Characters – Non-Scripted Hitmakers, luncheon recap
Undercover Boss. Duck Dynasty. American Chopper. Deadliest Catch. The Ultimate Fighter. Iconic characters spring forth from these shows, all of which are certifiable hits. Hits of course do not pop out of the ground but are developed, nurtured and otherwise created by hitmakers.
March 27, 2013. Beverly Hilton. Hundreds of TV movers and shakers gathered together for the annual HRTS Non-Scripted Hitmakers luncheon. The panel was moderated by Melissa Grego, Editor-in-Chief of Broadcasting & Cable, who encouraged a candid, freewheeling discussion with hitmakers Eli Holzman (“Undercover Boss”), Deirdre Gurney (“Duck Dynasty”), Craig Piligian (“American Chopper”), Phil Segal (“Deadliest Catch”), and Dana White (“The Ultimate Fighter”).
Grego surveyed the composition of her panel, whose shows feature bikers, cagefighters and hunters, and began by asking the audience “are you guys ready for a quiet, demure chat?”
Each of the panelists built their businesses from the ground up and so Grego asked “how do you maintain that entrepreneurial, scrappy spirit in what you do?” The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the fastest-growing sport in history and White said that his goal starting out was that “we wanted to create a sport and in creating a sport it means that everybody plays by the same rules all over the world”. He added that a dogged, entrepreneurial spirit was necessary in the early days, since “it wasn’t allowed on pay-per-view. Porn was on pay-per-view but the UFC was not allowed on pay-per-view and our goal was to get it onto free television”. Cut to today and the UFC has a deal with Fox, with The Ultimate Fighter being watched worldwide as it heads into its 18th season.
Gurney said that “we’ve been growing at a steady rate for seven years and we got to a point where we knew to get to the next level we needed a strong partner” and so they made a deal with ITV. She added that they were able to maintain their entrepreneurial spirit since ITV “has that same vision for growth, we’ve had a lot of opportunity before us and it’s growing in every direction”. The concern is that “as the company grows you can get to a point where you’re no longer making television, you’re running a business that could be making anything” and so they have been careful to stay focused on why they started in the first place.
Grego noted that both Holzman and Segal’s companies had recently been bought by larger companies and so she asked about the benefits. Segal said “Fremantle gives you this opportunity to have a global reach” and “really, what it was for us was simply a great outlet internationally and they have allowed us to take on bigger risks and to get into development a lot faster on shows”. Holzman said “all of our companies are entrepreneurial in their DNA, they’re launched by their founders and grown aggressively” and “every show that you launch is a new business that you have to grow, entrepreneurially”. On the human side of the equation, working with a larger company allows them to “identify and grab and retain the best people in the business”.
Grego asked Piligian about remaining truly independent and he said “I like being independent, I think you work harder as an independent, for me it gets me up in the morning and makes me want to fight a little harder”. In terms of speed, Piligian added “we can do what we want to do when we want to do it, we can do things on the fly and when it comes to making a decision, there’s only one fucking person making the decision and it’s me”; less than a minute into the answer and the first F-bomb, very nice. Piligian added that “I don’t have a fucking Board to answer to, I don’t have to call up fucking England, I got people who come and say ‘can we do it’ and I say ‘yeah, let’s fucking do it’”.
So what are the effects of success on a business, the pluses and the minuses? Piligian said that success “is a double-edged sword, it’s in success so it’s not really a big problem but then it becomes a big problem” since “you have to deal with your talent, they’re going to want a lot more money” and “you want everything to be successful but when it gets successful you have more problems that go along with it”. Piligian concluded by saying that despite the problems it brings “I’ll take success over anything else, any day, so bring it the fuck on”. Segal said “the thing with talent is, nobody knows what’s gonna happen with the show” and so “the second the network sees it’s successful they put the talents’ faces 20-foot-tall in Times Square and then the network wants to know why they’re a problem”. Sometimes the talent is in it for the fame and not for the money and “then the network has a problem because the talent just don’t care”.
White concurred, adding “fame is what helps people self-destruct, as soon as somebody gets famous, everything changes”. He added that for his show he doesn’t “have to deal with talent the way the others do since our guys are locked up in deals”. Gurney said that when it comes to managing the difficulties associated with success, “there are two things that compound it: one is social media, it’s so immediate that they are able to get online right after a show” and “the second thing is the opportunities they have now for personal appearances and how much money they can get for that, which almost always outweighs the talent fee”. The key in the first season of a show is that “you really have to work at building that relationship and trust level with the talent because you know what is going to happen next season”.
Many in the room were wondering about the tense ongoing negotiations between talent and producers on Duck Dynasty, Grego picking up on this by asking how things were going. Gurney said “it’s going, it’s a negotiation and we know we’re going to get it done”. She had to keep certain details close to the vest but shared that one difficulty is that “on Duck Dynasty we happen to have a very large cast and so that’s complicated things all that much more”. Holzman agreed, adding that when it comes to negotiations, “people don’t know how far they’ve pushed until they’ve pushed too far, and so it’s understanding that it’s a process that we’re going to go through and we’re all in the problem-solving business. We herd cats for a living”.
Segal related similar difficulties on one of his shows, saying that “when you consider Storage Wars, the actual cast cost is higher than the cost to produce it. At a certain point, the network has to look at the economics of it and say ‘is this a business?’ With all of these shows, whatever they are, what is the tipping point?” He added that one constant is that “A-type personalities, the kind of people that resonate, they’re genuinely crazy, they’re not stable and that’s what makes them magnetic”, even if it means that negotiations will not always be smooth and especially with a hit. Piligian noted that reality talent’s expectations have changed over the years, since “when American Chopper first got on TV that was a big deal for those guys, now it’s a little easier to get people on TV, so everyone thinks they can be on TV and all bets are off”. He added that, at the end of the day, “if they don’t want to show up for work, you can’t make them show up for work”.
Grego next asked “how do you see this space growing, how do you see your businesses growing?”
White said “the next season of The Ultimate Fighter we’re going to have two women coaches” and this is a clear sign of expansion since “I never thought women would fight in the UFC, that’s how big the sport has grown now, there are so many talented women out there”. Gurney said “we’re starting to work with broadcast networks now, which is new to us this year, which is exciting, but the opportunity in cable is limitless”. Holzman said “every show is different and it’s a really exciting time in the business because there’s a lot of freedom and creativity that the audience has given us”.
Grego noted that “reality TV can be a very polarizing thing with crazy fandom around shows that they love and then some shows have been referred to as the apocalypse of television”, going on to ask the panel how they handle critics of the format and especially those who suggest that unscripted hours limit the availability of scripted programming. Piligian struck a conciliatory note by saying “fuck ‘em. We’ve done scripted, we’ve done three movies, they’re not that hard”, adding that “unscripted is a lot harder to do than scripted, I’ll say that all day long”. Gurney said that “it’s storytelling, and this big question’s out there, what is scripted and what is not scripted, it’s storytelling and the same people can do it”.
In terms of formats and platforms, Grego asked “what’s your favorite screen, where and when do you watch most of your TV?” Piligian said “if it’s during the week, I watch Seinfeld from 10 to 11, in bed. If it’s a sporting event I have a room where I watch it on a big TV”. Segal got a big reaction when he said “I watch at home, it’s a 90-inch television”. Holzman said that “I watch TV at home on a 60-inch television” and so Grego directly asked Gurney “Deirdre, how big is yours?” and she answered “mine’s really big. I watch at home, in bed, I don’t really know how big it is but it’s big, it’s huge”. Befitting the head of a fast-growing organization, White related how “I have a movie room at my house where I watch TV but most of the stuff that I watch is on the plane on an iPad”.
So what is the key to a successful non-scripted show? In a word: characters. A show needs characters in front of the camera who the audience will connect with and care about, characters who may be difficult to manage but who ultimately see the bigger picture. A show also needs characters behind the camera who are willing to build something from nothing, who are willing to work with networks, studios and talent to nurture shows and businesses and provide compelling entertainment for the audience.
Photos by Chyna Photography