Reality TV's Ruling Class: Top 10 Power Players of 2017

6:30 AM 3/30/2017

by Michael O'Connell

From the producers behind A&E's Scientology breakout to TV's new favorite host, THR's annual list hones its gaze on the forces who made the biggest impact in an ever-shifting landscape as they dish on their dream docuseries and what they would title a series about Trump's first 100 days.

Paul Telegdy was photographed March 14 outside the 'The Voice' stage on the Universal lot.
Paul Telegdy was photographed March 14 outside the 'The Voice' stage on the Universal lot.
Photographed by Baldomero  Fernandez
  • Frances Berwick

    NBCUniversal Cable Lifestyles Chief

    Lisa Berg/NBCUniversal

    Berwick not only has five cable networks under her purview, but she also has two of the most dominant reality players. Bravo's endurance in maintaining and refreshing franchises, with ratings that actually saw average primetime viewership grow 8 percent in 2016, is enough to make the Big Four jealous. And the Kardashian empire on E!, which might not be as vital as its former self, dominates the celebrity-centric lineup with three current series. (New entry Rob & Chyna was its No. 1 launch of 2016.) What might be most impressive is the brand identity Berwick has cemented during her two-decade tenure leading creative at Bravo. As most networks are forced to stray in search of a hit, the home of Housewives, Shahs and Chefs has a bailiwick that births viable franchises and spinoffs annually.

    Current dream docuseries "Kate Hudson and her squad."

    Pitch I hear most frequently "It's like Vanderpump Rules but …"

    Reality show I thought would be a hit but wasn't Hunted

    If I had to go on a reality show, it would be … "I wouldn't be cast in a reality show — there are so many better and more willing personalities. But I would enjoy being in Jeff Lewis’ office for a few days."
     

  • Mark Burnett

    MGM TV President

    Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

    Schwarzenegger-led Apprentice reboot. But no one can argue with Burnett's batting average. He is responsible for three top-rated Big Four reality series in NBC's The Voice, CBS' Survivor and ABC's Shark Tank, and he's only growing his output as president of MGM TV — most recently launching family-friendly, affiliate-based network Light and the Jamie Foxx game show Beat Shazam (Fox) on deck in May.

    Reality budgets have… "moved in different directions across networks and new media. Great shows still command substantial budgets."

    Right now, networks are asking for… "the same as always. The best formats — engaging, compelling ones — are always in demand no matter the genre."

  • Ellen DeGeneres

    Producer and Host

    Courtesy of Ellen DeGeneres Show

    The queen of daytime is no longer just moonlighting. Her next TV creation, NBC's forthcoming Game of Games, cements the talk powerhouse's producing side project as a formidable full-time job. Her A Very Good Production banner, alongside Warner Bros. TV reality czar Mike Darnell, also is behind the peacock's Little Big Shots, the senior citizen-centric spinoff Forever Young and April's First Dates With Drew Barrymore. (She also has two seasons of Ellen's Design Challenge under her belt at HGTV, a series she's now said to be shopping elsewhere.) But it's Game of Games that stands to be her most substantial breakout. Not only is it based on segments ("What's in the Box?" and "Know or Go?") from her top-rated talk show, but it also marks her first onscreen primetime gig since that one-off season judging American Idol in 2010.

    If Trump's first 100 days were a reality show, I'd call it… To Tell the Truth?

    If I had to go on a reality show, it would be… "Little Big Shots. I mean, sure, that 3-year-old was pretty good at basketball, but I could take him."

  • Mike Fleiss

    'The Bachelor' Showrunner

    Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

    The Big Four are dominated by long-running reality franchises, but none of them is proving to be more impressive of late than The Bachelor. ABC's venerable dating show celebrated its 15-year anniversary in March after a season of lifted ratings (up 4 percent year-over-year despite across-the-board slides) that gave The Voice a run for its money. "The Bachelor is kind of an anomaly," notes Fleiss, the series' creator. "Our audience has gotten larger and younger." His Warner Bros.-housed shingle also boasts two thriving spinoffs — see the upcoming Bachelorette cycle featuring its first black lead and the sordid summer counterpart Bachelor in Paradise — and a new off-ABC venture with Fox's Andy Cohen-hosted Love Connection reboot in May.

    Reality budgets have … "definitely started to come down. Makes sense. Fewer viewers, fewer dollars."

  • Chip and Joanna Gaines

    HGTV's 'Fixer Upper' Stars

    Photographed By Ben Sklar

    Scripps Networks' service fare on HGTV and Food usually exists just outside of the officially sanctioned realm of "reality" — but this quiet duo from Waco, Texas, changed that. "We don't think of it as [reality]," says Joanna. "It freaks me out." But in four short seasons, the stars of Fixer Upper (High Noon Ent.) have broken the mold to become the first bona fide reality stars of home improvement. Their show, which HGTV says now reaches an estimated 25 million viewers once all plays are counted, is the network's most watched in history, with an average 4.6 million tuning in to first-run episodes. That's nearly double its closest competition, prompting a wave of derivative projects and the upcoming spinoff Behind the Design.

    The Gaineses have been courted for other TV projects but thus far appear to be more occupied with building their lifestyle brand — licensing deals, a merchandising outlet, a best-selling book and now a quarterly magazine — all while making a tourist destination out of their hometown.

  • Steve Harvey

    Host

    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    TV's go-to emcee (non-late-night category) can take the bulk of the credit for reality's biggest breakout since The Voice. NBC's Little Big Shots' enduring popularity in its second season, returning to a 2.3 rating among adults 18-to-49 and nearly 13 million viewers, is credited largely to its affable host and executive producer — a man who's only booked more gigs since that minor 2015 snafu where he named the wrong Miss Universe on live television. Harvey is ubiquitous on the Big Four now. He also has Celebrity Family Feud, the keystone of ABC's summer game show revivals, as well as a recurring gig on Fox's Showtime at the Apollo. He'll pull double duty in the Little Big Shots world, also hosting spinoff Forever Young when it premieres June 21.

    Current dream docuseries "Tiger Woods. I'd like to see what's in his head, how he feels about his public persona and what his regrets are."

    If I had to go on a reality show, it would be… "Naked and Afraid. I'm from the country. I'd be good at it."

  • Eli Holzman and Aaron Saidman

    'Scientology and the Aftermath' Producers

    Tommaso Boddi/WireImage; Courtesy Photo

    Making an impression, at least a good one, in cable's ever-sprawling reality landscape is nearly impossible at this point. Breakout Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath proved to be the rare exception in 2016, giving the beleaguered A+E a new series that was both buzzy and comparatively highbrow. It's not a bad entry point for Holzman and Saidman, reality vets whose latest independent shingle (The Intellectual Property Corp.) launched with the project. The series averaged 3 million viewers an episode, regularly dominated Twitter, and quickly earned a sophomore renewal as Remini continues to shine a light on allegations of abuse and harassment at the organization. It has set up IPC as a force in unscripted's new prestige push — fitting, considering that this duo's previous collaborations include Emmy favorite Undercover Boss.

    Current dream docuseries Saidman: "Kim Jong-un and the Real Housewives of Pyongyang"

    If Trump's first 100 days were a reality show, I'd call it… Holzman: "Canadian House Hunters"

    True crime case I'd like to tell on TV Holzman: "Bill Cosby"

    Reality show I thought would be a hit but wasn't Saidman: "Million Second Quiz (if you'll just give us another chance to explain the rules to you)"

    Right now, networks are asking for… Saidman: "A loud, pre-filtered, bucket-fitting, box-checking, dual-skewing, ginormous hit … with a twist.

  • Gordon Ramsay

    Creator and Host

    Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

    Launching his new independent production company in 2016 (that he now solely owns), TV's culinary kingpin set up his first stateside project with, you guessed it, Fox. When his new series The F Word, a blend of live cooking and variety, premieres on Fox later this year, it will be his fifth on the network's schedule. That may seem like overkill, but it makes sense when you take into account the fact that MasterChef, MasterChef Junior, Hell's Kitchen and Hotel Hell all have been dependable players for the network as it struggles to find its post-American Idol reality identity, swinging and missing on the non-Ramsay reality front with Kicking and Screaming and My Kitchen Rules. Ramsay also is reinvesting in his native U.K., where he just signed a deal for three new series with ITV.

    If I had to go on a reality show, it would be… "American Ninja Warrior. I love an intense fitness challenge."

    Reality show I thought would be a hit but wasn't "The X Factor. It had everything going for it but just didn't click."

    If Trump's first 100 days were a reality show, I'd call it… The Mole

  • Brandon Riegg

    Netflix Reality Head

    Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

    If reality has a wild card, it's Netflix's new director of alternative. After a long, successful tenure at NBC, Riegg joined the disruptive streamer as head of its fledgling division in late 2016 — on the eve of an anticipated spending spree that has reality poised to be Netflix's next big genre push. He and his team of five are now emboldened to beef up the streamer's reality originals with straight- to-series orders that will be a boon to the alternative sellers who have grown accustomed to development hell. His team already has commissioned a reboot of Bravo game-changer Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but the tally is expected to be in the double digits by year's end.

    Current dream docuseries "Michelle and Barack Obama. The global audience is still enamored with them. Has anyone ever followed a president and first lady after leaving office?"

    If Trump's first 100 days were a reality show, I'd call it… Surreal Life Fear Factor

    Reality budgets have … "A much smaller craft services line than our scripted counterparts."

    If I had to go on a reality show, it would be … "Probably Shark Tank. Hopefully I've learned something about pitching from the good and not-so-good pitches I've heard in these network roles. I actually auditioned for Road Rules when I was in college. Thankfully, that was before digital recordings."
     

  • Paul Telegdy

    NBC Entertainment President, Alternative and Reality Group and THR's Reality Power Player of the Year

    Baldomero  Fernandez

    The alternative department at NBC's Studio City offices is covered with something conspicuously absent from its Big Four rivals — evidence of recent hits. The network went from No. 4 to No. 1 on the coattails of The Voice, TV's dominant reality property for five seasons, and the years since the show's 2011 premiere have brought NBC broadcast's few unscripted breakouts, including American Ninja Warrior, Little Big Shots and The Wall. Much credit belongs to Paul Telegdy, the 46-year-old British executive who arrived at NBC nearly nine years ago and has since become the most tenured and powerful buyer in the broad arena of "reality." Now president of NBC Entertainment's Alternative and Reality Group, where he oversees both a network and a studio alongside longtime lieutenant Meredith Ahr, Telegdy talks about the pleasures (Comcast's corporate confidence) and pains (that whole Apprentice thing) of leading the charge in TV's biggest genre.

    Arnold Schwarzenegger cited "baggage" when quitting Apprentice. What was your take?

    Arnold did a fantastic job. There was a massive headwind for its success, and that certainly wasn't any failing of Arnold's. The president has voiced his opinion around the show. That's a strange place for any person, TV show, talent, prime minister of a foreign country, leader of a labor union, head of the opposition, media, whatever. … You're in pretty uniform company when you're in the sights. That was a tough situation that Arnold navigated with extraordinary class. It's fair to say that the franchise, as it exists, has a fairly uncertain future. As do we all. (Laughs.) I don't think there's any rush to renew the show.

    Read Telegdy's full Q&A here.

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