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To call 2012’s jockeying for placement on THR‘s Reality Power List the most competitive ever would be like saying the Kardashians have dabbled a bit in self-promotion. What does it really mean to wield power in reality TV? Is it about having 10 shows on the air or in production, as does Real World creator Jonathan Murray? Or is it, like Jersey Shore creator SallyAnn Salsano has done, about making even the most mundane activities of Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino into breaking-news headlines?
Or maybe power comes in the form of creating a giant hit like The Voice, which, under the guidance of NBC’s Paul Telegdy, went from quirky experiment (Cee Lo! Spinning chairs!) to one of the year’s most-buzzed-about pop-culture phenomenons. Or, could it be turning one of the highly polarizing events in pop culture last year (i.e., Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries) into one of the guiltiest — and most lucrative — pleasures ever broadcast, as did E!’s Lisa Berger?
Reality power comes in all these forms and more. Among the 50 featured on the following pages are high-powered executives, prolific producers, newcomers making waves and veterans of the industry who, in keeping with their world, live and thrive by the only rule that matters: Make it real, and make it really good.
1. Ryan Seacrest
President and founder, Ryan Seacrest Productions
Ask Seacrest what he does to relax, and the response you’ll inevitably receive is laughter. “Relax? What does that mean?” he says of a workday that begins at 4:30 a.m. “In my head, I have built in a cutoff period at the end of the day to, in theory, go to dinner, cook, have a glass of wine … but I feel guilty not working any hour of the day.” He later admits the social drawing app Draw Something is his new “obsession,” which he turns to on breaks. The multihyphenate, who rakes in well north of $50 million annually, has been getting increasingly public about his relationship with his girlfriend, dancer-actress Julianne Hough (Rock of Ages), whom he mock-proposed to on the May 10 episode of American Idol. But all diversions aside, 2012 certainly won’t be the year The Man With a Million Jobs puts his feet up for too long. In recent weeks, Seacrest, 37, has inked a $15 million-a-year deal to remain with Idol for at least two more seasons — “It’s been a major part of my life for a long time, and I didn’t want to give it up,” he says of the long-running Fox juggernaut — and an even bigger pact with NBCUniversal. The latter will have him contributing to Today, primetime specials, the Olympics and election coverage. In addition to his on-air responsibilities, his Ryan Seacrest Productions oversees E!’s Kardashian franchise, Bravo’s recently renewed Shahs of Sunset and an upcoming Jonas Brothers reality show, which will take viewers behind the scenes with the oldest Jonas, Kevin, and his wife, Danielle. He has plans to add both scripted TV and film projects to the RSP development slate, which currently includes a lengthy list of unscripted projects. Seacrest’s tentacles reach 19 million weekly listeners with his On-Air With Ryan Seacrest radio show, an audience of 20 million with his American Top 40 countdown and a following of more than 6.5 million on Twitter, where he ranks among the more active celebrities. And in addition to all this, the Georgia native, who counts Dick Clark and Merv Griffin among his idols, is an investor with billionaire Mark Cuban, CAA and AEG in a new lifestyle cable channel, AXS Live.
2. Paul Telegdy
President of alternative and late-night programming, NBC Entertainment
“Forgive the bags under my eyes, I haven’t gotten much sleep,” warns Paul Telegdy as a photographer begins snapping pictures of the NBC reality chief.
It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday in late April, and the British transplant is masking his exhaustion with the kind of quips that make a nearby publicist nervous. After a morning of talent meetings with Train’s lead singer Patrick Monahan and Discovery castoff Bear Grylls about opportunities at the network, he heads over to nearby Warner Bros., where his juggernaut The Voice is filming.
If Telegdy, 41, was worried about his job before The Voice premiered in spring 2011, he needn’t be now. With NBC’s scripted fare landing with a thud across the network’s schedule, Telegdy’s offerings from Voice to America’s Got Talent have given his Comcast bosses something worth bragging about. (The star-studded singing competition, which will be counted on for fall and spring installments next season, averaged an impressive 6 rating among the crucial 18-to-49 demographic and, with a Super Bowl boost, nearly 16 million viewers overall for its Monday-night performance show; Got Talent delivered its highest-rated cycle ever in the summer, extending its reign as the No. 1 most-watched summer series for a sixth consecutive year.)
And so Telegdy, a holdover from the Ben Silverman era at NBC, who took on oversight of the network’s late-night division in late 2011, continues to get more rope. Up next on his slate is a celebrity military challenge series from Mark Burnett and Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, a dating show from erstwhile Desperate Housewives vixen Eva Longoria and a game show from Got Talent judge Howie Mandel. But before any of them hit the air, he’ll reboot dating challenge Love in the Wild with ’90s heartthrob Jenny McCarthy, who joins NBC’s other unscripted heavyweights Betty White (Off Their Rockers), Donald Trump (The Apprentice) and Jessica Simpson (Fashion Star).
On this day, as Telegdy kills time between Voice‘s dress rehearsal and live show, the engaged father of two young girls grows giddy at the mention of Howard Stern’s addition to the Got Talent judges table, bowing May 14. He takes particular delight in waxing on about Stern’s humor, consistency and intelligence. “When I worked at the BBC, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this place is going to be full of eggheads looking to have incredibly intelligent conversations about the nitty-gritty of the business,’ and of course, I found there’s a fair share of dingbats in any company,” he says. “The same is true of the business here; there aren’t that many frighteningly bright people. Howard Stern is frighteningly bright.” Telegdy adds that he hasn’t had to give a single note on content to the famously raunchy shock-jock, whom his network is paying roughly $15 million for the season.
But with that mounting enthusiasm comes sky-high expectations. “We’d be lying if we said we didn’t have interrupted sleep thinking about how it will do,” he says of the Got Talent reboot, with his protege Meredith Ahr, senior vp alternative programming and development, half-jokingly noting she often has to remind him that his job is fun.
Telegdy has been a TV fanatic for as long as he can remember. “I was the child that was permanently being dragged away from the TV by parents,” he recalls of his European childhood. (His Hungarian chemical engineer father and British actress-turned-teacher mother moved Telegdy to five different countries before he was 18; he added three more as an adult.)
After earning a degree in Korean and Japanese from the University of London — “A professor sold me on the basis that it would make me of value in the investment banking world, which is what the calling was if you were a well-educated, slightly greedy young man,” he says of a career path he ultimately passed on — Telegdy took a job at a small London-based TV packaging and distribution company. He rose quickly and landed a job at the BBC, which he likens to a “prestigious finishing school for anyone looking to start a career in television.” By 2004, Telegdy was relocated to the U.S., where he sold such projects as HBO’s Extras and ABC’s Dancing With the Stars before being lured to NBC four years later.
To hear him tell it, that decade-plus on the other side of the pitch process has made him a better buyer — or at least a better communicator. “Selling in this town can be a brutal experience,” he acknowledges, adding that those peddling to NBC benefit, in part, because he lacks the impenetrable poker face he recalls most U.S. television executives possessing. “I have no game face whatsoever,” he continues, chuckling as he comments on his own transparency. “When I’m happy, my tail is wagging; when I’m angry, my eyes are bulging.”
At a quarter to four, that metaphoric tail is on display as Telegdy makes his way to an area informally known as the celebrity trailer park, a preshow home to Voice host Carson Daly and coaches Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. He’s grown close to the quintet, as The Voice has boosted their careers as much as his own.
After a light knock, he goes bounding into Daly’s trailer, where he’s greeted by Shelton, Daly and several of Daly’s relatives. The trio trade barbs, many of them at Telegdy’s expense, before the executive bear-hugs both and excuses himself from the cramped space. He fist-bumps a member of Green’s entourage– “love this guy,” the larger man outfitted in black sweats says of a still-grinning Telegdy — on his way back to the set. As showtime approaches, Telegdy finds Burnett, producer of Voice, and the two open the door to stage 15. It’s time for another live show. — Lacey Rose
3. Mike Darnell
President of alternative programming, Fox Broadcasting Corp.
When Darnell arrived at Fox in 1994, the earliest form of reality programming — shows like World’s Scariest Police Chases and When Animals Attack — fell under the category of “specials.” Internally, staffers referred to them as “filler,” while outside, many simply called them junk, but there was no denying one fact. “It was doing gangbusters for us,” Darnell recalls proudly. Almost two decades later, the 49-year-old who’s seen his two daughters grow up alongside hit shows like American Idol, The X Factor and So You Think You Can Dance, is singing a similar tune. “Honestly, the networks wouldn’t know what to do without reality shows,” he says. “To get them through the season, they’ve become so important.” It’s a reality Fox is intimately familiar with: American Idol, even with a 25 percent dip in 2012, still is topping the ratings scoreboard after 11 years. Darnell credits the power of pedigree. Lots of shows, he says, “are new and interesting for a moment, as we saw with The Voice, but Idol is the staple. It’s the Oscars, the Super Bowl, the Today show — a brand.” As for unscripted fare in general, Darnell says it started getting respect in the 2000s, and now that it’s a “mature” genre, it’s time to look to the next big thing: relationship shows. Fox has two in the works, the speed-dating challenge Take Me Out and The Choice, a play on The Voice that involves potential couples. “There hasn’t been a good relationship show since The Bachelor, and that was a decade ago,” he says. “Over the years, you learn — when someone says a genre is dead, that’s exactly when you want to come out with a show. Right now, there’s a definite hole there.”
4. Mark Burnett
CEO, Mark Burnett Productions
Wanna get Burnett on the phone for a quick chat this month? Good luck. Now that his NBC hit The Voice has wrapped a giant second season (with a third just announced to premiere in September) the uber-producer is traipsing the globe — this week, Africa — likely entrenched in production on the forthcoming Survivor-meets-Amazing Race mashup Expedition Impossible, which bows on ABC June 23. The Malibu-based father of three, 59, who’s married to actress Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel), also produced last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards and MTV Video Music Awards and just saw his ABC entrepreneur-competition series Shark Tank renewed for another 22 episodes. In addition, his enduring CBS hit Survivor is approaching its 21st season, and the native Brit is prepping Robogeddon with James Cameron on Discovery, plus a celebrities-meet-law-enforcement series with producer Dick Wolf for NBC.
5. Cecile Frot-Coutaz
After two decades in the business shepherding such shows as American Idol, The X Factor and America’s Got Talent from novelty act to ratings tour de force, reality TV’s most powerful woman is telling a more somber tale. “The numbers are not what they used to be,” says the 46-year-old French native and mother of two. “Viewers are going elsewhere; they’re on DVR, online and going to cable. The environment is much tougher than it was 10 years ago or even four years ago. As suppliers, that puts increased pressure on all of us.” Frot-Coutaz, of course, can handle it, which is one reason why she recently was promoted from CEO of Fremantle North America to become the worldwide company chief based in London — stepping in for Tony Cohen, who had run the production and distribution giant for 17 years. “I am excited by the challenges, but at the same time, it’s bittersweet,” she confesses. “I joined the company one month after Tony, and it’s hard to imagine doing my job without him being around.” To that end, it’s hard to envision Fremantle without Frot-Coutaz, whose latest triumph almost trumps them all: Getting Howard Stern to sign on as a judge for NBC’s America’s Got Talent, a choice she says was a no-brainer. Adds Frot-Coutaz matter-of-factly, “People are fickle and expect change.”
6. John Saade
Executive VP alternative series and late night programming, ABC Entertainment Group*
Saade considers his current gig a dream job. The Ohio native, who got his start as a runner at Dick Clark Productions, lords over a portfolio that includes a collection of longer-running mainstays from top-rated Dancing With the Stars to spinoff-heavy The Bachelor to Friday performer Shark Tank. He’s particularly excited about filling one of ABC’s few voids, the singing competition, which he will do with this summer’s Duets; Kelly Clarkson and Robin Thicke are among its judges. “It’s a stunningly emotional performance show,” he says of the big-budget project. When he isn’t in his L.A. office or on the set of one of his shows, the father of three has been known to take apart computers and put them back together. “I like to geek out,” he acknowledges, recalling a 2009 dinner that he attended with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who was appearing on his network’s Dancing at the time. After the meal, Wozniak said he had enjoyed meeting the network’s “IT guy,” referring, of course, to Saade. “I swear to God I was in heaven,” says Saade, who opted not to correct him.
7. Jennifer Bresnan
Executive vp alternative programming, CBS
Coming up on its 21st cycle, The Amazing Race shows no signs of aging (up 10 percent in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-to-49 demographic), with Big Brother also posting gains year over year. “The franchises that we have on our roster, we hold that dear to our hearts,” says Bresnan, pointing to the importance of seven-time Emmy darling Race‘s lower median age. With Survivor holding its own against Fox’s The X Factor and Undercover Boss delivering solid returns in its new home on Fridays (tops in total viewers, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54), both series were among CBS’ early pickups. Inspired by the real people depicted on Boss, the L.A.-based exec, whose business trips tend to focus on Race and Survivor locations, greenlighted an adaptation of Israeli unscripted series 3, pushing the first-place network into the dating-show genre. “What’s missing in the dating genre is a depiction of what it’s really like out there,” she says of the series revolving around three women on a journey for love. “It’s not about if they find a perfect man, which I think is a dated concept.” An alum of USC (she studied broadcast journalism), Bresnan’s hit lineup means she can be incredibly picky when greenlighting a new project, like Mark Burnett and Michael Davies’ dream-job contest effort, The Job, just ordered to series for CBS. “When Michael came in with a project and we decided to pair him with Mark, we thought, ‘What a perfect union,’ ” she says. “We’ve set the bar really high.”
8. Simon Cowell
Founder and owner, SyCo
For the man who has been fastened to a judges’ table since 2002 — when he made his debut on American Idol — and created worldwide franchises of talent contests The X Factor (more than 36 countries carry a version of it) and Got Talent (49 countries and counting), a winning reality show formula begins with the basics: “What color is the floor? Literally, that’s where we start,” says the 52-year-old Brit. Every decision has an impact, especially about who’s sitting to his right. After a season-one shake-up on U.S. X Factor that saw two judges and a host depart, Cowell announced May 14 that pop stars Britney Spears and Demi Lovato will be judges for season two. “My biggest failures were when I believed my own hype,” he has said of all the drama. “You learn from your mistakes.”
9. David Goldberg
Chairman, Endemol North America
After a boom year at the media giant Endemol — record cable offerings, the opening of a production studio for scripted efforts, finalizing plans for its first talk show — reality remains the bread and butter for Goldberg, 49, currently in his 11th year with the company. While producing stalwart standards like Big Brother, Wipeout and Jerseylicious, Goldberg also has recently seen the exits of longtime hits Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and the briefly revived Fear Factor. On the bright side, the L.A.-based Goldberg has Think Like a Man creator/comedian Steve Harvey, whose September-bound talk show already has sold 90 percent of ads. “If you really hit it, talk shows can make more money than about anything in television.” Up next: Jenny McCarthy joins the second season as host of NBC’s successful Love in the Wild, and Endemol plots three new reality pilots.
10. Paul Buccieri
President and CEO, ITV Studios; managing director, ITV Studios International
Buccieri’s new responsibilities at ITV have allowed him to better leverage content here as well as overseas. The success of Come Dine With Me — on the air in 34 countries — has spawned spinoff Come Date With Me, which is already in six territories with plans to bring it stateside. “It’s easier for me to sell a show in the U.S.,” says the 45-year-old married father of two who lives in Los Angeles. ITV Studios America continues to cook, with Fox recently renewing Hell’s Kitchen for two seasons. “Fox has put it in every conceivable time period and it has thrived,” says Buccieri.
11. Eileen O’Neill
Group president, Discovery and TLC NetworksI
It is an unseasonably warm evening in early March, and the ice sculptures in front of the soaring glass entrance of Manhattan’s Alice Tully Hall are beginning to thaw. On this day — Discovery’s premiere event for Frozen Planet — the 70-degree temperatures stand as an ironic counterpoint to the network’s latest epic co-production with the BBC. The previously angular beaks of a clutch of Emperor penguins carved out of 6,000 pounds of ice have melted into short rounded snouts. And another 6,000-pound sculpture — an ice floe wall — is dangerously close to resembling a giant Slurpee. It is more than an hour before guests arrive, and David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications, emerges from the hall to survey the 12,000 pounds of mushy ice. “We’ve gotta get people here before the sculptures melt!”
Inside, Eileen O’Neill, group president of Discovery and TLC Networks, does not betray a hint of anxiety — about the melting ice sculptures or her ambassador duties, although she freely admits to being uncomfortable in the media glare. Dressed in a navy blue Brooks Brothers skirt suit and pearls, she calmly chats with Discovery founder and chairman John S. Hendricks and Frozen Planet executive producer Alastair Fothergill. Asked what she likes about such events, she allows “not much,” except that it is an opportunity to honor the BBC crew who spent nearly four years braving inhuman conditions (200 mph winds, temperatures that dipped to -58 degrees Fahrenheit). “Alastair is out there in the worst conditions for months,” she says. “And this is a chance for our filmmakers to really have the spotlight on them.”
If O’Neill prefers to fly under the radar, her accomplishments at Discovery Communications — where she started in 1990 as an unpaid intern while earning a graduate degree in popular culture from Bowling Green State University in Ohio — are headline-worthy. O’Neill took the helm of a moribund TLC in 2008, deftly using the outrageous success of Jon & Kate Plus 8 to launch a slew of brand-defining hits including Cake Boss, Sister Wives and Long Island Medium.
“We were very concerned that we’d be seen as a one-hit wonder,” says O’Neill, 45. Hardly. The second season of Medium pulled in 2.3 million viewers on premiere night, besting AMC’s season-five debut of Mad Men and Lifetime’s Army Wives in head-to-head competition. This year, TLC is a top 10 ad-supported cable network among its target demographics of women 25 to 54 and 18 to 49. Promoted to the newly created role of group president in January 2011, O’Neill oversees Discovery — the company’s flagship network — as well as TLC. She has infused Discovery’s programming with new urgency, commissioning ripped-from-the-headlines “instamentaries” on the tsunami in Japan, the assassination of Osama bin Laden and most recently the Concordia cruise ship disaster. She has freshened returning franchises; a live version of American Chopper last December featured a three-way battle between Senior and Junior Teutul and Jesse James that became the eight-year-old series’ second-highest rated episode ever with 4.8 million viewers. The third season of Gold Rush will launch this fall with a live episode. And she has seeded the network with the next generation of brand-defining hits including Moonshiners, American Guns and Bering Sea Gold — which, with 3.7 million viewers tuning in for its January premiere, stands as the biggest series launch in Discovery’s 27-year history. Discovery’s first-quarter ratings were the third-highest ever (behind only fourth quarter 2011 and first quarter 2004). “She works harder than anyone,” says Zaslav. “We’re on the phone every Saturday, sometimes Sunday. She’s understated, but she’s unbelievably competitive.”
O’Neill’s competitive streak is a product of a childhood in a large Irish Catholic family of five children who moved from Mount Holyoke, N.Y., to Vero Beach, Fla., when O’Neill was in third grade. She excelled in volleyball, softball and especially basketball, and while she grew to become a Dodgers fan (the team’s spring training facility was in Vero Beach until 2008), she has remained loyal to her beloved New England Patriots and Boston Celtics.
O’Neill intended to pursue sports writing after earning her B.A., but a dearth of full-time career prospects led her to graduate school, which landed her that internship at Discovery. Twenty-two years later, she has no regrets. Her postgraduate studies “taught me a lot about critical thinking and aspects of our culture that are often overlooked. Oddly enough, it has really worked out.” O’Neill and her partner, a stay-at-home-mom, live in the Maryland suburb of Rocky Gorge, where they’re raising their 11-year-old son, Quinn, and where O’Neill is a 30-minute drive from Discovery’s Silver Spring offices.
If her early education stressed right-brain creativity, O’Neill approaches the creative side of the business as a left-brain tactician.”Conversations with Eileen are always logical and reasonable,” says Craig Piligian, who produces a slew of series for Discovery (Dirty Jobs, American Chopper).”But you gotta go in smart. When you hear Eileen is on the phone, she’s not expecting an idiot on the other end.”
She admits to being “a bit of a micromanager.” “I pay attention to details. I’m a sponge for information. You have to be to be a general manager,” she says.
It is 6 p.m., an hour before the Frozen Planet screening, and Pete and Penny, two 3-year-old Magellanic penguins on loan from SeaWorld, are waiting in a basement room before they waddle down the blue carpet. They are curiously inspecting visitors when Pete relieves himself on the floor. A few moments later, O’Neill walks the carpet as Pete and Penny wander toward the flash bulbs behind the media rope line. O’Neill kneels to coax her small stars back onto the carpet. “They’re total pros,” she muses, and adds, “other than a poop incident.” — Marisa Guthrie
12. Dirk Hoogstra
Senior vp development and programming, History and H2
How do you maintain a streak when you’re coming off your best ratings year ever? “We’re constantly pushing ourselves to innovate,” says Hoogstra, who was promoted in March 2011 to head development and programming strategy at History and H2. “We do an enormous amount of internal development, and that keeps us from fishing in the same pond as everyone else.” Still, Hoogstra knows that continued momentum at History — which had its best year ever in 2011, the latest in five consecutive years of ratings growth — will “be a challenge, but we’re doing it on a volume of franchise hits.” Those include Pawn Stars (5.7 million viewers) and spinoff Cajun Pawn Stars (3.2 million), as well as American Pickers (5 million) and American Restoration (2.3 million). “We look for programs that feel unexpected for us,” he says. The married father of two, 40, is mum on what those are, a precaution in the derivative world of unscripted television, but points to Top Shot, History’s hit sharpshooting competition series, as one successful swing for the fences.
13. Rob Sharenow
Executive vp programming, Lifetime Networks
Lifetime’s portfolio — which includes scripted series and 30 made-for-TV movies a year — now has 200 hours of unscripted programming. Project Runway is heading into its 10th season (the ninth averaged 2.9 million viewers) and America’s Most Wanted has improved Lifetime’s Friday night time slot by 56 percent. It’s all good news for Sharenow, a married father of two daughters, ages 19 and 12, who admits he is a bit of a “dance dad.” But he’s not the overweening type of parent seen at the Pittsburgh dance studio featured on Lifetime’s Dance Moms. “We live in a very soft age. The approach that some of these parents take with their children is shockingly different, and audiences are drawn to that,” says Sharenow, 45. Indeed, Dance Moms has become a breakout hit for Lifetime, averaging 2.4 million viewers during its recent second season, marking a gain of 85 percent from season one and spawning Dance Moms: Miami and Ice Moms. Of course, Dance Moms does have its critics: A recent episode that featured young pupils learning a burlesque routine caused a media conflagration and Lifetime yanked it. “We take concerns about the show very seriously,” says Sharenow.
14. Chris Linn and Lauren Dolgen
Executive vp programming, head of production; senior vp series development, MTV
“The goal with 16 and Pregnant was to gain awareness of the epidemic through honest storytelling,” says Dolgen, 37. “Teen birth rates have dropped 9 percent, the steepest decline in over 60 years. Our casting pool is shrinking, and that’s a good thing!” With Jersey Shore under his purview, Linn is used to fielding phone calls at all hours. “Am I being Punk’d by my own network?” recalls Linn, 47, of a 3 a.m. call from Shore executive producer SallyAnn Salsano informing him that Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino had been hospitalized after ramming himself into a wall to avoid a fight with a castmember. But Shore continues to deliver, with the recently completed Italy-set season ranking as the No. 1 show on cable in MTV’s core 12-to-34 demographic and a pair of spinoffs set to explore Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s engagement and pregnancy as well as The Situation’s rehab stint. Also thriving is MTV’s Teen Mom franchise with the greenlighted Teen Mom 3, itself a spinoff of the upcoming fourth cycle of 16 and Pregnant. Linn and Dolgen are now focused on the renewed freshman viral-video series Ridiculousness, the ageless Real World, its spinoff The Challenge and a Punk’d reboot.
15. Frances Berwick
President, Bravo and Style Media*
At the helm of the female- skewing cable network since 2010, Berwick (who joined Bravo in 1996 from Britain’s Channel 4 news) is enjoying Bravo’s current reign as the No. 11 network among adults 18 to 49 and was a force behind its major rebranding in 2005. “Our viewers are passionate,” says Berwick. “Whether it’s Social Editions, where we put viewers comments on screen, or virtual viewing parties during the show.” Last month, the network announced plans to develop nine new reality series (and a 27 percent increase in their original programming slate) and eight returning shows, including Inside the Actors Studio for its 18th season. The Manhattan resident and mother of one plans to capitalize on the popularity of shows like Jerseylicious (which had its most successful season to date, averaging 590,000 total viewers for its fourth cycle) as the network introduces a 25 percent increase in original hours — which will include reality series Empire Girls and, naturally, Chicagolicious.
16. David McKillop
Executive vp programming, A&E and BIO
Since transitioning to A&E and BIO in April 2011 from A+E Television Networks’ History, McKillop, 53, has extended his vision beyond the recession reality (History’s Pawn Stars, A&E’s Storage Wars) that propelled both A&E and History into the top five among ad-supported cable networks and into a milieu that emphasizes self-reliance. “We’re redefining the American family and the workplace,” he says, adding that Storage Wars (which is averaging 4.6 million viewers in 2012) has two hit spinoffs in Storage Wars: Texas (3 million) and Shipping Wars (2.4 million). “They’re about scrappy entrepreneurialism, which is just under the surface of the American psyche,” he says. McKillop’s goal at A&E, which is coming off of nine consecutive years of ratings gains, is continued growth. His motto for his development team? “Have a vision and be demanding.”
17. Lisa Berger
President, E! Entertainment Programming
If Kris Jenner is the architect of E!’s hyper successful Kardashian-themed franchise, then E! programming president Berger is the mastermind. Since coming to the female-skewing network from Fox in 2003, the 47-year-old mother of two daughters not only developed Keeping Up With the Kardashians for the entertainment cable network, she also created popular shows The Girls Next Door, Ice Loves Coco and Chelsea Handler’s late-night series Chelsea Lately — the most-watched late-night series among the network’s key 18-to-34 female demo, averaging more than 1 million viewers nightly. Together with E! executives — and despite reports that Handler was looking to leave the network — Berger was able to secure the talk show host with a two-year deal, which includes a first look from Handler’s Borderline Amazing production company (the network just ordered a third season of Handler’s sketch comedy series After Lately and a new weekly talk show from former Chelsea Lately correspondent Whitney Cummings). The Santa Monica resident maintains that “developing programming that breaks through the clutter” remains the network’s primary focus, including the nine scripted series currently in development and the occasional pop-culture juggernaut moment. And a programming highlight from her slate in the last year? “You may have heard something about a fairly high-profile wedding,” jokes Berger.
18. Craig Piligian
President, CEO and executive producer, Pilgrim Films & TV
With programming spread all over cable, the American Chopper creator continues to expand his empire, most recently launching Big Shrimpin’ on History and Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s on OWN, which became the upstart network’s top-rated offering. “I know it’s a small war, but it’s a good war to win,” says the Detroit native of the needed programming win for OWN. With Ultimate Fighter Live being reformatted for its new home on FX, Piligian expanded the combat-sport genre by bringing a 12th century sport into the 21st century: Full Metal Jousting is a “big swing” that continues to grow week over week for History. Now that American Chopper is firing on all cylinders — its recent live installment drew an impressive 5 million viewers to Discovery — and Wicked Tuna has launched into its first season on Nat Geo, the 54-year-old is ready to push into new territory: broadcast. “I wouldn’t get into the singing-show business, but we do have projects for networks we’re developing,” he says, noting The Nation’s Luckiest Person, which after a successful run in Japan is being shopped to U.S. broadcast nets. Other big swings for the man behind Spike’s upcoming World’s Wildest Police Chases include more scripted fare after exec producing Lifetime’s Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy. “We have very little fear when it comes to branching out and really going for it,” he says.
19. Thom Beers
CEO and executive producer, Original Productions
Beers, whose own gravelly voice has narrated many of his macho-man series, pioneered the dirty-and-dangerous-job genre (he calls it “testostereality”) that has now exploded across the reality television landscape. Deadliest Catch for Discovery and Ice Road Truckers for History are brand-defining hits for both networks. Black Gold recently wrapped its best season ever on truTV, ranking among cable’s top five among men 18 to 49 for its Wednesday night timeslot. And Storage Wars and spinoff Storage Wars: Texas — about container-raiding teams of fortune hunters — are currently the top two unscripted series on A&E. “To me, it’s not just about the job, it’s finding a culture where there are rules and codes, heroes and villains,” says Beers. “That’s what’s fascinating to me.” Today, the 54-year-old married father of a teenage son (his wife, Leslie D. Beers, is the president of Amygdala Music, which supplies music for Original Productions) has 14 series on seven different networks. The first of Beers’ manly man reality offerings — Monster Garage, which premiered in 2002 on Discovery — sprang from his own interest in cars and motorcycles. He has several cars — he’s almost finished restoring a 1940 Ford panel truck that he picked up at a junkyard in Oklahoma — and nearly a dozen motorcycles including two Harleys and a Royal Enfield chopper.
20. Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth
Executive producers, Magical Elves
To get to the conference room at the new 16th floor headquarters of Magical Elves in Hollywood, one has to pass through a trophy case of sorts. There are the standards: a placard acknowledging Top Chef’s 2010 Emmy for outstanding reality competition, magazine covers and a Peabody for Project Runway. And there’s the more exotic: the dried remains of a floral gown designed by Runway alum Daniel Vosovic, signed chef coats and all manner of elf-related tchotchkes.
Inside the development meeting led by executive producers Dan Cutforth, 45, and Jane Lipsitz, 43, however, there are no acknowledgments of past glories — only a ticking clock and a packed agenda that covers the details for a YouTube series, the premiere of Bravo’s Around the World in 80 Plates, an ongoing host search for a new CBS dating show and maybe a moment’s respite to watch a particularly absurd casting tape for an unscripted project they can’t discuss outside of the room.
On the heels of last year’s gargantuan film endeavor, $98 million global grosser Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Cutforth and Lipsitz have now taken on the not-so-easy task of a directorial debut. It’s another theatrical 3D concert venture with Paramount, Katy Perry: Part of Me.
“It’s a huge move for us,” says Lipsitz, noting the good working relationship that was fostered with Paramount during the Bieber film. “Our heads are swirling right now because it is a really quick turnaround.”
Less than five months, to be exact. It’s a job the duo, who’ve been working together since 2001, actively discuss from their adjacent desks. Like siblings who weren’t ready to abandon their bunk beds after moving into a bigger house, Cutforth and Lipsitz still share a his-and-hers corner office, with a small table between them for conference calls or when brainstorming demands they be fewer than 15 feet apart.
It’s a closeness that has inspired a lot of inside jokes from their decade-plus career. The jokes seem to pepper their conversations — like the rare moment they thought they could share their success with Cutforth’s two daughters and Lipsitz’s son at the star-packed Never Say Never premiere.
“They were six at the time,” says Cutforth, while a larger-than-life-size cardboard cutout of Bieber lurks just outside the door in the hallway. “I thought it would be the greatest memory of their lives so far. Instead, it was way after their bedtime and within an hour they were literally both in tears saying, ‘When will it be over?’ It was a terrifying experience for them.”
“It was kind of scary for us, too, by the way,” adds Lipsitz, laughing. “It was a really emotional thing. Sitting in a theater that size with people around you responding to a film is a whole different experience from television. But we love both.”
Their office, with expansive views of the Hollywood sign and the Eastside, hosts a large dry erase board with their respective schedules. A quick glance has them attending a screening together that night, and Lipsitz has a 9 a.m. Pilates class planned for the next morning. “I’ll just dream about that,” she says wistfully.
On top of their film obligation and continued work with stalwart hits Top Chef, Braxton Family Values and The Real L Word, 2012 finds Magical Elves with their biggest network docket to date. NBC’s Fashion Star, greeted with solid reviews if so-so numbers, and CBS’ upcoming 3, an adaptation of an Israeli dating show, mark the first time they’ve had series on multiple broadcast networks at once.
Fashion Star, in particular, is an interesting homecoming for the Elves — and, already renewed for a second season, one of their most notable successes of the past year. Rising to prominence with Project Runway, which they departed in 2008 when it left Bravo for Lifetime, the Elves find fashion familiar territory. But they’ve used the NBC series, a collaboration with Ben Silverman’s Electus, as a chance to play with the real-time marketing opportunities that reality competitions present. Winning designs promptly go on sale (and sell out) online and at participating retailers after the episodes showcasing them air.
“It’s hard to say where reality is going, but we feel like harnessing the marketing potential of television is a really interesting way to go,” says Cutforth. “It’s about giving the audience ways to interact. Fashion Star is a much more tangible way to play off of that experience.”
Magical Elves remains committed to its culinary crown jewel, Top Chef, which Bravo recently renewed for a 10th season, in addition to Chef‘s third spinoff, Life After Top Chef. They’ve also brought in a strong online component with secondary competition Last Chance Kitchen, which pits cast-offs against each other to win a spot back on the show — one way they’re working to keep Top Chef from feeling stale.
The location for the 10th cycle is a topic of discussion in Magical Elves’ own kitchen, a homey nook in the middle of the office with a cool coffee-house vibe. Two different markets are vying for Top Chef‘s attention — the Elves are regularly pitched by mayors’ offices, local film commissions and state publicity groups — and several members of the development team are going over the finer points while simultaneously planning a going-away party for their intern.
“This is actually the first time I’ve ever seen Dan,” the intern says as he shakes Cutforth’s hand with a mix of appreciation and slight embarrassment, the delay in their meeting due most likely to Cutforth’s manic schedule and workload over the past few months.
The chosen spot for the Elves’ meeting today — the kitchen — seems to be one of both comfort and necessity since their work space is in a constant state of commotion. “We decided that this is how much we’d need,” Lipsitz says of the 2011 move that united their post-production team and main offices under one roof. She adds with a laugh, “And then we outgrew the space in a week.” — Michael O’Connell
21. Sharon Levy
Executive VP original series, Spike TV
How does Levy program a network that caters almost entirely to men? First, she’ll tell you that she has spent much of her life thinking about what men like. Then she acknowledges that she very often likes what men like. “Firing guns, tattoos, dirty movies,” says the onetime Comedy Central publicist. The synergy is paying off for the Viacom-owned cable network, which has broadened its purview to include older male (and the occasional female) viewers under Levy’s watch. The native of Long Island, 42, has scored with series like Ink Master and Bar Rescue, and has high hopes for the newly law enforcement show Undercover Stings and a mixed-martial arts series about the Bellator Fighting Championships.
MY CRAZIEST REALITY MOMENT: “I don’t know what possessed us, but we once did a pilot based on the Magic 8 ball toy for some syndicator; I can’t remember which one. The show was supposed to be for late night, but the syndicator switched it at the last minute for daytime. The next thing I know, we are shooting a presentation about a son who always wanted to be a police officer but got derailed because of his drug-addicted mother — and he uses the 8 ball to chart what he should do next. I remember thinking ‘Hey, should we run this by mattel or something?’ but somehow it didn’t happen. It was the worst thing I ever produced, and I think Mattel still has my photo on file.”
22. Sallyann Salsano
Founder and president, 495 Productions
“If I’m not making reality shows, all I want to do is watch them,” admits Salsano, 38. Storage Wars, Ice Road Truckers … she loves it all. And why not? She created a monster hit in Jersey Shore and turned mock-worthy Snooki and The Situation into cultural icons. The Long Island native who started as an intern at The Howard Stern Show champions the underdog: “In my shows, people aren’t afraid to say, ‘This is who I am!’ or ‘This is what I do and I’m proud of it!’ ” On her current slate? Shore spinoffs The Pauly D Show and Snooki and JWoww, MTV’s Friend Zone, Oxygen’s Tanesha’s Getting Married, TV Guide’s Nail Files and Repo Games, in which people get a chance to win back their cars. “You never know what’s the next big idea, so you have to take a lot of swings,” she says.
MY CRAZIEST REALITY MOMENT: “In season one of Repo Games, we were shooting a repossession of a car and one of the neighbors came out onto the street, having nothing to do with the shoot, and opened fire on us. in my office today, i have the door of the van that we were in with the bullet holes in it.”
23. Gordon Ramsay
President, One Potato, Two Potato, Inc.
With the launch of Hotel Hell, his fourth series on Fox, Ramsay reaffirms his monopoly on the network’s summer schedule. Hell’s Kitchen remains the network’s highest-rated program during the off months, and the third season of MasterChef recently fielded 57,000 applicants — including one finalist who surprised Ramsay himself. “There’s a blind woman, and she plates like an angel,” says the 45-year-old marathon runner and married father of four. His brand, which moves into hospitality with Hotel Hell, includes two series on BBC America, a new documentary in the U.K. that is likely headed for a stateside deal, 18 books and new restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas that employ contestants from his shows. Ramsay may even trek to China, where Shine Group recently sold the Australian format of MasterChef: “The producers told me, ‘We potentially have an audience of 500 million,’ ” he says.
MY CRAZIEST REALITY MOMENT: “I was staying in a hotel in upstate New York for Hotel Hell, and I wasn’t too keen on the smell in the bedroom. I shined a black light on the bed and I swear to God, it was like seeing a galaxy of body fluids. If there’s one piece of advice I’d ever give anyone staying in a hotel, never sleep in the honeymoon suite.”
24. Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman
CEO, Studio Lambert; and President, Studio Lambert USA
In 2010, Undercover Boss became TV’s No. 1 new show, and it remained the top-rated show in its primetime slot until its recent renewal for a fourth season. It also makes CBS the No. 1 network on Friday nights. “Doing Boss was a bit like going to the casino and putting all our money on red 14, and red 14 turned up,” says Lambert, 53, who recruited Holzman, 38, in 2008 to head up the American arm of his U.K.-based company. Boss was the pair’s first collaboration. “A lot of networks have now said, ‘All the goodwill from that has allowed us to spread our wings,’ ” says Holzman. Indeed. The duo spearheaded nine new shows this year, including AMC’s The Pitch and Lifetime’s Love for Sail last month, followed by Spike’s Rat Bastards and Diamond Divers, A&E’s Be the Boss, and this month Discovery’s Outlaw Empire, a show about gangs from Sons of Anarchy producer Kurt Sutter. “Kurt wants to hear directly from the gang members, and you find yourself going, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s fascinating.” The pair is also about to announce another Discovery show, one for VH1 and “a very uplifting show” for OWN.
25. Jonathan Murray
Chairman, Bunim/Murray Productions
Having co-created The Real World with his late partner Mary Ellis-Bunim, Murray, 57, has earned the unofficial title of godfather of reality television. More than two decades later, the series about seven strangers living together in a house continues to deliver for host network MTV, where it was recently renewed for a 28th season. Murray acknowledges Real World would likely struggle to get on air today. “It’s almost too pure and doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles,” he says, noting the show’s tameness by comparison to such spectacles as MTV’s other staple, Jersey Shore. Murray’s other efforts include Road Rules, Project Runway and the hugely successful if at times controversial Kardashian franchise. Up next from Murray and Bunim/Murray president Gil Goldschein is Mrs. Eastwood & Company, an E! docuseries about Clint Eastwood’s family.
Why isn’t Nancy Dubuc on This List?
Dubuc has long been a mainstay on THR’s Reality Power List. And why not? As president and general manager of History and Lifetime Networks, her stewardship has turned History into a top-three ad-supported cable network with one of the most-watched reality shows in Pawn Stars.
But now Dubuc’s mandate has expanded beyond the confines of unscripted series. This Memorial Day, History breaks into scripted territory with the premiere of the miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. It is a big-swing project that boasts A-list auspices (Oscar winner Kevin Costner) while still “keeping with the kind of pedigree we’re looking for,” says Dubuc, who has also ordered History’s first scripted series with The Vikings, which is currently casting with an eye toward a spring 2013 bow. “With scripted, we need to just do it and not sort of dip our toe in. Failure is not an option,” she says.
When she took the top job at Lifetime in April 2011, Dubuc, 43, also added to her portfolio a general entertainment network with a three-pronged programming strategy that included reality, original movies and scripted series. She has brought buzz, stars (Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore) and a renewed hipness to a 28-year-old brand long defined by its maudlin made-for-TV movies. And with a top-to-bottom rebrand and new tagline (“Your Life. Your Time”), she has completed Lifetime’s face-lift.
As for graduating from THR‘s list, Dubuc says: “I have well-deserving people who work for me, like Dirk Hoogstra [No. 12], who should have been on the list instead of me a long time ago. I proved that I could handle the scripted side of Lifetime, and I’m about to prove it again at History.” — M.G.
Why Isn’t Andy Cohen On This List?
Late in 2011, Bravo announced that Real Housewives guru Andy Cohen — the network’s former executive vp programming and a THR Reality Power List mainstay — would be upping his popular late-night interactive Watch What Happens Live! to five nights a week, thereby shifting his main focus away from reality programing. “The show has exceeded our expectations for ratings, content and bookings,” says Cohen, 43. Inspired by his nightly segment about pop culture’s “wow” moments, Cohen offers his top five “mazels” of the past year in reality TV.
- E!’s Kim’s Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event: “It was a product-placement-filled ratings bonanza — both nights — that then led to a 72-day flame-out.”
- Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta season-four reunion: “This was the first Atlanta reunion where sparks flew from the time we sat down and didn’t stop.”
- TLC’s Sister Wives: “It’s amazing to me how powerless those women are to that guy’s mullet.”
- Bravo’s Flipping Out: “When [neurotic interior designer] Jeff Lewis bought Zoila, his maid, a facelift.”
- Christina Aguilera’s hat on NBC’s The Voice: “She rocked that jaunty saucer, bedazzled satellite dish for almost the entire season. Christina later donated it to the museum of broadcasting — and by ‘museum of broadcasting,’ I mean the Bravo Clubhouse.” — L.B.
PROFILES WRITTEN BY: Tim Appelo, Leslie Bruce, Lesley Goldberg, Marisa Guthrie, Shirley Halperin, Michael O’Connell, Philiana Ng, Lacey Rose and Stacey Wilson
METHODOLOGY: Selections for THR‘s fifth annual Reality Power List were based on the following criteria: 1. The indelible mark each person makes on his or her show as producer, executive or talent. 2. Greenlight power and ratings. To what degree can he or she get a show on the air, and keep it there? 3. Personal and professional reputation in the business. 4. To what degree the person has sparked a water-cooler factor. 5. The breadth of work done in the U.S.
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