Reality Power list
For THR's third annual list of the most powerful people in reality TV, we didn't just look at popculture buzz. (If we did, Snooki would be No. 1.) We used the following guide to determine the most influential, innovative and prolific people working in the genre.
1. The indelible mark each person makes on his or her shows as producer, overseeing executive or talent.
2. Greenlight power. Can the person get a show on the air? Also, the number of shows, their Nielsen ratings and overall impact on pop culture.
3. The person's professional reputation for quality and innovation within the business.
4. How the individual has sparked a "watercooler" factor for his or her shows and their ability to create dramatic, comedic and can't-miss TV moments.
5. Talk shows, clip shows, live events, daytime game shows and traditional documentaries were not considered, nor were foreign or network executives or execs whose primary job focus is not unscripted television.
1. Simon Cowell
Principal, Syco Television
How important is Cowell to the American reality television business? Consider that the biggest story in TV this year concerned a show, Cowell's "The X Factor," that won't even premiere on Fox for at least another 15 months. The complex poker match that led to "X Factor's" stateside bow -- would Simon stay on "American Idol"? Would Paula Abdul join "X Factor" as a judge? Might the new show be filmed in Vegas and debut on the Internet? -- pitted Cowell and business partner Philip Green in yearlong negotiations against Fox and "Idol" producers 19 Entertainment and Fremantle. But from the beginning, Cowell held all the aces. He tops this list for the second year in a row, not just because he's a singular on-air talent able to captivate an audience in a way that no one has replicated, 10 years into the reality TV era; and not just because he has pulled in what Forbes says was $75 million last year from "Idol," producing NBC's "America's Got Talent" and other deals, making him the highest-paid person on television -- but because Cowell represents the best of reality TV. Plucked from obscurity (well, England), he became a star merely because he is compelling to watch. He is complex (behind that cantankerous on-air personality is an ardent dog lover who calls his mother almost every day), opinionated and driven. He says that "being No. 1 is verging on an obsession with me." Will "X Factor" be No. 1? Can "Idol" stay on top without its star? Who knows. The only sure thing is that audiences -- and the TV business -- must pay attention to Simon Cowell.
2. Mike Darnell
President, alternative entertainment, Fox
No, Darnell doesn't know who will replace Simon Cowell on "American Idol," so please stop asking. "You cannot fill Simon's shoes, so we're going to have to find someone with a unique voice," he says. "Anyone seen as a 'replacement' for him will be rejected." The Philly native started in the business as a child actor. "When I was 11, I used to try to read ratings. My dream was to be part of a 'M*A*S*H' or an 'All in the Family.' " The longest-tenured and most influential reality executive must now contend with a ratings slide on "Idol," but he still presides over the No. 1 show and boasts other hits like "So You Think You Can Dance" and the "Hell's Kitchen" franchise. Plus, Darnell remains in the Cowell business. Start the countdown to the premiere of "X Factor," slated for fall 2011.
3. Mark Burnett
President, Mark Burnett Prods.
Burnett is incapable of stagnation. When a show underperforms (as his "Shark Tank" did for ABC), the reality pioneer has a half-dozen more in the pipeline. These include ABC's "Trust Me, I'm a Game Show Host," TLC's upcoming "Sarah Palin's Alaska" and "Your OWN Show," which Oprah Winfrey will host for her new OWN network. The former British army paratrooper is also celebrating the 10th anniversary of his pioneering "Survivor," which is prepping for an eye-popping 21st cycle on CBS, and he's got "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" on Fox and NBC's "The Apprentice," which returns with a noncelebrity edition in the fall. Would he ever mix up the "Survivor" formula? "Only an idiot would make changes to something that's working," he says.
4. Vicki Dummer & John Saade
Senior vps alternative series, specials and late night, ABC Entertainment
Dummer and Saade didn't have any freshman breakouts this season; it just seemed that way. "Dancing With the Stars" and "The Bachelor" hit series highs, and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "Wife Swap" and "Wipeout" have held up, making up for slight disappointments like "Shark Tank" and "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution." "We're constantly putting on fresh paint and tweaking the engines," Saade says. (In the case of "Stars," that meant wearing less clothing and bringing on a new co-host, Brooke Burke.) The duo credit their Midwest roots for their sense of what clicks with reality audiences. "Vicki and I both grew up in Ohio," Saade says. "That gives us the perspective of America."
5. Ryan Seacrest
Chairman, owner, Ryan Seacrest Prods.
Don't think Seacrest should be this high on the list? Consider: he's the best-paid host in reality TV, last year inking a three-year, $45 million deal to continue on "American Idol." He produces cable hits (E!'s "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" and its Miami-based spinoff). And he's got a network show, too ("Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," which ABC is considering for a second season). Add in planned projects for the CW and A&E, not to mention his "E! News" and radio gigs, and Seacrest nearly rivals that Brit he spars with
on "Idol." His fantasy: As an avid cook, he wants to appear on
"MasterChef." "I'd love to be terrified by Gordon Ramsay," he says.
6. David Goldberg
Chairman, Endemol North America
Time zones mean little to an insomniac like Goldberg. He credits sleeplessness for helping synergize the U.S. and U.K. divisions of the global format company best known for CBS' "Big Brother" and ABC's "Wipeout" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Goldberg now oversees the various companies acquired by Endemol -- True Entertainment, 51 Minds and Original Media -- and the company's new original programs like "Jerseylicious" on Style Network. Despite the globetrotting, Goldberg still hasn't mastered the art of the lightly packed suitcase. "I always over-pack shoes," he sighs.
7. Mike Fleiss
President, Next Entertainment
From "The Bachelor" to Black Sabbath. While Fleiss' hit dating franchise is as popular as ever in its eighth year and expands in the summer in "Bachelor Pad" (where favorites from the series share a house and compete for cash), he's also busy launching "Family Reunion" for TV Land and fulfilling a childhood wish of working with Ozzy Osbourne on a feature documentary about the heavy metal icon. "Being in business with him is a dream come true." Meanwhile, Fleiss' own rock band, California Wildebeests, is set to play Ozzfest in the summer.
8. Cecile Frot-Coutaz
CEO, FremantleMedia, North America
The ruling woman on the "American Idol" set saw ratings soften this year. But her enduring partnership with Simon Cowell will continue on "The X Factor" next fall. In the meantime, the French-born MBA has contributed a big chunk of parent RTL Group's 2009 revenue with "Idol" and "America's Got Talent." MTV's "The Phone" didn't connect, but she's surging on cable with "Kirstie Alley's Big Life" for A&E and in daytime with CBS' "Let's Make a Deal." She says she'd gladly appear on "Deal," maybe even dressed as Marie Antoinette: "I have the accent to pull it off."
9. Jennifer Bresnan
Executive vp alternative programming, CBS Entertainment
"The best shows feature real people doing real stuff," says Bresnan, who began her career producing VH1's "Behind the Music" and scored a major hit this season with British import "Undercover Boss," the season's highest-rated new show and a rare magnet for young viewers to CBS. Now in her second full year at the Eye, she also oversees the one-two-three punch of "Survivor," "Big Brother" and "Amazing Race," which was down a bit in ratings but still dominates the Emmys. Next up for Bresnan is another reworking of a U.K. hit: "Got to Dance."
10. Simon Fuller
Founder, 19 Entertainment
In January, the "American Idol" impresario left his day-to-day responsibilities at his 19 Entertainment (named after his first hit song as a talent manager, the 1985 instrumental "19," by Paul Hardcastle). But he still has a lucrative consulting deal with its parent company CKX Enterprises that grants him 10% of the net profits from three of his creations: "Idol," "So You Think You Can Dance" and the new Hulu.com series, "If I Can Dream." And he's prepping a new company with a familiar lucky number: XIX Entertainment.
11. Mark Koops and Howard T. Owens
Co-head of television, head of digital managing director, co-head of domestic television, Reveille
When you've produced 10 cycles of the most popular weight-loss show in history, you'd better practice what you preach. For the second time, Reveille employees will partake in a 5K run. "If we ask the 'Biggest Loser' contestants to run a marathon, it's wrong for us to not even run a 5K," Koops says. The duo has been on a roll this year, prepping the spinoff "Losing It With Jillian" (NBC) and "MasterChef" (Fox) for summer and "Got to Dance" for CBS (though there is still no air date for "Breakthrough With Tony Robbins"). And in April, Reveille signed Jack Black to develop scripted, unscripted and animated material for TV and online.
12. Paul Telegdy
Executive vp alternative programming and production, NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios
NBC's ratings struggles are no secret, but since arriving last year Telegdy has lifted "America's Got Talent" to 16.2 million viewers for September's finale and launched moderately successful new shows "The Marriage Ref," "Minute to Win It" and "Who Do You Think You Are?" all of which will return. The British expat and Tennessee football fan also presides over a major franchise ("The Biggest Loser," which in the summer begets a spinoff with Jillian Michaels) and minor hits like "The Sing-Off" with populist appeal. "NBC is full of people who burn their toast in the morning," he says. "We're real people and I think it shows."
13. Tony DiSanto
President of programming, MTV
When Italian-Americans cried foul in December over the premiere of "Jersey Shore," it was their fellow paisano who quelled The Situation. "It's never our intention to offend," says DiSanto, who started with MTV in college and now oversees unscripted hits like "The Real World," "The Hills" and this year's "The Buried Life." The "Jersey" finale in January drew record ratings (4.8 million in the 12-34 demo), and the "guidos" return July 21 for what DiSanto calls a big family reunion. "The controversy may have brought more viewers initially, but the great cast, comedy and attitude is what got people to stick with it."
14. SallyAnn Salsano
President and founder, 495 Prods.
Salsano didn't need to dig deep to conceive the biggest hit of her career. "I was the girl with the giant hair," says the Long Island native. "I went to the Jersey Shore. I was Snooki." She lived in an apartment above the kids during production, with four monitors keeping constant tabs. "I have their parents' numbers in my phone, too," she boasts. Since delivering the biggest cable breakout of the year, Salsano has turned in five pilots to VH1/MTV and is working on "Disaster Date" (though she split from Oxygen's "Dance Your Ass Off"). Her biggest task is finding fresh meat for "Jersey's" second season, filming in Miami, and beyond. "I have pictures of about 5,000 'guidos' on my desk with great nicknames who are ready to party!" she says.
15. Nancy Dubuc
President and GM, Lifetime Networks
Looking at History's ace performers "Axe Men," "Pawn Stars" and "Ice Road Truckers," you might expect the network's chief to be a macho dude. Instead, it's Dubuc, a youthful woman born in a college dorm to student parents, who greenlit "Truckers" in her first week on the job in 2007 and, as of last month, is now heading Lifetime as well. While she's pushing History into the scripted business with a Kennedys miniseries, she's still committed to developing it as the thinking-man's reality destination, with shows like its upcoming marksman competition "Top Shot." "Many of the great stories of our society come from our genre," she says. "What we can mine is endless."
16. Craig Piligian
CEO and president, Pilgrim Films & Television
Piligian's working-man sensibilities have informed each of his breakout hits, from Syfy's "Ghost Hunters" to Discovery's "Dirty Jobs" to Spike TV's "The Ultimate Fighter." He considers himself a brand builder as much as a TV producer, though his breadth and diversity of projects make him one of the most versatile in the game; he's now working on both a dart-thrower competition for History ("Top Shot") and WEtv's "My Fair Wedding." What's next? "We're trying to work with some high-level celebrities," says the Detroit native. The first star vehicle is fittingly working-class: History's "Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy," debuting in the fall.
17. Thom Beers
CEO and creator, Original Prods.
Beers takes a blue-collar approach to reality. His father worked for Ford for 30 years and Beers put himself through college working as a janitor. "Our shows are about high risk/high rewards, with the common man in a unique environment," he says. "Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers" and "Axe Men" lead a roster of 14 series in production, giving Beers little time to indulge in his car collection, which includes a '61 Cadillac convertible and, his favorite, a 1969 GTO judge convertible.
18. Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth
Co-founders, Magical Elves
Lipsitz and Cutforth didn't think about gifts when they named their powerhouse production company. "No one makes elves, so we have lots of garden gnomes around our office that people have sent us," she says. "I think we need to start a line of magical elves." This month their "Top Chef" and "Top Chef Masters" are joined by "Top Desserts," then Bravo's "Work of Art: The Next Great Artinetwork's fall 2008 average for the Wednesday 8 p.m. slot by 26%. While he's no longer producing "American Idol," Lythgoe and "Idol" creator Simon Fuller founded Big Red 2. Unfortunately their first effort, "Superstars of Dance," admits Lythgoe, "died very quickly" and other plans are under wraps for now. "To be honest, I want to develop things for (Big Red) and then walk away from them," he says. In the meantime, he's still struggling to ace the tango but is mastering online media. "I'm tweeting with the best of them," he quips.
44. Tom Forman
Forman once oversaw 24-hour news coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing, and he credits his journalism background for the authenticity of his productions with RelativityREAL, the joint venture formed in 2008 between Forman and Relativity's Ryan Kavanaugh. They boast 32 projects in the works, including Drew Carey's upcoming "WTF" for CBS, which follows ABC's recent genealogy-themed "Find My Family." He's also selling RelativityREAL's formats overseas and continuing to make talent deals, most recently with producer Ellen Rakieten. "You'll never work harder for less reward and more screaming," he jokes of the reality business.
45. Jason Klarman
GM, Oxygen Media
Klarman is owed much of the credit for Oxygen's two-year-long renaissance. A former exec at Fox News and Bravo, he oversaw the rebranding of the women's lifestyle net, as well as OxygenLive, which enables viewers to interact online while a show is on. The results are big increases in viewership for hits "The Bad Girls Club" and "Tori & Dean." Now he's hoping for a similar bump for "Dance Your Ass Off," which returns for a second season in the summer.
46. Barry Poznick and John Stevens
Founders and CEOs, ZOO Prods.
They didn't get along when they met in the 1990s as young producers at Warner Bros. "That 'tough love' mentality is why we work so well together now," Poznick says. "We can be brutally honest and critical of each other." Bought by All3Media in 2008, their 16-year-old ZOO Prods. is producing another round of Fox's "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" with Mark Burnett, as well as WE's "Mother Knows Best," the hit docusoap featuring Poznick's longtime friend Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa.
47. Gary R. Benz
President, GRB Entertainment
When Benz says his work "can help people and make a difference," he's not being ironic. After 24 years of making frothier fare like NBC's "Next Action Star" and the forensic-themed "Bone Detectives" for Discovery, Benz -- who holds a degree in psychology from California State University, Northridge -- is behind A&E's Emmy-winning "Intervention." He'll be there awhile: the net has ordered another 30 episodes.
48. Eric Schotz
President and CEO, LMNO Prods.
Manuel Noriega's business card, a bolt from the World Trade Center floor, 14 anvils and a gong -- they're just a few items cluttering Schotz's office. "I'm a borderline hoarder, without the psychological problems," he says. Schotz produced early reality shows like "Kids Say the Darndest Things" and "Guinness World Records: Primetime" before moving on to current projects like CBS' hidden-camera celebrity show "I Get That A Lot," a fifth season of "Over Your Head" for HDTV, a third for "Little Couple" on TLC and second seasons of both "Meteorite Men" on Discovery Science and Animal Planet's "The Bear Whisperer."
49. Matt Kunitz
CEO, Pulse Creative
He's best known for the competition spectacles "Fear Factor" and "Wipeout," but Kunitz wants to shake up his repertoire with something smaller. "I want to do something onstage in a controlled environment," he says. "I'm ready to go inside for a while." The "Real World" vet just reupped for two years with Endemol, which will keep him on "Wipeout" (now with 25 global versions) and he's about to start a new stunt show pilot for ABC.
50. Ellen Rakieten
President, Ellen Rakieten Entertainment
Jerry Seinfeld calls her a "superhero." Oprah Winfrey says she "has a mind like Spielberg." Rakieten is so hot off "The Marriage Ref" and a multiyear deal with RelativityREAL that the woman who helped launch "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 1986 has a seven-figure budget for new staff and offices in Los Angeles. "My 'Oprah' training encourages me to see everything as a potential show," says the Chicago-based mom (she considers herself "tricoastal"). Those new shows include the summer's "Biggest Loser" spinoff "Losing It With Jillian" for NBC, as well as "Undateable" and "Money Hungry" for VH1.
Profiles reported and written by Matthew Belloni, Mark Blankenship, Randee Dawn, Zorianna Kit, Todd Longwell and Stacey Wilson.
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