; most of my stuff is 65% men, 35% women.
RD: What do you do plan to do to shore up that female audience?
TB: I’ve never made a successful program (with Original) for women. I have crashed and burned dramatically, every time. This time, I got smart, and went to people like “Real Housewives” production house Purveyors of Pop, who actually make women’s programming, to develop women’s programming. (One result is docu-series “Married to Medicine,” which follows six successful women, including doctors and doctor’s wives, that will bow on Bravo March 24.)
RB: So what’s your plan for growth? What’s the big picture?
TB: It’s a 360-degree approach. We’re building a viable cable business, which didn’t really exist here before. There’s a digital component (that’s) really important. We’re restructuring to bring the licensing and merchandising group under our North American banner, so we can work more closely with them. I’m not just dealing with a production company; we do live events, merchandising product integration: We’ve got great relationships with advertisers and a worldwide global distribution system. It’s not just about what will pop a number, it’s is there an opportunity for licensing, merchandising, third-party integration opportunities?
RD: How important is scripted programming to the overall plan?
TB: We’ve got a head of scripted (Tony Optican). We’ve got five or six really viable projects in scripted, and the challenge is this: Scripted success is a big swing for the fences; you’re looking at 90% failure rates. But scripted is where you live and die. When you look at the scope and scale of the success of network reality shows, big shows like “Idol” and “X Factor” are hard to come by. We’re a global media company, so we really need to be in (the scripted) business. Why do you climb Everest? Because it’s there. We need to be there.
RD: What percentage of the interest in scripted is due to the prestige factor, since reality is still not taken as seriously as narrative?
TB: You know what, I don’t buy that. When you look at the ratings, reality shows kick serious butt, not just on network but on cable. Scripted stuff — look, I’m not an expert. That’s not my world. All I can say is we’re trying to find the best people available to create some great scripted opportunities for us.
RD: Fremantle is a big player, but how do you stand out among the worldwide competition?
TB: Not to be too cocky, but if you look at the ratings every week, Original Prods. Fremantle is in the top 10, top 5 almost every night. We’re pretty darned good at it. I have a great deal of confidence in our ability and skill sets to tell these stories. I don’t think there’s a production company out there with as many talented producers involved. And we love doing what we do. This is not about ego. It’s not about who makes the most money or who drives the coolest car. It’s about making great television shows.
RD: Do you still have time for voiceover?
TB: Early in the mornings I go, when my voice is fresh. It keeps me in touch with the shows. I love narrating; it allows me to stretch and do something different. I get up in the morning, I box for four rounds, get my head punched in and then I go to work. That makes me bulletproof in this job, because I already get the shit beat out of me before I get in.