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JD Roth isn’t much for red carpets.
Hollywood power booths make him recoil. And the very idea of schmoozing elicits a physical reaction.
So it’s only appropriate that he and partner Todd Nelson have built their office in a sleepy town of Redondo Beach some 20 miles south of the city. Rather than go to Hollywood to cut deals, these two make Hollywood come to them — taking as many meetings as possible at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in nearby Manhattan Beach, where Roth has a French toast dish named after him.
These days, they’re worth traveling to: The pair’s biggest hit, The Biggest Loser, has helped prop up NBC’s schedule for seven seasons (its latest cycle regularly garners 8.8 million viewers) and spawned a $100 million-plus empire of books, videos and online memberships. Come May, they will add a second broadcast franchise, Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition, which ABC picked up for a second season several months before it launches its first. Other recent additions from the duo’s 3 Ball Productions include Fox’s MasterChef, last summer’s top-rated new show; Discovery’s Flying Wild Alaska, the network’s highest-rated series premiere; and Lifetime’s upcoming Roseanne Barr reality project.
Collaborations between Roth and Nelson date back two decades, when they began working together on a popular kids game show called Fun House. At the time, Roth, the show’s host, had persuaded Warner Bros. to let him take it on the road as a live show. (To hear Roth tell it, the response from his Warner Bros. bosses went from “Kid, just go back and make your episodes and be famous. Aren’t there cute girls out there you want to hang out with?” to “OK, OK, just take it already.”)
"Television is famous for cannibalization. If one cop show works, suddenly there are 42cop shows. Why shouldn’t all 42 be ours?" — JD Roth
He tapped an eager Nelson, who was looking to move up from the show’s cleanup crew, to join him as he traveled around theme parks. Not yet old enough to rent cars, the duo would haul around props (pies, chocolate sauce, etc.) and merchandise in limos, filling 5,000-seat amphitheaters around the country. As he recalls the period, Roth’s eyes begin to bulge, “They’d bring me into the money room and just start counting out $100 bills.”
That initial outing, which they kept up for five years, solidified their relationship as friends and production partners. By 2001, Nelson had taken out a mortgage on his house to buy three editing bays and launch their company. “We went to Office Depot and got two folding tables, and that was our desk,” Nelson says of the early days. A decade later, their office spans 42,000 square feet, and the edit bays number 60.
Success came quickly after that. Endurance, a Roth-and-Nelson-produced Survivor-style show with teens, became a hit for Discovery Kids, leading NBC to come calling. The network wanted to see a copy of the season, so the pair sent every Endurance episode but the finale. When an NBC exec called days later desperate to see how the show wrapped up, Roth and Nelson said they would bring a copy of the final episode if the network would agree to a meeting. Once in the room, the pair pitched the idea for For Love or Money; NBC bought it on a Friday and began production the following Monday.
But it’s Biggest Loser that elevated Roth and Nelson to their current status as unscripted heavyweights and led international production content company Eyeworks to acquire 3 Ball. The irony, which they can — and do — laugh at now, is that they couldn’t find a restaurant willing to let the Loser cameras in when they set out to make the show seven years ago. Merchants were so uninterested in being associated with a series about overweight people that the duo ended up shelling out $5,000 to paint a corner of a restaurant a different color so that nobody would know where they were filming. Half a decade later, the cast and crew of the NBC series were picking ingredients out of President Obama’s vegetable garden and filming their meal at the White House.
On the heels of Loser’s success, they’ve gone fatter (contestants who were too big to be on Loser have been cast in Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition), younger (those too young are in MTV’s I Used to Be Fat) and dangerously thin (those too underweight go to E!’s What’s Eating You). But if you’re worried about Roth and Nelson cannibalizing their own fare — after all, how big a bite out of fat can you take? — they suggest you not be.
“Television is famous for cannibalization,” Roth says. “If one cop show works, suddenly there are 42 cop shows. ‘Why shouldn’t all 42 be ours?’ is kind of the way that I feel. It’s going to get cannibalized anyway, so we might as well do the most quality shows that we can and control the space.” So far, that plan is working out nicely. Just don’t expect to see the pair celebrating anywhere trendier than Uncle Bill’s.