He ousts his former "American Idol" colleague Simon Cowell from the top spot on The Hollywood Reporter's fourth annual list.
Multihyphenante producer, radio personality and American Idol host Ryan Seacrest tops The Hollywood Reporter’s fourth annual Reality Power List.
Seacrest ousts his former Idol colleague Simon Cowell from the No. 1 spot — which he held in 2009 and 2010 — to lead a roster of 50 industry heavyweights in the reality television world. With The X Factor not yet on the air Stateside, Cowell dropped to No. 6 this year. (Seacrest was ranked No. 5 in 2010.)
The rankings were determined by, among other things: Having a reputation for quality and innovation within the business; the indelible mark one makes on his or her shows as overseeing executive, producer, or talent; ones overall impact on pop culture, and the “watercooler” factor: Ones ability to create dramatic, comedic and can’t-miss TV moments.
In Seacrest’s case, it is an ever-expanding slate of buzzworthy programs that landed him at No.1, including: a resurgent Idol in the wake of Cowell’s high-profile departure; an Emmy win in August for the Seacrest-produced Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution; and four iterations of the red-hot Kardashian franchise. Similarly working in his favor is the power of the Ryan Seacrest brand, which reaches an audience of more than 35 million weekly — and that’s just on TV.
Lifetime and History head Nancy Dubuc moves up to fifth place from No. 15 in 2010, while Jersey Shore producer SallyAnn Salsano (No. 10) and Kitchen Chef’s Gordon Ramsay (No. 20) also make repeat appearances. Morgan J. Freeman, the executive producer of Teen Mom, and Brent Montgomery, the man behind Pawn Stars, make their Reality List debuts at No. 24 and 32, respectively. Kris Jenner, the power behind the Kardashian empire, comes in at No. 50.
Power list bios are below. Click here to read the full story, "Ryan Seacrest: The New King of Reality TV."
He is everywhere. For the impact he has made — and continues to make — as the agent and arbiter of popular culture, the American Idol host is No. 1 on our list.
Last year, before the NBCUniversal-Comcast merger was finalized, Ryan Seacrest’s Los Angeles office had become an entertainment war room, with the tireless mogul plotting, if not exactly a takeover, at least a strategy by which his empire would expand.
On a dry-erase board, the most famous public face of Comcast (through its E! network) had listed in one column the many new NBCU channels — NBC, Bravo, USA — that would be more closely available to him post-merger. In another went Comcast’s collection of networks, from E! to G4, a visual reminder of every place where he could sell, repurpose or have a presence once the marriage was complete.
Now, two months after the merger closed, that board is gone, replaced by a Precor elliptical machine. And Seacrest, amid the shake-up and pawn-shuffling, is a beneficiary of the spoils. On this March day, in those same Wilshire Boulevard offices, the host, 36, explains with boyish excitement how synergy — that oft-used, harder-to-execute corporate concept — is at work.
It was evident the evening of the Academy Awards, when he interrupted his red-carpet duties on E! to plug a Today show interview with Charlie Sheen airing the following morning. He has already met with the new executive team, from NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke to Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment. And this month, the newly merged company will turn to Seacrest to play a key role in its coverage of the royal wedding for its combined assets, from E! News to Today. (At press time, efforts to get him from a live episode of American Idol in Los Angeles on a Thursday night to the nuptials in London on a Friday were proving insurmountable.) He acknowledges he likes the prospect of appearing more frequently on Today. “I’m kind of going into this merger saying: ‘Hey, what do you got? What can we do? Yes. Let’s go,’ ” Seacrest says.
Burke, who previously served as Comcast’s COO, couldn’t be happier. “It is rare to find someone who excels both in front of and behind the camera, but that certainly applies to Ryan,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He’s been a big part of E!’s success in recent years both on-air and as a producer, and we are pleased to be in business with him.”
Indeed, in a universe where many outsiders ask, “What does this man do to earn more than $55 million a year?” — after all, he doesn’t act, sing or dance — Seacrest has the industry wondering, what does he not do? An enviable hybrid of on-air personality and behind-the-scenes powerhouse, Seacrest is omnipresent. He begins his day on the radio and ends it on TV, both in front of the camera (on Idol) and behind it (with the Kardashians). In between, he graces red carpets, films E! News and doles out frequent updates to his 4.2 million Twitter followers.
The area where he is most dominant, however, is reality TV, a genre in which he is beyond measure the most powerful person in Hollywood. While there are bigger stars in the medium and producers with more shows, there is no one whose brand is broader in reach or more impactful at the watercooler than his. Whether you think the kinds of shows he does are worthy of celebration (some would decry his appallingly addictive Kardashian franchise as the end of Western civilization), the fact is, his programming occupies as many as five hours a week and is watched by more than 35 million viewers (if you count Idol). And in a TV genre where influence is built around an ability to get people talking, what is more powerful than ubiquity?
On this day, he leaps to his feet to grab a packet of papers from his desk that lists his many TV projects. For this minute, he is Ryan Seacrest the Producer, the big boss of some 40 staffers at Ryan Seacrest Productions. He rattles off seven unscripted series on or near airing, including the Emmy-winning Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (ABC), The Dance Scene centering on Lady Gaga’s choreographer (E!), I Kid hosted by Brad Garrett (TLC) and, of course, four incarnations of the Kardashian franchise.
The latter not only has proved a consistent ratings driver for E! (the most recent Keeping Up With the Kardashians season averaged 3.5 million viewers) but also spawned ancillary revenue streams that helped the Kardashian family earn $65 million in 2010. Seacrest admits he has had conversations about a spin-off with Kylie and Kendall Jenner, the youngest teen daughters in the Kardashian brood. “As soon as they can get their work permits,” he laughs, likely only half-kidding.
Seacrest has another 19 projects in development and nine more being considered. They range from game shows to docuseries, and he smiles at the mention of each of them. Unlike many brand-name producers who slap their names on series and walk away, Seacrest is famous for his involvement in every stage, from casting to tone to the music in his shows.
“This is not someone who just delegates away,” says NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment chairwoman Bonnie Hammer. “Ryan is someone who really gets his hands dirty.”
At his core, Seacrest is an avid consumer and purveyor of popular culture, someone who can set a trend or know when to jump on one in progress. “Ryan absolutely has his finger on the pulse because he’s talking to America every day through his radio show,” Idol creator Simon Fuller says of Seacrest’s direct connection to his audience. “He knows what people are thinking about, and as a producer that really gives him a leg up.” He regularly sifts through and communicates with his Twitter followers with the same goal in mind. “I work best inundated with things,” Seacrest says, “when it’s like raining information.”
One thing raining on him at E! is the inevitability of a new boss (Ted Harbert was reassigned post-merger; a search is under way for a replacement). Ever facile, he says, “We’re anticipating that there will be more interest in scripted at E! [under Hammer] and from the other networks now that they are in the family, so we have put some focus on scripted.” (Hammer confirms to THR that scripted will indeed be part of the network’s next phase, and Seacrest’s contributions will be welcomed.) Although he’s not ready to unveil details, he has two scripted projects in development and a third in the works with Harvey Weinstein.
He’s also courting Hollywood talent who might have a kernel of an idea but not the development or production resources to turn it into a show. RSP recently played that role for Tobey Maguire; the actor came in with a concept, which the RSP development team worked into a series and sold. The specifics are being kept under wraps, but Seacrest insists there’s more where that came from.
Those relationships are among the reasons E! president of entertainment programming Lisa Berger says she loves having Seacrest in the fold. “He is so keyed in to the community,” she explains, “and he knows exactly who will make great talent for our network.”
Seacrest has been prepping for his role as media ringmaster since he was a child in suburban Atlanta. He spent much of his upbringing enamored of the radio — listening, imitating and dreaming of a future in the medium. By the time he hit high school, the son of a lawyer father and homemaker mother had landed an internship at a radio station that he parlayed into his own show.
At 19, Seacrest dropped out of the University of Georgia to pursue a broadcasting career in Hollywood. In those early years, he adopted a “just say yes” philosophy, working the graveyard shift, driving the vans, whatever it took. Within three years, he was juggling a radio show and segments of The New Edge on what was then Sci Fi Channel. Hammer, an executive at the network at the time (now Syfy, it remains under her purview), remembers being impressed by Seacrest. “You looked at him and listened to him, and you knew even back then that this was a star in the making,” she says.
By 1997, Seacrest had nabbed a hosting gig on a teen-centric game show Click. The opportunity to work for legendary producer Merv Griffin would change his life. The Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune creator taught him the significance of owning and then exploiting content across multiple media channels, a skill Seacrest has now mastered. More than a decade later, Griffin’s picture hangs outside his office, a reminder of what Seacrest has left to accomplish.
The past decade has played out on a national stage, beginning with the ultimate springboard, American Idol, which premiered in 2002. In the years since, he has filled out his portfolio with a morning radio show and American Top 40, red carpet interviews, holiday specials, celebrity news and brand partnerships with Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft’s Bing. Missteps included a 2004 syndicated talk show, On-Air With Ryan Seacrest, which failed to earn a second season.
Heading into this year, the future of Seacrest’s biggest platform, Idol, was in question. With series linchpin Simon Cowell opting to move on after nine seasons, by all accounts the wind had been taken out of the sails of TV’s No. 1 show. But a funny thing happened on the way to Season 10: Viewers showed up — and not just to get a glimpse of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler at the judges’ table. This season, the singing competition is averaging 25 million viewers, retaining 100 percent of its viewership from the same period last year.
To hear Fuller tell it, it is Seacrest who deserves much of the credit. “He’s the unsung hero of American Idol,” gushes Fuller, who praises the ease with which Seacrest carries the live show, comparing him as many do to legends like Dick Clark. “Ryan is one person I would not want to lose.”
Yet Idol remains just a sliver — albeit a lucrative and noisy sliver — of Seacrest Inc. These days, the host has bigger ambitions, with such moguls as Griffin, Jerry Bruckheimer and Jeffrey Katzenberg listed among his heroes. “It’s all of those people who have taken something, built an organization and grown it over the years,” he says of his personal idols. “That’s what drives me.”
To that end, Seacrest is exploring other verticals. His latest deal with Clear Channel, which was valued at roughly $20 million a year when he signed it in November, has him at work on a collection of new ventures, including a concert series that is likely to mirror the multiple-act Jingle Ball model. Seacrest will be involved in the early planning stages and then on hand to host, attend or help book talent. When asked if there will be a TV component to these concerts, he says he isn’t sure. Then he acknowledges what has become obvious to anyone who follows him. “There’s a TV element to everything in my eyes,” he says.
Meanwhile, he’s setting up a music publishing deal at RSP so that the company can own the music — and save big on rights fees — that appears in his shows. As he sees it, finding original music (vocal or otherwise) and signing talent will free up his budget to put more onscreen. His mornings spent curating a radio show that books the industry’s newest acts should feed into this nicely.
Seacrest envisions being a one-stop shopping destination for brands, too. He and his RSP executives are starting to take meetings with companies like Coca-Cola about creating shows together. Much as they did with Maguire, they will hear rough ideas or more about the audience that the company in question is after and then flesh them out into potential TV series.
He has plans to dabble in film as well. Though he’s mum on specifics, Seacrest says he has sold a film and has another one in development. He’s quick to admit that this is one genre in which he’s no expert, which is why he will partner with larger Hollywood production companies on what he labels “commercial movies.”
Finally, there’s his hush-hush cable network. Seacrest says the idea is “still very active,” and he will be a partner in it if the team, which includes CAA and live entertainment giant AEG, can get it on the air. While he intends to contribute content (likely from RSP), he is adamant that it will not be the Ryan Seacrest Channel. “It will not be branded with my name or my face,” he says.
And why would it? That would require the man with Clark’s presence and Griffin’s ambitions to narrow his focus to a single project — a tall task for someone who has likened himself to a maitre d’ in a restaurant of popular culture.
Today, he selects a football analogy, comparing himself to someone playing offense, defense and special teams all in the same game. But to know Seacrest is to know he’d have it no other way. “I don’t know if you noticed,” his lips widen into a smile, “but I don’t do well sitting in one place.”
An uninspired ninth season of American Idol -- with its lackluster judges panel, ratings dive and looming departure of Simon Cowell -- was certain to give way to a disastrous 10th. Or so the conventional wisdom went.
Under Mike Darnell's imperturbable leadership, Idol has retained its perch as TV's No. 1 entertainment show, continued to command TV's top ad rates (about $7 million every half-hour) and -- call it the "J.Lo Effect" -- reinvigorated America's love affair with the format. "Honestly, I thought I woke up in a dream," Darnell says of Idol's zeitgeisty 10th installment.
"I thought this was going to be a hard year no matter what. But it's exceeded everybody's expectations. It's back on track." Idol is only one of a half-dozen shows Darnell oversees for Fox, including So You Think You Can Dance and three hours starring chef Gordon Ramsay: Hell's Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares and MasterChef, last summer's No. 1 series debut.
With the fall launch of what could be Darnell's next juggernaut -- Cowell's The X Factor -- he will have put more than 200 hours of reality television on the air in 2011. "It's hectic," the Los Angeles-based exec says of his superhuman workload. "I do most of my phone calls from the car. And I'm generally late for meetings."
Overseeing three of the longest-running reality shows on television means there’s no time for pain. “Yeah I threw out my back, but I still made it into the office,” she says. The L.A.-based CBS exec points to Survivor’s successful move from a cozy Thursday perch to Wednesday night as her proudest achievement of the season: The fall Nicaragua edition consistently won its time slot among 18-49, and this spring’s Redemption Island cycle averages nearly 12 million viewers.
She has a lot to choose from: The Amazing Race continues to average about 10 million viewers, CBS’ year-old Undercover Boss netted the largest audience ever for a premiere reality series last year, and Big Brother was up 6 percent in viewers last summer. (Bresnan’s four hit shows, Big Brother, Survivor, Race and Boss, and 2010 Emmy noms for the last three are responsible for her move up the Reality Power List from No. 9.)
A bout of back pain aside, Bresnan says life’s been pretty good. “It hit me last year,” she says. “It was 2 p.m., and I was standing on a beach in Rio with Bertram van Munster. The Race challenge was to mix cocktails. I thought, ‘Wow, not too shabby.’ ”
Just how important is Dancing With the Stars? According to USA Today, President Obama began his March 22 Libya speech at 7:30 p.m. to avoid challenging DWTS, TV’s third-most watched show, and ended two minutes before the terpsichorean smash began. Last spring was its biggest season ever, making it the first show in five years to beat American Idol head-to-head.
The key is the obsessive perfectionism of Vicki Dummer and John Saade. Dummer once ran a modern dance company and funded nonballroom dancers at the National Endowment for the Arts. Now she oversees shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. “Washington was a one-industry town, and this is a one-industry town,” she says. Starting out on such series as 8 Simple Rules and The Drew Carey Show helped, too. “Working in scripted comedy, you really got to know what the storytelling process was, and that’s what’s most applicable to reality.”
Saade helped launch shows from Jimmy Kimmel and Bill Maher, along with Billy Crystal’s Oscar-hosting highlights, but what makes him legendary are such shows as Dancing, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Lots of Hollywood execs exude an it’s-all-good attitude; Saade nurtures a gnawing worry that everything could be better, if only he heeded the audience more hyper-attentively. “There’s a ton of editing that goes into it, but honestly, reality depends on the decisions of the participants,” he says. “The best reality shows set up a game board — whether it’s Millionaire or The Bachelor or Dancing or even Wipeout — that allows them to make all the decisions they’re going to make. It’s the producer’s job to weave a story out of that.”
But the story can’t come from the top. “Audiences are partners in these shows now, and they smell too much manipulation, too much heavy-handed producer machinations,” he continues. Saade was initially reluctant to use the title Dancing With the Stars because he fretted that it “hit it so hard on the head that it may be a turnoff.” But he went with it because it was audience-pleasingly clear. Saade also stresses the need not to overproduce. “Honestly, you don’t ever know what’s going to happen once the season starts, and just like a great season in the NBA or NFL: It completely depends on story lines that no one could anticipate. Marty Hilton, The Bachelor producer, always says, ‘Trust the cast.’ ” And the audience, which Saade and Dummer monitor via Twitter, social media and, obviously, ratings. “You listen to the chatter in the halls, too,” Dummer says. “You get a great sense of the barometric pressure.”
Saade first got a sense of Dancing’s barometer when he saw Joey McIntyre walk onto the floor during the first season in 2005. “On the very, very first dance of Dancing With the Stars, we knew it was absurd and it was ridiculous, and there was enough internal tension to make it seem like, ‘What is this gonna be?’ But just the way the studio responded, and the immediate e-mails from the East Coast — it felt like real show business.”
Dummer’s Spidey sense first tingled on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. “For me, it was the pilot taping, when we got our first family on, the emotion in the booth. We were just feeling like: ‘Omigod, this is a show! We really actually changed someone’s life.’ ”
Sometimes people don’t want to change their lives, though, and the ABC reality duo face a challenge with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which is as unpopular with school officials as it is popular with Emmy voters. This year, Oliver wants to make the menu in Los Angeles schools healthier, but recalcitrant district officials apparently were not impressed when he filled a school bus with 57 tons of white sand to demonstrate how much sugar kids ingest each week in flavored milk from school lunches.
Despite such bumps on the road, the Dummer/Saade reality fiefdom seems to be working for ABC: Entertainment Group president Paul Lee recently eliminated the position of scripted executive vp Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, so that the scripted side reports directly to him, as Saade and Dummer do.
Reality TV involves risks for all concerned, but sometimes it specializes in sadism, which Saade and Dummer shy away from. What goes too far? “Shows that are intentionally destructive, that are emotionally destructive, mean-spirited,” Saade says. “We have no problem with adversity. But we let people at least be able to come out the other side. When people get thrown in the mud, we want them to come out smiling.”
Since Nancy Dubuc took control of History in 2007, the once fuddy-duddy network is now a top-five cable entity known for such manly-man reality series as Ice Road Truckers, Top Gear and Ax Men -- all of which have sent total viewership soaring 72 percent. Her hit Pawn Stars has seen more than 10 copycats hit the air since it premiered in 2009 and is now basic cable's top-rated series among adults 25-54 (and No. 2 overall).
Now, the married mother of two splits her time between New York and Los Angeles while also revitalizing Lifetime, which has ramped up its unscripted offerings with the military-themed Coming Home, which premiered March 6 with 2.7 million viewers; a docu-vehicle for Roseanne Barr; and a series with Beth Holloway, mother of vanished teen Natalee Holloway.
In a rare moment of calm, the red-hot cable exec admits she "way underestimated the schizophrenia" of running the two vastly different networks. But true to form, she has no plans of slowing down. "The art of being in one of these chairs is being able to push, push, push -- but also knowing when to take a beat," Dubuc says. "Some days I do that better than others."
How do you wield reality power when you don't currently have a show on the air? Well, by being Simon Cowell. Having upped the talent-show ante to the tune of an astronomical $5 million prize, Britain's beloved, self-branded bully is bringing his music franchise The X Factor to the U.S. in September.
And he has big shoes to fill: his own. After helping grow American Idol from a low-rent summer experiment to a series high of 31 million viewers in 2006, it's hard to imagine lightning striking twice. But Cowell, whose Syco Records is among Sony Music U.K.'s biggest money-making labels, has never been one to rely on luck.
"I think our timing is good because of what I've seen in the last 12 months," he says of the U.S. version of X Factor. "From my record company perspective, there's this whole new generation of artists like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna who've almost kicked out the old guard." Few could have guessed that Idol and its competitors -- from Mark Burnett's The Voice to America's Got Talent, which Cowell executive produces, to The Sing Off -- would still be a hot TV category 10 years after Kelly Clarkson's Idol win.
But for his part, Cowell hasn't strayed too far from the basic formula with X Factor. "It's the same principle now," says Cowell, who's reportedly engaged to former Idol makeup artist Mezhgan Hussainy and splits his time between London and Los Angeles. "No matter what your ambitions are for one of these shows, it absolutely depends on the contestants. If they're all useless and boring, you haven't got a show."
With nary a screen test between American Idol's two new stars, Fremantle's North American chief Cecile Frot-Coutaz, who executive produces the ratings behemoth and runs its Burbank-based production company, made the biggest casting decision of her career when she agreed to hire Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler to sit alongside Randy Jackson.
"There are a lot of stakeholders, which is really hard," says the French-born executive and mother of two, about working on Idol while navigating the demands of four executive producers, multiple Fox higher-ups, a host, judges and a crop of contestants. "It's like you're married, but divorce is not an option.
You have to make it work." And does she ever. While many had written off the singing competition in its post-Cowell incarnation, the show has retained almost all of its 25 million viewers in season 10. Still, for Frot-Coutaz, the next few weeks may feel like Groundhog Day as she repeats the peacemaker process for The X Factor (premiering in September on Fox).
"Over the years, I've learned how to be a good partner and still preserve the interests of the company that pays my salary and the TV show," she says. "But it's a long-term game."
In his 11 years at Endemol, David Goldberg has helped the media conglomerate launch more than 50 series for 45 broadcasters around the world, including CBS' Big Brother and NBC's Deal or No Deal. Prospects look good for a second order of Million Dollar Money Drop from Fox, and ABC has ordered 101 Ways to Leave a Game Show for summer.
And when NBC bows the Costa Rica-set reality romance romp Love in the Wild this summer, Goldberg can claim the rare achievement of having unscripted shows on all four major broadcasters this year. "And the majority of our stuff is actually homegrown," he says.
The Los Angeles-based executive oversees operations in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. He also continues to oversee day-to-day operations at Endemol USA, the business he launched in 2000, and at six different production companies including Authentic Entertainment, 51 Minds, True Entertainment and Original Media.
For all of his enviable success, though, Goldberg says the emotional connection with the viewer is still what resonates most for him. Recalling production on the pilot for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in 2003, Goldberg says, "The family was crying, I was crying, the crew was crying, even the burly construction workers were balling. I knew we were on to something."
"I've been involved in a lot of what I would call 'modest flops,' " Paul Telegdy admits of such lackluster-performers as Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann and Grease: You're the One That I Want.
"But I'm still going to carry on." The Los Angeles-based executive, who joined NBC in 2008 from BBC America Worldwide, is betting big that The Voice, producer Mark Burnett's adaptation of the Dutch hit, won't resemble even a modest flop when it bows April 26. Telegdy worked closely with Burnett and his team to select Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine as judges.
"It was all-consuming over many months," he says, adding that the show will promote "relentless positivity," similar to his feel-good ratings-grabber The Biggest Loser, which heads into its 12th cycle this fall.
With such reliable performers as America's Got Talent (last summer's most-watched show for 14 of its 16 weeks on the air), The Sing Off (it grew 28 percent in the ad-coveted 18-49 demographic in its second season) and Celebrity Apprentice (currently the top-rated show in its Sunday time period), Telegdy is poised to usher in the next big thing -- cautiously, of course. "It's hard as hell to launch any new show," he admits. "We're 110 percent committed to The Voice. We'll see if we know what we're doing."
"I believe you have to trust your gut, go after it and know that not everything is going to be a hit, but when it hits it really should hit," says the Jersey Shore producer. SallyAnn Salsano's ability to trust her instinct led to the creation of MTV's highest-rated series ever and have made her the town's hottest production.
"I thought Jersey Shore was going to get heat and a cult following. I was shocked at the mass appeal," she admits. "It just took off like gangbusters, but it was a total gamble." Shore will air its fourth season in late 2011. Salsano started her career as an intern at The Howard Stern Show and The Sally Jesse Raphael Show, where she became the youngest producer on Raphael's staff.
She went on to produce for The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition, among others. Salsano also produced dozens of projects for Dick Clark Productions, Sony, Telepictures, Paramount, Tribune and MTV. In 2006 she launched her L.A.-based company 495 Productions, which spawned such hits as HGTV's top- rated show Design Star and Oxygen's No. 1 rated show Dance Your Ass Off.
How concerned is Mark Burnett about comparisons between his new music series, The Voice, and American Idol or The X Factor? "They are completely different," he says, noting that unlike the formats of those two shows, the judges on his NBC series (premiering April 26) are part of the competition; when contestants sing, the judges hear them without seeing them. Leave it to Burnett, television's most successful producer of reality programming, to come up with a twist on a tried-and-true reality format.
"This is the best year I've had in years," he says, pointing to the continued success of CBS's venerable Survivor, now in its 23rd cycle (and prepping for a 24th), NBC's The Apprentice and ABC's Shark Tank (doing much better numbers in its second incarnation), in addition to his producing of the People's Choice Awards and upcoming MTV Video Music Awards.
What's left to do? He's got the summer series Expedition Impossible, which he calls "very Indiana Jones with elements of Eco Challenge," and is even contemplating entering the realm of scripted dramas. "I've been thinking about that a lot lately," he says.
Two years ago, Lauren Dolgen read an article that said 750,000 American teenage girls get pregnant every year. "It was like getting kicked in the gut," she says. "I thought: 'Oh my God, this is happening to our audience.
This is happening to their friends. We should be telling these stories.' " Dolgen's instincts were spot-on: The second season of MTV's 16 & Pregnant averaged more than 3 million viewers (Season 3 premieres April 19) and pop-culture juggernaut Teen Mom averages 4 million viewers and regularly beats its cable and broadcast competition.
With more than three decades at MTV Networks between them -- Dolgen started as a college intern in MTV Europe's press department in 1997, and Chris Linn joined the company in 1990 as a production assistant at Nickelodeon Studios in Florida -- the duo has helped MTV become, again, must-see viewing among teens and twentysomethings.
Of the recently renewed The Real World, which takes the show through a 28th cycle and into a third decade, and Jersey Shore, whose third-season finale was watched by 8 million viewers, Linn says, "It goes to show you the kind of legs that reality has when it's done right."
For Studio Lambert, CBS' Undercover Boss is the gift that keeps on giving. It debuted after the 2010 Super Bowl and became the TV season's No. 1 new show and is holding strong in its second season -- averaging 11.9 million viewers, good enough to best CBS's The Amazing Race. "It's almost a fairy tale in terms of how quickly it worked and how successful it is," Stephen Lambert says of the show, which was picked up for a third season in March. Lambert, who is married to The Guardian and London Evening Standard writer Jenni Russell, finds himself moving up on this year's list (Eli Holzman joins him this year) from No. 31 as a result of Boss. The way Holzman sees it, Boss has afforded the stateside arm of Studio Lambert the opportunity to grow quickly -- from new programming it is pushing to its new hires. The company has development deals at Oxygen, Style, Spike, Animal Planet and E!; it also has pilots or series at CBS, AMC, OWN, Lifetime, TruTV, VH1, WEtv and A&E. Despite busy schedules, London-based Lambert (who created the U.K. Secret Millionaire) and Holzman, who resides in L.A., have found time for a little R&R -- hitting the ski slopes in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival, where Studio Lambert's financial-crisis documentary The Flaw had its North American debut. Holzman has kept himself busy with his burgeoning food-centric business: He's a partner in New York City hotspot eatery, The Meatball Shop, and is the creator of Q-Bees, a new, Rice Krispies-like treat that is filled with ice cream and sold at Whole Foods Markets.
Brides. Ghosts. Larry the Cable Guy? "As long as there's good story and good talent," Craig Piligian says of his expanding brood of reality characters.
And they're everywhere: on Discovery, where Piligian launched the game-changing and still-thriving American Chopper and Dirty Jobs (the former's premiere drew more than 3 million viewers in February); on History, home of the marksmen-themed Top Shot and comedic Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy, which gave the net its best-ever first-quarter launch; on Syfy, on which Ghost Hunters returns this year for seventh season; and on OWN, via the forthcoming Miracle Detectives.
But somehow, the L.A.-based Detroit native still sees himself as an underdog. "Unscripted is still the black sheep," Piligian says. "All these scripted guys come in and want to do reality TV, and they have their asses handed to them 'cause they don't know how to do it."
Emmy winner Thom Beers has made a career out of celebrating the blue-collar worker. "They're the lifeline of America," he says. "Guys who go out and get dirty and do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay."
His testosterone-laden programs -- which include Discovery's highest-rated series Deadliest Catch and the high-rated History series, Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men -- are the signatures of Original Productions, which Beers formed in 1997 after years as a production executive for Turner Broadcasting and Paramount Syndicated Television. (
FremantleMedia acquired a majority stake in the company in 2009.) The latest in his collection of 14 series currently in production, on seven U.S. networks, is Spike TV's Coal, which looks at the lives of West Virginia coal miners and their families. "They're working really small veins, literally 34-36 inches," Beers says.
"They're spending their whole days -- so are my crew -- working on their knees. Thank God for technology because small little cameras allow us to get places we never could get to before."
Since the inception of the juggernaut Kardashian franchise (which recently launched two more spinoffs: Kourtney & Kim Take New York and Khloe & Lamar) and the continued success of the Girls Next Door offshoots Holly's World and Kendra, Lisa Berger has moved the network from idle star-watcher to pioneering starmaker.
"Reality is the core of our network," says the Los Angeles-based mother of two, who plans to further develop the genre on E! this year. "Our success in exploring these amazing characters has grown the network." From the Kardashian sisters' infamous at-home bikini wax to uncovering the source of the mysterious noise in Kendra's basement (her hot-pink vibrator), viewers can't seem to get enough.
With a sixth season of Keeping up With the Kardashians in the works, Berger (who, given the success of her shows, jumped ahead 18 spots this year on the Reality Power List) plans to expand the network's reality programming, including the addition of a dance competition series, The Dance Scene, in April.
But Berger believes developing the right characters will remain their primary focus: "We bring to the table larger than life characters that provide viewers with some wish fulfillment, what they hope will happen in their lives. But at the end of the day, they're real and flawed, just like us."
It's been a banner 2011 so far for Eileen O'Neill, who in January was tapped for the newly created position of group president presiding over both TLC and Discovery Networks. And last year wasn't too bad either: TLC's 13-series reality lineup lures an average of 1 million viewers each, including the headline-grabbing polygamy-based Sister Wives.
"It's a provocative story but told very humanely," O'Neill says. "We think the family is fascinating." Up next is a slew of what she dubs "stuff" shows: Extreme Couponing, What the Sell and Pawn Queens. Over at Discovery, O'Neill still works closely with Nancy Daniels, the channel's executive vp production, with whom she'll roll out Swamp Brothers and Hogs Gone Wild to join Deadliest Catch, American Chopper and the 24th installment of Shark Week, cable's longest-running, most-watched annual event, which drew more than 30 million people last summer.
What's the appeal of Dancing With the Stars? It helps that it is a "melting pot" of celebrities, which naturally attracts a diverse viewership, according to Green. But it's more than that.
"There's a touch of Old Hollywood glamour about the show and something reassuring about it," he says. "We know what we do is inherently silly, but we do bring a bit of joy to people."
DWTS, now in its 12th cycle, has aired more than 210 episodes and continues to be a ratings grabber for ABC (it was the top-rated Monday-night show two weeks in a row following its March 21 season debut) — not to mention fodder for watercooler conversations and late-night talk show hosts. Even critics grousing that the contestants are little more than D-listers can't diminish Green's enthusiasm for DWTS.
But Green, who devotes six days a week to the series and has never missed a taping — "I'm a hackneyed old pro," he says — is surprised by the show's longevity. "If you had asked me a few years ago, I probably would have said it would have been over by now," he says.
Lipsitz and Cutforth say they begin each workday with firm intentions that promptly explode — sometimes literally. "We come in with a plan, and that immediately goes out the window," Lipsitz says. Adds Cutforth, "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy."
On a recent episode of their hit Top Chef, a fish fryer in the Bahamas burst into flames. "You learn to make quick decisions," Cutforth says. "We had to abandon the shoot for the day, but we had a dark day the next day, so we just did it then." For the Elves, business is blowing up real good. Besides Top Chef and its spinoffs Top Chef Masters and Just Desserts, they produced the unexpectedly good $87 million grosser Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
That's why Lipsitz stayed in New York working on it the night Top Chef unexpectedly seized the Emmy last summer, beating such giants as American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Project Runway (which they produced from 2005-08, before it went to Lifetime) and The Amazing Race, which had won seven times in a row. Next up: America's Next Great Restaurant, which will not only discover great chefs but bankroll actual eateries.
Gordon Ramsay insists he isn't mean. He is simply unable to tell the little white lies that the rest of us do.
"I'm too blunt," he admits. "I can't pretend. I have to get straight to the point. That's all."
That now-familiar Ramsay critiquing style was on full display during a recent taping of the upcoming second season of Fox's MasterChef, when a contestant — who also happens to be a UFC fighter — attempted to reinvent Japanese cuisine for a less sophisticated palette by rolling braised chicken in rice and calling it "redneck sushi."
"I told him, 'That is absolutely disgusting … an embarrassment to sushi,' " Ramsay says. "He started frothing at the mouth, tensed his muscles and picked up a cooler and threw it. But what am I going to say to him? I've got be honest."
A staple of the Scotsman's competitive cooking programs, which also include Fox's Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, is the slow boil of his infamous temper. But if the fire-and-brimstone chef can be counted on to erupt into paroxysms of f-bombs by the second act, it's only because there isn't a false note in his repertoire.
"He's real and raw," says Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative entertainment, who introduced U.S. viewers to Ramsay in 2005 with the American incarnation of the British series Hell's Kitchen. "He's not just a great television personality. That's how he is when the cameras aren't rolling: tough and crazy."
All of which makes for compelling — and addictive — reality programming: MasterChef was last summer's top-rated new show, Hell's Kitchen has been broadcast TV's No. 1 reality show for the past four summers, and Kitchen Nightmares has lifted Fox's Friday-night average by 150%. Ramsay has extended his deal with Fox through 2013, and the network recently picked up Hell's Kitchen for two more seasons. The ninth cycle will bow in July with the 10th slated for 2012, while the second season of MasterChef — featuring the aforementioned contestant — premieres June 6.
To cash in on his transcontinental stardom and growing media empire — which includes more than a dozen shows in the U.S. and U.K. and a valuation estimated at more than $100 million — Ramsay formed the production company One Potato Two Potato in 2008. It's a joint venture with the U.K.-based Optomen Television, which last year became part of All3Media group and is run by Ramsay and Pat Llewellyn, Optomen's managing director. In 2010, the company opened a Los Angeles outpost to capitalize on Ramsay's growing interest in producing. But he still makes his home in England with his wife Tana, a former schoolteacher and author, and their four children: Megan, 13; twins Jack and Holly, 11; and Matilda, 9. His intense bicontinental lifestyle means that his time is scheduled literally years beforehand.
"It gets a little bit scary when you know where you're going to be 18 months in advance," he says. "But it's also quite nice because your life becomes organized."
Many of his ambitions extend beyond the kitchen-mayhem milieu, including a reality project he's dubbed Owned by America, which provides start-up money to build a community-owned business. He also has multiple ideas for daytime syndication including a how-to-cook-a-gourmet-dinner-with-$20 instructional show for daytime. Cooking, Ramsay says, "is still a craft. But cooking on TV is nowhere near as hard as slaving over a stove 18 hours a day and cooking lunch and dinner six days a week, let me tell you that. It's a dream."
For all of Ramsay's culinary success, his foray into cooking was somewhat accidental. In his 2006 autobiography Humble Pie, Ramsay describes a hardscrabble childhood with his long-suffering "mum" as the family's anchor while his "hard-drinking womanizer" of a father could not hold a job. This necessitated several different addresses in Glasgow and various cities in England before the family, which included a brother and two sisters, finally settled in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. "As a boy, I was often afraid and ashamed and always poor," he writes.
So his childhood aspirations inclined toward more manly pursuits: He wanted to be a professional soccer player. But a trial in the mid-1980s with the Glasgow Rangers left him with a blown-out knee. So at 19, he enrolled in a local Stratford college to study catering. He worked in several restaurants before landing in the kitchen of chef Marco Pierre White at Harvey's in London. After three years, he found his way to Paris, where he trained under Michelin-starred chefs Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon before reuniting with White in London where White helped set him up in his own restaurant called Aubergine.
The 1998 Channel 4 documentary series Boiling Point shadowed Ramsay as he broke with the restaurant's management (taking most of the kitchen staff with him) and opened his own establishment on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea. It was through Boiling that viewers were first acquainted with Ramsay's now-infamous temper. In one scene, he was accosted in front of his restaurant by a camera crew he suspected was from the U.K. reality show Bosses From Hell. The crew's female producer denies it, but Ramsay asserts on-camera: "She's got hairy armpits, and I don't believe her. Full stop."
Llewellyn first met Ramsay in 2004 after she'd launched cooking shows with Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef) and Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson (The Two Fat Ladies).
"His people asked me, 'Will you go to a meeting with Gordon Ramsay?' I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, I don't know.' I was curious and scared," she says. "But he's quite underestimated and really a magnetic personality. It's palpable when you spend time with him."
Seven years later, Ramsay has charmed network executives, diners and more than a few viewers. But he still clings to his humble beginnings even as he continues to ascend the gilded ladder of TV stardom in Los Angeles, the land of egg-white omelets where carbohydrates are anathema.
"I eat porridge every morning because it makes me feel Scottish," says Ramsay, who travels with Scott's Porage Oats — the box features an illustration of a man in a kilt and white tank top, his muscles bulging as he holds a shotput aloft.
"Porridge is humble. If I don't have that every day, I feel like I'm getting pretentious. Ask anyone in Glasgow if they would like an egg-white omelet, and they'd beat you up. No, I keep it real. And I stay with porridge because it makes me feel like I'm keeping me feet on the ground."
Buccieri is that rare TV exec who openly welcomes success among the competition. “I actually just e-mailed Cecile [Frot-Coutaz] to tell her how I’m enjoying what she’s done with Idol,” he says.
“Success in the arena brings better shows to the genre.” And much of the L.A. executive’s own rebranding strategy for ITV Studios (formerly Granada America) could qualify as such, including Fox’s triple-threat foodie fest Hell’s Kitchen (the No. 1-rated show for the past four summers) and Kitchen Nightmares; Four Weddings for TLC; and a personal favorite of Buccieri, Steven Seagal: Lawman on A&E, which is filming its second season.
“He amazes me, the juxtaposition of him in that role,” the married father of two says. “He epitomizes our programming staple of the unsung hero.”
As much as he loves his 2 1/2-year-old post as CEO of RelativityREAL, a joint venture with Relativity Media’s Ryan Kavanaugh (“I am accidentally a much better CEO than I had any reason to think I would be,” he says), Forman can’t quite shake the experience of being an executive producer.
“I was a hands-on, day-to-day showrunner for most of my career,” he says. “I’m never happier than when I’m out in the field actually calling shots and whispering in the director’s ear. The good news is, I’m still able to do a lot of that.” That’s why the creator of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has recently been “literally running from edit bay to edit bay” as he works on RelativityREAL’s new military-family reunion series Coming Home for Lifetime and Carson Kressley’s makeover show, Carson-Nation, for OWN.
With 13 series currently in production, they’re the latest in Forman’s library of programming that feature “real people having real emotions.” Says Forman, “I’m allergic to those shows where I feel producers’ fingerprints all over it and where you see people behaving in a way that no human being would actually behave.”
Jonathan Murray has been called the Man Who Invented Reality — at least, he and late partner Mary Ellis-Bunim created The Real World two decades ago. And the latest cycle, MTV Real World: Las Vegas, developed with Bunim/Murray president Gil Goldschein, is up 11 percent in ratings since last year.
“We may not have played as big a stage as some of my fellow producers,” Murray says, “but we’ve always been innovative. I love being able to create a program for a brand, for a particular demo: MTV with The Real World, Kardashians for E! or Bad Girls Club for Oxygen. We have another Project Runway coming this summer, a 90-minute version, and we’ve been working on Best Ink for Oxygen for 2011.” Best Ink foregrounds something Murray holds dear: storytelling.
“Not only is it a competition to find the best tattoo artist, tattoos tell a story.” Murray, though, kicks back with scripted shows. “I spent so much time watching cuts of reality shows, I actually want to watch something I don’t feel compelled to give a note on.”
The part-time film director — his most recent was the 2009 Mischa Barton vehicle Homecoming — says he hopes to complete a screenplay that’s remained on the “sideburner” for some time. But that will only happen once the New York City resident gets time, and there’s no rest for the weary at 11th Street Productions, which produces 16 and Pregnant and the Teen Mom platform for MTV. T
he producer says he was “caught off guard” by the success of 16 and its spin-offs: Teen Mom 2 launched in January, and the finale aired March 28. The program averaged 4.7 million total viewers on the season and from Sept. 27-Feb. 7 was the No. 4 reality show in the 18-34 female demographic, averaging 2.1 million viewers.
Meanwhile, the third season of 16 debuts April 19. Freeman, a Laguna Beach vet, says the success of the teen pregnancy-centric shows has inspired 11th Street to pursue other socially conscious shows. To that end, the company has three in active development: Cliques, which will track four high school students; a show on death; and another on divorce.
In his nearly 30 years in television, McKillop has shepherded some of cable’s biggest unscripted hits, first at Discovery (Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs) and then at History (Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars). With his boss, Nancy Dubuc, he is credited with transforming the latter — once known as the “Hitler channel” for its slate of musty World War II docs — into a Top 5 cable network; History rounded out 2010 ranked No. 3, behind only ESPN and USA, among males 25-54.
Now, McKillop plans to do it all over again at A&E, which he was tapped to lead in March. His goal: develop fresh concepts, including those that tap into the nation’s collective sense of post-recession rediscovery.
“We’re dealing with such a huge change in who we are as a country and how we define ourselves,” he says, strategically vague for fear of competitors getting there first. But when the workday ends, the exec unwinds in his kitchen. “I’m the rare New Yorker who goes home from work and cooks every night,” he says. “I make a mean Thai curry.”
When Andy Cohen and the rest of the Bravo team recently moved their offices to the 46th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, his picture wall — transferred carefully from his old office — went up first.
“I like an unlikely duo,” Cohen says of the various odd-couple pairings on the wall behind his desk. There’s Dolly Parton with Henry Kissinger. There’s Dan Rather crouching in the Monument Valley, Utah, desert to snap a picture of Cohen while the two were working on a 1997 Don Imus profile for CBS News. There’s Anderson Cooper, Cohen’s friend, with NeNe Leakes, erstwhile Atlanta housewife and current Celebrity Apprentice mean girl.
The unconventional coupling is a hallmark of Watch What Happens Live, which has Cohen alternately playing referee, interlocutor and instigator during live interviews with various “Bravolebrities” as well as random guests from his bulging social Rolodex.
But it is also evident in the executive suite at Bravo where Cohen — who embodies the network’s socially ravenous ethos — reports to Berwick, a petite Brit with an arch sense of humor, posh accent and a speaking voice several decibels lower than Cohen’s.
“Andy is an optimist. Frances is a pragmatist,” says Lauren Zalaznick, chairman of NBCUniversal Entertainment & Digital Networks & Integrated Media, which owns Bravo. “A straight, international woman and a Midwestern gay man — that forms a nice view of the world,” she adds. “Andy is topical, driven to wake up and see what happened while he was sleeping. Frances is worldview: ‘Let’s take this on, but not jump off course because of it.’ “
Frances Berwick is Bravo’s practical implementer and Cohen its resident pop-culture connoisseur; the network’s success seems to demonstrate the virtue of opposites. From its breakout hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to a seemingly endless parade of Real Housewives, Bravo has led a reality revolution that’s turned guilty-pleasure TV into social anthropology. “We’re recognized for reality that has a high-quality sheen,” Berwick says.
Bravo is coming off its fifth year of growth across all platforms, finishing 2010 ranked No. 13 among ad-supported cable networks in the critical 18-49 demographic; it’s currently at No. 10. But beyond the frothy marketing campaigns and clever wordplay (Bravo execs call their viewers “affluencers”) is a strict adherence to brand ideology. Here the two are of one mind.
Says Cohen, “We’ve gotten so good at developing to our brand — agonizingly so for some producers — we are completely sure before we greenlight something.”
At Bravo, adds Berwick, “there is a very clear association between the shows and the network and that’s not always the case. You can have a very well-known show, and people don’t know what network it’s on.”
That brand discipline spurs sampling across the network’s programs and platforms and keeps its shows top-of-mind in an increasingly noisy media landscape. Four years ago, Bravo had two nights of original programming on the air; now there are five. Eleven shows will bow this year alone, including Platinum Hit — a songwriting competition show featuring American Idol alum Kara DioGuardi and singer-songwriter Jewel — premiering May 30, and Mad Fashion, which has Project Runway Season 4 standout Chris March executing zany fashion challenges, bowing this summer. Also on tap in 2011: a Flipping Out spinoff with OCD designer Jeff Lewis; It’s a Brad Brad World, featuring Rachel Zoe’s former assistant Brad Goreski; and Most Eligible: Dallas, an heir apparent to the Real Housewives franchise that revolves around the dating lives of over-the-top Texans.
For all of Bravo’s success in building a broad array of programs (the network targets five “programming buckets” — fashion, food, beauty, design and pop culture), it’s those bickering Housewives who define Bravo in the media and Twitterverse (New Jersey’s Danielle Staub’s brushes with the law and sex tape infamy, D.C.’s Michaele and Tareq Salahi’s brazen state dinner crashing). The Real Housewives of Atlanta is the top-rated spinoff in the franchise, averaging 3.6 million viewers an episode for its most recent season, the show’s third.
But those Housewives also take some managing, and that, of course, has fallen to Cohen. “It’s a big part of your job,” Berwick tells him. Cohen, in fact, has literally been in the middle of physical arguments between Jersey housewives on WWHL.
“Oh, there are life lessons in those, too,” laughs Berwick, adding that The Real Housewives programs “are essentially fun shows. But it’s their whole lives, warts and all. We don’t sanitize it. And we don’t judge them. There’s no one in the middle telling the audience what they should think about these women.”
Neither Berwick nor Cohen will be pinned down about whether their latest iteration — The Real Housewives of Miami, averaging a modest 1.4 million viewers per episode — will be Bravo’s final Housewives spinoff. And the network recently picked up a second season of Beverly Hills and a fourth season of Atlanta.
The counterpoint to Cohen’s picture wall may be Berwick’s awards shelf, which includes an Emmy for Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List and a Peabody for a documentary about jazz label Blue Note, reflecting her ability to traverse high and low culture. While there are no more high-art documentaries on Bravo, there is Sarah Jessica Parker’s art world competition show Work of Art and James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, Bravo’s longest-running original at 17 seasons.
“Although they are so dissimilar-seeming when you shake one hand and shake the other,” says Zalaznick, “they are both straightforward, driven, results-oriented people. And their points of difference are where true diversity comes into play at Bravo.”
“A performer is someone with that magic quality — the ‘X factor,’ as Simon Cowell calls it — and whether that person is an actor, singer, dancer or even a politician, the magnetism pulls you in.”
Such is the ruling philosophy behind every decision Lythgoe has made, from his days as judge “Nasty Nigel” on the U.K. show Popstars (the prototype for American Idol) to a decade-long run as executive producer on Fox’s Idol (he took a two-year break from 2008-10) and So You Think You Can Dance, which he credits with having “raised the standard of dance in this country.”
For his latest talent competition, the L.A.-based Briton, along with his showrunner son Simon, will take on true Americana with this month’s CMT’s Next Superstar. “Country music brings drama and humor to its lyrics,” the elder Lythgoe explains of the show’s songwriting component.
He’ll also make dreams come true with the CBS game show pilot Secret Fortune. But while his name is synonymous with the live-competition concept, Lythgoe doesn’t fancy himself a “reality TV” power player. “You turn a camera on anyone, reality flies out the window and everybody becomes a performer,” he says.
Warner Bros.’ purchase of U.K.-based Shed Media in August only strengthened the firm, says Emmerson, whose conglomerate experienced the rare conundrum of having two of its properties, Supernanny (ABC) and Who Do You Think You Are? (NBC), squaring off on Friday nights.
(The former is winning the battle.) Emmerson says he considers The Marriage Ref a success even though it was drubbed by reviewers, because it was picked up by NBC for its second season only three episodes into Season 1. (When it appears on NBC later this year, Shed won’t be involved.)
The company has a slew of shows set to kick off new seasons, including the fourth of The Real Housewives of New York City on Bravo and the third of Basketball Wives on VH1. Despite the workload, Emmerson, who resides in Hollywood with his wife and three children, still finds time to play on his star-laden L.A. soccer team, which won its league this year: Players include Gordon Ramsay and singer Robbie Williams.
From Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen to G4’s American Ninja Warrior to Oxygen’s upcoming Paris Hilton project, Arthur Smith’s slate isn’t lacking in diversity. “We’re all over the place, but in a good way,” says the Canada native who got his start in front of the camera doing films, sitcoms and voice-over work as a young adult.
(Listen closely and you’ll hear him doing voice-overs on his Kitchen spinoff, Kitchen Nightmares.) Proof of his colorful portfolio crystallized three years ago when Smith walked into his San Fernando Valley-based production office and was greeted by designers from TLC’s Trading Spaces, fighters from Spike’s UFC Countdown and “gangstas” from BET’s American Gangster.
Diversification is paying off: Hell’s Kitchen has been the No. 1 broadcast show for four summers running; Kitchen Nightmares has lifted Fox’s Friday night average by 150 percent. With his producing partner Kent Weed, they’ve sold eight pilots since November.
Despite the disappointment that was Paula Abdul’s post-Idol CBS effort, Live to Dance, Owens is optimistic the ratings-challenged program could bounce back in a second season. “We can do things better,” he says, noting that Reveille is still deep in talks with CBS to “get it picked up.”
Owen finds himself lower on this year’s list (he was No. 11 in 2010) after the August appointment of Shine Group Americas CEO Emiliano Calemzuk, who now oversees Reveille, and the September departure of Reveille co-managing director Mark Koops.
Still, the company has been buoyed by its two tentpole reality franchises, NBC’s The Biggest Loser and MasterChef, the former now in its 11th cycle and averaging 8.8 million viewers. The success of MasterChef, whose Season 2 bows June 6, has made Reveille less reliant on Loser. “The clear marching orders for the company were to find a complement to Biggest Loser as our tentpole reality franchise,” he says.
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.”)
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.
Obsessive fans of Pawn Stars can thank a 2008 bachelor party weekend in Las Vegas for the show's inspiration. "I said to a friend, 'I really should do a show out here sometime,' " says the show's married, New York-based creator Montgomery. "And at that moment we drove by a pawn shop.
I called my assistant right away." Currently History's highest-rated series, Stars debuted in 2009 and has, inevitably, spawned several knockoffs. Montgomery, who was a producer on reality staples The Bachelor, Blind Date and Wife Swap before establishing Leftfield Pictures, admits he was concerned at first about the competition.
"But it's shown that the hidden-treasure format is a genre that can keep growing." With eight pilots shot and eight, including Stars, picked up, Montgomery is currently producing What the Sell, Oddities, American Restoration, Set-Up Squad and three other series for TLC, History, Logo, Bravo, A&E and HGTV.
He promises a diverse slate right out of the gate, with shows that cater equally to both genders (Set-Up Squad is a dating series). "We want to make sure that we aren't known for only making barber shop shows," he says.
"We'd call agents or managers about a client, and they'd hang up," recalls Chris Abrego of the embryonic era of his genre-breaking brainchild, VH1's The Surreal Life.
"Now it's a legitimate occupation. It's OK for celebrities to do a reality show and still make a movie," says Abrego, who lives in Los Angeles with his family. With the market saturated with knockoffs of the very "celeb-reality" format he and his 51 Minds partner Mark Cronin spawned from their Sunset Boulevard office, Abrego has been forced to diversify his programming roster: In 2010, they put 11 new shows on the air, including E!'s controversial Bridalplasty and VH1's Money Hungry, and currently has four shows in production including CBS' Same Name and VH1's Ton of Cash.
Cronin, who resides in Pasadena with his wife, likens his business relationship with Abrego to one of bandmates. About three-quarters of their work is done together, while their other ventures are handled like "solo albums." Decisions on projects they handle separately come down to personal taste.
"I have things I'm interested in that I run with," says Cronin, who is pursuing projects in the game and talk show realms. He would like to transition away from shows with "inorganic" premises — programs centered on a group of people living in a house together, for example. "The audience is saying, 'Bring us more authentic situations.' It isn't enough that they are competing for a prize at the end."
For Drew Pinsky, documenting a celebrity's rock bottom carries a far greater purpose than a ratings grab. "We hope viewers have moments where they go, 'There was this show on and I could no longer deny my disease,' " says the L.A.-based M.D. of his popular VH1 addiction series Celebrity Rehab which he co-produces with John Irwin.
Since Rehab premiered in 2008 (its fifth cycle featuring such patients as Michael Lohan, Sean Young and Amy Fisher just wrapped) and spawned the two-season Sober House, Pinsky says it has "raised awareness and lowered the threshold for people to come and take care of their problems."
These problems have inspired Pinsky's monopoly of the oeuvre of substance abuse to include sex addiction (as seen in the one-off VH1 special Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew). He also has delved into teen pregnancy (Pinsky hosts reunion specials for MTV's Teen Mom series) and has the 25-year-old syndicated radio program Loveline, a just-launched HLN talk show and a forthcoming daytime talk show on the CW (with Telepictures) called Life Changers With Dr. Drew slated for September.
While the married father of triplets says practicing medicine for 16 hours a day is "10 times harder" than his current media-empire duties, he's never abandoned his professional creed of "first, do no harm." "People who make reality shows generally aren't schooled in medical issues and ethics," he says. "These are things that still weigh profoundly on me."
Last summer's acquisition of RDF by Paris-based Zodiak created one of the largest independent production companies in the world. The transition was "remarkably smooth," says Mansfield, who had feared bumps in the road.
Indeed, the company wasn't slowed by the deal; in the past year, Mansfield says, Zodiak more than tripled the number of shows it produces. The deal gave the company access to more international formats, something that's "incredibly helpful in a market like this." The company now has a stable of shows in production that includes NBC's The Boss Is Coming to Dinner and TruTV's All Worked Up and its spinoff, Lizard Lick Towing.
But the firm's big hits are Secret Millionaire (ABC) and Hardcore Pawn (both on TruTV). Season 2 of Millionaire premiered March 6 (hopping over from Fox) and pulled in 12.6 million viewers, trouncing its direct competitors and giving ABC its biggest audience in the 8 p.m. Sunday time slot in three years.
And Pawn, which Mansfield dubs "an emblematic show" for the network and is now in its third season, debuted in August 2010 with the biggest premiere in TruTV's history — grabbing 2 million viewers. Mansfield resides with his family in Los Angeles.
Matt Chan gets a kick out of reading the Twitter feeds that percolate after an airing of Hoarders on A&E, now in its fourth season. "The first one is always something like, 'I am so cleaning my house right now," he says with a laugh. "Everybody understands the impulse. Everybody's got their junk drawer.
Hoarders is, basically, take your junk drawer and magnify it a hundred times to the point where it's dysfunctional." The show might be Seattle-based Screaming Fleas' most high-profile project, averaging 1.8 million viewers between September 2010 and February 2011, but it's far from the only one. With more than 20 years in the business, the company has 29 series to its credit, including A&E's Sell This House and Spike TV's Three Sheets, and has seen its projects on more than 15 networks worldwide.
How much of a difference is there between scripted and reality series? "In the reality genre, the shows still have to deliver the same beats that scripted shows do," Chan says. "You have a beginning, middle and end, well-developed characters and a strong narrative."
It disappoints Bertram Van Munster that The Amazing Race lost last year's reality competition Emmy to Top Chef. "I re-created a complete battlefield from the First World War with airplanes and a French army and Doughboys," he recalls, citing one leg of the Season 16 journey that ended with a Tour De France race on vintage bikes. Still, he can't complain — the round-the-world series claimed the prize seven years in a row.
"There's room for everybody," he concedes. And Race continues to be a ratings grabber for CBS, now in Season 18, garnering an average 2.6 rating and 9.24 million viewers. In March, it was renewed for a 19th installment.
If circling the globe three times in preparation and execution of the series were not enough to keep him busy, Van Munster also has the cat-and-mouse competition series Take the Money and Run premiering in July on ABC. "We make huge efforts on a big scale to bring the world a little bit together," he says. "I give people a little bit of an understanding what this place is about and how fragile it is."
"I always consider it a victory for our shows that return," says the SPT exec, whose Shark Tank and The Sing-Off both came back after cancellation chatter followed their first seasons. Shark Tank's second season premiered to a series high with 6.1 million viewers (though ratings dropped when it aired in its regular Friday-night time slot).
And in February, NBC renewed The Sing-Off for a third installment. "It was the show that quietly got on the radar two years ago, and last season it really seemed to pop through the culture," says Jacobs, who admits to watching reality TV "with a hunger" in her spare time. "So now, for season three, we really feel that we can make it bigger and stronger." Also on her docket?
The CW reality romantic comedy Plain Jane, which launched internationally in January; a new comedic game show for NBC, Just My Luck; Dirty Town, a 30-minute pilot for A&E; and Re-Modeled (with fellow listmakers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan), a one-hour pilot for the CW. And not to be forgotten: SPT's syndicated Dr. Oz and Nate Berkus shows.
Jeff Olde has a theory about his network's enduring appeal as a reality-show hub. "I feel like VH1 is everyone's really fun best friend," he says. "People come to us to have a really good time and to laugh. We take something that's part of the pop-culture universe and take you deep inside of it."
Olde's approach was a winner with one of the music network's newer entries in the reality canon, Basketball Wives, whose second-season finale in March attracted 2.3 million viewers, making it the highest-rated telecast on VH1 in more than two years. Olde, who lives in Los Angeles, also got America hooked on Celebrity Rehab and Sober House, and is hotly anticipating his next glimpse inside the private lives of better halves, Mob Wives, a collaboration with Harvey Weinstein that bows this month.
"We went into the pitch and I wondered, 'Alright, what is this going to be?' " says the die-hard American Idol fan. "But the lines that were coming out of these women's mouths … it was stuff that no writer could ever dream up. I walked out and said, 'We can't not do this show.' "
Despite a recent lackluster Cycle 15 for his mega-franchise The Bachelor, Mike Fleiss is still in the game. The finale of this cycle (which featured its first repeat bachelor, Brad Womack, who famously didn't pick a woman in Cycle 11) may have been down 15 percent from last year's, but the ABC juggernaut still managed to command 13.8 million viewers and win the night. Fleiss — who also created Bachelor spinoffs The Bachelorette (set to premiere May 23), Bachelor Pad (coming in August) and the now-standard postfinale special, After the Final Rose — has also been doing double duty making feature films.
Both Shark Night 3D and Hostel: Part III will premiere this year, and his Ozzy Osbourne documentary is making its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. "If I was only doing reality TV, I'd probably kill myself," says Fleiss, who is also making a comedy pilot for Fox that combines scripted and reality.
"I just like it to be a mix," he adds. "It's what keeps it exciting and fresh." As for how he keeps the Bachelor franchise from getting stale, he says it's all about each season's new cast members. "Every story is different. That allows the show to have new a energy."
There doesn't seem to be an end in sight for the CBS megahit Big Brother, which Allison Grodner took over and revamped during its second cycle (Rich Meehan joined two years later, in 2003). Last year's Cycle 12 ratings were up 6 percent, averaging 7.6 million viewers of the show's thrice-weekly episodes.
The duo, who formed Fly on the Wall Entertainment in 2009, have yet to create another massive hit like Brother, but they are steadily expanding their reality reach. VH1 is airing the second season of You're Cut Off, their TV Land modeling-competition program She's Got the Look wrapped up its third season in September, the CW reality romcom hybrid Plain Jane has been sold to countries around the globe, and they're in development on a still-under-wraps 10-episode series for Style.
"It's preproduction, production and post, all simultaneously. … It's just in different degrees every day," Meehan says of the duo's schedule. Adds Grodner: "It's a roller coaster, but it's a good roller coaster."
It's tricky to compare the success of CW's Kristen Connolly Vadas, a former Oxygen network exec, with her reality counterparts at other networks. "We're unique in that we're a broadcast network that targets a very niche audience: women 18-34," Vadas says.
So she not only builds a reality slate, she also helps build the overall CW brand by fitting in with the scripted shows: Her top reality hit, America's Next Top Model, now in its 16th cycle, is the CW's second top hit after The Vampire Diaries. "The CW has a glossy W magazine feel to it.
They're gonna come to our network and hear really cool music, see great clothes, good hairstyles," she adds. To grab female eyeballs, Vadas seeks "loud ideas," like The Biggest Loser/Bridezilla mashup Shedding for the Wedding. Not all of them score with Nielsen, but they make a different kind of noise.
"If we measured ourselves against the other four broadcast networks, it wouldn't be a healthy place," Vadas says. "We're the youngest network by 10 years. Our audience is constantly on their BlackBerrys and streaming our shows from the Internet. And there's a cool buzzy factor to our shows."
Is there such a thing as too much reality TV? Not according to Barry Poznick and John Stevens. "It's kind of like asking is there such a thing as too many magazines on the newsstands," Poznick says. "If people want it, we'll make it."
Since 1994, Zoo Productions' diverse roster of programming has included everything from the internationally syndicated Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, Girls Behaving Badly and Speeders Fight Back to How'd You Get So Rich?, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best and the No. 1 show on the Hub, Family Game Night.
The common thread among them is humor. "Everything we do has to have a sense of humor and a personality," Poznick says. That includes It's Worth What?, their new summer series with Cedric the Entertainer, as well as 40 episodes of the game show Lingo, in production for GSN. Then there are the four reality pilots in the works for Disney, CMT, Spike and MTV.
"Yes, we work 16-hour days, edit around the clock and come up with new ideas 24 hours a day," Poznick says, "but this is our dream, to make TV shows. I have no patience with people who complain about anything who do what we get to do for a living."
Don't be fooled by her supermodel résumé or quirky accent: Heidi Klum is a consummate businesswoman. "I think Project Runway opened a huge door for Bravo, because at the time, they weren't known as a reality network," says Klum, who currently oversees filming of Germany's Next Top Model.
"People fell in love with Runway, and it became this phenomenon, so Bravo created a lot of similar content." After its early success, show producers the Weinstein Co. made the surprising decision to relocate the Emmy-nominated series from Bravo to Lifetime in 2009. The shift was rocky, and series ratings suffered during the sixth and seventh seasons.
But Klum and the Lifetime team helped resuscitate the franchise for its eighth installment (increasing the show's airtime to a new 90-minute format) and pulled in an average of 4 million viewers. With casting under way for its ninth season, the mother of four (and wife of recording artist Seal) doesn't feel her fashion project has lost any steam:"Our show isn't based on backstage romance or who's jealous of who; people love our show because it's about art and talent. It's about using your hands and $50 to make something mind-blowing."
Following the success of Wipeout — shooting 30 unique versions for 30 countries — Matt Kunitz is ready to tackle a new show. With the same family-friendly fare and exciting stunts, ABC's 101 Ways to Leave a Gameshow will be a "simple, standard Q&A show that will have the physical aspects that kids love and the game-show aspect that adults will love," notes the married father of two young daughters.
Despite his new project, Wipeout will always be special for Kunitz. "Because I created Wipeout, it's a favorite for me. The show is constantly evolving and changing, making the job fun for me every day because I don't know what to expect," admits the L.A.-based producing vet, who also worked on Fear Factor and The Real World. "I felt like when we pitched it to the network, we knew that it was something really unique."
When Jason Klarman took the reins at Oxygen in January 2008 in the wake of the net's acquisition by NBCUniversal, its brand identity was still wrapped up in its founders (Oprah Winfrey, Geraldine Laybourne) and its loudest, fading star (Janice Dickinson).
Less than four years later, Oxygen now boasts a robust reality brand that includes the popular Bad Girls Club franchise and Hair Battle Spectacular, multiple Tori Spelling offerings and competition show Love Games that embody its "Live Out Loud" tagline and have spurred a steady march up the Nielsen charts. In fact, 2010 was Oxygen's most-watched year ever in primetime, up double digits year-over-year in total viewers and key demos.
And 2011 could get even louder with a 32 percent increase in original programming, including the hotly anticipated Glee reality spinoff The Glee Project, which bows June 12, and Paris Hilton's The World According to Paris, debuting June 1. "There's a lot you'd expect and a ton you wouldn't," the New York-based Klarman says of Hilton's return to the genre.
Kim Martin, who was named president of WEtv in September 2008, has seen success on such hit series as Bridezillas, Downsized and My Fair Wedding, with host David Tutera. She quickly realized the success of wedding programs but didn't want them to take over the WE network, so she launched Wedding Central (a channel devoted to weddings 24/7) in August 2009.
"There was such a demand for all-things wedding, and we realized that women watch wedding programming because it makes them feel happy," New York-based Martin says of such shows as Wedding Cake Masters, Amazing Wedding Gowns and The Wedding Planners.
However, despite her enthusiasm for Wedding Central, the mother of two teenage daughters also remains focused on the programming at WE, which is set to air such shows as Braxton Family Values, about the relationship among singer Toni Braxton, her mother and her sisters; Sinbad: It's Just Family, which chronicles the comedian, his wife and his grown kids all under the same roof; and the renewals of Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best and Downsized.
"I look for worlds and characters," says Charlie Corwin, who got his start as a music producer founding LiveMusicChannel.com in 1999. These days, his producing credits include everything from the feature films Half Nelson and The Squid and the Whale to The Gayle King Show — with The Rachel Zoe Project, Be Good Johnny Weir and TLC's tattoo franchise L.A. Ink, Miami Ink and, now, N.Y. Ink (premiering in June) in between.
"We try to find big personalities that can epitomize and personify their worlds so we can pull the curtain back," he says. Of the 13 shows Corwin has in production and scheduled to air this year, he's particularly excited about Inkmasters, a new tattoo competition/elimination series modeled in the vein of Top Chef and Project Runway.
"The stakes are uniquely high," he says. "You can take off the dress, you can spit out the food, but for this, you'll have something permanently inked on your body."
Gene Simmons: Family Jewels is A&E's longest-running celebrity docuseries and one of the network's most-viewed shows. "The moment I saw the side of Gene that no one had ever seen," Adam Reed says of the relatively gentle, middle aged, fire-breathing, demon-faced Kiss bassist, "that's when I knew it had its legs."
Now that the show is run by Thinkfactory executive producer Adam Freeman, Reed has moved on to other projects: He showcases the unknown world of taxidermy on History's soon-to-air Mounted in Alaska as well as WE's upcoming Sinbad: It's Just Family, which he calls "a fresh take on the celebrity docuseries and not a train wreck." Perhaps one of the most exciting shows for Reed — who would be a police officer if he wasn't a producer — is Unleashed: K9 Broward County, a buddy/cop series for Discovery and TLC.
Despite all his success, the engaged L.A.-based producer makes sure to give credit to Leslie Greif. "He's Yoda, and I'm the young Jedi," he says. "He's a legend, and everyone knows him. I'm just trying to freshen us up and invigorate us."
Earlier this year, THR exclusively reported that the family earned a staggering $65 million in 2010 through a laundry list of endorsement deals, television projects, publishing agreements, etc. And with three hypersuccessful Kardashian-themed shows on E! (Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami, Kourtney and Kim Take New York) and a fourth expected slam-dunk premiering April 10 (Khloe & Lamar), the reality mother of six/executive producer is happy to keep churning out one Kardashian show after the other.
Her motto is simple: "As long as there is a demand, we'll certainly be there to fill the supply," she says from the family's Calabasas, Calif., home, which doubles as headquarters for Jenner Communications.
But at the core of her newly minted empire, Jenner calls her Kardashians series — which is gearing up for its sixth season — "the mothership." Even as each offshoot continues to translate into ratings gold, Jenner remains first and foremost a mom: "I don't want any of us to spread ourselves so thin that it doesn't become fun anymore."