A. Smith & Co. Celebrates 15 Years in Reality: 'Everyone Thought We Were Nuts'
As prolific reality producer Arthur Smith hits a milestone, his brain trust reflects on the risks ('The Swan') and rewards ('Hell's Kitchen') of continuing to push boundaries in the ever-wilder arena of unscripted.
This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Since launching in 2000, A. Smith & Co. Productions has run the reality gamut. Its team has booked 19 nubile strangers for a scandalous stay at Paradise Hotel, pitted women against one another on plastic-surgery competition The Swan and subjected more than 100 line cooks to Gordon Ramsay's screaming red face on Hell's Kitchen, one of Fox's top-rated reality programs for the past decade.
CEO Arthur Smith, president Kent Weed and COO Frank Sinton also have helped save struggling restaurant businesses on Kitchen Nightmares and established a summer mainstay with NBC's American Ninja Warrior. As the Toluca Lake, Calif.-based company celebrates 15 years in business, Smith and Weed reflect on some of the wildest moments from the unscripted boom years and discuss shifts in the industry and the waiting game for the massive genre's next big — and greatly needed — hit series.
How did you become producers of reality series?
Arthur Smith: We met in the mid-'90s. We were a producer-director team on a show I created for NBC called When Stars Were Kids that would have been categorized as a reality show today. We kind of grew into it, but our slate is still all over the place — we're like the actor who doesn't like being typecast. In the beginning, when the staff was a lot smaller, we were doing things we were passionate about. They just happened to fall into the genre.
Kent Weed: There was tons of "reality" programing on the networks, but it was still just called "nonfiction."
Smith: We started the company at the end of 2000, which turned out to be a really good time. (Laughs.) That's when things were really taking off and people started calling what we were doing "reality."
If you had to pick a show that became a turning point for your company, which would it be?
Smith: There's one show that still has a love affair with reality fans, and that's [Fox's] Paradise Hotel. That was the first big network show we did, and for that crazy summer  we became late-night-show monologue material, a part of pop culture. There were sociology courses that talked about Paradise Hotel. There are still groupies! It also started this relationship we had with [then Fox reality chief] Mike Darnell. At the time, it was one of those landmark shows. It's one of those shows people still use in their pitches: "It's like Paradise Hotel meets …" It was sexy and provocative.
That show seemed as if it would have been something of a pressure cooker.
Smith: It was only supposed to be 15 episodes, but it was doing so well that the order was doubled to 31 halfway through.
Weed: For the time, we had a unique timetable. Survivor had been on for a while, but they would shoot the show and take a number of months to edit it. We'd have to turn an episode around in nine days. People were away for much longer than we thought — over three months. We had this reunion where we brought back the cast who'd been eliminated, which got wild.
Smith: The eliminated cast came back, and it was just madness between the people who were there and the people who had gone. It got so heated that we had to halt production for 13 hours — it was the first time the cameras stopped rolling the whole time. The truth is that on some shows, not all reality shows, being on the edge is not a bad thing.
Weed: The other show, I think, is Hell's Kitchen. It was the first show to bring food into network primetime. Everyone was so doubtful at the time.
Smith: Food was even still a modest presence on cable at the time. This was 2004.
Back then, Mike Darnell was ordering a lot of wild stuff from you guys — like The Swan, which featured women deemed "ugly" who were given free plastic surgery, with one of them ultimately being crowned the "swan."
Weed: Everyone thought we were nuts.
There was talk of that show coming back a few years ago. Does this remain a possibility?
Smith: Never say never. There's a partnership with Fremantle. It's a great format — we were very close to doing it again. Any time people are still fond of a format, there's interest.
Wilder reality-competition premises like The Swan don't seem to make it to air as often anymore.
Smith: I think it's harder now because the network's also a victim on the scripted side. It's the fragmentation, the advances of cable, what's going on online … it's made it harder to program. What I do believe is that when you take risks and you're novel, people still appreciate that.
What is one of the bigger risks you have taken contentwise as a company?
Weed: I Survived a Japanese Game Show. It was the first American show ever shot in Japan.
Smith: [Then ABC reality chief] John Saade was the executive on that. We wrote this show bible on what the show would be: Americans on a reality show taken to Japan to do these wild things with a Japanese crew and all that. But we'd never been to Japan — we just did research. Then we got a phone call in March: John wanted it on the air in June, in time to air after the NBA Finals. Studio space and housing are so difficult to come by in Japan. I cannot believe we pulled it off!
American Ninja Warrior, in a similar arena, has bucked the trend of ratings fatigue and found a huge summer following on NBC. Why do you think it has become such a success?
Smith: A lot of reality shows have negativity to them, and this is one competition where the athletes really root for each other. You also never know when somebody steps up to the line whether they're going to be good or not. It's also good for family viewing and in little morsels: People tell me kids ask their parents if they can stay up to watch one more person run the course before they go to bed.
The business eagerly is awaiting the next big reality format. How close do you think we are to seeing it? What do viewers want now?
Smith: It's challenging to maintain the classic reality-competition shows, and many new series start to feel derivative of them. If it feels similar, it's not exciting for viewers — they're dying for something fresh. I do believe it's coming. We're developing a few shows right now that we hope will be the next big thing.
A. Smith & Co.'s 10 Biggest Series
American Ninja Warrior
Full Throttle Saloon
Ellen’s Design Challenge
I Survived a Japanese Game Show
Jesse Ventura’s Conspiracy Theory
Pros vs. Joes