Knoxville, Tennessee-based prodco RIVR Media has been in the content business for over 30 years now. With its origins in advertising, it’s evolved over time into the home reno and docusoap specialist that it is today. Craig Miller (pictured), VP of RIVR Media, takes realscreen through the company’s history, from TLC’s Trading Spaces to Animal Planet’s Whale Wars and beyond.
The origins of RIVR trace back to a Knoxville ad agency in 1985. Bagwell Communications, founded by Ross Bagwell Sr. and son Ross Bagwell Jr. became Cinetel Productions. Cinetel produced content for assorted cablers and after a buyout from Scripps Howard, became Bagwell Entertainment LLC / Ross Television Productions in 1994. The company became RIVR Media in 1999, when Dee Bagwell Haslam and her business partner, Robert Lundgren, took over the company and the following year, RIVR produced TLC’s Trading Spaces.
The company’s constant reinvention has been a key factor to its longevity, according to Miller. ‘Different genres of programming become popular and that often means that as a production company we have to evolve along as well,’ he says. ‘We started out cutting our teeth on straightforward home improvement and home renovation programming and more recently we’ve evolved into more docusoap and story [and] character-driven formats.’
This explains how the company has gone from Trading Spaces to Whale Wars, the Animal Planet smash featuring the exploits of Paul Watson’s anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Having produced the first season of the show (Liz Bronstein’s Lizard Trading Company has handled day-to-day production from season 2 on, with RIVR acting as consulting producers) Miller says the RIVR team had an inkling that it would strike a chord. ‘There is a lot of ‘risky jobs’ programming out there that really focuses on exploiting the Earth’s resources and that was one of the few ‘risky jobs’ [shows] that was focused on saving one of the Earth’s precious resources,’ he says. ‘We thought that was a really interesting twist in the genre and I think it’s going to lead to some other programs as well.’
Despite the docusoap/thriller success, home renovations are still a big part of RIVR’s output. The idea was hatched for DIY’s Blog Cabin, now in its fourth season, when a development exercise on a RIVR company retreat required everyone to think of a way to capitalize on the popularity of blogs. From there, the idea to let viewers blog about building a log cabin, and then giving the finished product to a lucky viewer, has led to one of the most innovative home renovation series on TV.
Renovation Realities on both HGTV and DIY, meanwhile, takes a very straightforward genre – home improvement – and turns it into something quite different. Gone is the photogenic host, gone are the step-by-step demonstrations and gone is the flawless project. Instead, Renovation Realities documents real people taking on ambitious home improvement projects and doesn’t shy away from tears, injuries and tight budgets. ‘We’ve learned that it may be more effective to watch real people fail their way to success than to listen to an expert tell you how it should be done,’ says Miller.
Getting to work for a number of networks, including A&E, the Food Network, TLC and Animal Planet, is the end result of many frequent meetings with the networks’ executives. ‘A lot of times we go in with an idea that we love and are passionate about and for some reason it may not resonate with that particular executive on that particular day,’ says Miller. ‘We quickly turn that meeting into an information gathering session and find out what it is they’re looking for.’
Having created a production model in Knoxville that allows RIVR to compete effectively with production companies in New York and L.A., now the focus is on elevating the artistic side of business. ‘In a lot of cases we’re producing the same types of programming – we’re still doing home improvement – but we’re doing it with a new lens. We’re telling the same old stories in new and innovative ways.’
‘I think it is a unique thing to be able to thrive in this business from Knoxville,’ he concludes. ‘I’ve been with the company now for 10 years and when we would first meet with development executives, we would always get the raised eyebrow when they discovered we were based in Knoxville. We get less and less of that reaction as we build on our credit list and now, the opposite is true. Now we get ‘Tell me about Knoxville!”