Craig Plestis of Smart Dog Media and SallyAnn Salsano of 495 Prods. have more than three decades in the unscripted business between them. Despite working on very different series — his “The Masked Singer” imported a popular Asian format but kept its biggest personalities hidden behind giant costumes, while her “Paradise Hotel” reboot relies heavily on the audience making a connection with the contestants — they agree that the most important elements in the genre are to have passion and take big swings as producers.
Here, Plestis and Salsano talk about the increasingly competitive television landscape, how producers should use social media to be advocates for their own shows and what lessons they’ve learned along the way in their storied careers they wish they knew when they were first starting out.
How do you continue to push yourselves to come up with ideas that feel fresh, even when the reality TV landscape is so saturated by dozens of similar formats?
Salsano: In the nature of spending time with family, sometimes I set it up so that it’s, “Let’s go to this place,” where I know there’s only couples on honeymoons so that I can come up with three shows about people fighting. There is a way to do it. You go to certain restaurants if you want to see certain kinds of people. If you put me at a desk with a piece of paper, I could almost die, but there are times where I’ll leave my office and start cooking and all of a sudden it all comes back. I have to get out and move around.
Plestis: You just have to keep pushing. There’s always that fight and everyone talks about the digital platforms versus traditional broadcast, and I watch both constantly. But what I still love about broadcast TV is we have a chance to watch something at the same time and come together. It’s like sports, and that’s something harder to do on a digital platform. [Those platforms] can have great hits, but they all watch in little pockets of the house.
Salsano: Whenever works for them.
So how important is co-viewing?
Plestis: On “The Masked Singer” it was just a joy to see families come together in one room, watching one show. And if it’s not a whole family — if it’s one person, they’re going out on their social-media platform and talking about it. That’s something we can still do. The power of broadcast has seen that again and again with shows that just pop and bring everyone together. It just comes down to great formats, great characters, great storytelling — and hopefully a good time slot.
Salsano: I remember I did this thesis in college that I thought was so crazy. My professor was like, “You’re going to go, for the next 10 weeks, to 10 different people’s houses to watch ‘90210’ with them.” Watching a show like that with a family, then with a sorority house, then with a fraternity house, then with a boyfriend and a girlfriend, and the truth of the matter is everyone watches TV the same way. As long as it has a purpose and it’s drawing people there it’s good, but the ones that really work are the ones that draw different people there for different reasons.
Plestis: It’s human nature for us to want that community experience, be it online or at work, and TV’s still one of those bonding moments that we can all talk about. Or argue about.
Salsano: It’s true. A lot of people don’t agree, but even better.
Plestis: As long as you watch. You can be a lover, you can be a hater!
Salsano: And tell 10 more people to watch.
How much do you try to eventize your shows, versus leaving that to the marketing departments?
Salsano: I think back in the day you could leave something to somebody, but I don’t think you can anymore. I think in order for your shows to work now, you have to be just as interested in the marketing and promos as those departments. And when you take an interest in it, then they really thrive.
Plestis: Producers have to wear so many different hats now. I came from a marketing background, so I’ll never give up; I’ll be in their offices until they kick me out. But that is a key part. It’s not just working on the creative with them and listening and giving them feedback, it’s giving them all of the extra footage and guiding and making sure also that your cast is doing everything possible to get the word out. You just spent months with them in the field, you have a close bond, so it’s easy to get in their ear and say, “Hey, did you tweet today?”
Salsano: If you have shows on at night, you leave and you’re monitoring social to drive it as much as possible. You’re spending several hours a week to figure out what you can do to help move that show along socially. And now there is a way to help, whereas in the past if the network didn’t do this thing you wanted them to do, you were kind of screwed. Now you can rally your own community and get it together.
Plestis: And a good producer is listening. We’re watching the feed, we’re going online, and there is so much free research. I just want to say, “Thank you, America.” They told us what they loved and what they didn’t, so any slight changes we might make, a lot of them came from what the people were talking about first.
“There is so much free research, I just want to say, ‘thank you, America.’”
Do you feel the second-screen experience during viewing helps or hurts the experience?
Plestis: There’s a little boomerang effect that’s happening because we spend so much time with Netflix and everything on our phones, people want that community experience back again. They want to share stuff and yell at the TV with someone. We’ve seen it time and time again; that’s what sports does so well and what TV used to do so well. It’s coming back. What’s old is new again.
Salsano: I feel like because of social media, that’s why no one wants to watch TV alone anymore. No one is ever really alone. If you go out to lunch, you have your phone and you could be interacting the whole time. When was the last time someone put their phone down and just watched TV? The only time I ever do that is if someone is with me and we’re talking about the show [in person]. It’s like we’ve almost been conditioned to not completely shut off.
Where do you personally fall on what is most important to drawing the audience in the first place: format or personality?
Plestis: That’s a case-by-case study. For broadcast TV, which is more a spectacle, larger-than-life aspect, I still think format rules, and ideas rule. Then you can get casting for it. But I don’t think gigantic names will always sell the show; it’s the proper casting within the ideas. On “The Masked Singer” we had an eclectic panel that was not a normal panel for a TV show, but I knew they would get along. And we spent a lot of days together, and they argued great like a family, and it just felt right. I didn’t need to get every major A-list celebrity on that panel to open the show; the concept opened the show.
Salsano: I think it depends on the show. That’s why with a typical docuseries, broadcast doesn’t even take a swing — because it’s not what their audience wants. And yet I will pluck somebody out of obscurity and their normal life, make a gigantic success out of them, and the broadcast networks always want them as guests. We just had a couple of our cast members from “Jersey Shore” on “MasterChef,” and it was funny because I do a different cooking show for VH1 and we didn’t have them on that, in their own family of networks. I think the trick to cable is the repeats are king and get you hooked, whereas on broadcast you have to be more appointment-based.
Plestis: Also, don’t over-complicate it. As producers it’s really easy to sit in your office and put more layers to it. I learned that early on when I did “For Love or Money” over at NBC. By the second season, we put so much into it and I was at a meeting with my bosses at NBC and they said, “So what are we doing this season?” and I couldn’t remember everything because we had put so much into the format. So, keep it simple and keep the storytelling pure. That’s half the battle.
Salsano: Yeah and find a good cast, but they have to do more than look good; they have to be good. I think relatable people on TV are super important. Pretty people are great for magazines, but on TV you want to be able to relate to someone.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Plestis: Certain shows will just work better on certain networks and some producers will pitch everyone around town the same. When I pitched “The Masked Singer,” the first place I went to was Fox because I knew right away it was the right place and the right time for that type of show, and also that Rob Wade [Fox president of alternative entertainment] would get it. I was in the room when “Dancing with the Stars” was pitched, and it was like, “Ballroom dancing? That’s never going to work.” But it did, and this was like that: “People are going to go, ‘What the eff are you doing with this show?’” He got that.
Salsano: Sometimes I think it was easier then because you didn’t know as much! But I always say if you can see the pitfalls, you can fix them. If we made that mistake along the way on another show, we can see it now. A lot of the mistakes are not monumental; it’s just the type of thing that could snowball. So, recognizing that something is off-track and not being afraid to stop just because you already committed to something.
Plestis: It’s a little bit of muscle memory that we have by living and breathing it for so long. But honestly I really go to the gut: Does it feel right to me? If it doesn’t, there’s something wrong here. Back to what SallyAnn said, you have to stop and analyze it and deal with it — no matter how many people are screaming at you. That’s a luxury that we have because we’ve just been around long enough doing it to have tools in our toolkit.
“I always say if you can see the pitfalls, you can fix them.”
Salsano: Also, I think the more stuff you try, the better off you are.
Is there a secret sauce to the pitch process?
Salsano: In order to get a hit, you have to get a swing, but it’s harder and harder to get a swing. The bottom line is, you have to stay true to what you’re pitching. I think there can be over-meeting to death, over-thinking to death, and the teams can be so big. You have to make sure you don’t try to make everybody happy; the one person you should focus on is the audience. I think we get caught up sometimes so much in trying to make so many different departments or people happy when in reality the only thing we have is our opinion. So the minute you don’t want our opinion I should learn how to do nails or fix a sink, because I’m useless without that.
Plestis: I was a buyer, and I learned early on there was a certain sparkle and a certain magic that happens in a pitch that you can just feel in your bones, that you can just latch onto. So when you walk into a room, you have to have that, and for producing, I have to believe in it. Because I’ve seen too many times producers who just don’t believe in their pitches. I couldn’t sell that.
Salsano: Then the worst thing is, you’d have to make it! If I’m going to go in a room I have to believe it’s doable and it will go multiple seasons. First seasons don’t work for anybody: The network takes a huge hit to get it off the ground marketing-wise, and if you’re a good producer you’re not really taking your fees on Season 1 because you’re desperately trying to put everything on the screen. If you don’t believe in it, then you’re skimming and trying to figure it out. For me, you’ve got to go big. It’s about Season 3.
Plestis: Honestly, you spend so much time with these shows, you want them to go on: They’re your children, and you want them to live and grow up and be adults and move on. And the birthing process is incredible. It requires so much. I think what works best right now is: Don’t be derivative; try to be as fresh as possible. People want to see new stuff. They want good stories, and they want to gravitate towards great characters and, especially with myself and “The Masked Singer,” something they’ve never seen before. What is the odd moment of television? It’s up to us as producers, once we get them to the door to show up, to make sure we have a well-produced show, great storytelling and the hooks that will keep them there. There’s one thing about producing a good 20-second promo where people go, “I want to check that out.” There’s another thing to make sure people stay there.