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There are two kinds of people in Hollywood: Those who thumb their noses at so-called “reality” television and its over-the-top populism; and those who are concerned less with the demise of Western civilization and more with entertaining (and, yes, even enlightening) an audience. This list is about those latter people. With unscripted fare now dominating primetime and bringing new viewers to obscure cable networks, few are still arguing that reality TV is just a fad.
Even with “American Idol’s” slight ratings slip this past season, Fox is the No. 1 network when it airs and No. 4 when it doesn’t. NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” and Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” reigned as the summer’s highest-rated series, and this month brings the return of juggernauts like ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” CBS’ “Survivor” and NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” — franchises that are far more reliable than almost anything in the scripted world. That means — brace yourself — the time has arrived for the producers and executives influencing the reality landscape to be spotlighted for what they are: some of the most powerful people in TV.
The Hollywood Reporter stranded its editors in a conference room on a deserted island until they came up with the first-ever list of reality TV’s 50 most powerful forces. Consider us a panel of snarky judges evaluating each figure based on his influence over American unscripted television.
Candidates escaped elimination based on the number of shows on the air, the ratings and influence of those shows, and the ability to get a new show made, with special deference given to the pioneers in this nascent genre. Foreign execs weren’t eligible, nor did we consider traditional talk shows or live events like sports or news. These are the people most responsible for reality TV’s dominance and those shepherding its bright future. Go ahead and thank them or blame them.
— Intro by Randee Dawn
View the Reality Power List
#1 Mike Darnell
President of alternative entertainment, Fox Broadcasting
Call him a mad scientist. Or an evil genius. Or the wizard behind the curtain of America’s reality television obsession. After 24 years at Fox — beginning at the local level before it was even a national network — Darnell, it’s safe to say, is the most influential person in the unscripted TV business. It’s not just that he shepherds Fox’s game-changing “American Idol” franchise, or that he continues to push the medium in new (and sometimes morally questionable) directions with hits like “Temptation Island,” “Joe Millionaire” and last season’s lie-detector competition “The Moment of Truth.” It’s that, more than anyone else, Darnell’s involvement in a show makes it buzzworthy, and nothing signals a hit in this genre better than people talking about it. “No one’s had more ups and downs than I have,” says the Philadelphia native, who keeps a piano in his office for impromptu performances. “The reason I’m still successful at this is that I’m willing to put my neck on the line and get into hot water.”
|2. Cecile Frot-Coutaz
CEO, FremantleMedia, North America
Frot-Coutaz has gone from being a corporate strategy executive at Pearson Television to overseeing in excess of 400 hours of TV programming in just a few short years — to say nothing of executive producing the top-rated U.S. TV show, “American Idol.” In the process, she has guided FremantleMedia N.A. to becoming a company that dominates wherever it pitches a tent. These days her “international machine” can field a dating show pitch in France, sell the pilot to Australia (as “Take Me Out”), then repackage it around the world. “You need to be incredibly connected in order to achieve that,” says the France-born executive, who hints that an “Amazing Race”/”Survivor”-like series is in the works.
|3. Craig Plestis
Executive vp alternative programming, development and specials, NBC Entertainment
Under former adman Plestis’ watch, NBC has found its reality TV niche thanks to competition shows like “Deal or No Deal,” “America’s Got Talent” and “The Biggest Loser.” “Deal” was a gamble on a passe format that turned into NBC’s most watched game show in 2006-07, while “Loser” has become a cottage industry all of its own, from calendars to cookbooks to a 2008 season finale that drew 11.4 million viewers. Even a sagging franchise like “The Apprentice” got a boost this past season with a celebrity edition. “Reality TV was once at the kids table,” he says. “Now we’re at the front of the table.”
|4. Mark Burnett
President, Mark Burnett Prods.
Jumping out of planes for the British Army must have been a piece of cake for Burnett compared with the parachuting of reality television into the American TV landscape in 2000. CBS’ “Survivor,” which kicked off its 17th cycle Thursday, became the most watched show of the 2000-01 TV season and brought the oft-mimicked elimination format to the U.S. Burnett credits the family-friendly nature of the format as the key to its translation all over the world (helping line Burnett’s pockets with millions from ad revenue sharing alone). He’s since kept the winning streak alive with shows like Fox’s “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and NBC’s “The Apprentice,” and he has fueled speculation that his company could be acquired — which might be his biggest mission yet.
|5. David Goldberg
President and CEO, Endemol Entertainment USA
Dutch reality TV company Endemol was doing all right in 2000, when it decided to branch into the U.S., but its most canny move was hiring Goldberg to run the shop. The former Telepictures exec behind shows like “Extra” sold projects to every broadcast network, plus some to syndication and cable within a year of Endemol’s U.S. debut, and he hired Ty Pennington away from TLC’s “Trading Spaces” in order to set him up at ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Yet despite having shows like NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” and ABC’s “Wipeout” win time slots, Goldberg says Endemol’s focus isn’t entirely on developing new reality product; new interests include scripted TV and Spanish-language broadcasts. “When everyone is zigging, we try to zag,” he says. “Reality producing is our bread and butter, but we’re also trying to make strides in other areas of the business.”
|6. Howard Owens
Managing director, co-head of domestic television, head of digital, Reveille
Founder Ben Silverman’s talent for spotting viable reality formats put Reveille on the map, with shows like USA Network’s “Nashville Star,” “The Restaurant” and Bravo’s “Blow Out.” Despite Silverman’s decamping to become NBC Entertainment co-chairman and selling the company to Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group, life hasn’t changed much for former William Morris-ites Owens and Koops. Since joining Reveille in 2002, their “Biggest Loser” helped NBC through the WGA strike earlier this year, and “American Gladiators” launched strongly. Koop’s latest effort, “This Is Why You’re Single,” is awaiting a firm airdate from TLC, while Owens’ “Welcome to the Family” remains in limbo since the death of Bernie Mac, who was to have been the show’s narrator.
|7. Vicki Dummer and John Saade
Senior vps alternative series, specials and late night, ABC Entertainment
When the heads of your alternative series division have backgrounds in modern dance, the Muppets and sitcoms, there’s little question that their reality shows are going to have wacky elements. Dummer and Saade are overseeing the Alphabet’s huge “Dancing With the Stars” (the show’s May finale delivered 20.1 million viewers), the continuing “Bachelor” franchise and the first (and perhaps still only) tear-jerking reality series, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Still, they see reality as a broad frontier with limitless options. “It’s still the Wild West of genres,” Saade notes. “It changes with every new show.”
|8. Tony DiSanto
Executive vp series, development and programming for MTV; head of programming for MTV2
DiSanto describes himself as the “intern that never left” MTV. He fudged a bit to get his first gig while still a freshman at NYU, and he just kept getting promoted. Which may explain how the engineer behind hits like “Total Request Live,” “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” and “The Hills” can still lure teenagers and young adults when he’s now twice their age. But there’s more to DiSanto’s success than just kicking it young school: “Hills” and “Beach” are “reality” in name only — unscripted soaps with returning cast members who play themselves — and they’ve helped reinvent MTV programming for yet another generation. Up next is the “reality action” series “The Phone” and a “Hills” spinoff, “Bromance.”
|9. Simon Fuller
Founder and CEO, 19 Entertainment
Call them song-and-dance men for the modern era. Fuller started in the early 1980s, when he bought the U.K. rights for Madonna’s “Holiday,” and Lythgoe was a dancer who choreographed for Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly. Then Fuller hit pay dirt as a music manager with the Spice Girls, but in 2001 the real stroke of genius was “Pop Idol,” the British precursor of “American Idol,” which has spun off dozens of iterations around the world. Fuller also pulls in paychecks from sports franchises, tours and album sales from the “Idol” winners. Lythgoe’s judge-producer turn on “So You Think You Can Dance” made him famous, but he pulled back from production duties on “Idol” earlier this year to focus on other projects with Fuller. Together they have changed music and television.
|10. Frances Berwick
General manager, Bravo
As head of international distribution at Britain’s Channel 4, Berwick knew Bravo as a client. But when the channel shifted away from being a niche arts network, Berwick made a move of her own. Now at Bravo for 12 years, Berwick helped smooth the transition with success stories like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and the Emmy-winning “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List.” Recently upped to GM, her Emmy-nominated “Project Runway” will now be stylin’ over at Lifetime, but Berwick remains steadfast. “(We) never replicate what we’ve done before,” she says. “There always has to be an element of surprise — and humor.”
|11. Thom Beers
CEO and executive producer, Original Prods.
Beers’ oeuvre has been dubbed “testoster-reality” for the way it takes ordinary Joes and turns their difficult, dangerous jobs into Emmy-nominated programming. From Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” to NBC’s “America’s Toughest Jobs,” Beers — who’s been in the business since the late 1980s and often narrates his own shows — is the prototypical overnight success story who had to labor nearly 20 years to get there.
|12. Jeff Olde
Executive vp original programming and production, VH1
Prior to Olde’s arrival at VH1, the “celebreality” genre seemed on the wane. But he has brought VH1 its highest ratings ever with shows like “Flavor of Love,” “The Surreal Life” and “Rock of Love” — and he proved that B-list train wrecks are even more fascinating than nonfamous dysfunctionals. Lately, he’s stepped up to more serious fare with “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” and feature films, lining up a deal with Lionsgate for “Scream Queens.”
|13. Jennifer Bresnan
Senior vp alternative programming, CBS Entertainment
Bresnan’s career trajectory surged skyward this summer, when CBS topper Les Moonves tapped her from the CW to replace outgoing vp Ghen Maynard. She cut her teeth as a producer on the first season of Fox’s “American Idol” and as co-executive producer of “The Swan,” then oversaw “America’s Next Top Model” and “Beauty and the Geek” for the CW. Battle plans for CBS are still in the works.
|14. Jeff Hasler
Senior vp production and development, Discovery Channel
Reality rarely gets more real than at the Discovery Channel, where Hasler has put a unique documentary spin on the traditional unscripted show. Sure, there’s bug eating (“Man vs. Wild”) and manufactured competition (the Emmy-nominated “Deadliest Catch”), but the former producer at “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Biography” says his self-proclaimed “tough guy programming” proves the network can pull in audiences without sacrificing its highbrow pedigree. “We don’t create conflict,” he says. “The conflict that’s there is inherent to the situation.” Up next, he’s paired with producer Craig Piligian for “Doing Da Vinci.”
|15. Paul Buccieri
CEO and president, Granada America
Buccieri took the No. 1 spot at Granada America last December, becoming the first American to head ITV’s U.S. producing outpost. He paid his dues at Endemol USA, and before that, Twentieth Television created the post of president of programming, produAnimal Planet and a Web series for the new WB.com.
|36. Matt Kunitz
Executive producer and creator, ABC’s “Wipeout”
Before leaving NBC Universal for Endemol, the producer of “Fear Factor” (he still has a “snake guy” he can call for a photo shoot) and creator of ABC’s hit “Wipeout” started on MTV’s “The Real World.” “You can easily fill a list of 50 reality producers who all have at most one degree of separation from ‘Real World,’” Kunitz notes.
|37. Ghen Maynard
Former executive vp, CBS Paramount Network Television
Less than a dozen years ago, Maynard was sitting in a cubicle at CBS’ drama department when he got a call: “Survivor” was getting passed on all over town — but Maynard decided to snap it up. He worked in alternative programming at CBS and UPN (where he oversaw “America’s Next Top Model”) simultaneously, headed over to NBC, then returned to the Eye to oversee its alternative fleet. He left CBS earlier this year to launch his own production company, which has a first-look deal with CBS/the CW.
|38. Tyra Banks
President, Bankable Prods.
Banks has smoothly parlayed her supermodeling career into one as a nascent reality TV mogul. “I’ve wanted to be a producer and writer for TV since I was 9 years old,” she says. She’s done it, with “Top Model” entering its 11th cycle, her “Tyra Banks Show” plugging along in syndication, and a new show, “Stylista,” debuting in October. She calls Mok “one of the godfathers of the reality show”: The creator of MTV’s “Making the Band” and executive producer of the CW’s “Pussycat Dolls: Girlicious” and “Top Model” is also behind “Stylista.”
|39. Howard Schultz
Creator and executive producer, Fox’s “The Moment of Truth”
Schultz produced the controversial “Extreme Makeover,” which he claims has played a role in increasing U.S. plastic surgery procedures by 30% since its debut. He launched MTV’s “Next” and now runs Fox’s lie detector game show “Moment of Truth.” In the pipeline are “a new reality show for Spike and another very loud and very noisy reality-competition show for Fox.”
|40. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato
Managing directors and producers, World of Wonder Prods.
The bad boys of TV reality are content to have their names linked with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll thanks to projects like “Pam: Girl on the Loose” for E! and “Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal” for HBO. Yet Bailey and Barbato have won praise for feature docus like 2005’s “Inside Deep Throat.” “In a world of 5 billion channels and a country with a crumbling economy, we’re able to do stuff for not a lot of money, which makes reality the perfect genre for our times,” Barbato says.
|41. Michael Davies
President and CEO, Embassy Row
The producer of the U.S. version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and VH1’s “World Series of Pop Culture” recalls watching primetime game shows during his childhood in Britain, but it was an admiration for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” that supplied him with professional motivation. “That (program) was a moment of truth for me,” he says. “A live variety show, that’s what I wanted to be involved with.”
|42. Stuart Krasnow
Principal, Stuart Krasnow Prods.
This former CNN producer was behind NBC’s “Dog Eat Dog,” FX’s “30 Days” and, more recently, Oxygen’s “The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency,” whose fourth season bowed in August with its best ratings ever. Krasnow’s latest effort is Fox’s “Hole in the Wall,” an Americanized version of a Japanese show, cast via YouTube. “Everyone knows this show already because they’ve seen the clips online,” he says. “Online is actually motivating programming decisions.”
|43. Bob Boden
Senior vp programming, production and development, Fox Reality Channel
Boden’s network is still searching for its first breakout hit, but the all-reality-all-the-time channel is pushing the envelope with original shows like “My Bare Lady,” the gender-bending “There’s Something About Miriam” and “The Search for the Next Elvira.” “We aim to give our viewers the comfort food they’re used to but with edgy and provocative twists,” he says.
|44. Conrad Green
Executive producer, ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars”
The top dog at ABC’s reality cash cow began his career pioneering the British version of “Big Brother.” “(It) felt like a curious documentary experiment, then it became clear it was a game show construct that people lived within,” he says. That’s not much different than “Dancing,” now entering its seventh cycle with little sign of audience fatigue. “There are some reality shows that are completely scripted,” he says. “With ‘Dancing,’ we just film what happens in the room.”
|45. Adam Divello
Creator and executive producer, MTV’s “The Hills”
Who knew the pretty young things of MTV’s “Laguna Beach” had a future beyond campfires on the sand? Lauren Conrad and her pals can thank Divello. The former MTV development exec and “Laguna” producer pitched a spinoff that would follow Conrad to L.A. while she pursued a fashion career, and it has become MTV’s highest-rated show. “It’s really a voyeuristic look into these kids’ lives,” he says of the show, which, unlike most reality fare, has stayed with largely the same cast for five seasons. “It’s a different dimension than (what) you get on other TV shows.”
|46. Mike Fleiss
President and executive producer, Next Entertainment
When Fleiss hits, he hits big: ABC’s still-running “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” are his. But his flops have included “The Will,” “Are You Hot?” and “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” Still, it’s the risk-and-reward paradigm that proves attractive to Fleiss. “Reality is still a wide-open business where you can take a lot of chances,” he says. “I’ve gotten brutalized by critics for being the first through the door a lot of the time, but I’m cool with that.”
|47. Sally Ann Salsano
President and founder, 495 Prods.
Her “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila” is heading toward its third season of alcohol-fueled embarrassment on MTV, but Salsano is also developing a slew of shows for other networks, including a top-secret pilot for VH1, the expected fourth season of “HGTV Design Star,” and a new reality-competition series called “Dance Your Ass Off” for Oxygen.
|48. R.J. Cutler
President and founder, Actual Reality Pictures
Cutler first appeared with an Oscar-nominated docu (1993’s “The War Room”), and he’s since left his mark in unusual reality TV fare such as TLC’s real estate series “Flip That House,” the controversial “Black, White” race-swap show on FX, and CBS’ “Greatest American Dog.” “I feel like I helped create what’s commonly known as the ‘docu-soap,'” he says, “which I see as real storytelling in a very broad genre.”
|49. John Langley
Creator and executive producer, Fox’s “Cops”
The on-hold music at Langley’s Santa Monica offices is the “Bad Boys” theme from “Cops,” and for good reason. The show helped put the Fox network on the map and became a reality hit years before that term was even used. “I think we added a different light to television,” Langley says. “Whether it’s a pimple or a beauty mark is up to the beholder.” The show does brisk DVD business with uncensored versions and is set to run for a “few more seasons” on Fox, he says. And with his MyNetworkTV programs “Jail,” “Street Patrol” and “The Tony Rock Project” all on the air this fall, he remains as busy as ever.
|50. Randy Jackson
Judge, Fox’s “American Idol”; executive producer, MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew”
“American Idol’s” top dawg has become a successful TV producer with MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew,” which was picked up for a third season. It’s just the latest career for Jackson. “Being in the marketplace as a producer, musician, record company guy, manager, I bring all of that into a show that’s about breaking new artists,” he says.
Profiles reported and written by Nellie Andreeva, P. Ryan Baber, Randee Dawn,
James Hibberd, Eric Kohn, Ray Richmond and Alexander J. Woodson.
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