From singing competitions to the Kardashians, unscripted TV today is driven by these 50 behind-the-scenes talents (ranked, of course) who keep adding juice to the red-hot genre.
To call 2012’s jockeying for placement on The Hollywood Reporter’s Reality Power List the most competitive ever would be like saying the Kardashians have dabbled a bit in self-promotion.
What does it really mean to wield power in reality TV? Is it about having 10 shows on the air or in production, as does The Real World creator Jonathan Murray? Or is it, like Jersey Shore creator SallyAnn Salsano has done, about making even the most mundane activities of Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino into breaking-news headlines? Or maybe power comes in the form of creating a giant hit like The Voice, which, under the guidance of NBC’s Paul Telegdy, went from quirky experiment (Cee Lo! Spinning chairs!) to one of the year’s most-buzzed-about pop culture phenomenons. Or, could it be turning one of the highly polarizing events in pop culture last year (i.e., Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries) into one of the guiltiest -- and most lucrative -- pleasures ever broadcast, as did E!’s Lisa Berger?
Reality power comes in all these forms and more. Among the 50 featured on the following pages are high-powered executives, prolific producers, newcomers making waves and veterans of the industry who, in keeping with their world, live and thrive by the only rule that matters: Make it real, and make it really good.
Ask Seacrest what he does to relax, and the response you’ll inevitably receive is laughter.
“Relax? What does that mean?” he says of a workday that begins at 4:30 a.m. “In my head, I have built in a cutoff period at the end of the day to, in theory, go to dinner, cook, have a glass of wine … but I feel guilty not working any hour of the day.” He later admits the social drawing app Draw Something is his new “obsession,” which he turns to on breaks.
The multihyphenate, who rakes in well north of $50 million annually, has been getting increasingly public about his relationship with his girlfriend, dancer-actress Julianne Hough (Rock of Ages), whom he mock-proposed to on the May 10 episode of American Idol. But all diversions aside, 2012 certainly won’t be the year The Man With a Million Jobs puts his feet up for too long. In recent weeks, Seacrest, 37, has inked a $15 million-a-year deal to remain with Idol for at least two more seasons -- “It’s been a major part of my life for a long time, and I didn’t want to give it up,” he says of the long-running Fox juggernaut -- and an even bigger pact with NBCUniversal. The latter will have him contributing to Today, primetime specials, the Olympics and election coverage.
In addition to his on-air responsibilities, his Ryan Seacrest Productions oversees E!’s Kardashian franchise, Bravo’s recently renewed Shahs of Sunset and an upcoming Jonas Brothers reality show, which will take viewers behind the scenes with the oldest Jonas, Kevin, and his wife, Danielle. He has plans to add both scripted TV and film projects to the RSP development slate, which includes a lengthy list of unscripted projects.
Seacrest’s tentacles reach 19 million weekly listeners with his On-Air With Ryan Seacrest radio show, an audience of 20 million with his American Top 40 countdown and more than 6.5 million followers on Twitter, where he ranks among the more active celebrities. And in addition to all this, the Georgia native, who counts Dick Clark and Merv Griffin among his idols, is an investor with billionaire Mark Cuban, CAA and AEG in a new lifestyle cable channel, AXS Live.
"Forgive the bags under my eyes, I haven’t gotten much sleep,” warns Paul Telegdy as a photographer begins snapping pictures of the NBC reality chief.
It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday in late April, and the British transplant is masking his exhaustion with the kind of quips that make a nearby publicist nervous. After a morning of talent meetings with Train lead singer Patrick Monahan and Discovery castoff Bear Grylls about opportunities at the network, he heads over to nearby Warner Bros., where his juggernaut The Voice is filming.
If Telegdy, 41, was worried about his job before The Voice premiered in spring 2011, he needn’t be now. With NBC’s scripted fare landing with a thud across the network’s schedule, Telegdy’s offerings from Voice to America’s Got Talent have given his Comcast bosses something worth bragging about: The star-studded singing competition, which will be counted on for fall and spring installments next season, averaged an impressive 6 rating among the crucial 18-to-49 demographic and, with a Super Bowl boost, nearly 16 million viewers overall for its Monday-night performance show; Got Talent delivered its highest-rated cycle ever in the summer, extending its reign as the No. 1 most-watched summer series for a sixth consecutive year.
So Telegdy, a holdover from the Ben Silverman era at NBC, who took on oversight of the network’s late-night division in late 2011, continues to get more rope. Up next on his slate is a celebrity military challenge series from Mark Burnett and Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, a dating show from erstwhile Desperate Housewives vixen Eva Longoria and a game show from Got Talent judge Howie Mandel. But before any of them hit the air, he’ll reboot dating challenge Love in the Wild with ’90s heartthrob Jenny McCarthy, who joins NBC’s other unscripted heavyweights Betty White (Off Their Rockers), Donald Trump (The Apprentice) and Jessica Simpson (Fashion Star).
On this day, as Telegdy kills time between Voice’s dress rehearsal and live show, the engaged father of two young girls grows giddy at the mention of Howard Stern’s addition to the judges table at Got Talent, which bowed May 14. He takes particular delight in waxing on about Stern’s humor, consistency and intelligence.
“When I worked at the BBC, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this place is going to be full of eggheads looking to have incredibly intelligent conversations about the nitty-gritty of the business,’ and of course, I found there’s a fair share of dingbats in any company,” he says. “The same is true of the business here; there aren’t that many frighteningly bright people. Howard Stern is frighteningly bright.” Telegdy adds that he hasn’t had to give a single note on content to the famously raunchy shock-jock, whom his network is paying roughly $15 million for the season.
But with that mounting enthusiasm comes sky-high expectations. “We’d be lying if we said we didn’t have interrupted sleep thinking about how it will do,” he says of the Got Talent reboot, with his protege Meredith Ahr, senior vp alternative programming and development, half-jokingly noting she often has to remind him that his job is fun.
Telegdy has been a TV fanatic for as long as he can remember. “I was the child that was permanently being dragged away from the TV by parents,” he recalls of his European childhood. (His Hungarian chemical engineer father and British actress-turned-teacher mother moved Telegdy to five different countries before he was 18; he added three more as an adult.) After earning a degree in Korean and Japanese from the University of London -- “A professor sold me on the basis that it would make me of value in the investment banking world, which is what the calling was if you were a well-educated, slightly greedy young man,” he says of a career path he ultimately passed on -- Telegdy took a job at a small London-based TV packaging and distribution company. He rose quickly and landed a job at the BBC, which he likens to a “prestigious finishing school for anyone looking to start a career in television.” By 2004, Telegdy was relocated to the U.S., where he sold such projects as HBO’s Extras and ABC’s Dancing With the Stars before being lured to NBC four years later.
To hear him tell it, that decade-plus on the other side of the pitch process has made him a better buyer -- or at least a better communicator. “Selling in this town can be a brutal experience,” he acknowledges, adding that those peddling to NBC benefit, in part, because he lacks the impenetrable poker face he recalls most U.S. television executives possessing. “I have no game face whatsoever,” he continues, chuckling as he comments on his own transparency. “When I’m happy, my tail is wagging; when I’m angry, my eyes are bulging.”
At a quarter to four, that metaphoric tail is on display as Telegdy makes his way to an area informally known as the celebrity trailer park, a preshow home to Voice host Carson Daly and coaches Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. He’s grown close to the quintet, as The Voice has boosted their careers as much as his own.
After a light knock, he goes bounding into Daly’s trailer, where he’s greeted by Shelton, Daly and several of Daly’s relatives. The trio trade barbs, many of them at Telegdy’s expense, before the executive bear-hugs both and excuses himself from the cramped space. He fist-bumps a member of Green’s entourage— “Love this guy,” the larger man outfitted in black sweats says of a still-grinning Telegdy — on his way back to the set. As showtime approaches, Telegdy finds Burnett, producer of Voice, and the two open the door to Stage 15. It’s time for another live show.
When Darnell arrived at Fox in 1994, the earliest form of reality programming — shows such as World’s Scariest Police Chases and When Animals Attack — fell under the category of “specials.”
Internally, staffers referred to them as “filler,” while outside, many simply called them junk, but there was no denying one fact. “It was doing gangbusters for us,” Darnell recalls proudly. Almost two decades later, the 49-year-old who’s seen his two daughters grow up alongside hit shows like American Idol, The X Factor and So You Think You Can Dance, is singing a similar tune.
“Honestly, the networks wouldn’t know what to do without reality shows,” he says. “To get them through the season, they’ve become so important.”
It’s a reality Fox is intimately familiar with: American Idol, even with a 25 percent dip in 2012, still is topping the ratings scoreboard after 11 years. Darnell credits the power of pedigree. Lots of shows, he says, “are new and interesting for a moment, as we saw with The Voice, but Idol is the staple. It’s the Oscars, the Super Bowl, the Today show — a brand.”
As for unscripted fare in general, Darnell says it started getting respect in the 2000s, and now that it’s a “mature” genre, it’s time to look to the next big thing: relationship shows. Fox has two in the works, the speed-dating challenge Take Me Out and The Choice, a play on The Voice that involves potential couples.
“There hasn’t been a good relationship show since The Bachelor, and that was a decade ago,” he says. “Over the years, you learn -- when someone says a genre is dead, that’s exactly when you want to come out with a show. Right now, there’s a definite hole there.”
Wanna get Burnett on the phone for a quick chat this month? Good luck. Now that his NBC hit The Voice has wrapped a giant second season (with a third just announced to premiere in September) the uber-producer is traipsing the globe -- this week, Africa -- entrenched in production on History's 10-hour scripted docu-drama The Bible.
The Malibu-based father of three, 51, who’s married to actress Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel), also produced last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards and MTV Video Music Awards and just saw his ABC entrepreneur-competition series Shark Tank renewed for another 22 episodes. In addition, his enduring CBS hit Survivor is approaching its 26th season, and the native Brit is prepping Robogeddon with James Cameron on Discovery, plus a celebrities-meet-law-enforcement series with producer Dick Wolf for NBC.
Corrections: A previous version incorrectly named Burnett's production company, listed the wrong age, the production he is in Africa for and Survivor's upcoming season.
After two decades in the business shepherding such shows as American Idol, The X Factor and America’s Got Talent from novelty act to ratings tour de force, reality TV’s most powerful woman is telling a more somber tale.
“The numbers are not what they used to be,” says the 46-year-old France native and mother of two. “Viewers are going elsewhere; they’re on DVR, online and going to cable. The environment is much tougher than it was 10 years ago or even four years ago. As suppliers, that puts increased pressure on all of us.”
Frot-Coutaz, of course, can handle it, which is one reason why she recently was promoted from CEO of FremantleMedia North America to become the worldwide company chief based in London — stepping in for Tony Cohen, who had run the production and distribution giant for 17 years.
“I am excited by the challenges, but at the same time, it’s bittersweet,” she confesses. “I joined the company one month after Tony, and it’s hard to imagine doing my job without him being around.”
To that end, it’s hard to envision Fremantle without Frot-Coutaz, whose latest triumph almost trumps them all: Getting Howard Stern to sign on as a judge for NBC’s America’s Got Talent, a choice she says was a no-brainer. Adds Frot-Coutaz matter-of-factly, “People are fickle and expect change.”
Saade considers his current gig a dream job. The Ohio native, who got his start as a runner at Dick Clark Productions, lords over a portfolio that includes a collection of longer-running mainstays from top-rated Dancing With the Stars to spinoff-heavy The Bachelor to Friday performer Shark Tank.
He’s particularly excited about filling one of ABC’s few voids, the singing competition, which he will do with this summer’s Duets; Kelly Clarkson and Robin Thicke are among its judges. “It’s a stunningly emotional performance show,” he says of the big-budget project.
When he isn’t in his L.A. office or on the set of one of his shows, the father of three has been known to take apart computers and put them back together. “I like to geek out,” he acknowledges, recalling a 2009 dinner that he attended with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who was appearing on his network’s Dancing at the time. After the meal, Wozniak said he had enjoyed meeting the network’s “IT guy,” referring, of course, to Saade. “I swear to God I was in heaven,” says Saade, who opted not to correct him.
Coming up on its 21st cycle, The Amazing Race shows no signs of aging (up 10 percent in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-to-49 demographic), with Big Brother also posting gains year over year. “The franchises that we have on our roster, we hold that dear to our hearts,” says Bresnan, pointing to the importance of seven-time Emmy darling Race’s lower median age.
With Survivor holding its own against Fox’s The X Factor and Undercover Boss delivering solid returns in its new home on Fridays (tops in total viewers, 18-49 and 25-54), both series were among CBS’ early pickups. Inspired by the real people depicted on Boss, the L.A.-based exec, whose business trips tend to focus on Race and Survivor locations, greenlighted an adaptation of Israeli unscripted series 3, pushing the first-place network into the dating-show genre.
“What’s missing in the dating genre is a depiction of what it’s really like out there,” she says of the series revolving around three women on a journey for love. “It’s not about if they find a perfect man, which I think is a dated concept.”
An alum of USC (she studied broadcast journalism), Bresnan’s hit lineup means she can be incredibly picky when greenlighting a new project, like Mark Burnett and Michael Davies’ dream-job contest effort, The Job, just ordered to series for CBS. “When Michael came in with a project and we decided to pair him with Mark, we thought, ‘What a perfect union,’ ” she says. “We’ve set the bar really high.”
For the man who has been fastened to a judges’ table since 2002 -- when he made his debut on American Idol -- and created worldwide franchises of talent contests The X Factor (more than 36 countries carry a version of it) and Got Talent (49 countries and counting), a winning reality show formula begins with the basics: “What color is the floor? Literally, that’s where we start,” says the 52-year-old Brit.
Every decision has an impact, especially about who’s sitting to his right.
After a season-one shake-up on U.S. X Factor that saw two judges and a host depart, Cowell announced May 14 that pop stars Britney Spears and Demi Lovato will be judges for season two. “My biggest failures were when I believed my own hype,” he has said of all the drama. “You learn from your mistakes.”
After a boom year at the media giant Endemol -- record cable offerings, the opening of a production studio for scripted efforts, finalizing plans for its first talk show -- reality remains the bread and butter for Goldberg, 47, currently in his 11th year with the company.
While producing such stalwarts as Big Brother, Wipeout and Jerseylicious, Goldberg also recently has seen the exits of longtime hits Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and the briefly revived Fear Factor. On the bright side, the L.A.-based Goldberg has Think Like a Man creator/comedian Steve Harvey, whose September-bound talk show already has sold 90 percent of ads. “If you really hit it, talk shows can make more money than about anything in television.”
Up next: Jenny McCarthy joins the second season as host of NBC’s successful Love in the Wild, and Endemol plots three new reality pilots.
Buccieri’s new responsibilities at ITV have allowed him to better leverage content in the U.S. as well as overseas. The success of Come Dine With Me -- on the air in 34 countries -- has spawned spinoff Come Date With Me, which already is in six territories with plans to bring it stateside.
“Having this position makes it easier to sell a show in the U.S.,” says the 45-year-old married father of two who lives in Los Angeles.
ITV Studios America continues to cook, with Fox recently renewing Hell’s Kitchen for two seasons.
“Fox has put it in every conceivable time period, and it has thrived,” says Buccieri.
It is an unseasonably warm evening in early March, and the ice sculptures in front of the soaring glass entrance of Manhattan’s Alice Tully Hall are beginning to thaw. On this day — Discovery’s premiere event for Frozen Planet — the 70-degree temperatures stand as an ironic counterpoint to the network’s latest
epic co-production with the BBC.
The previously angular beaks of a clutch of Emperor penguins carved out of 6,000 pounds of ice have melted into short rounded snouts. And another 6,000-pound sculpture — an ice floe wall — is dangerously close to resembling a giant Slurpee. It is more than an hour before guests arrive, and David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications, emerges from the hall to survey the 12,000 pounds of mushy ice. “We’ve gotta get people here before the sculptures melt!”
Inside, Eileen O’Neill, group president of Discovery and TLC Networks, does not betray a hint of anxiety — about the melting ice sculptures or her ambassador duties, although she freely admits to being uncomfortable in the media glare. Dressed in a navy blue Brooks Brothers skirt suit and pearls, she calmly chats with Discovery founder and chairman John S. Hendricks and Frozen Planet executive producer Alastair Fothergill. Asked what she likes about such events, she allows “not much,” except that it is an opportunity to honor the BBC crew who spent nearly four years braving inhuman conditions (200 mph winds, temperatures that dipped to -58 degrees Fahrenheit).
“Alastair is out there in the worst conditions for months,” she says. “And this is a chance for our filmmakers to really have the spotlight on them."
If O’Neill prefers to fly under the radar, her accomplishments at Discovery Communications — where she started in 1990 as an unpaid intern while earning a graduate degree in popular culture from Bowling Green State University in Ohio — are headline-worthy. O’Neill took the helm of a moribund TLC in 2008, deftly using the outrageous success of Jon & Kate Plus 8 to launch a slew of brand-defining hits including Cake Boss, Sister Wives and Long Island Medium.
“We were very concerned that we’d be seen as a one-hit wonder,” says O’Neill, 45. Hardly. The second season of Medium pulled in 2.3 million viewers on premiere night, besting AMC’s season-five debut of Mad Men and Lifetime’s Army Wives in head-to-head competition. This year, TLC is a top 10 ad-supported cable network among its target demographics of women 25 to 54 and 18 to 49. Promoted to the newly created role of group president in January 2011, O’Neill oversees Discovery — the company’s flagship network — as well as TLC. She has infused Discovery’s programming with new urgency, commissioning ripped-from-the headlines “instamentaries” on the tsunami in Japan, the assassination of Osama bin Laden and most recently the Concordia cruise ship disaster.
She has freshened returning franchises; a live version of American Chopper last December featured a three-way battle between Senior and Junior Teutul and Jesse James that became the eight year- old series’ second-highest rated episode ever with 4.8 million viewers. The third season of Gold Rush will launch this fall with a live episode. And she has seeded the network with the next generation of brand-defining hits including Moonshiners, American Guns and Bering Sea Gold — which, with 3.7 million viewers tuning in for its January premiere, stands as the biggest series launch in Discovery’s 27-year history. Discovery’s first-quarter ratings were the third-highest ever (behind only fourth quarter 2011 and first quarter 2004).
“She works harder than anyone,” says Zaslav. “We’re on the phone every Saturday, sometimes Sunday. She’s understated, but she’s unbelievably competitive.”
O’Neill’s competitive streak is a product of a childhood in a large Irish Catholic family of five children who moved from Mount Holyoke, N.Y., to Vero Beach, Fla., when O’Neill was in third grade. She excelled in volleyball, softball and especially basketball, and while she grew to become a Dodgers fan (the team’s spring training facility was in Vero Beach until 2008), she has remained loyal to her beloved New England Patriots and Boston Celtics.
“It’s a tough job and she’s tough at her job,” says Craig Piligian, who produces a slew of series for Discovery (Dirty Jobs, American Chopper). “But if she sees something positive, she calls you.”
O’Neill intended to pursue sports writing after earning her B.A., but a dearth of full-time career prospects led her to graduate school, which landed her that internship at Discovery. Twenty-two years later, she has no regrets. Her postgraduate studies “taught me a lot about critical thinking and aspects of our culture that are often overlooked. Oddly enough, it has really worked out.” O’Neill and her partner, a stay-at-home-mom, live in the Maryland suburb of Rocky Gorge, where they’re raising their 11-year-old son, Quinn, and where O’Neill is a 30-minute drive from Discovery’s Silver Spring offices.
If her early education stressed right-brain creativity, O’Neill approaches the creative side of the business as a left-brain tactician.“Conversations with Eileen are
always logical and reasonable,” says Piligian.“But you gotta go in smart. When you hear Eileen is on the phone, she’s not expecting an idiot on the other end.”
She admits to being “a bit of a micromanager.” “I pay attention to details. I’m a sponge for information. You have to be to be a general manager,” she says.
It is 6 p.m., an hour before the Frozen Planet screening, and Pete and Penny, two 3-year-old Magellanic penguins on loan from SeaWorld, are waiting in a basement room before they waddle down the blue carpet. They are curiously inspecting visitors when Pete relieves himself on the floor. A few moments later, O’Neill walks the carpet as Pete and Penny wander toward the flash bulbs behind the media rope line. O’Neill kneels to coax her small stars back onto the carpet. “They’re total pros,” she muses, and adds, “other than a poop incident.”
How do you maintain a streak when you’re coming off your best ratings year ever? “We’re constantly pushing ourselves to innovate,” says Hoogstra, who was promoted in March 2011 to head development and programming strategy at History and H2. “We do an enormous amount of internal development, and that keeps us from fishing in the same pond as everyone else.”
Still, Hoogstra knows that continued momentum at History — which had its best year ever in 2011, the latest in five consecutive years of ratings growth — will “be a challenge, but we’re doing it on a volume of franchise hits.” Those include Pawn Stars (5.7 million viewers) and spinoff Cajun Pawn Stars (3.2 million), as well as American Pickers (5 million) and American Restoration (2.3 million). “We look for programs that feel unexpected for us,” he says.
The married father of two, 40, is mum on what those are, a precaution in the derivative world of unscripted television, but points to Top Shot, History’s hit sharpshooting competition series, as one successful swing for the fences.
Lifetime’s portfolio — which includes scripted series and 30 made-for-TV movies a year — now has 200 hours of unscripted programming. Project Runway is heading into its 10th season (the ninth averaged 2.9 million viewers) and America’s Most Wanted has improved Lifetime’s Friday night time slot by 56 percent.
It’s all good news for Sharenow, a married father of two daughters, ages 19 and 12, who admits he is a bit of a “dance dad.” But he’s not the overweening type of parent seen at the Pittsburgh dance studio featured on Lifetime’s Dance Moms.
“We live in a very soft age. The approach that some of these parents take with their children is shockingly different, and audiences are drawn to that,” says Sharenow, 45. Indeed, Dance Moms has become a breakout hit for Lifetime, averaging 2.4 million viewers during its recent second season, marking a gain of 85 percent from season one and spawning Dance Moms: Miami and Ice Moms.
Of course, Dance Moms does have its critics: A recent episode that featured young pupils learning a burlesque routine caused a media conflagration and Lifetime yanked it. “We take concerns about the show very seriously,” says Sharenow.
“The goal with 16 and Pregnant was to gain awareness of the epidemic through honest storytelling,” says Dolgen, 37. “Teen birth rates have dropped 9 percent, the steepest decline in over 60 years. Our casting pool is shrinking, and that’s a good thing!”
With Jersey Shore under his purview, Linn is used to fielding phone calls at all hours. “Am I being Punk’d by my own network?” recalls Linn, 47, of a 3 a.m. call from Shore executive producer SallyAnn Salsano informing him that Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino had been hospitalized after ramming himself into a wall to avoid a fight with a castmember. But Shore continues to deliver, with the recently completed Italy-set season ranking as the No. 1 show on cable in MTV’s core 12-to-34 demographic and a pair of spinoffs set to explore Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s engagement and pregnancy as well as The Situation’s rehab stint.
Also thriving is MTV’s Teen Mom franchise with the greenlighted Teen Mom 3, itself a spinoff of the upcoming fourth cycle of 16 and Pregnant. Linn and Dolgen are now focused on the renewed freshman viral-video series Ridiculousness, the ageless Real World, its spinoff The Challenge and a Punk’d reboot.
At the helm of the femaleskewing cable network since 2010, Berwick (who joined Bravo in 1996 from Britain’s Channel 4 news) is enjoying Bravo’s current reign as the No. 11 network among adults 18 to 49 and was a force behind its major rebranding in 2005.
“Our viewers are passionate,” says Berwick. “Whether it’s Social Editions, where we put viewers comments on screen, or virtual viewing parties during the show.”
Last month, the network announced plans to develop nine new reality series (and a 27 percent increase in their original programming slate) and eight returning
shows, including Inside the Actors Studio for its 18th season.
The Manhattan resident and mother of one plans to capitalize on the popularity of shows like Jerseylicious (which had its most successful season to date, averaging 590,000 total viewers for its fourth cycle) as the network introduces a 25 percent increase in original hours — which will include reality series Empire Girls and, naturally, Chicagolicious.
Since transitioning to A&E and BIO in April 2011 from A+E Television Networks’ History, McKillop, 53, has extended his vision beyond the recession reality (History’s Pawn Stars, A&E’s Storage Wars) that propelled both A&E and History into the top five among adsupported cable networks and into a milieu that emphasizes self-reliance.
“We’re redefining the American family and the workplace,” he says, adding that Storage Wars (which is averaging 4.6 million viewers in 2012) has two hit spinoffs in Storage Wars: Texas (3 million) and Shipping Wars (2.4 million). “They’re about scrappy entrepreneurialism, which is just under the surface of the American psyche,” he says.
McKillop’s goal at A&E, which is coming off of nine consecutive years of ratings gains, is continued growth. His motto for his development team? “Have a vision and be demanding.”
If Kris Jenner is the architect of E!’s hyper successful Kardashian-themed franchise, then E! programming president Berger is the mastermind.
Since coming to the femaleskewing network from Fox in 2003, the 47-year-old mother of two daughters not only developed Keeping Up With the Kardashians for the entertainment cable network, she also created popular shows The Girls Next Door, Ice Loves Coco and Chelsea Handler’s late-night series Chelsea Lately — the most-watched late-night series among the network’s key 18-to-34 female demo, averaging more than 1 million viewers nightly.
Together with E! executives — and despite reports that Handler was looking to leave the network — Berger was able to secure the talk show host with a two-year deal, which includes a first look from Handler’s Borderline Amazing production company (the network just ordered a third season of Handler’s sketch comedy series After Lately and a new weekly talk show from former Chelsea Lately correspondent Whitney Cummings).
The Santa Monica resident maintains that “developing programming that breaks through the clutter” remains the network’s primary focus, including the nine scripted series currently in development and the occasional popculture juggernaut moment.
And a programming highlight from her slate in the last year? “You may have heard something about a fairly high-profile wedding,” jokes Berger.
With programming spread all over cable, the American Chopper creator continues to expand his empire, most recently launching Big Shrimpin’ on History and Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s on OWN, which became the upstart network’s top-rated offering.
“I know it’s a small war, but it’s a good war to win,” says the Detroit native of the needed programming win for OWN. With Ultimate Fighter Live being reformatted for its new home on FX, Piligian expanded the combat-sport genre by bringing a 12th century sport into the 21st century: Full Metal Jousting is a “big swing” that continues to grow week over week for History.
Now that American Chopper is firing on all cylinders — its recent live installment drew an impressive 5 million viewers to Discovery — and Wicked Tuna has launched into its first season on Nat Geo, the 54-year-old is ready to push into new territory: broadcast.
“I wouldn’t get into the singingshow business, but we do have projects for networks we’re developing,” he says, noting The Nation’s Luckiest Person, which after a successful run in Japan is being shopped to U.S. broadcast nets. Other big swings for the man behind Spike’s upcoming World’s Wildest Police Chases include more scripted fare after exec producing Lifetime’s Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy. “We have very little fear when it comes to branching out and really going for it,” he says.
Beers, whose own gravelly voice has narrated many of his macho-man series, pioneered the dirty-and-dangerous-job genre (he calls it “testostereality”) that has now exploded across the reality television landscape.
Deadliest Catch for Discovery and Ice Road Truckers for History are branddefining hits for both networks. Black Gold recently wrapped its best season ever on truTV, ranking among cable’s top five among men 18 to 49 for its Wednesday night timeslot. And Storage Wars and spinoff Storage Wars: Texas — about container-raiding teams of fortune hunters — are currently the top two unscripted series on A&E.
“To me, it’s not just about the job, it’s finding a culture where there are rules and codes, heroes and villains,” says Beers. “That’s what’s fascinating to me.” Today, the 54-year-old married father of a teenage son (his wife, Leslie D. Beers, is the president of Amygdala Music, which supplies music for Original Productions) has 14 series on seven different networks. The first of Beers’ manly man reality offerings — Monster Garage, which premiered in 2002 on Discovery — sprang from his own interest in cars and motorcycles.
He has several cars — he’s almost finished restoring a 1940 Ford panel truck that he picked up at a junkyard in Oklahoma — and nearly a dozen motorcycles including two Harleys and a Royal Enfield chopper.
To get to the conference room at the new 16th floor headquarters of Magical Elves in Hollywood, one has to pass through a trophy case of sorts.
There are the standards: a placard acknowledging Top Chef ’s 2010 Emmy for outstanding reality competition, magazine covers and a Peabody for Project Runway. And there’s the more exotic: the dried remains of a floral gown designed by Runway alum Daniel Vosovic, signed chef coats and all manner of elf-related tchotchkes.
Inside the development meeting led by executive producers Dan Cutforth, 45, and Jane Lipsitz, 43, however, there are no acknowledgments of past glories — only a ticking clock and a packed agenda that covers the details for a YouTube series, the premiere of Bravo’s Around the World in 80 Plates, an ongoing host search for a new CBS dating show and maybe a moment’s respite to watch a particularly absurd casting tape for an unscripted project they can’t discuss outside of the room.
On the heels of last year’s gargantuan film endeavor, $98 million global grosser Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Cutforth and Lipsitz have now taken on the notso- easy task of a directorial debut. It’s another theatrical 3D concert venture with Paramount, Katy Perry: Part of Me.
“It’s a huge move for us,” says Lipsitz, noting the good working relationship that was fostered with Paramount during the Bieber film. “Our heads are swirling right now because it is a really quick turnaround.”
Less than five months, to be exact. It’s a job the duo, who’ve been working together since 2001, actively discuss from their adjacent desks. Like siblings who weren’t ready to abandon their bunk beds after moving into a bigger house, Cutforth and Lipsitz still share a his-and-hers corner office, with a small table between them for conference calls or when brainstorming demands they be fewer than 15 feet apart.
It’s a closeness that has inspired a lot of inside jokes from their decade-plus career. The jokes seem to pepper their conversations — like the rare moment they thought they could share their success with Cutforth’s two daughters and Lipsitz’s son at the starpacked Never Say Never premiere.
“They were six at the time,“ says Cutforth, while a larger-than-life-size cardboard cutout of Bieber lurks just outside the door in the hallway. “I thought it would be the greatest memory of their lives so far. Instead, it was way after their bedtime and within an hour they were literally both in tears saying, ‘When will it be over?’ It was a terrifying experience for them.”
“It was kind of scary for us, too, by the way,” adds Lipsitz, laughing. “It was a really emotional thing. Sitting in a theater that size with people around you responding to a film is a whole different experience from television. But we love both.”
Their office, with expansive views of the Hollywood sign and the Eastside, hosts a large dry erase board with their respective schedules. A quick glance has them attending a screening together that night, and Lipsitz has a 9 a.m. Pilates class planned for the next morning. “I’ll just dream about that,” she says wistfully.
On top of their film obligation and continued work with stalwart hits Top Chef, Braxton Family Values and The Real L Word, 2012 finds Magical Elves with their biggest network docket to date. NBC’s Fashion Star, greeted with solid reviews if so-so numbers, and CBS’ upcoming 3, an adaptation of an Israeli dating show, mark the first time they’ve had series on multiple broadcast networks at once. Fashion Star, in particular, is an interesting homecoming for the Elves — and, already renewed for a second season, one of their most notable successes of the past year.
Rising to prominence with Project Runway, which they departed in 2008 when it left Bravo for Lifetime, the Elves find fashion familiar territory. But they’ve used the NBC series, a collaboration with Ben Silverman’s Electus, as a chance to play with the real-time marketing opportunities that reality competitions present. Winning designs promptly go on sale (and sell out) online and at participating retailers after the episodes showcasing them air.
“It’s hard to say where reality is going, but we feel like harnessing the marketing potential of television is a really interesting way to go,” says Cutforth. “It’s about giving the audience ways to interact. Fashion Star is a much more tangible way to play off of that experience.”
Magical Elves remains committed to its culinary crown jewel, Top Chef, which Bravo recently renewed for a 10th season, in addition to Chef’s third spinoff, Life After Top Chef. They’ve also brought in a strong online component with secondary competition Last Chance Kitchen, which pits cast-offs against each other to win a spot back on the show — one way they’re working to keep Top Chef from feeling stale.
The location for the 10th cycle is a topic of discussion in Magical Elves’ own kitchen, a homey nook in the middle of the office with a cool coffee-house vibe. Two different markets are vying for Top Chef’s attention — the Elves are regularly pitched by mayors’ offices, local film commissions and state publicity groups — and several members of the development team are going over the finer points while simultaneously planning a going-away party for their intern.
“This is actually the first time I’ve ever seen Dan,” the intern says as he shakes Cutforth’s hand with a mix of appreciation and slight embarrassment, the delay in their meeting due most likely to Cutforth’s manic schedule and workload over the past few months.
The chosen spot for the Elves’ meeting today — the kitchen — seems to be one of both comfort and necessity since their work space is in a constant state of commotion. “We decided that this is how much we’d need,” Lipsitz says of the 2011 move that united their post-production team and main offices under one roof. She adds with a laugh, “And then we outgrew the space in a week.”
How does Levy program a network that caters almost entirely to men? First, she’ll tell you that she has spent much of her life thinking about what men like. Then she acknowledges that she very often likes what men like.
“Firing guns, tattoos, dirty movies,” says the onetime Comedy Central publicist. The synergy is paying off for the Viacom-owned cable network, which has broadened its purview to include older male (and the occasional female) viewers under Levy’s watch.
The native of Long Island, 42, has scored with series like Ink Master and Bar Rescue, and has high hopes for the newly law enforcement show Undercover Stings and a mixed-martial arts series about the Bellator Fighting Championships.
“If I’m not making reality shows, all I want to do is watch them,” admits Salsano, 38. Storage Wars, Ice Road Truckers ... she loves it all. And why not? She created a monster hit in Jersey Shore and turned mock-worthy Snooki and The Situation into cultural icons.
The Long Island native who started as an intern at The Howard Stern Show champions the underdog: “In my shows, people aren’t afraid to say, ‘This is who I am!’ or ‘This is what I do and I’m proud of it!’ ” On her current slate? Shore spinoffs The Pauly D Show and Snooki and JWoww, MTV’s Friend Zone, Oxygen’s Tanesha’s Getting Married, TV Guide’s Nail Files and Repo Games, in which people get a chance to win back their cars.
“You never know what’s the next big idea, so you have to take a lot of swings,” she says.
With the launch of Hotel Hell, his fourth series on Fox, Ramsay reaffirms his monopoly on the network’s summer schedule.
Hell’s Kitchen remains the network’s highest-rated program during the off months, and the third season of MasterChef recently fielded 57,000 applicants — including one finalist who surprised Ramsay himself. “There’s a blind woman, and she plates like an angel,” says the 45-year-old marathon runner and married father of four.
His brand, which moves into hospitality with Hotel Hell, includes two series on BBC America, a new documentary in the U.K. that is likely headed for a stateside deal, 18 books and new restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas that employ contestants from his shows. Ramsay may even trek to China, where Shine Group recently sold the Australian format of MasterChef: “The producers told me, ‘We potentially have an audience of 500 million,’” he says.
In 2010, Undercover Boss became TV’s No. 1 new show, and it remained the top-rated show in its primetime slot until its recent renewal for a fourth season. It also makes CBS the No. 1 network on Friday nights.
“Doing Boss was a bit like going to the casino and putting all our money on red 14, and red 14 turned up,” says Lambert, 53, who recruited Holzman, 38, in 2008 to head up the American arm of his U.K.-based company. Boss was the pair’s first collaboration.
“A lot of networks have now said, ‘All the goodwill from that has allowed us to spread our wings,’ ” says Holzman.
Indeed. The duo spearheaded nine new shows this year, including AMC’s The Pitch and Lifetime’s Love for Sail last month, followed by Spike’s Rat Bastards and Diamond Divers, A&E’s Be the Boss, and this month Discovery’s Outlaw Empire, a show about gangs from Sons of Anarchy producer Kurt Sutter.
“Kurt wants to hear directly from the gang members, and you find yourself going, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s fascinating.”
The pair is also about to announce another Discovery show, one for VH1 and “a very uplifting show” for OWN.
Having co-created The Real World with his late partner Mary Ellis-Bunim, Murray, 57, has earned the unofficial title of godfather of reality television.
More than two decades later, the series about seven strangers living together in a house continues to deliver for host network MTV, where it was recently renewed for a 28th season.
Murray acknowledges Real World would likely struggle to get on air today. “It’s almost too pure and doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles,” he says, noting the show’s tameness by comparison to such spectacles as MTV’s other staple, Jersey Shore.
Murray’s other efforts include Road Rules, Project Runway and the hugely successful if at times controversial Kardashian franchise. Up next from Murray and Bunim/Murray president Gil Goldschein is Mrs. Eastwood & Company, an E! docuseries about Clint Eastwood’s family.
Like his late mentor Dick Clark once experienced, Smith now competes with himself in the expanding universe of networks.
“We have Hell’s Kitchen on Fox and American Ninja Warrior on NBC, opposite each other,” he says. “That’s a good problem.” After selling his company last year for about $100 million to Tinopolis, Smith, 52, just announced a slew of new shows, including NBC’s feel-good prank-fest Surprise with Jenny McCarthy, and the Fox dating show The Choice, hosted by Cat Deeley.
“We also have Ultimate Fighting and Trading Spaces. I love the diversity!” says Smith.
The radiator in the corner of Brent Montgomery’s cramped office on the 23rd floor of a grungy building on 8th Avenue in Manhattan’s Midtown West is knocking and hissing. It’s late February, and Montgomery — who produces Pawn Stars for History — and David George and Rob Shaftel, Leftfield’s vp programming and vp development, respectively, are debating titles for an upcoming National Geographic Channel series about New Hampshire demolition experts. In front of them is a list of 130 possible show names compiled from input among Leftfield’s nearly 300 employees.
“An intern actually came up with the name Pawn Stars,” says Montgomery. “He didn’t want to stay in the business. But he got a signed poster and a big place in my heart.”
With more than 5.7 million viewers on average for each episode, Pawn is the most-watched series on History. Spinoff Cajun Pawn Stars — launched last year and filmed in Alexandria, La., a small town 3 ½ hours northwest of the decadence of New Orleans — is pulling in 3.2 million viewers on average. Pawn Stars — and Leftfield’s ribald double entendre title — has inspired dozens of pawn-shop knockoffs including TLC’s Pawn Queens, Spike’s Flea Man and truTV’s Hardcore Pawn, perhaps the most blatantly derivative of the bunch.
In the case of the Nat Geo demolition show, Leftfield is mining territory familiar to close watchers of reality television; TLC’s The Imploders and Spike’s demolition derby Carpocalypse have already come and gone. Leftfield’s twist on the concept is similar to A&E’s Storage Wars; the demolition experts are
blindly bidding on structures targeted for demolition in hope that there is something (copper wire, vintage cars, jewelry) inside.
The title “Demolition Roulette” elicits a round of shrugs. “Smash for Cash” sounds like a game show, and “Money Pit” conjures a home improvement show.
Montgomery scans the list: “I wonder if these people have ever watched TV.” He stops on No. 91, “Questionable Content: The Search for Storied Treasure.” “That person,” he says, laughing, “should be fired.” In fact, Montgomery, 37, has fired few people since Leftfield became a player in the reality space after selling its first series — truTV’s The Principal’s Office — in 2008.
“For a while I thought I’d never fire anyone, that only crazy executives do that,” he says. But a few years ago, he had to deliver his first pink slip after finding out one of his employees offered marijuana to a participant and also erased footage. Apparently it was all in an effort to impress a female participant. Montgomery won’t name the person.
Pragmatic and straightforward, he rarely deviates from his casual Friday uniform of jeans and neatly pressed shirt (tucked in). His demeanor stands in contrast to the fast-talking glibness of many industry peers. But he has the canny charm of a salesman. “If we disagree, he listens,” says Courtney Montgomery, Brent’s 32-year-old wife and Leftfield’s head of production. “But I don’t just get to overrule him. He’ll say, ‘Convince me.’ ” Working with your spouse “is not for everyone,” she adds, and a stipulation was that their offices be on “opposite” sides of the floor. “I don’t want to be in that office right next to him,” she says, “but to be able to see him for part of the day makes a difference.”
Brent Montgomery approaches the task of wrangling heretofore anonymous characters for potential reality series fame with the same candor and inclusiveness. “I always say, ‘Never lie to talent,’ ” he says. Pawn might owe a debt to PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, but its indelible characters — led by the cagey Rick Harrison and his irascible father, known as “the old man” — have distinguished the show from its forerunner and the other dangerous-job, male-targeted reality shows (Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch). “On Pawn, the guys basically do nothing,” says Montgomery. “They stand around, and they talk. Everybody was having success in the male genre with action. We said, ‘Let’s do humor.’ ”
Last year, Pawn was the second-highest-rated reality series on cable behind Jersey Shore; a January 2011 episode from the fourth season was watched by 7.7 million viewers, still an unmatched record for History. Montgomery’s collaborative nature has earned him fans among TV’s top execs. “He’s the last guy to call me and complain about an overage on this or a note on that,” says Nancy Dubuc, president and GM of History and Lifetime Networks and Montgomery’s frequent breakfast companion.“That kind of creative give-and-take is refreshing.”
Montgomery had early aspirations to become a sports reporter. After earning his bachelor’s in journalism in 1997, he relocated to New York, where he landed a production assistant job on Fox Files, the network’s nowdefunct primetime newsmagazine that Montgomery describes as “Dateline on crack.” In 2003, he picked up and moved to Los Angeles, where he landed a gig producing the syndicated series Blind Date. It was while shooting a “date” in Santa Monica that he had an epiphany about the L.A. temperament.
“We’re shooting on the beach. My camera guy is feeding the birds. My sound guy is talking to girls. I’m like, ‘Don’t you guys want to get this done?’ ” (Happy to be based in faster-paced New York, Montgomery nonetheless is in the throes of returning to Los Angeles; he’s scouting office space with an eye toward opening a Leftfield satellite by year’s end.)
In early May, a little less than two months after that initial meeting about the Nat Geo demolition series, the network announced that it had ordered 12 half-hour episodes of Bid & Destroy, a title that conspicuously did not appear on the long list for consideration. Jokes Montgomery, “It’s a working title.”
After 10 years and 16 cycles, Karzen considers ABC’s The Bachelor her “first born,” raving about the longevity of the franchise like a proud mama bear. “When we first came on the air, girls were 10, and they’re now 20 and rediscovering the show,” says the Boston University theater graduate. And the numbers prove it as the dating series remains among the top 10 unscripted offerings in total viewers and all key women demographics.
Meanwhile, Bachelor spinoffs The Bachelorette — which will feature its first single-mother contestant — and Bachelor Pad will return to ABC later this year with additional cycles. While her first born is growing up nicely, the Kentucky-born and L.A.-raised Karzen is most proud of the success NBC has found with The Voice, having shepherded the singing competition to the air in a flash. “We got the ball and we knew exactly where to run, and we knew we needed to run fast and be on the air before [Fox’s] The X Factor,” she notes, recalling the initial pitch meeting where then-NBCUniversal executive vp alternative programming Paul Telegdy stopped Karzen midpitch.
The former classmate of Julianne Moore and Michael Chiklis remains mum on speculation that NBC will double-pump Voice, noting only that the series will return with its high-profile coaches. When not working in the reality world, Karzen, 51 — who has been with her partner, Leslye, for 21 years — is happy to be a “volleyball mom who has a really cool day job” to her 12-year-old daughter, saying with a laugh, “I’m a chauffeur on weekends.”
When National Geographic Channels CEO David Lyle tapped Reveille founding partner Owens, 44, as the group’s president in November, he said it was to bring, among other things, a “greater sense of urgency.” “I don’t like to greenlight things that can’t get on the air in six months or less,” explains Owens. “In our business, there’s an opportunity to be primal and immediate and instinctual, and you lose that if there’s too long of a tail on your introduction to your audience.”
So far, that has translated to Nat Geo’s highest-rated series to date (Doomsday Preppers and Wicked Tuna) and stronger pop-culture presence (The Colbert Report recently profiled Doomsday) as Owens has beefed up the New York and L.A. offices with key hires from his new D.C. home base (he’s splitting time between D.C. and L.A. until his family joins him there in July) and partnered with Reveille co-founder Ben Silverman’s Electus on a development deal.
By year’s end, he’ll also have launched American Gypsies, Bid & Destroy and Brain Games, an adaptation of a successful 2011 special that Owens and Lyle see as typifying the brand as it moves forward.
Having run through 162 contestants in 14 cycles, Green, 41, understands the scarcity of fame better than most. “I don’t think the celebrity gene pool rejuvenates at the same rate we use people,” he admits, laughing. And after exhausting so many castmembers, the ratings have taken a notable drop — especially in the current season, where Dancing has faced off against NBC’s The Voice on Mondays and Tuesdays.
“In a space that used to have just us and American Idol, there’s now so much more,” says the Brit, whose first job was painting filing cabinets at a London company called Wall to Wall Television. “We’ve got The Voice head-to-head with us. You couldn’t design a show to compete more with our exact audience.”
Fortunately for Green, Dancing still stands on its own. Despite dips among coveted adults 18 to 49, both the performance and results shows still rank among the top five weekly network broadcasts in total viewers. Of a rumored “all-star” season that might reinvigorate the series in its upcoming 15th cycle, Green says there has been dialogue: “It would be a rather delicious prospect for the fans and quite a nice change while still being core to the show.”
With a portfolio including such shows as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Glee Project and CBS’ upcoming The Job, it’s no surprise “versatile” is a term
frequently used to describe Davies and his Sony-owned Embassy Row production company. But the British producer, who shuttles back and forth between Los Angeles and New York with regularity, says he’d been dabbling across genres — sports, comedy, game shows, talk, movies, commercials — for years before Millionaire struck big and he was suddenly dubbed “the game show guy.”
In the years since, the former ABC and Buena Vista Productions executive has continued to broaden, pushing into documentaries (The Tillman Story), late-night
(Watch What Happens Live) and more personality-driven fare (Kathy Griffin’s eponymous talk show). “The fact is that I built my whole career on doing everything,” says Davies, 46, who played an integral role in series including Whose Line Is It Anyway?, The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show and Comedy Central’s Win Ben Stein’s Money.
Off-duty, the self-proclaimed sports nut who counts playing golf and devouring sporting events on TV among his hobbies hosts a twice-weekly SiriusXM radio show and podcast about soccer.
It turns out there’s a greater value — beyond headlines — to laying claim to one of the most controversial reality series in history. Such was the case with Emmerson’s docuseries for TLC, All-American Muslim.
“Did I ever expect we would be all over Jon Stewart’s show, on the front of newspapers? No! It provoked a huge debate that I think television should do sometimes,” says the U.K. native, 42, a married father of three.
With Muslim shuttered after its first season, he is setting his sights on expanding VH1’s top-rated franchise, Basketball Wives (an L.A. spinoff has been given a season-two order), and delving into celebrity culture with Hollywood Exes and Ev and Ocho, chronicling the upcoming nuptials between Wives’ Evelyn Lozada and NFL star Chad Ochocinco. Emmerson also is eyeing untapped areas for new fare, one of which comes from Randy Jackson and puts celebrities in jobs outside their respective industries.
The buzz word when pitching unscripted projects, says Emmerson, “is to be organic. People want authentic and less constructed shows: ‘Would this guy be doing this anyway if it wasn’t for a TV show?’”
Forman won two Emmys for his main claim to reality fame, ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but he was also an awards hog in his past life as a documentary producer: His 2001 CBS doc 9/11 won an Emmy, a Peabody, a WGA and an Edward R. Murrow Award.
At Relativity, he says, “some of the things we learned making docs make us better reality producers. The No. 1 rule is, ‘Get the hell outta the way.’ Our shows are ‘doc-ier.’ ” The military family reunions on Lifetime hit Coming Home are legit, not staged. A producer without Forman’s documentary background might not have grabbed the chance to make a reality show from Catfish, the 2010 Sundance hit about filmmaker Nev Schulman’s Facebook courtship of a woman who was not who she claimed. “I took one look and said, ‘This is doc!’ ” he says. “Indie cinema and reality are two great tastes that rarely go together, except this time.”
On MTV’s new Catfish, deceived lover Schulman advises others in quest of online love. “It’s produced for the MTV audience, it moves a million miles an hour, but ultimately it’s just good storytelling,” says Forman. “When that door opens and the couple meet, nobody knows what’s going to happen next.”
Forman, 39, says his 3-year-old company will sign more new shows in 2012 than the 18 it did last year, racking up 300 hours of programming. It has 67 projects in production, with 21 series on 15 networks, including GSN’s The American Bible Challenge, where Jeff Foxworthy tests contestants’ Good Book smarts.
“A risky but genius call,” says Forman, prophesying success. “I’d rather do that than the 17th big music elimination show. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
The car stereo in Nigel Lythgoe’s Bentley is, like its owner, always working overtime. Scanning the ’60s-, ’70s- and ’80s-themed stations on his Sirius XM satellite radio add-on, the 62-year-old executive producer of Fox’s American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance has music on the brain.
Whether it’s an upcoming theme or a superstar booking (Katy Perry and Coldplay recently used the Idol stage to perform new singles), time spent interviewing Idol perma-mentor and Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine or a rehearsal with one of the show’s finalists, music is an integral component of the series’ success -- and Lythgoe and fellow executive producer Ken Warwick have been talking about it since they were 13-year-old classmates in Liverpool. There, in 1963, the two studied only a few miles from the Cavern Club, where The Beatles played their early shows, which is one reason nostalgia still rules on Idol, where bands like Queen and artists such as Billy Joel and Carole King are revered and respect for the classics is the surest barometer of potential.
“If the contestants are successful, then we are going to remain successful -- it’s that simple,” declares Lythgoe as he reflects on Idol’s evolving appeal. “I’ve always said that it’s about the talent, not the judges. I’m very happy where we are right now after 11 seasons.”
Lythgoe can get defensive (and more than a little protective) when it comes to making sure that Idol never feels stale, especially to the millions of young people who’ve literally grown up watching it. Perception, he says, is tantamount, so when the No. 1 show in America for 10 years running is declared prematurely dead or oldfashioned or irrelevant by the media, Lythgoe takes it personally. See, for instance, his befuddlement over Idol’s lack of a major-category Emmy, having lost to The Amazing Race eight times (and Top Chef once) since 2003.
“We have the audition process, which is enormous, then we have the big shows in Vegas, which we do in two days, then there’s the live show for three hours every week for months, and then we get three days to put on a finale as big as the Grammys,” he says. “I don’t know how you then compare that to traveling all around the world on a prerecord.”
And don’t get him started on the Ryan Seacrest snub for host accolades. Rants Lythgoe: “He’s gotten better and better. His timing is now superb. … I don’t understand how Ryan has never received the Emmy. I just cannot comprehend how, as good as Jeff Probst is, you can compare that to somebody who hosts a two-hour live show weekly. I don’t know what the voters are thinking.” On the other hand, the notion of “you’re not good enough” is a key element of Lythgoe’s reality ethos.
Having started as a dancer in his teens and early 20s, it’s something he has carried his entire life. “Rejection is a dancer’s middle name, and that’s what this whole thing is about,” he says. “No matter what show we’re doing.”
There are a lot of shows on Lythgoe’s plate, including Opening Act on E! (premiering July 9), which offers YouTube stars an opportunity to play on the same stage as multiplatinum artists and icons, and A Chance to Dance on Ovation (Aug. 17), on which two British Royal Ballet rebels known as BalletBoyz try to make it on their own, in addition to three scripted programs.
Lythgoe is the talent, too, serving as a judge on Dance as well as creator and executive producer, and on any given day, he seems to do it all at the same time. Lythgoe travels constantly, from Los Angeles to New York to Las Vegas to Nashville to Washington, D.C., and his shooting schedule is just as insane.
A typical week for Lythgoe goes something like this: a red-carpet event Tuesday night; a Wednesday morning location shoot for Opening Act, then a run-through and dress rehearsal for Idol, an Idol live show, and at 11:30 p.m. he gets the results and starts planning the reveal. Up at 6:30 a.m. Thursday and back to Idol to shoot Iovine’s comments. That night is the results show, and on Friday it’s back to picking songs for the week ahead and working out arrangements (Lythgoe and Warwick serve as in-house music historians). Saturday might hold a shoot at the Opening Act mansion or auditions for Dance, then it’s on to New York for a Sunday gala. You get the picture.
“It’s passion, really,” says Lythgoe, making no apologies. “It doesn’t feel like work because it’s so enjoyable. I’m watching other people’s talent and admiring it. I’m vampiric -- if they’re bad, then I get no energy from them and I’m tired. But if they’re good, then I’m sucking energy from them.”
When it comes to his chosen TV genre, the original Mr. Nasty abides by another essential tenet of reality: being real. “I don’t feel like I put on an act when I go on TV,” he says. “I’m always looking for an angle, but you approach things as a human being.”
As The CW readies its most ambitious summer reality slate, Vadas sees an opportunity to gain momentum for the network’s sweet-spot season, fall.
While Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model was renewed for a 19th cycle — after parting ways with three veterans — and is still The CW’s top reality hit, the search for the next unscripted franchise has been difficult. “I think if you talk to anyone, it’s a challenge,” admits Vadas of series like H8R, which was axed for low ratings.
She hopes new fare like docusoaps The Catalina and Breaking Pointe, singing-competition series The Star Next Door with Queen Latifah and Oh Sit! will boost the network in time for September. “The hope with Next Door is that we get men, women and even kids,” says Vadas, who is expecting her second child in August, adding that she is excited to soon do “the next big relationship show” for the younger generation.
September’s finale of the original Teen Mom series in no way spells an end to the top rated MTV phenomenon. The second season of Teen Mom 2 finished in February with 3.5 million viewers, prompting the network to order a third incarnation of the 16 and Pregnant spinoff.
Freeman, who before his reality TV career directed a Sundance Film Festival award-winning drama at age 27 called Hurricane Streets, and his Manhattan-based 11th Street Productions staff are nostalgic about leaving the four women who started the franchise.
“It’s very satisfying, having told these stories,” he says, noting that they are “open-minded” about future spinoffs with the women and that a decision likely will come after the final Teen Mom season airs.
For now, 11th Street has three series in development, of which Freeman, 42, says, “We’re really looking to show certain class and political issues, with the teen experience as our target.”
Klarman has had a bang-up year: His reality spinoff of Fox’s Glee, The Glee Project, became Oxygen’s most-watched freshman season finale in August. The competition series, which will return in June, also delivered water-cooler buzz and earned many awards for its digital campaigns, including June’s NATPE Innovator Award.
Now Klarman, 45, is poised to launch a slew of new titles, including the dance series All the Right Moves and the Star Search-like The Next Big Thing. The New York-based Klarman also touts Oxygen’s success in VOD and social-media networking but is realistic about its value, saying with a laugh, “We have to figure out a way to monetize all of it.”
When NBC greenlighted a reboot of Fear Factor with original host Joe Rogan (the show had been off the air since 2006), Kunitz admits revisiting the series was bizarre.
“When we came back, it was like we had been in a coma, woke up and went back to work,” he says. After a busy 12-year relationship with Endemol, he is embarking on a new, lucrative two-year deal with FremantleMedia that will include developing what he calls “gigantic action-adventure shows.”
The L.A.-based New York native, 43, who began his career answering phones at Bunim/Murray Productions, is waiting for the day “a shiny-floor game show” in an air-conditioned studio comes his way. While recently standing in 100-degree weather on Wipeout’s San Fernando Valley set, he wondered aloud, “Why couldn’t I have done Deal or No Deal?”
Despite the prominence of his network’s docusoaps about the over-the-top lives of an eclectic mix of women (Mob Wives, Love & Hip Hop, Basketball Wives), Olde says VH1 has not jettisoned its musical roots.
“There’s more music now than at any other time,” he says of resurrecting Behind the Music, Storytellers and Pop Up Video and ordering 50 additional installments of Pop Up. And the network has found ratings gold with T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, about rapper T.I.’s attempt at a career comeback. The first season averaged 2.3 million viewers, making it VH1’s highest-rated new show in nearly three years (since For the Love of Ray J in April 2009). “Music is the backdrop,” says the Los Angeles-based Olde, 46, by phone from the Atlanta set of scripted series Single Ladies.
Mob Wives, about Staten Island women whose husbands or fathers are doing time, already has inspired its first spinoff — Mob Wives: Chicago bows June 10.
“No one has ever told this story from the female point of view,” says the married Olde. “Their husbands are in jail, dead or on the run. You’d love to hang out with them for a night but probably don’t want to meet them in a dark alley.”
In its third season, the SPT-produced reality series Shark Tank has found its groove, hitting series highs and witnessing aspiring entrepreneurs often coming aboard with pennies in their pockets and an idea in their mind that becomes a hit with the investor panel and completely changes the entrepreneurs’ lives.
“It’s in an elevated place this season,” says Jacobs of the series, which added Mark Cuban as a regular panel member this year. In addition to her unscripted series duties — which include shepherding pilots from such producers as Michael Davies (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire) — Jacobs, who has her masters in art therapy, is staying optimistic that The Sing-Off will return for a fourth season on NBC.
“Every time we tape, there are always people on the brink of disaster whose lives change right in front of you,” she says.
Losing the Emmy for the first time in the reality-competition category’s history in 2010 was a blow to Van Munster, but it made it that much sweeter when the CBS series reclaimed the kudos from Top Chef last September.
“Normally people don’t go back to winning,” he says. “It means that the academy takes the show very seriously.”
The Netherlands-born Van Munster estimates he has circled the globe 57 times in the last 10 years for Race, seeing little fluctuation in ratings in that time. His biggest non-Race endeavor is the summer launch of The Great Escape: a collaboration between Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Van Munster’s producer-wife, Elise Doganieri, the 10-episode run marks TNT’s foray into the reality genre.
Though he has more than a dozen productions, the New York-based Corwin continues to add to his arsenal.
The success of tattoo competition series Ink Masters helped put Spike on the map, Swamp People boosted History’s stock (and has a spinoff on the way) and Comic Book Men, set at Kevin Smith’s New Jersey comics store, was AMC’s first foray into the unscripted realm.
When Corwin, 39, isn’t also juggling features (The Toxic Avenger remake, Sunlight Jr. with Naomi Watts), he’s looking for big TV personalities with unique stories: “The worlds of Kevin Smith and tattoos are perfect examples of that.”
“It’s about bringing viewers into a world they didn’t know much about,” Juris, the former general manager of Court TV, says of truTV’s rich lineup, which includes the popular Hardcore Pawn franchise, Lizard Lick Towing and Storage Hunters.
TruTV charts in the top 10 basic cable networks among men 18 to 49, but there is more to be done. One area Juris, 47, a graduate of Syracuse University, believes is yet untapped is what he calls “comedic reality,” a category first-year series Impractical Jokers falls under.
“We think it’s absolutely brand-defining,” says Juris, who also has made a big commitment to new series Killer Karaoke.
With a slate of fashionable unscripted series including Giuliana & Bill, Tia & Tamera, Jerseylicious and Big Rich Texas, Style achieved its most-watched year in the network’s 13-year history in 2011.
The first quarter 2012 was its highest-rated first quarter ever. Smith has been running Style, which is in 80 million cable homes, since 2008, when she was promoted to president from executive vp, and before Style became part of the NBCUniversal family and Lauren Zalaznick’s portfolio with the Comcast merger in early 2011.
The married mother of two has made Style a destination for character-driven reality. “Viewers also get fashion tips when they see what Giuliana is wearing in a particular episode,” says Smith, 42, with a laugh.
Style is also laying the groundwork for a reality franchise a la Bravo’s Real Housewives, bowing another salon-set docusoap, this time set in Chicago. Chicagolicious, premiering June 11, centers on a salon that caters to African Americans. “Diversity is very important to me,” says Smith.
The pair, who began working together two decades ago on the hit kids show Fun House, hosted by Roth, have been busy growing their weightloss empire with such series as ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition and MTV’s I Used to Be Fat. “This year we’ll do over 200 hours of transformation TV,” says Roth, 44.
Nelson and Roth’s Redondo Beach-based 3 Ball Productions ventures outside of the genre as well, with projects like Spike’s Bar Rescue, Discovery’s Flying Wild Alaska and CMT’s Texas Women. The year has had hiccups, too, with Roth and Nelson, 45, no longer involved day to day with NBC’s long-running The Biggest Loser and their daytime effort The Revolution canceled in April.
“We tried to serve too many masters,” Roth says of the latter’s demise. The best friends live six doors apart in Manhattan Beach, where their wives and kids spend much of their time together.
Love them or hate them, Jenner and her Kardashian offspring have turned out four hyper-successful shows on E! (the Jan. 29 season finale of Kourtney and Kim Take New York averaged 4.5 million viewers).
Jenner recently inked a lucrative deal to deliver three additional seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians for E! and cites the deal as her biggest professional accomplishment of the past year (it’s reportedly worth upward of $40 million). The 56-year-old mother of six — who married Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner in 1991 — acutely understands the value E!’s Kardashian franchise has on her family’s popularity and lucrative offshoots, including sevenfigure appearance deals for her daughters, countless endorsements and a Sears clothing line.
Her greatest challenge? “Trying to fit it all in,” she says.
Six months into Grant’s assuming the top position at Electus, the multimedia entertainment company has a reality slate that includes NBC’s fledgling Fashion Star and VH1’s popular Mob Wives, both of which already have been sold in more than 100 international territories.
“Ideas should transcend borders,” says the 33-year-old married executive. “We often use that thesis to determine whether an idea is worthy of development.”
It’s a skill he honed in the three years he spent as president of Shine International, home to MasterChef, The Biggest Loser and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, and before that Reveille, where he, along with Electus founder and chairman Ben Silverman, launched beloved scripted series such as The Office and Ugly Betty.
Since her transition from film to TV last year, former Miramax co-president Poster has taken the lead on two major reality franchises at Weinstein: the eight-year-old Project Runway and skyrocketing VH1 docusoap Mob Wives.
“It’s like seeing a box from Tiffany,” Poster, 48, says of Runway, which pulled in nearly 3 million viewers for its ninth-season finale. “You know it’s quality and what to expect of it.”
Mob Wives is growing at a rapid pace, with the Chicago spinoff bowing June 10 and creator Jennifer Graziano plotting a scripted venture. But the mother of two and New York City native also is focused on unscripted: Weinstein currently has a project at FX, a collaboration with Ryan Seacrest for ABC’s The Nanny Diaries and two other series in development.
Last year, 41-year-old Frankel sold her Skinnygirl Cocktail line to Beam Global for a staggering $120 million, due heavily to the brand’s promotion on the successful Bravo series The Real Housewives of New York and her well-rated spinoff Bethenny Ever After (the series debuted as Bravo’s highestrated first-season premiere to date with 2.1 million total viewers, but has fallen off for its third season with an average of 1.3 million viewers).
The New York native is currently researching philanthropies to which to donate her resources.
“Choosing a charity is one of the most challenging decisions I’ve faced in business!” says Frankel, who also recently secured a six-week test run for a self-titled daily talk show in six Fox network markets.
Two years into their company, the L.A.-based Hochberg, 43, and Ebersol, 29, are gearing up to launch TNT’s The Great Escape and USA’s The Moment, a big foray into reality for both networks.
“The expectations are through the roof,” says Ebersol, who met Hochberg while working on NBC’s terrorist tracking series The Wanted. Hochberg started in digital
media at Microsoft, while Ebersol, the son of NBC Sports honcho Dick, made his mark with documentaries.
“We’re like chocolate and peanut butter,” says Hochberg. “Better together.”