the next big hit

heavy hitters


m going blind. Not officially or anything. But it might be time to test the peepers when nearly every bald man across the room looks like Tom Colicchio. It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch today, here at a Savannah Film Festival panel whose many panelists include producers and executives from the world of unscripted, aka reality, TV.

In attendance (thanks to SCAD for the handy bio info):

Denise Cramsey, president of DCTV, executive producer; School Pride (NBC), True Beauty (ABC), Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (ABC)
Freddy James, Senior-Vice president of Program Development and Production, HGTV
Jay Blumenfield, America Undercover, Family Business, Chelsea Handler Show, Little Chocolatiers, Raising the Roofs, Tuesday Night Book Club, Music Behind Bars
Joe Houlihan, EVP of Programming, Cineflix Productions; American Pickers (History), Campus PD (G4), Unsellables, Property Virgins (HGTV), Weird or What (Discovery), Mayday (Nat Geo)
Jane Rogerson, director of commissioning, UKTV
Leigh Seaman, co-executive producer, creative director at TPTV, Trading Spaces, ABC News, ESPN, Date Plate (Food), Warehouse Warriors, Wasted Spaces, Grounds for Improvement (DIY), Score (MTV), Ty’s Great British Adventure (UKTV and ABC)
Juliet Blake, Sr. VP Production at National Geographic Channel

What is the one show on the air now that you wish you’d bought or thought of?
It was an all around consensus. Undercover Boss (CBS). The show is the perfect confluence of America and what people want to see. That’s one of the ingredients of a hit. See what’s happening in the world and make it entertaining and relatable. That’s the overwhelming takeaway from the panel: TV is a responsive industry. You want to tap into what’s going on in people’s lives. When you live in NY or LA, you get sheltered. You need to stay in touch with what’s going on in “the flyover states.”

Freddy James confessed his would’ve could’ve should’ve is Flipping Out (Bravo). “Once the recession hit [Jeff Lewis], he became a very interesting character to watch.” Big personalities, nuances about them are what make them memorable. Know what else helps? The snoop factor. Take the biggest hit on HGTV: House Hunters. It’s real estate porn. People love to snoop. That’s a lot of the magic of HGTV. Uh, and most of reality programming.

It’s more complicated for Juliet Blake to answer because many of the programs for National Geographic are global. She must think of what’s in the zeitgeist for USA. She likes Pawn Stars (History) because of the great characters, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it before. “Pawn Stars has taken the History Channel from informative to entertaining.”

The Takeaway: Just having the idea isn’t what gets you a hit. It’s the makers, people with experience in the genre. Another favorite: Deadliest Catch (Discovery Channel). What was clever about Deadliest Catch was “to take that unique area that would normally be a documentary and make it a soap opera.” A lot of what happens in the industry is based on what you did yesterday… which helps you get a concept sold. But the key to these shows aren’t the ideas, they’re the characters.

Another “if only I’d thought of that” idea: the USA format of The Apprentice (NBC). “It broke the myth that you couldn’t do a show in the marketplace.” The big hits are the ones where everyone thinks “no one wants to see that.” And you do it anyway. Oh, the lovely irony.

Tap into what’s going on in the world… and uh, ignore what’s on TV, what you think people want to see, and instead push for something you think “who wants to see that?” Actually, they’re not exact opposites. You could have both.
Jay Blumenfield: sold a pilot to Showtime “Beverly Hills Pawn.” They wrongly thought the characters coming into a shop in Beverly Hills selling their goods were the characters. “But the characters need to be there all the time. You need someone to put on a poster.”

Keeping Up with the Kardashian’s (E!), no one brought it up. Celeb reality always helps because less push, less marketing. E! might always want celebrities, but it depends on the network.

We want the next “insert popular show” for our brand. Here’s how it happens.
American Pickers. Man, he wishes they had one for his network, so he says just that. Then, he gets a bunch of pitches. He wants younger, skewing female, and producers find her, a young woman who’s “bubbly and really knows her shit…It wasn’t the idea that stood out but the character.” It’s not about the truly original idea. It’s variations on ideas, taking a genre and moving it into a new world we haven’t seen before.

Jay Blumenfield offers up a fantastic exercise for idea generation: Take list of top 100 cable shows. Think of 2 numbers. 8 and 75. American Pickers meets Jersey Shore. Now, go sell that show. Just make sure you have a visual. Be ready with a DVD, a sizzle reel. Prove that your idea works visually. An interesting character has to be attached to the idea because the idea is a very tiny part of what makes a hit.

Favorite quote of the day: “If you’re in the business of TV, you’re in the business of rejection.” It’s like the calls are coming from inside the house! Hollah!

The answers you won’t like:
How can you protect your idea? You can’t.
How do you make yourself an integral part of an idea, so your idea can’t be made without you when you’re not a producer? It’s really really hard. Unless you tie yourself to the talent or are the talent, you can’t. So what do you do? You get a job at a reputable production company and shoot your idea up their pole.