With networks now so closely attached to their aligned studios on the scripted side, some may argue that unfiltered independence is dead.
The eulogy was written, many will say, when indie shingle Carsey-Werner Prods. stopped delivering original content around the dial. However, don’t tell that to the dozens of established and wannabe reality producers whose us-against-the-world credo is proving quite productive.
That can-do spirit is evident in the programming. Similar to their series creators, the protagonists behind such series as “Ice Road Truckers,” “Deadliest Catch” and “The Amazing Race” — just to name a few — demonstrate an adventurous attitude that is reflective of what often goes on in pitching sessions around town.
Take Craig Piligian, for example. As topper at Pilgrim Studios, Piligian has series at various networks strewn across the cable landscape and knows the key to being on top means standing up for both your shows and convictions. “You have to have that indie spirit,” says Piligian, whose titles include “Dirty Jobs” at Discovery, “Full Metal Jousting” at History and “Ghost Hunters” at Syfy, just to name a few. “I love being in the fight and doing it on our own.”
Piligian and the others are represented here in Variety’s Reality Impact Report know that it takes a combination of new ideas and plenty of salesmanship to make sure their shows are seen by the masses. While producers often go back to specific networks with whom they’ve shared success, the thrill in the chase is bringing a series to a different channel and creating another working relationship. The more shows a producer can have across the spectrum, the greater the financial reward.
CEO, Original Prods.
Top shows: “Deadliest Catch” (Discovery) “Storage Wars” (A&E), “Bering Sea Gold” (Discovery) “Ax Men” (History), the upcoming “Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout?”
The skinny: Beers champions series with high risks and high rewards in settings that are usually unreachable to most viewers. The inspiration for his upcoming National Geographic Channel show was simple: He was three merit badges short of becoming an Eagle Scout, a missed opportunity that still gnaws at him. This led to the creation of “Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout?” which will air this fall. “I’m like Haley Joel Osment in ‘The Sixth Sense’: I see television shows,” Beers says. “I started out as a theater actor, director and playwright. All the talents I was trained in — standard three-act structure, character arcs and story arcs — those skills transferred beautifully when I went into the reality world.”
President, entertainment programming, E!
Top shows: “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” “Chelsea Lately,” “Kendra,” “Kourtney & Kim Take New York,” “Khloe & Lamar,” “Ice Loves Coco,” “The Girls Next Door”
The skinny: After stints at MTV and Fox, Berger joined E! where she helped create the mushrooming Kardashian empire as well as “Girls Next Door” and “Ice Loves Coco.” “We look at our characters as touch points for what’s happening in pop culture,” Berger says. “Our secret sauce is mixing larger-than-life, aspirational characters who have truly relatable things happening in their lives.”
President, Bravo Media and Style Media
Top shows: “The Real Housewives” franchise, “The Millionaire Matchmaker,” “Top Chef,” “Tia & Tamera”
The skinny: Berwick, who joined Bravo in 1996, remembers how early on a cab driver responded quizzically when she stated who she worked for: “Is that the Spanish-language network?” Today, Berwick has answered all questions with lifestyle reality programming (Bravo features 36 reality shows this year), making the net No. 1 in brand recall. It’s also turned an exec (Andy Cohen) into a brand-promoting star (“Watch What Happens Live”). But Berwick is savvy about dodging reality potholes too. Last August a “Real Housewives” husband committed suicide. “You have to be as respectful as you possibly can,” she says, “but we’re presenting people’s lives. The good and the bad.”
Exec VP, alternative programming, CBS
Top shows: “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “Undercover Boss,” “Big Brother”; dating series “3” premieres this summer.
The skinny: Since coming to CBS from CW, Bresnan has helped reinvigorate the Eye’s mainstays and launched its biggest reality hit in years with “Undercover Boss.” “Part of my success has to do with widening the scope of the reality landscape for the network,” says Bresnan, citing the everyday working lives presented in “Boss” as being new to the genre. “But a huge part of this job is keeping the brands alive, healthy and strong.” Early on, when she was a production assistant on reality shows, she realized that working hard was the best route to success. “I slept in edit bays, and put my hands on every single piece of tape, so whenever there was a crisis, I was the one they went to.”
Founder, Original Media
Top shows: “Swamp People” (History), “NY Ink” (TLC), “Comic Book Men” (AMC), “Ink Master” (Spike)
The skinny: Corwin knew he was doing something right when earlier this year History invested big bucks in a Super Bowl commercial to tease the third season of “Swamp People.” The show represents what Original does best. “We identify interesting Americans and their worlds — people we might not know a lot about but would like to know more,” Corwin says. “They may seem different but we show they are actually very similar to us in many ways.” Original also prides itself on trailblazing, producing the first reality skein for AMC (“Comic Book Men”) and coming up with the ultimate high-stakes competition: “Ink Master.” “You can spit out food and you can take off a dress,” Corwin quips, “but a tattoo is permanent.”
President, alternative entertainment, Fox
Top shows: “American Idol,” “The X Factor,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Kitchen Nightmares,” “Masterchef,” “So You Think You Can Dance”
The skinny: Darnell, in his 17th year at the network, attributes his record of Fox hits, which extend back to “Joe Millionaire” and “Temptation Island,” to his broad tastes and fearlessness in programming. “Nothing scares me, and I think to be successful in reality you’ve got to feel like that. You’re going to have controversy. You’re going to have critics mad at you.” Then there’s the biggest lesson he’s learned in launching shows: “Any time someone tells you a genre is dead — gameshows, relationship shows — that’s when it’s about to come back to life.”
Senior VP, development and programming, History
Top shows: “Pawn Stars,” “American Pickers,” “Swamp People,” “Ice Road Truckers”
The skinny: With an established cabler career under his belt, Hoogstra knows what works. That means steering History toward shows such as “Swamp People” (4.7 million viewers) and “Pawn Stars” (5.9 million viewers). “All of our shows make sense under this brand,” says Hoogstra, who is well aware that History is second only to ESPN for male viewership. As finding the next big thing, Hoogstra says: “If anybody knew the secret of launching a hit reality show, I wouldn’t believe it for a second. We believe we can take big swings and, so far, that’s worked for us.”
Head of programming, MTV
Top shows: “Jersey Shore,” “Teen Mom,” “16 & Pregnant”
The skinny: MTV’s diverse assortment of reality series include pro-social offerings (“I Used to be Fat”), comedies (“Jersey Shore”) and competition series (“America’s Best Dance Crew”), but Janollari says all its shows must reflect “the very immediate, contemporary lives our audience is leading out there in the real world.” MTV’s next big launch comes March 29 with the debut of “Jersey Shore” spinoff “The Pauly D Project” and the revival of “Punk’d,” which comes at a time “when the notion of celebrity in our culture couldn’t be more of a hot-button topic,” Janollari says.
Exec VP/COO, TruTV
Top shows: “Hardcore Pawn,” “Storage Hunters,” “Operation Repo,” “South Beach Tow”
The skinny: Juris keeps it simple when it comes to choosing projects. “Everyone who works here knows our mantra,” he says. “It’s the four C’s: character, conflict, consequence and comic relief.” It is that last element — a dash of comedy in shows such as ‘Hardcore Pawn’ amid the drama offered by most reality programming — that has put TruTV in a unique space in the reality marketplace. In particular, it’s helped attract the cherished men 18-49 demographic, where the cabler has seen a solid increase during the past year.
Senior VP, alternative series, Warner Horizon Television
Top shows: “The Voice” (NBC), “The Bachelor” (ABC), “The Bachelorette” (ABC), “America’s Best Dance Crew” (MTV)
The skinny: Karzen’s primary goal is to deliver shows with durability. “As a studio it’s all about building franchises,” Karzen says. “I always tell people it’s not about getting season one, but seasons three, four and five.” She’s certainly accomplished that mission with “The Bachelor,” which is celebrating its 10th anni this year and has spawned such spin-offs as “The Bachelorette” and “Bachelor Pad.” “The Voice” appears well on its way as well, garnering strong reviews and ratings in its second season. For Karzen, the secret to success is the right talent. Good producers “have a specific vision and are passionate about that vision, but are also collaborative,” she says. “A lot of reality is a process. You have a road map but you have to be able to react.”
Partner, co-head of nonscripted television, WME
Top shows: “Ultimate Fighting Championship” (Fox/FX), “Millionaire Match” (Bravo), “America’s Best Dance Crew” (MTV), “Basketball Wives” (VH1)
The skinny: Klein has spent nearly two decades focusing on nonscripted programming with a coincidental emphasis on clients in the sports world. He also reps shingles such as Shed Media, Zodiak, Pilgrim Films, GRB Entertainment and Base Prods., as well as reality personalities like the Kardashians. Partnering strong ideas with the right companies, Klein says, is paramount. “You can have the best characters in the world and a great idea, but if the execution is flawed, your show is going to be headed for disaster.”
Agent, alternative television, UTA
Top shows: “Coming Home” (Lifetime), “The Great Food Truck Race” (Food), “Police Women” (TLC), “Kidnapped by the Kids” (OWN)
The skinny: LaBracio began his television career with “Nightline” and says the experience of finding unique news angles has served him well on the nonscripted side. LaBracio joined UTA in 2008 and last year he packaged more than 100 cable television series and pilots. “These days execs hear the same ideas over and over again,” LaBracio says. “To stand out, you need the perfect cast, the perfect character and the kind of person that execs can’t believe actually exists.”
Head of international television and media, ICM
Top shows: “Dancing With the Stars” (ABC), “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Kitchen Nightmares” (Fox), “Undercover Boss” (CBS), “Beyond Scared Straight” (A&E), “Top Gear” (History)
The skinny: Before joining ICM, Lipstone worked at William Morris for 21 years, eventually heading the percentery’s television department. His clients include ITV, Studio Lambert and LMNO Prods. and, through the years, Lipstone has packaged many of network television’s top nonscripted programs. “The shows that stick help define trends,” Lipstone says. “You can imagine what everyone said about ballroom dancing on broadcast television when ‘Dancing With the Stars’ premiered in 2005.”
CEO, Nigel Lythgoe Prods.
Top shows: “American Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance”
The skinny: His titles include exec producer (“Idol,” “Dance”) and judge (“Dance”), but Lythgoe likes playing provocateur (sparring via Twitter with Simon Cowell) and defender of the faith (“Idol” ratings). “I have to defend 22 million viewers? That’s crazy,” he says. Whatever guise he’s in, the onetime dancer has summer plans for four more series (one scripted, three reality). “As a producer you have to know what your audience is thinking,” he says. “You don’t always have to agree with it, though. If we literally had taken notice of everybody (disliking him), we’d have gotten rid of Simon Cowell in three weeks.”
Exec VP of programming, A&E and Bio
Top shows: “Storage Wars,” “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” “Intervention,” “The First 48,” “Beyond Scared Straight”
The skinny: By his own admission, McKillop attracts the right mentors, working under Nancy Dubuc and, as of just under a year ago, A&E’s Robert DeBitetto. Big numbers for reality fare (“Storage Wars” returned in November with 5.6 million viewers) helped the net place seven nonfiction shows in the top 50 in 25-54 adults; by 2013 the net will turn 100% of its primetime over to original programming. A voracious reader who owns three Kindles, McKillop says, “We’re allowed to take risks and chances; at the same time, we’re able to produce winners.” Up next: The search for a “big buzzy new series” to bring Bio into the reality stream.
Owner, Leftfield Pictures
Top shows: “Pawn Stars” (History), “Cajun Pawn Stars” (History), “American Restoration” (History), “Monster-in-Laws” (A&E), “Oddities” (Science)
The skinny: Montgomery says the key to ramping up new shows is making sure those who you work closely with can carry the load. “It’s all about good people. My life is more sane now with 15 series than it was with three. We hire the smartest people we can find and then keep them happy so they will stay around.” “Pawn Stars,” which is now at more than 150 episodes and counting, will clearly keep everyone happy, both at Leftfield and History. Series averaged an astounding 7 million viewers in 2011, the highest for any reality show that doesn’t involve Snooki. Spinoff “Cajun Pawn Stars” got off to a strong start and looks to be a longtime player.
Group president, Discovery & TLC networks
Top shows: “Gold Rush,” “Deadliest Catch,” “Bering Sea Gold,” “Sister Wives,” “Say Yes to the Dress,” “19 Kids and Counting”
The skinny: O’Neill, a 22-year vet of Discovery networks who started out as an unpaid intern, didn’t “grow up Brady. I grew up Discovery.” And in those intervening decades she has led Discovery and, as of last year, TLC out of the dry educational closet and into infotainment. Her shows make headlines — although she admits “we weren’t expecting the scale” of the ruckus over advertiser withdrawal from “American Muslim” — and yet draws viewers. Discovery had its best year in 2011 for men 25-54; “Catch” was the No. 1 primetime cable show on Tuesdays throughout its run. The goal, says O’Neill, “is not to be controversial. It’s to resonate with our viewers and work respectfully with the people in our shows.”
Exec VP of original programming, production, VH1
Top shows: “Love & Hip Hop,” “T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle,” “Basketball Wives Miami,” “Mob Wives”
The skinny: VH1 reality shows have a pop culture reference as a jumping off point, from mobster movies (“Mob Wives”) to tabloid headlines (“Celebrity Rehab”). And then there’s the twist: Telling a familiar story from a woman’s point of view has worked on several series about the wives/girlfriends of professional athletes. “Culturally I’m tapping into a world that existed before us and will exist after us,” Olde says. “It’s authentic with big characters and it seems to be resonating.”
President, Pilgrim Studios
Top shows: “Dirty Jobs” (Discovery), “American Chopper” (Discovery), “Full Metal Jousting” (History), “Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy” (History), “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s” (OWN)
The skinny: Many producers can boast success in a specific reality TV genre, but few can claim the breadth Piligian has achieved. His work has varied from a 12th century contact sport (“Full Metal Jousting”) to investigating modern-day grimy gigs (“Dirty Jobs”) to party planning (“My Fair Wedding”). “We have such a broad palate,” Piligian says. “I like to do projects we can get jazzed about, no matter the genre.” The results have often been impressive and kudos worthy. “Dirty Jobs” has been Emmy nominated thrice for reality program.
JD ROTH & TODD A. NELSON
Co-founders, 3Ball Prods.
Top shows: “Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition” (ABC), “I Used to Be Fat” (MTV), “Flying Wild Alaska” (Discovery)
The skinny: Roth is passionate that his shows are not only watched by viewers, but changes their lives as well. While 3Ball is no longer active with “The Biggest Loser,” the shingle did help create it and the premise — as well as with other weightloss series “Extreme Makeover” and “I Used to Be Fat” — is what makes Roth tick. “The goal is always to inspire people,” Roth says. “We never thought anyone would actually lose 200 lbs. We just wanted them to change their lives. I had a lot of my identity tied up in that show.”
Exec VP, alternative series/latenight programming, ABC
Top shows: “Dancing With the Stars,” “The Bachelor,” “Shark Tank,” “Wipeout,” “Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition”
The skinny: The hits Saade has shepherded to air are a mini-history of reality’s creative expansion — encompassing romance, celebrity competition, stunt fun and inspirational tales — and he calls them “enduring little beacons in the television landscape.” But the key, Saade proclaims, is a strong team that trusts in the hired producers, coupled with ego-less leadership. “We have a tight team who have worked together a long time. We’re constructive and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.” As for launching a show, Saade notes, “You can’t be crushed by failure. Don’t work day to day feared by it, and don’t let it dampen your enthusiasm or excitement.”
President, 495 Prods.
Top shows: “Jersey Shore” (MTV), “Nail Files” (TV Guide), “Friendzone” (MTV), “Repo Games” (Spike); “The Pauly D Project” (MTV, March 29)
The skinny: Long Island native Salsano says you have to be a fan of reality to be successful at it. “I genuinely love it. In my free time, I’m not watching scripted shows. I like watching people in real situations to see what they do.” During production, Salsano isn’t far from the action, either. “If there’s a house with a cast, I’m living in it. That makes a difference because then you’re having the exact same experience they are.” It comes down to a two-way trust street, she adds. “I have to trust that the cast is exactly who they say they are — authentic and honest — and they need to trust that I’m going to tell a true, accurate story of what’s going on in their life.”
Television agent, CAA
Top shows: “Flying Wild Alaska” (Discovery), “The Revolution” (ABC), “Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition” (ABC), the upcoming Gordon Ramsay series “Hotel Hell” (Fox)
The skinny: Schiff represents prolific nonscripted shingles such as Ryan Seacrest Prods., 3 Ball Prods., 19 Entertainment, Gordon Ramsay’s One Potato Two Potato and Bischoff Hervey Entertainment. “In today’s marketplace it really does come down to relationships that networks have with the producers,” Schiff says. “Producers who have a track record and are well known to the buyers have a huge step up, particularly when there’s at least half a dozen variations of every decent idea being pitched.”
CEO, Ryan Seacrest Prods.
Top shows: “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” (E!), “Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami” (E!), “Kourtney & Kim Take New York” (E!), “Shahs of Sunset” (Bravo, premieres March 11)
The skinny: Heading up the growing media moguldom of Seacrest means Sher “wears a lot of hats,” including 13 years of experience as his agent prior to joining RSP in 2008. In the past year, Sher’s efforts yielded a $300 million fund influx from Clear Channel majority investors to develop new content and setting up a joint venture with HDNet, AEG and CAA to launch AXS TV, debuting this summer. Sher and Seacrest connected initially when the future “American Idol” host shared his plans. “He said that when I didn’t blink, he knew I was the guy,” says Sher.
CEO, A. Smith & Co.
Top shows: “Hell’s Kitchen” (Fox), “Kitchen Nightmares” (Fox), “Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura” (TruTV), “Full Throttle Saloon” (truTV), “American Ninja Warrior” (G4, NBC)
The skinny: “Cracking the code” is needed when developing and producing a hit reality show, Smith says. “That doesn’t happen until you really agonize,” he says. “We’re really meticulous, so we can guarantee results that will produce ratings. We have this way of analyzing a program, then figuring our way back in to having great moments. It always comes down to great storytelling.” Smith prides himself on their diverse slate, and even credits his own impatience. “I keep saying it’s a virtue,” he jokes. “It can be a hazard in other parts of my life, but it works quite well in producing reality television.”
President, alternative and latenight programming, NBC
Top shows: “The Voice,” “Celebrity Apprentice,” “America’s Got Talent”
The skinny: Telegdy says success comes with “knowing what you know, knowing what you’ve done before, plus having a keen sense of the history of television.” Then there’s how the British-born Telegdy, who as an L.A-based BBC exec helped import “Dancing With the Stars” to the U.S. before joining NBC, views his relationship with onscreen talent. “I try to distinguish myself in my ability to persuade them to be part of the NBCU family,” he says. Take “The Voice” judge Blake Shelton, for instance, whom Telegdy first noticed on NBC’s “Clash of the Choirs”: “Through that, I had a creative experience with someone I immediately recognized as having unique performer qualities and a personality. That meant I was going to work with that guy again.”
Profiles written by Robert Abele, Josh Chetwynd, Randee Dawn, Stuart Levine, Rob Owen and Glenn Whipp