Late last year, the torch at Lighthearted Entertainment was passed down from late founder Howard Schultz to Jeff Spangler and Rob LaPlante. Though the transition was bittersweet, following Schultz’s sudden death in Dec. 2014, the duo, now co-owners and partners, is keeping it lighthearted — a mantra that fuels the company.
“It’s come quite naturally,” Spangler tells Variety of the leadership transition over the past seven months. “That is really a testament to how close we were with Howard and how the three of us were like-minded in where we wanted the company to go.”
He continues, “The thing that we really embraced is continuing to make great TV that people are excited about that breaks boundaries and that lights the world on fire, and at the same time, from a functional standpoint, everyone at our company is important from the bottom. That approach may be somewhat foreign in this particular business, but for us, there’s no other way.”
“To me, it’s about caring about what you do, but more importantly, caring about the people that do it,” LaPlante explains of what his team calls “the lighthearted way.”
LaPlante adds, “We love making jaw-dropping television shows, thoughtful, emotional television shows, but at the same time, we care about making them in a responsible way.”
Those ideals and the company culture set by Schultz is what motivates and enables the Lighthearted team to make noise in the unscripted television landscape with reality hits such as MTV’s “Dating Naked” and MTV’s “Are You The One?”
When Schultz founded Lighthearted in 1992, he broke boundaries with shows like “Extreme Makeover,” which he created, in addition to MTV’s “Next,” “The Moment of Truth,” “The Big Date” and “SexWars.” Today, Spangler and LaPlante continue to revolutionize the reality TV dating genre.
“One thing that I got from Howard was don’t limit yourself in your own creativity,” Spangler says, adding that his former boss’s forte was creating a cultural conversation — much like “Dating Naked” is doing by putting singles in the most vulnerable scenario on TV: nude first dates.
“Right off the bat, you go, these are naked people dating. The loudness that you get just form the concept itself just propels it,” Spangler notes. “The nakedness is a bit of a gimmick, but that gimmick is what gets the conversation started. These people are really vulnerable. We got our foot in the door with the nakedness, but the show, I think, can stand on itself whether the people are clothed or not.”
LaPlante says that the sophomore season’s major format change — featuring two primary recurring daters, rather than new nude couples each week — will even further pronounce the storytelling.
“I think the stakes in the second season. What the show is really about is the dynamic of a relationship and people trying to find a match and trying to find someone that they want to be with and want to connect with,” he says. “It’s taking people out of their comfort zone and they have no choice but to lay it all out there…they can’t hid behind clothes.”
VH1 exec Susan Levison who works closely with Lighthearted on “Dating Naked” says the second season is better than ever.
“At the end of the first season of ‘Dating Naked,’ we challenged the Lighthearted team to push the series as far at it could go for Season 2. They came back to us with a new format that blew us away,” Levison tells Variety. “It retained all the core fun of ‘Dating Naked,’ but supercharged the show with a serialized element that gave it a whole new dimension. This is emblematic of our experience with Lighthearted — they have a nose for drama, they’re collaborative, and they never, ever settle.”
Besides “Naked,” Lighthearted has brought a fresh format to the dating genre with “Are You The One?” which will soon be entering Season 3 on MTV.
“When that show came along, the dating genre was a tired genre. We were just basically doing rip offs of ‘The Bachelor’ and NBC had just failed at ‘Ready for Love,’ which was essentially the most blown out ‘Bachelor’ on steroids,” LaPlante recalled. “We were pitching that show when people thought dating reality shows were almost dead…but dating is such a relatable part of life and something that everyone goes through. We’re not bringing you that same old show with a slight twist — we’re giving you a brand new take on a genre.”
The match-making show has its fair share of drama and alcohol-induced moments in the house where all the contestants cohabitate, but at the core, the series is about finding the one, which MTV exec Susanne Daniels, who announced her departure from the network today, says makes the show a hit.
“Lighthearted is a first rate production company in every way,” Daniels says. “They are creative, talented producers who pro-actively deliver strong material and have shown they are masters of developing and executing a series.”
With “Dating Naked’s” Season 2 debut tonight and new episodes of “Are You The One?” coming up, love seems to be in the air for Lighthearted. And Spangler and LaPlante say there’s no stopping them.
“I love it when people say a genre is dead,” Spangler says, with a laugh. “That’s the challenge for Jeff and I — we have proven them wrong in the past and will do it again.”
“Dating Naked” Season 2 premieres tonight at 9/8c.