Whether on a streaming service, on broadcast TV or cable, there is a large amount of creatives and executives that made their mark on unscripted television over the last year. Despite the ups and downs of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became a time for new ideas and new programming — from documentaries and competition shows, to dating series and comfort viewing — to thrive.
Here, Variety celebrates the talent behind the scenes who have made the biggest impact across all formats of unscripted.
Senior Vice President, Unscripted and Documentaries, Hulu
With 14 titles, Hulu’s unscripted and documentary slate is up 64% from 2020, with hit titles including “The D’Amelio Show,” “Sasquatch,” “Kid 90,” “In & of Itself” and “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.” Under Balaban, the unscripted hours watched grew 200% from 2020.
“I started in casting and still bring that talent scout perspective to my work — whether I’m looking for someone on camera, behind the camera or in the office with me — I am always thinking about who will be a good match for each opportunity and how to bring new perspectives to our work,” she says.
Change she wants to see: “The boom in the documentary market.”
Randy Barbato, Fenton Bailey and RuPaul
Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, co-founders, World of Wonder Prods.; RuPaul, executive producer and host, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”
In addition to creating the mega-hit “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Barbato and Bailey also oversee all iterations of the growing franchise, including “Drag Race: All Stars,” “Drag Race: Untucked” and all eight international formats. In 2021, RuPaul made Emmy history, becoming the most-awarded person of color with 11 wins. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” remains the second most socially engaged TV show on all of television, behind “Game of Thrones.”
Change they’d like to see: “More shows where nothing happens,” says Barbato. “Long live Warhol!”
Joe Carr and Shane Nickerson
Joe Carr, CEO, Thrill One Media; Shane Nickerson, president, Thrill One Media
In 2021 alone, Thrill One Media delivered 252 episodes of MTV’s “Ridiculousness” and has committed to 210 episodes in 2022. The new order gets them above 1,000 episodes, making them one of the most prolific companies in nonfiction. Co-creator Nickerson and Carr have launched two successful spinoffs, “Messyness” and “Deliciousness.” The duo also head up the live events for Thrill One Sports and Entertainment, selling out both days of its SLS Super Crown World Championship.
Show they wish they thought of: “Survivor”
Head of Unscripted, Amazon
Castallo oversees all development and unscripted at the streamer. He oversaw the buzzy documentary “LulaRich,” which went viral on social media. He also helped amplify voices from underserved communities in “Tampa Baes,” “Always Jane” and “Everybody Love Natti.” Castallo launched Lizzo’s first series under her deal with Amazon Studios, “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls.”
Biggest change in unscripted landscape:
“The proliferation of classic ‘unscripted’ beyond just entertainment formats. The growth of so many genres from doc to soap to live — and everything in between.”
CEO and executive producer, Kinetic Content
Coelen is a proven innovator in the reality genre, creating Lifetime’s “Married at First Sight” and launching Netflix’s “Love Is Blind.” Following a home run second season, three more seasons were picked up. This year, Coelen produced “The Ultimatum,” which was renewed for a second fully queer season before its first debuted. His passion in storytelling is what has established the production company as one of the top, also creating Lifetime’s hit series “Married at First Sight” and the spinoff, “MAFS: Couples Cam.”
“When I started, unscripted was looked at as an outlier, but today, unscripted content is literally everywhere and is by far the dominant content category,” says Coelen. He adds that unscripted lives on TikTok, YouTube, news magazines and beyond, “to many of the biggest entertainment programs and cultural touchstones that exist in our society today.”
Change he’d like to see: “The artists that make unscripted content should be as fairly treated as their scripted counterparts.”
‘The Real Housewives’ Team
Andy Cohen, executive producer and host, “Watch What Happens Live;” Alex Baskin, president, Evolution Media; Lauren Eskelin, executive VP of programming, Truly Original
Cohen serves as producer on all seven versions of “The Real Housewives” on Bravo and Peacock. Plus, he’ll oversee the upcoming “The Real Housewives of Dubai,” the franchise’s first international series and remain the host of “Watch What Happens Live” on Bravo. “My key to success is to only say yes to things that personally excite me,” says Cohen. Baskin, who has executive-produced more than 30 series, says he’s thrilled talented unscripted producers are finally recognized. “I think a few years ago it was dismissed and derided under the ‘reality TV’ banner.” Eskelin, who has been an EP on the franchise for more than 10 years, adds that there is a secret to her success: “Don’t partner with ‘yes’ people, never know it all and always ask yourself if you are still growing.”
Show they wish they thought of: “‘Below Deck’ is a winning combination of a number of different non-scripted staples — upstairs/downstairs, occu-follow, wish fulfillment and a specular setting — that works for many seasons across different franchises,” says Baskin.
Rob Eric, David Collins and Michael Williams
David Collins and Michael Williams, co-founders and exec producers, Scout Prods.; Rob Eric, CCO and executive producer, Scout Prods.
Under the trio, “The Hype” and “Legendary” became cultural hits, as “Queer Eye” took home its fourth consecutive Emmy. Additionally, Scout is working on a hybrid fantasy-competition series “The Quest,” coming to Disney+ in May, as well as a German spinoff of “Queer Eye,” a documentary about the Hillsong Church and a docuseries based on Barney the Dinosaur. “When you love what you do it’s not really work. Each and every one of my projects comes from that place of passion,” says Eric. “Although each project has its own unique characteristics, I approach them in the same way: With love and an appreciation for the culture I’m trying to represent, and how that project can push a conversation forward.”
Williams notes that the trend of working with A-list talent — both before and behind the camera, is one they’re thriving in. “We just announced an Amy Poehler project and have something with Kristen Stewart in development,” he says. “This is happening industrywide.”
Key to success: “Tenacity. We all have ups and downs,” says Collins. “There is typically a moment where you can’t see around the corner. You just have to keep on going and walk around the bend.”
Executive producer and co-founder, Pulse Films
Pulse Films is an award-winning banner founded by Thomas Benski and Clifford in 2005. Now, she oversees the nonfiction division, which produced the highly anticipated “Harry Potter” reunion special for HBO Max, as well as the all-star comedy doc “Too Soon” and music doc “The Prodigy,” which is still in the works. “Never has nonfiction entertainment felt so big, inviting and alive — so vast and exciting and open for ideas,” she says.
Wishes she knew when starting out: “Take the time to really celebrate the wins and successes. We were always focusing on the next thing, the next problem, the next challenge, the next opportunity. Taking the time to pinch yourself and take a minute with all the people working so hard alongside you is key.”
Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz
Co-founders, Alfred Street Industries
In March, the duo launched Netflix’s hit “Is It Cake?,” the first original series under their Alfred Street banner, which they bowed in 2019 after 18 years at Magical Elves. The game show-style cooking competition, based on the viral TikTok and YouTube trend, shot to the most-watched list in its first month streaming. They’ve also partnered with Issa Rae for “Project Greenlight” and have an upcoming cooking competition show, “Best in Dough.”
Now, they know they don’t have to “obsess on every detail,” something that became evident during their latest hit. “Make sure that you have truly original elements that capture the audience. ‘Is It Cake?’ is the perfect example,” they say. “You can never really predict what’s going to be a hit. That one took us all by surprise.”
Biggest change they’ve seen: “The proliferation of SVOD and AVOD has transformed our industry. There is significantly more opportunity for producers, but it has also resulted in an abundance of viewing choices for the audience that makes breaking through the clutter so much harder.”
Mike Darnell, President, Warner Bros. Unscripted Television
Overseeing Warner Bros. Unscripted Television studio, Darnell works with a plethora of broadcast, streaming and cable networks, overseeing nearly 60 series. One of the most influential figures in reality TV, his successes include “The Bachelor” franchise, “The Voice,” “Ellen’s Game of Games” and “Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses,” which was a top unscripted series in 2021.
Wishes he knew when starting out: “I wish I had videotaped my bar mitzvah, because now I know almost anything can be a reality show.”
Nina L. Diaz
President of Content and Chief Creative Officer, MTV Entertainment Group; CCO, Unscripted Entertainment and Adult Animation, Paramount+
In 2021, Diaz led the production of 94 unscripted series and specials, including Emmy winner “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and expanded cable’s #1 competition series “The Challenge” with new extensions for CBS and Paramount+. Diaz also led a series of initiatives to bring more diversity and inclusion in TV, from the First Directors program, which cultivates BIPOC creators and filmmakers, to dedicated funding for more BIPOC and women-owned production companies. “The privilege to bring storytelling that fuels fans’ passions across the globe constantly inspires and drives me to create new pathways to bring fresh diverse voices and talent forward and to uncover authentic stories that have to be told,” she says.
Change she’d like to see: “We need more diverse voices at the table in the unscripted world who are not only on screen and producing the work behind the camera, but also in positions of power in every other aspect of the industry. There is still much more to do.”
Eric and Shannon Evangelista
Founders, Hot Snakes Media and Phantasticus Films
With series on Netflix, TLC, MTV, Animal Planet, Discovery, Discovery+ and VH1, Hot Snakes had its busiest year yet. Following the success of Netflix’s “Deaf U,” and Discovery’s “Pig Royalty,” the duo set their sights on bringing back “Breaking Amish” for its 11th season. Expect two new Shark Week shows and the return of VH1’s “Caught: My True Crime Story.”
“The depth of our team gives Hot Snakes Media the opportunity to exploit our talents individually and collaboratively,” the pair says. “We give our people the artistic space needed to create, and on their own, but then lean on each other’s unique talents to shoot, edit, refine and develop ideas and concepts into the highest quality shows.”
Wishes they knew when starting out: “Trust your own instincts and experience right from the start. Do not rely on third parties, including your representation, when it comes to developing the content you want to define your company. Only you can define your company’s purpose and how it is seen worldwide.”
Host and Executive Producer, Food Network, Discovery+, Knuckle Sandwich
The mayor of Flavortown is known for giving back. After raising more than $20 million for restaurant workers during the pandemic, he continued producing and hosting his six shows, including “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Last year, he signed a three-year contract with Food Network estimated at $80 million. “Being authentic in everything I do is very important and certainly plays a big part, but without good people around me, I wouldn’t be able to really make the most of it and be as authentic as I want to be,” says Fieri.
Change he’d like to see in the unscripted world: “I’m a boundary pusher by nature, and theoretically, the unscripted world should have fewer boundaries than scripted. So, I’m always looking to push our world to the next great thing and not always fall back on the tried and true.”
Founder, Done and Done Prods.
The creator and executive producer of “Selling Sunset” teamed up with Netflix to launch a spinoff, “Selling Tampa,” following the agents at the all-female, Black-owned Allure Realty. “Selling Sunset” returned with its fourth season, quickly climbing to the top of the Netflix Top 10 charts internationally, while Season 5 dropped April 22. “Working with a streaming service like Netflix is a true departure from my past in linear television,” says DiVello. “Having all of your episodes launch at the same time versus weekly is something I thought I’d never get used to. But it is exciting to deliver an entire season and have it reach over 190 countries and in over 27 languages around the world all at once.”
Key to success: “Surrounding yourself with the most talented people, finding the best cast and always trusting your vision.”
Host, Executive Producer and Co-Founder, Rock Shrimp Prods.
Flay found beauty in the pandemic with “With Bobby & Giada in Italy” alongside Giada De Laurentiis, giving viewers looking for an escape amid travel restrictions. The series helped launch Discovery+ and in 2021, he signed a three-year contract with the network. “I’ve been part of the Food Network family for 27 years. I knew absolutely nothing about TV and entertainment then. Over the last three decades TV, and more specifically Food TV, has changed immensely,” says Flay. “In some ways, instead of trying to figure out what I was supposed to be like on TV, I used my practical restaurant cooking skills to make myself a good teacher, a kick-ass line cook to hone my competitive cooking chops into ‘Iron Chef’ quality, and restaurant hospitality to be a better host on screen.”
Key to success: “Success is a product of a perfect storm of things going your way. That said, I don’t believe in pure luck as the reason for success. I attribute the bulk of my overriding success to practicing the fundamentals of hard work on a daily basis. Knowing that each day I need to make myself and my businesses better gives me the opportunity to discover new and innovative ways to create success.”
Jenner Furst, Julia Willoughby-Nason and Mike Gasparro
Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby-Nason, co-CEOs; Mike Gasparro, showrunner, the Cinemart
In 2021, Furst and Willoughby-Nason produced the critically acclaimed “LuLaRich” doc series, further cementing the Cinemart’s status as a top destination for premium docs — something that was evident in 2019’s massive hit “Fyre Fraud.” The Emmy-nominated company is continuing to use their platform to bring awareness to social injustices. “Knowing when you are in the right place at the right time, and what the right decisions to make about a project are and when those decisions matter the most has been the game changer,” the trio says. “Those are hard-earned skills, they come with a lot of bumps and bruises, and we wouldn’t have been able to pull any of it off without the whole team.”
Biggest change they’ve seen: “The sheer number of platforms and avenues for premium content has been the most amazing thing we have ever witnessed. When we started in the business, there were only one or two places for a doc series. Now there are over 10.”
Chip Gaines, Joanna Gaines and Allison Page
Chip and Joanna Gaines, founders, Magnolia Network; Allison Page, president, Magnolia Network
Since launching the Magnolia Network, both “Magnolia Table” and “Fixer Upper: Welcome Home” have become top performers on Discovery+. In January, Magnolia Network launched its linear TV home, rebranding the DIY Network. The group has learned through the years that while creating a ton of content is a jumping off point, it’s all about focusing on what works. “Letting a story breathe and bend and take shape as it needs to is how we create the kind of shows that have longevity. We want to offer people content that’s inspiring and authentic and something they’re excited to come back for,” says Joanna Gaines.
Wishes she knew when starting out: “I wish I knew how much content it actually takes to sustain a network — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year is a lot,” says Joanna. “It can take a year to build a show that’s literally over in one hour, and with the way our culture consumes entertainment, it can be very difficult to keep up.”
Show she wishes she thought of: “What Not to Wear,” Page says.
Creator and Executive Producer, the Year of Elan
Since 2010, Gale has been an executive producer on “The Bachelor” and its many spinoffs. In 2021, he created dating series “FBoy Island,” which became the top unscripted show on HBO Max. Gale teamed up with Jason Goldberg, Ben Bitonti, Sam Dean and host Nikki Glaser, all of whom served as producers. The show was renewed and has also been pitched to eight other territories globally. “I surround myself, to the best of my ability, with people who are talented, passionate, interesting and curious, and then I trust them. Also, we try to remember to have fun,” he says.
Series he wishes he’d thought of: “‘The Joe Schmo Show.’ It set such a ridiculously high bar for comedy in unscripted television.”
CEO, ITV America
George’s slate includes Emmy-winning “Queer Eye,” “Love Island,” “The Chase,” “Pawn Stars,” “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” and “Good Bones.” In 2021, he oversaw an exclusive overall deal between ITV America and Blumhouse TV for unscripted content. George: Earlier this year, George and NBCUniversal announced a deal to move hit “Love Island” from CBS to Peacock. “I believe it was the historical philosopher Axl Rose who said, ‘All we need is just a little patience,'” he says. “I’d love to see more patience with shows — more patience in development to get it right, more patience for crafting in post, and more patience for a show to find its audience.”
Biggest change he’s seen: “I think the business side of things is overshadowing the creative right now. A few years ago, it was about the idea and we’d figure out the money later. Now, buyers often say ‘send us the budget and we’ll figure out if we can afford this idea.’ The financial scrutiny is so intense that it can distract and hinder making a good show into a great show.”
CEO and executive producer, Glass Entertainment Group
In 2021, Glass produced more the 60 hours of unscripted content, which includes 13 series, four specials and one pilot — a 25% increase from 2020. Alongside Marcus Lemonis, Glass acquired the rights to “Let’s Make a Deal,” forming Marcus/Glass Prods. to oversee. She launched “Lincoln: Divided We Stand, “My Life on MTV,” “Frozen in Time” and “The Vet Life.” She celebrated 20 years operating one of the few female-owned independent production companies in the U.S. “You should be creative and curious. That’s where the ideas come from, but the execution is all about the team. It’s important to attract good people with the potential to do great work and offer them an environment where they can grow and succeed,” Glass says. “Success comes from having a ‘growth mindset’ and the desire to learn without fear of making mistakes results in a staff whose skills are constantly improving.”
Biggest change she’s seen: “Technology is moving so quickly; it’s inspiring and makes our work very exciting. You used to have to be linear and literal. Now, you can propose something completely different, and networks will support it.”
Alana Goldstein and Keely Walker Muse
Alana Goldstein, VP of development; Keely Walker Muse, VP of programming, Crazy Legs Prods.
The company has grown into a national powerhouse, with more than 20 unscripted projects in development and production — including second and third seasons of TLC’s No. 1 show “1000-Lb Sisters.” They are committed to creating programming that gives a multi-dimensional view of adversity. “We are integrating a change that I’ve long hoped to see in the unscripted world and that is giving mental health more focus,” says Walker Muse. “Not just the mental health of our contributors, but also the mental health of the staff and crew who create these series. Happily, this effort has resulted in better content all around.”
What they wish they knew when starting: “Great ideas come from anywhere and everywhere,” Goldstein says. “You can’t follow a mandate or chase the news, listen to your inner voice and pursue projects that align with your vision. There’s no reason to spend your valuable creative energy on projects that don’t speak to you on some level.”
President, Universal Television, Alternative Studio
Under Gorman’s purview in 2021, UTAS has produced unscripted series including “Making It,” “Capital One College Bowl,” “The Kids Tonight Show,” “Clash of the Cover Bands” and NBC favorite “Hollywood Game Night.” With no genre off limits, Gorman oversaw “That’s My Jam,” “Baking It” and “World of Dance.” Last year, he played a key role in signing a first-look deal with Lilly Singh. “I maintain the belief there is always a solution to any problem,” Gorman says of how his optimism has really paid off. “I also watched far too much television as a child, which paid off in dividends!”
Show he wishes he thought of: “The broad appeal of ‘The Masked Singer’ is truly incredible and something we should all be striving for. It was an out-of-the-box risk that could have gone either way, and we definitely need more of those.”
Mitch Graham and Jack Sussman
Mitch Graham, senior VP, alternate programming, CBS; Jack Sussman, executive VP, specials, music, live events and alternative programming, CBS
Graham and Sussman steer primetime content at CBS and works with Paramount+. With tentpole successes “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “The Amazing Race” and “Undercover Boss,” he continues to increase unscripted programming as a network priority. With the help of host and producer Jeff Probst, “Survivor” was able to return after a COVID-19 break, beating its Wednesday night competition. Sussman is the network’s master of live events and specials, ranging from the Grammycast to “Adele: One Night Only.”
Biggest change they’ve seen: “The explosion, popularity and success of reality TV. When ‘Survivor’ and ‘Amazing Race’ came our way, who would have thought 20-plus years later the TV landscape would change in this way,” Sussman says. In contrast, Graham adds, “The audience now has so many more choices for content. It’s always been a challenge to ‘punch through’ to get a broad audience to sample a new show, but it’s harder than ever in today’s landscape.”
Jenny Groom and Rod Aissa
Executive VPs, Entertainment Unscripted Content, NBCUniversal
While Groom oversees reality competition, talent competition and game-show formats, Aissa handles unscripted lifestyle and documentary programming. Together, they’ve brought a slew of A-listers to Peacock and continue to keep NBC in the top spot for unscripted programming , with “The Voice” becoming the most-watched entertainment program of the season. For the pair, it’s all about team work. “Successful collaboration means giving everyone a seat at the table and empowering them to express their voice,” says Groom. Aissa adds that the key to success is easy: “An amazing team and great, patient mentors.”
Change she’d like to see: “I would like to see more women and ethnically diverse voices in leadership positions,” says Groom. “We’ve certainly come a long way, but there is still more work to do. I’m excited about our new NBCU Launch initiatives that will create more opportunities for women and diverse talent from other underrepresented communities in our programming.”
Executive VP and Head of Unscripted Programming, TBS, TNT, truTV
In 2021, Henson launched three of the top 10 new unscripted series on cable with “Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses,” “Wipeout” and “Go-Big Show” on TBS. In her previous role at Fox, she oversaw franchises “The Masked Singer,” “MasterChef,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Hell’s Kitchen.” For Henson, it’s all about believing in those around. “Whether you’re asking an A-list actor to step outside their comfort zone or recognizing a talented executive, you need to have fostered trust,” she says. “Honest and empathetic relationships are what will get everyone the biggest win in the end.”
Wishes she knew when starting out: “Patience. It’s something you can’t teach and it’s generally a painful learning process. An active and effective leader sets the tone with patience, purpose and passion … Also, I wish I’d known the Cubs would finally win the World Series. It would have saved me a lot of heartache.”
Glenda Hersh and Steven Weinstock
Co-presidents and CEOs, Truly Original
Hersh and Weinstock produced 120 episodes of new shows and fan-favorite franchises under Truly Original in 2021, and expanded some of their most popular franchises; in 2022, they’ll launch an international season of the “Real Housewives” in Dubai. They have also implemented the Producers Training Program to help minorities break in to the biz. “We have fantastic people with great narrative and talent-spotting instincts, and they know what makes a great story and how to tell a great story. That’s what keeps an audience engaged,” says Hersh. “We focus on empowering people at all levels, both creatively and in executing logistics, which is critical for a company the size of Truly Original.”
Wishes they knew when starting out: “First, I wish we’d had a sense of how big the business would get and how important it would become to the industry,” says Weinstock. “Secondly, that you’re only as good as your last show.”
Eli Holzman and Aaron Saidman
Eli Holzman, CEO and co-founder; Aaron Saidman, president and co-founder, Industrial Media, IPC
In 2021, Industrial Media created and produced more than 100 nonfiction programs, overseeing the “90 Day Fiancé” franchise, “American Idol,” “Indian Matchmaking,” “Night Stalker,” “Selena + Chef” and more. Sony Pictures Entertainment announced last month it will acquire Industrial Media, one of the top independent nonfiction production companies who work alongside 19 Entertainment, B17 Entertainment, House of NonFiction, Sharp Entertainment, the Intellectual Property Corp. (IPC), This Machine Filmworks, This Radicle Act and Trilogy Films. “I owe my career to the rise of non-fiction as a genre. Starting out in the film business and then moving to scripted television, I never could have imagined the path I’ve traveled. Television never ceases to evolve,” says Holzman.
Something they wish they knew at the start: “Failure is instructive. Good luck is necessary,” says Saidman. “Collaboration is everything.”
Matt Hornburg and Mark Bishop
Since the premiere of Netflix’s “Blown Away,” which was renewed for a second season and a Christmas spin-off, Bishop and Hornburg’s Marblemedia has become go-to producers of new and inventive skill-based competition series. “Race Against the Tide” has been renewed for a second season by CBC, and in 2021, the company secured series commitments for three new series for Discovery Canada, Discovery U.S., CBC and Netflix. “The television industry will always be in a constant state of evolution. The biggest shift we’ve recognized is the influence that global streamers hold on audiences, and how this impacts the content we produce,” the pair says. “Today, we’re seeing this shift towards bold, character-led, and story arched content on the unscripted side, when historically these series were more episodic in nature.”
Wish they thought of: “Love Is Blind”
Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager
Co-founders, Den of Thieves
Den of Thieves executive produced “Judge Steve Harvey,” which premiered as ABC’s strongest unscripted series in total views in January 2022. It oversaw “Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party” special, which became the most social non-awards entertainment special of 2021. The duo behind the MTV VMAs and E!’s “Live Red Carpet” specials have set the bar for how specials are produced. Their latest project for HBO Max, “Brené Brown: Atlas of the Heart” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
“When we launched in 2007, we produced one show. We went from that to now producing hundreds of shows. One of the biggest reasons for our success is that we strive to bring something unique and original, while always putting the talent first,” says Ignjatovic. “We have a special relationship with the talent that we work with, and we pride ourselves on pushing things forward while supporting their vision.”
Shows they wish they’d thought of: “The Bachelor” and “American Idol.”
Founder and president, Jeff Jenkins Prods.
A 20-year industry veteran, Jenkins launched Jeff Jenkins Prods., a 3BMG company, in 2018. He’s since built a massive slate that includes upcoming projects with NBC, Lifetime, HGTV and TLC. Last year, he added “My Unorthodox Life,” “Bling Empire” and “Coming Out Colton” to his slate. “When developing a docuseries, I try to fall in love with something in each cast member, which makes me fight to tell the best version of their story,” he says. “Whether it’s Julia Haart, Paris Jackson, Kris Jenner or Nikki Bella, there is something universal to love in each.”
Change he’d like to see: “It would be exciting if there were a higher volume of young creatives coming up the ranks who were passionate about learning how to tell a successful story. I appreciate mood, look, access and authenticity, but if there’s no story — a beginning, middle, end and a lead cast member with a turn — then we’re not doing our job. And we’re not giving the audience the opportunity for the richest emotional response.”
Executive VP of Unscripted, Nickelodeon, Awesomeness and Digital Franchise Studio
Kaplan led Nickelodeon’s content partnership with the NFL and CBS Sports, which launched the wildly successful “NFL Wild Card Game.” She executive produced the “Super Duper Super Bowl Pregame Spectacular” and launched “NFL Slimetime.” Last year, Kaplan oversaw the transition of “Next Influencer” from YouTube to Paramount+. “Technology has lowered the barrier to entry, and everyone is a prosumer now,” she says about the landscape’s changes over the years. “Hopefully through this change we will see more innovation in the genre and a growth in different voices.”
Key to success: “Hire well and never be above any task.”
Casey Kriley, Jo Sharon and Samantha Hanks
Casey Kriley and Jo Sharon, co-CEOs, Magical Elves; Samantha Hanks, executive VP of casting and talent, Magical Elves
In 2021, the women of Magical Elves produced more than 75 hours of unscripted content across 10 shows. They sold four new series and received eight Emmy nominations, with their hits breaking new boundaries — “Top Chef” included the most diverse cast in series history, while “Nailed It!” host Nicole Byer became the first Black woman nominated in the Emmys host category. At Magical Elves, women take up the majority of leadership roles with women and/or people of color making up 75% of the cast and 50% from the LGBTQ+ community. “My key to success is equal parts ambition, resilience, and remembering to celebrate the wins,” says Sharon. Kriley adds, “The key to my success is the amazing people I have the privilege of working with, tenacity and humor.”
What they wish they knew when starting: “How often audiences’ appetites change,” says Hanks.
Kang Ho Sung
CEO, CJ ENM
CJ ENM remains the leading entertainment company creating Korean content. Under Kang’s leadership, CJ ENM acquired Endeavor Content and announced global partnerships with ViacomCBS, Toei and TBS to distribute content. Known for their one-of-a-kind audition format and reality programs, they also gave birth to multiple global K-pop groups. The format for “I Can See Your Voice” was sold or remade in more than 23 regions. “‘I Can See Your Voice’ has seen so much success as a global format because we have closely communicated with local staff and localized the content,” he says. “All in all, more interactions between creators, regardless of region, will definitely help elevate the unscripted world.”
Biggest change he’s seen: “Unscripted entertainment shows traditionally faced high language barriers and strong perceptions that they were for the domestic audience. Recently, these barriers have collapsed, with creators bringing creative original content and companies extensively investing in the entertainment industry to take these contents to the global audience.”
Stephen Lambert, Jack Burgess and Tim Harcourt
Stephen Lambert, CEO, Studio Lambert; Jack Burgess, executive VP, Studio Lambert; Tim Harcourt, creative director, Studio Lambert
Studio Lambert’s hit competition show “The Circle” has been renewed through Season 5. Lambert’s Emmy-winning series “Undercover Boss” is airing its 11th season on CBS. The key to the company’s success is “good communication,” says Burgess. “We run a very joined up international business, often working across multiple time zones, which means that all of the departments in the company — in L.A., London, Manchester and on location all over the world — need to be on the same page. Luckily we have a fantastic team.”
Wishes they knew when starting out: “The bigger the show, the more important the location,” says Harcourt. “A bad location leads to overspend, unhappiness and creative mayhem.”
President, TLC Streaming and Network Originals
TLC’s “90 Day Fiancé” became the No. 1 unscripted show of 2021, with “Extreme Sisters” the No. 1 freshman series among women 18-34. There’s been double-digit year-over-year growth with “Dr. Pimple Popper,” “Doubling Down With the Derricos” and “1000-Lb Sisters.” Lee focuses on celebrating people who are often overlooked, highlighting members of minorities and marginalized groups. “Intuition is everything,” Lee says. “For some decisions, data alone is not enough.”
Wishes he knew when starting out: “All the years I spent watching TV shows and sneaking into movies would actually pay off.”
Executive VP and head of programming, History, A&E
Lehrer diversified the linear programming portfolio, producing content with top talent including Leonardo DiCaprio, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robin Roberts and Tim Allen. “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre” delivered 1 million viewers, marking History channel’s best non-series special in eight months. “The Curse of Oak Island” is also cable’s No. 1 nonfiction series for the fourth year in a row. Lehrer is hopeful that he’ll see fewer “spinoffs and more original series” as the world of content continues.
Show he wishes he’d thought of: “Jeopardy”
CCO, Endemol Shine North America
Endemol Shine produced some of the biggest unscripted shows of the year, including “Wipeout,” “LEGO Masters,” “MasterChef,” and “Big Brother.” Levy, formerly president of unscripted and scripted television, was recently promoted to chief content officer, leading the team behind “Lego Masters” and the reboot of “Wipeout” at TBS. She also debuted Disney+’s food competition, “Foodtastic.” The key to Levy’s success is threefold: “A great team, lots of laughter and trying to be as fearless as one can be.”
Change she’d like to see: “More women of all sizes, shapes and colors in key positions behind the cameras.”
CEO, Plimsoll Prods.
Under Mansfield, Plimsoll has become the largest independent production company in the U.K. and had its biggest growth in audience in 2021. Producing 42 hours — up 35% from 2020, Mansfield launched a vast slate of celebrity-voiced shows, including Apple TV+’s “Tiny World,” narrated by Paul Rudd and Netflix’s “Animal,” with narration from Rebel Wilson, Bryan Cranston and Anthony Mackie. Plimsoll recently acquired Magnify Media, now distributing to 75 countries.
Wishes he knew when he started: “The real winning formula is kindness paired with excellence.”
Toni Miceli and Jenna Keane
Toni Miceli, CEO, RTR Media; Jenna Keane, CCO, RTR Media
RTR’s hit series “Home Town” expanded into two spinoffs in 2021, “Home Town Takeover” and “Home Town Kick Start” for HGTV. A third spinoff, “Ben’s Workshop,” was picked up for Discovery+. The female-owned and operated unscripted production company remains one of the top in the home category, with their slate quadrupling in the calendar year. RTR also launched Green Light Giving, a charitable initiative. “Our guiding principle at RTR Media is leading with a human approach. Television is, without a doubt, a team event and finding your tribe is the first step to making content that resonates,” says Miceli. “Also, on a personal level, I’ve discovered that production logistics are just as important as the creative — success starts with a great idea, but only comes to fruition with strategic execution.”
Change they’d like to see: “I’d love to see more cross-pollination of creative talent,” says Keane. “Unscripted teams tend to only be qualified for the genre they have experience in. We’re currently expanding our talent base and training individuals in our specialty. As we expand the talent pool, we evolve the storytelling approach, which benefits everyone.”
Executive VP, unscripted and alternative entertainment, Walt Disney Television
In 2021, Mills oversaw 45 unscripted series and specials on ABC, including “American Idol,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “Shark Tank,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “Celebrity Family Feud.” Overall, he oversees unscripted content for three content verticals at ABC Entertainment, Hulu Originals, a new production unit and ABC Daytime. Mills helped launch Hulu’s most-watched unscripted series, “The D’Amelio Show,” and brought the Kardashians back to TV.
Wishes he thought of: “Is It Cake?”
President, National Geographic
In February, Monroe announced 13 original projects being produced exclusively for Disney+. Monroe oversees the Nat Geo Doc Films banner, working with creatives including E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin and James Cameron. Monroe also created Nat Geo’s Field Ready Program, expanding accessibility and opportunities for underrepresented voices. She credits her success to surrounding herself “with people who are infinitely smarter and more creative than I could ever hope to be.”
Wishes she thought of: “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy”
Exec VP of nonfiction and live-action family, HBO Max
Many of O’Connell’s edgy, A-list talent-driven shows are aimed at young audiences, including “Selena + Chef,” “FBoy Island,” “Legendary” and “The Hype.” Still to come under O’Connell’s lead is Dan Levy’s “The Big Brunch,” Jason Momoa’s “The Climb” and Ayesha and Stephen Curry’s “About Last Night.” Looking back at her career, O’Connell credits transparency and honesty for her success, noting, “I’ve been on all sides of this business, and always appreciated hearing the truth, so I try my best to be straightforward when working with my team, bosses and partners. The trick is being honest and supportive at the same time.”
Change she’d like to see: “More underrepresented communities owning and operating production companies, showrunning and directing.”
Reinout Oerlemans and Ross Weintraub
Reinout Oerlemans, Chairman, 3BMG; Ross Weintraub, CEO, 3BMG
Under Oerlemans and Weintraub, 3BMG runs five different production companies, responsible for creating some of the most popular unscripted series: “Bar Rescue,” “Bling Empire,” “My Unorthodox Life” and “Tampa Baes.” In January, they announced “Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend,” a reboot of the series that features Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck, set for Netflix. “Our whole business model is about forging relationships with producers through joint ventures that allow us to encourage their growth as entrepreneurs and owners of their own companies,” Weintraub says. “The key to our success really comes down to believing in creatives and giving them the support, resources and the kind of environment where they can do what they do best.”
Biggest change they’ve seen: “The rise of streaming and so many more buyers for our content,” says Oerlemans. “The selling process also has changed, versus a few years ago; it feels more transparent and the lines are shorter.”
President, Time Studios
Since launching Time Studios in early 2020, Orefice has generated more than $70 million in revenue — approximately $50 million last year alone with more than 20 projects sold to Netflix, Amazon and Paramount +. Top recent releases include “Jeen-Yuhs,” a trilogy featuring Kanye West, “Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space” and “Right to Offend: The Black Comedy Revolution.” “The overall attention and mainstream interest in the documentary world has exploded,” says Orefice. “I believe we are still just getting started.”
Change he’d like to see: “More premium unscripted content to find success theatrically.”
Laura Palumbo Johnson and Matthew Ostrom
Laura Palumbo Johnson and Matthew Ostrom, co-owners and executive producers, Magilla Entertainment
In 2021, Johnson and Ostrom produced more than 100 episodes across 15 series, mini-series and specials, both telling new stories and expanding on hit franchises, including Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners” and its spinoffs. Magilla remained one of Discovery’s top suppliers of content, with HGTV’s “Beachfront Bargain Hunt” in Season 28 and “Lakefront Bargain Hunt” in Season 12. The company also inked two unscripted overall deals last year.
Key to success: “We have a passion for storytelling mixed with a high tolerance for risk.”
Jilly Pearce and Layla Smith
Jilly Pearce, exec VP, Objective Media Group America; Layla Smith, CEO, Objective Media Group America
Under Pearce’s leadership, OMG’s diverse team produced 84 episodes of unscripted programming in 2021, including HBO Max’s “12 Dates of Christmas,” on which Pearce served as an executive producer. Smith, meanwhile, has grown the production force from one production company to eight production hubs over the past five years, including spearheading OMG in both U.S. and the U.K. It’s all about “building a great culture and finding and hiring the brilliant people who help support it,” says Pearce.
Wish they knew: “If your gut instinct is telling you something, you should say it. It doesn’t mean that you are right, but I am sure that you’ll regret not saying it if you don’t speak up,” says Smith.
Dan Peirson and Lisa Shannon
Dan Peirson and Lisa Shannon, co-heads and senior VP, Programming and Development, Shed Media
Both overseeing development and programming and serving as executive producers, Shannon and Peirson produced Paris Hilton’s “Paris in Love” for Peacock, oversaw “Fast Foodies” at truTV and “Rhodes to the Top” for TNT. Their longest-running series remains “The Real Housewives of New York,” which aired its 13th season last year. They produced the Season 2 of “Salt Lake City” and Peacock spinoff, “Ultimate Girls Trip.”
“We believe in the power of unscripted television,” the duo says. “We never forget that the stories we tell exist best as unscripted ideas and we challenge ourselves and our teams to always lean into the reality of our concepts and the material we’re screening.”
Wish They thought of: “‘90 Day Fiancé.’ It’s such a great example of a format built around an organic real-life process.”
Julie Pizzi, president, Bunim/Murray Prods.
2021 marked a huge year for Pizzi and the unscripted landscape as she became the first woman to lead Bunim/Murray Prods. Pizzi, who began her career at BMP and has spent nearly 20 years with the studio, oversees “The Real World” and “The Challenge,” as well as their franchises. Last year, she launched Paramount+’s “The Real World Homecoming,” now renewed through Season 3, and “The Challenge: All Stars,” producing alongside Mark Long.
Biggest change she’s seen: “In terms of distributors, there are so many more buyers and a much greater need for general audience content which is an opportunity for all sellers. In terms of types of programing, finally documentaries and documentary series have become so much more accessible and mainstream which is a huge victory for the business of unscripted.
CEO, Smart Dog Media
After bringing “The Masked Singer” to Fox, Plestis rose up, now serving as an executive producer on Fox’s “I Can See Your Voice” and TBS’ “Celebrity Show-Off.”
“I have a unique perspective as I have been both a buyer and a seller of formats,” he says. “I started in reality television at the birth of reality television as we know it today. I learned on the job and by trial and error — as all of us OGs did.” However, his mission — “to make shows of quality and originality” — never changed. This year, he also began a partnership with Japan’s Tokyo Broadcasting System Television.
Change he’d like to see: “I would like to see more risk taking and more original content on the part of producers. On the network side, I’d like to see more marketing and promotion — always! It can take so much to break through and make noise.”
Founder and CEO, Studio Ramsay Global
In 2021, Ramsay signed a mega-deal with Fox Entertainment to co-own new production venture Studio Ramsay Global. Together, he will produce and distribute culinary and lifestyle programming for global markets, as well as continue his Studio Ramsay, which launched in the U.K. in 2016. The famous chef credits everything he’s accomplished to his bosses. “I’ve literally watched so many of the producers I started with early in my career grow and run our newest shows like ‘Next Level Chef,'” he says. “But trust me, I also always make sure my voice is heard.”
Biggest change he’s seen: “Consumption of programming. To think when ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ Season 8 was airing, it was doing a 3.2/8, which is unheard of today. Whereas today, none of my kids watch TV as it airs — it’s all just when they want it!”
Brandon Riegg, Jenn Levy and Nat Grouille
Brandon Riegg, VP, unscripted and documentary series, Netflix; Jenn Levy and Nat Grouille, VP, unscripted series, Netflix
In 2021, Netflix diversified its unscripted landscape with new series and spinoffs, including “Bling Empire,” “My Unorthodox Life” and a “Selling Sunset” offshoot, “Selling Tampa.” As Levy led “Queer Eye” content, Grouille zoned in on “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” both serving as Riegg’s lieutenants on unscripted content. The other side of Riegg’s team oversees documentary series “Chef’s Table,” “Cheer,” “Last Chance U” and “The Last Dance.” Since streaming is this team’s bread and butter, Levy can’t help but note that everything is possible: “A great piece of content regardless of budget, scale, talent attachment or marketing support can become a smash hit.”
Something they wish they knew when they started: “It’s not just about identifying a great idea,” says Riegg.
Founder, CEO and executive producer, Anvil 1893
Schotz brought superstar Tiffany Haddish to CBS in “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” last year, while also overseeing CNBC’s “Money Court” and partnering with foodie and celebrity tattoo artist Brian Woo for a new anthology series. Simply put: Schotz does a little bit of everything. “We’re one of the original and still independent companies that planted a flag at the inception of reality TV. We have a Swiss Army Knife approach: able to do everything — game, talk, docuseries, nonfiction, for cable broadcast, digital and streaming,” he says.
Wishes he thought of: “Squid Game: The Network Notes Edition.”
Jonathan and Drew Scott
Hosts and executive producers, Scott Brothers Entertainment
In 2021, the brothers’ company produced nearly 100 hours of original content for Discovery, including “Property Brothers: Forever Home” and “Celebrity IOU.” They also produce more “comfort-con” than any other independent production company, and have an all-female executive team; a majority of their current slate features LGBTQ+ stars and female hosts. “We developed a company around the idea that everyone deserves to live a happy and healthy life in a home they cherish,” says Drew. “It’s comfort TV, but it’s also a way to inspire everyone to do something kind for their loved ones.”
Change they’d like to see: “Integrated marketing and e-commerce is coming: Buy what you’re watching, whether that’s a piece of furniture or a vacation,” says Jonathan Scott.
Founder & CEO, Monami Prods.
The team behind “Love & Hip Hop” continued to thrive last year, producing “Lineage to Legacy for Black History Month,” which aired in February. They also teamed up with 50 Cent to produce a series for WE tv focusing on solving unsolved hip-hop homicides. “The advent of streamers and other non-linear distributors has broadened the reach to a global audience and increased the opportunities for added diversity and representation in a wider range of programming,” she says, noting that the shift has really helped her grow the company, working with Amazon Prime on “Everybody Loves Natti.”
Key to success: “Tenacity, sheer will and a refusal to accept the idea that I cannot find a way — or figure out how — to accomplish anything I set my mind to.”
Ben Silverman and Howard Owens
Silverman and Owens have been busy at work, launching the American version of “Eurovision Song Contest” for NBC titled “American Song Contest” and producing the star-studded “Go-Big Show” for TBS. They oversaw “Million Dollar Wheels” for Discovery+ and multiple projects for Netflix, including “Baking Impossible” and “Prank Encounters.” In 2022, the duo launched Propagate Fuego for Spanish-language programming and announced an upcoming Anna Nicole Smith documentary for Netflix.
Chairman, A. Smith & Co. Prods., Tinopolis Group U.S.
Inducted into the Realscreen Hall of Fame in 2021, Smith has created some of the longest-running unscripted series in history, including “Hell’s Kitchen” and “American Ninja Warrior.” Last year, he produced 200 hours of unscripted content across 11 genre-spanning series. Under the Tinopolis Group U.S., he oversees Magical Elves’ unscripted content, most notably “Top Chef” and “Nailed It!”
Wishes he knew: “One of the job hazards of being a producer is this drive to always be looking ahead, but if you’re constantly doing that you’ll never fully appreciate the now.”
CEO and Executive Producer, Tuesday’s Child Prods.
Smith launched U.K.-based production company Tuesday’s Child Television 10 years ago, and it’s still creating hits. This year, Fox’s “Lego Masters,” on which Smith serves as a producer, was renewed for a third season and was successfully launched in multiple territories. Additionally, Smith is an executive producer on game show “Killer Camp” and “The Hit List.”
“For me a successful format is an alchemy of brain, heart and gut instinct,” she says. “The brain analyzes what’s missing from schedules, what makes an idea fresh, what audiences really want from a show and works through the nitty gritty science of each format beat.”
Change she’d like to see: “I’d also like to encourage more international territories to be courageous and buy new ‘off paper’ ideas [rather than waiting for them to be proven hits in the U.K. or U.S.]. If you go first, you get to share in the success and build close relationships with the creators. Fortune favors the brave!”
'Sweet Life: Los Angeles' Team
Issa Rae, Montrel McKay, Jimmy Fox, Sheri Maroufkhani, Leola Westbrook and Sun de Graaf, executive producers
Last year, HBO Max’s “Sweet Life: Los Angeles” zoned in on young Black professionals and culture in South Los Angeles, shining a positive light on the relatable yet chaotic life of Black women in their mid-20s. The producers have notably worked on “Baldwin Hills,” “The Real Housewives of Miami” and “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” The unscripted world could still make some changes, Rae notes: “Lower the production level and give me the real.”
Show they wish they thought of: “‘Abbott Elementary,'” says Rae, while McKay adds, “Definitely ‘The Bachelor.'”
Bertram van Munster, Elise Doganieri and Phil Keoghan
Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri, co-creators & executive producers, World Race Prods.; Phil Keoghan, host and executive producer, ‘The Amazing Race’ and ‘Tough as Nails’
In the midst of Season 33, “The Amazing Race” had to hit pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After a year and a half, in 2021, producers were able to pick up production and travel safely through Europe, with ratings increasing 9%. In addition to his “TAR” duties, Keoghan created and hosts “Tough as Nails,” highlighting hard-working individuals competing in real-life challenges. In 2022, Doganieri and van Munster will also produce competition series “The Quest” for Disney+.
What they wish they knew when starting out: “I’m pleased I didn’t know then what I know now,” says Keoghan. “Starting out and not knowing what you don’t know is a good thing. Knowing too much can lead to analysis paralysis. If I knew how hard it was going to be to leave New Zealand television and get a green card, an agent and a job in New York, I might never had gotten on the plane.”
President of Alternative Entertainment, Fox Entertainment
Fox delivered the No. 1 unscripted show, “The Masked Singer,” and the No. 1 new unscripted show, “Alter Ego.” Wade also oversees all Gordon Ramsay content, and the production of Ireland’s Virgin Media TV’s most successful format ever, “The Big Deal.” Last year, he was part of “Name That Tune,” “Ultimate Tag,” “I Can See Your Voice” and “Fox’s New Year’s Eve Toast & Roast 2022.” Wade is also developing original unscripted programming for Tubi. “I love the journey more than getting to the destination and the learning part of any job is the most interesting,” he says.
Show he wishes he thought of: “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”
Evelyn Warfel and Gaby Johnston
Showrunners and executive producers, Fremantle
Warfel, showrunner on “The Price Is Right,” and Johnston, showrunner of “Family Feud” and “Celebrity Family Feud,” have tackled new challenges amid COVID-19 challenges. “Family Feud” remains the top syndicated show in the country, while “The Price Is Right” remains the No. 1 rated daytime series. “I give the following advice to everyone starting out: Make yourself invaluable in the workplace, continue networking, and don’t be afraid to take risks,” says Warfel. “Sometimes you need to leave what’s comfortable to see an upward trajectory in your career.”
Change they’d like to see: “The reality genre could probably benefit by including more humor and unpredictability, not unlike what Steve Harvey brings to ‘Family Feud,'” says Johnston.
Courtney White and Jane Latman
Courtney White, outgoing President, Food Network and Streaming Food Content, Founder, Butternut Films; Jane Latman, president, Home and Food Content and Streaming, Warner Bros. Discovery
Beginning at the end of the month, Latman, who has been with Discovery for nearly 20 years, will take over Food Network, expanding her responsibilities as outgoing White launches production company Butternut Films. During her tenure, White launched numerous top-rated series and Food Network’s first scripted movie, “Candy Coated Christmas.”
“Earlier in my career, I heard Lauren Zalaznick speak. She said when an opportunity to move up at work presents itself, don’t throw your hat in the ring. Already be sitting in the ring wearing the hat,” says White. “Embracing that advice changed the trajectory of my career.”
Something they wish they knew when starting: “Sometimes setbacks are opportunities in disguise,” says Latman. “It’s a long game, don’t let setbacks crush you.”