Shine's Rich Ross on One Year Back in TV -- and What Happened at Disney (Q&A)
The former studio head on reality TV's next act, what it feels like to go from buyer to seller and his advice for ousted execs (he followed it himself): "Give yourself some time to understand what worked and what didn't work."
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Rich Ross was asked to step down from his high-powered, if short-lived, job as Walt Disney Studios film chief in April 2012, he considered his options. There were the more traditional routes: Find financing and become an independent producer or return to running a television network or corporate entity, as he did with much success as president of Disney Channels Worldwide from 2004 to 2009. But Ross says neither sounded appealing, noting he enjoys the manager role too much to thrive in the former and that a been-there, done-that mentality prevented him from considering the latter.
The opportunity to run Shine America presented something far more alluring: a chance to be entrepreneurial while having the deep pockets of owner News Corp. What's more, the role would return him to his TV roots and reunite him with Shine Group chairman Elisabeth Murdoch, with whom he had worked two decades earlier when they launched FX. Ross, 52, a New York native with a law degree from Fordham, began at Shine in January. He has spent the year bulking up its already robust unscripted slate (The Biggest Loser, MasterChef, Fox newcomer Slide Show) while pushing the 100-employee company into scripted. FX's The Bridge, renewed for season two, was Shine America's first foray, with at least three more scripted efforts, including Fox's Broadchurch adaptation Gracepoint, in the works. Looking ahead, Ross plans to have as many scripted projects as unscripted, and he's eager to supplement adaptations with originals. The ultrafit executive, married to longtime partner Adam Sanderson, sat down to discuss the future of reality TV, how execs should handle being fired and what he learned from his tenure in film.
What's most surprising about becoming a seller after a career as a TV and film buyer?
What's changed dramatically over the last number of years is how difficult it is to be a network with so many people watching so many things. The buyers are buying more than ever to try to satiate the interest of the viewer and entice them, so it seemed to me a perfect time to be a content creator. I ask everyone here to start with, "Who is the client?" and that comes from me being a buyer. We hired our first head of research, and when we go in to pitch, we actually know whom we're pitching. It's not the random nature of the past.
You had big success with merchandise for such Disney Channel properties as Hannah Montana and High School Musical. How important will that be at Shine?
We have a group called Shine 360, and their job is to find those opportunities and exploit them. It's not about the coffee mug; it's about the right thing for the right property and doing it at the right time. Because otherwise it looks mercenary, and your viewer votes no on your coffee mug and your show. We've explored a MasterChef tour because there's a passionate fan base and opportunities in health and beauty with The Face [on Oxygen].There can be opportunities in scripted, too, which we're seeing from AMC with Walking Dead.
What aren't you doing that you'd like to do?
I want to dimensionalize our unscripted business. We've been successful with competitive reality, but I'd like to have more docusoap storytelling. We have some in development.
Docusoaps like Duck Dynasty have been hits on cable but not broadcast. Does that concern you?
It's coming because all of the broadcasters are looking more in the area. What we've been pitching are things that fit either as a drama or as a comedy. We have something that doesn't sound like a comedy, but when you see the tape, you realize there's a comic element. And it's a half-hour, so it can play with a Modern Family rather than be something that you have to find a slot for at 9 to 10 on a certain night. The networks are looking for companions. They're still aggressively looking for competitive reality, too, but it's about the humans in them, not just the predicaments they're found in. People need to come back for the people, which is why The Real Housewives has worked. People feel they know them.
There has been so much upheaval this year in the executive ranks in film. Why?
When people are worried about whether there are answers [to why something isn't succeeding], they often look to the people. The studios are becoming … the negative or tabloid term would be "fiefdoms," but the reality is that they're brands, whether it's Pixar, Legendary or Tom Cruise. And then the question is: Who's running the show? The empowered people at the studios right now are the storytellers. So it's John Lasseter and J.J. Abrams and their kin, and to me that makes a lot of sense. How you manage at the top is ever more complicated, and people are losing their jobs ultimately because of the commercial inevitabilities. But the stories are being told because there are still and will always be gifted filmmakers with homes at these studios.