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This story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
At this time last year, Thom Beers found himself uninspired, if not altogether bored. He had sold a majority stake in Original Productions — the shop responsible for such Beers-produced hits as Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers and Storage Wars — to London-based FremantleMedia in early 2009 for a reported $50 million, and his contract was up at year’s end. He had turned down a series of high-profile job offers and was toying with the idea of taking his wife, his 15-year-old son, Max, and a tutor on a ship to sail around the world for half a year. Then Cecile Frot-Coutaz came calling. She would be elevated to CEO of FremantleMedia, and she had handpicked Beers to replace her as CEO of the company’s North American division.
In summer 2012, Beers, 61 — who had dabbled as an actor, playwright and Turner Broadcasting executive before becoming one of the most successful producers in the unscripted business during the past 15 years — assumed the role and now oversees 175 Fremantle employees. Seated in his cozy Burbank office in late March, Beers opened a bottle of fine whiskey and discussed the 7-month-old gig, the market for pricey talent and the key to avoiding salary standoffs.
The Hollywood Reporter: You went from a maverick producer to a suit, at least figuratively. Why take this job?
Thom Beers: By God, Fremantle has the biggest shows on television. I cracked one network series at NBC [America’s Toughest Jobs] and it wasn’t a success, so I kind of wanted to taste what it was like to sit in the big seat and see if I couldn’t steer the ship.
THR: What does it say about the state of the network reality business that Fremantle chose a cable guy?
Beers: Sure, there’s a bit of the, “What’s a cable guy doing in the big seat?” But if you really look at where television is going, I was kicking the networks’ butts on Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights with Storage Wars, a little cable show. I say that respectfully because everybody’s butt gets kicked, and I’ve had mine kicked plenty lately in the ratings.
THR: Any culture shock in making the move?
Beers: I’m not used to the pace of a large corporation, particularly one that’s headquartered abroad. Trying to get stuff moving as quickly as I moved it at O.P. is not easy, but that’s the only downside. Look, I’m in a bigger ship, so it takes a little longer to turn a bigger ship.
THR: How involved are you in Fremantle’s major competition shows such as American Idol, America’s Got Talent and The X Factor?
Beers: Cecile is very smart. She brought in [president of entertainment programming] Trish Kinane to oversee all of those shows because she realized that the last three years of her job here were spent primarily on those three shows. To be fair, those three shows, plus Family Feud, Let’s Make a Deal and The Price Is Right, represent a massive majority of the profits for this company. But I think what the company had realized is that they hadn’t cracked a new, original, fresh format in a long time, so the idea was to bring me in on the creative side to develop the next big hit.
THR: So you don’t have to be worried about the ratings collapse of Idol?
Beers: No. But look, it’s a terrific show. Is it losing some audience share? Absolutely. At the same time, I think we’re still the king of the hill, and we’re going to be around for a long time.
THR: The judges on these shows are making in the seven and eight figures. Are those fees sustainable?
Beers: I’m a cable guy; every one of those numbers are way beyond my comprehension. But if the market bears it, great. If it doesn’t, then it’ll change. I hate to say it, but it’s a fair market.
THR: What’s the next big genre?
Beers: The beauty of working at Fremantle is that the world is our lab. We can take a show to Europe and then talk to all of our partners there and say, “Hey, does this work?” It allows us to really beat out a show, as opposed to just guessing. There’s a little show right now in the Netherlands called Everybody Dance Now, and it’s kicking butt. They found a fresh approach to the dance genre, and it’s much more accessible and pedestrian. We’re already talking to the network guys here about it.
THR: Is the singing competition space saturated?
Beers: I believe that talent is still a big opportunity, and I’m not talking about just singing talent. I’ve always been fascinated by people with a parlor trick or whatever it is that they do well. I don’t think that’s been explored enough, so we’re developing a variety show where we’ll take 20 acts and put them up against each other.
THR: With the success of cable shows like Duck Dynasty, the broadcast networks are flirting with “soft reality.” Does it work on broadcast?
Beers: It could. I think Storage Wars would have worked in a half-hour sitcom slot. All the networks are looking at the cable fare and saying, “I think it might be time to try some of this.” But most of the stuff that I do at O.P. [as CEO of O.P.’s parent company, he is still actively involved in its projects] probably wouldn’t do well because it skews heavily toward males — 60/40 or even 65/35.
THR: THR recently reported on a salary feud inside A&E’s red-hot Duck Dynasty. Is there a way to avoid these situations, which happen often?
Beers: There’s a natural trend here. Season one, the stars are amazed that they’re on TV. Season two, they’re amazed that they’re on a hit TV show. Season three, they’re wondering where their money is. Then they fight with us, and they get half a loaf. If the show is still successful, the next season it’s, “Where’s the rest of my money?” On Storage Wars, unfortunately, everybody’s expectations grew very high, and I don’t know if we’re going to have another season. We’re through season four, and everybody’s got their hands out. It’s not sustainable, and it may very well disappear. It’s like a strangler fig. They grow vines, and they grow vines, and finally those vines completely cover the tree and kill it. Now if you can get through that fourth season, then the fifth season something else happens: All of a sudden, my crab captains [on Deadliest Catch] are driving the race car at the Indianapolis 500, or they’re getting paid $20,000 to open a fish market in Omaha.
THR: So what do networks do to prevent this?
Beers: Remember, they’re locked into contracts; they’re just not showing up for work. The smartest thing that we did was just look around and go: “OK, let’s do one in Texas. Let’s do one in New York. We’re casting in Miami.”
THR: What keeps you up at night?
Beers: Viagra? (Laughs.) Oh, professionally? With my O.P. hat on, what keeps me up at night is that I’m in very dangerous jobs, filming really dangerous stuff. People die, or people get injured. Going through it with Captain Phil [Harris, who died after suffering a massive stroke during filming of Deadliest Catch] was just unbelievably traumatic for all of us. That’s aged me 10 years. And here [at Fremantle], planning that next new hit keeps me up just as much, but in a fun way. It’s funny: A year ago, I would have said these kind of faux-reality shows kept me up because all of what we did for a long time was pure and authentic.
THR: A show like Jersey Shore worried you?
Beers: Well, it did. Then networks like Tru came out and said, “It’s not really reality, it’s actuality.” And I’m thinking, “My God, it’s a made-up word.” They created a made-up word for what they do! I’m a little old-school, so I was worried about that and where we are going as an industry. When I started, I was in the documentary business. But I’ve got to be honest: I came to realize when the gloves are off like that, you can have a lot of fun.
THR: You’ve put a lot of crazy stuff onscreen. What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve experienced while shooting one of your shows?
Beers: I’m flying over Lake Victoria in Kenya in a massive storm in a little single-engine plane, and we’re getting bounced all over the place. I really think we aren’t going to make this one, so I have a camera, and I turn it on myself. I’m running through all this shit for 20 minutes. “Tell Max this and tell Max that, and baby, don’t forget me.” And then, all of a sudden, we are on the ground, and I realize, “Holy shit, I’m alive.” Before I undid my seat belt, before I did anything, I’m pulling the tape out of the f—ing thing and ripping it up. I don’t want any witnesses to me being the biggest pussy on the planet for 10 minutes.
THR: How do you escape from all of this?
Beers: I box four days a week, I take yoga three days a week, and I hike about 26 miles a week. I had a heart attack about a year and a half ago, and it changed my life. I spend a lot of time fly-fishing, too. I love getting out and riding motorcycles, and I’ve got a car collection: I ride my ’69 GTO Judge convertible or my ’40 Ford panel truck or my ’94 Defender.
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