Power producers and top network execs share wisdom at FEF’s Day Two

From casting to branding and many points in between, sessions on the second day of realscreen's Factual Entertainment Forum brought assorted A-listers together to share their experiences and opinions with international delegates.
June 9, 2010

From casting to branding and many points in between, sessions on the second day of Realscreen’s Factual Entertainment Forum brought assorted A-listers together to share their experiences and opinions with international delegates.

Four very different production companies came together for the ‘Making the Brand’ session to share their insights into how they’ve made themselves identifiable brands to networks while at the same time avoiding being pigeonholed.

Moderator Paul Telegdy, EVP, alternative programming and production, NBC Universal, began the session by asking each panelist to describe each of their brands. Jane Lipsitz, founding partner of Magical Elves, described her company as dealing in ‘accessible sophistication,’ while 495 Productions president Sally Ann Salsano said a 495 project focuses on people ‘just being real.’ Rasha Drachkovitch said that his 44 Blue Productions ‘examines extreme human condition’ and lastly, Philip Segal, president of Original Productions said that Original was about celebrating working class America.

While brands drive each company in a certain direction by definition, Original’s Segal said that each prodco was much more than their brand. ‘We fight on a daily basis to find a great story to break out,’ he said. Salsano added that MTV’s breakout hit Jersey Shore was a docusoap, a genre that she’d never done before, but that made it all the more reason to do it.

Salsano added that it’s up to the production company to identify the audience the network wants to target and then present it a show to attract that audience. ‘What are those kids doing that the network doesn’t know about yet?’ said Salsano. ‘The [shows] that work are the ones where the network says, ‘Really?”

‘The Reality of Casting’ brought together casting agents, agency representatives, network execs and a production company head to discuss the ins and outs of successful reality casting. Moderated by Sheila Conlin, president of The Conlin Company, the panelists used the session to dispel the myths surrounding casting and offer advice on the process. Laura Fleury, A&E VP of non-fiction and alternative programming and Talent Central president Deena Katz both extolled authenticity as a key attribute for cast members, with Conlin saying she opts for ‘the whole person’ as opposed to a reality-friendly stereotype. William Morris Endeavor’s Sean Perry remarked that the ideal cast member isn’t a ‘one-note pony’ but rather, ‘someone you still want to watch after 100 episodes.’

Casting celebrities over ‘real people’ was also a topic of discussion, with World of Wonder president and EP Fenton Bailey taking issue with the distinction between the two. ‘Anyone who’s alive is a ‘real person,’ and anyone who’s been on a reality show is acting to a degree,’ he said. As for who can cut through and make it to onto a cast, Bravo Media VP of development and original programming Cori Abraham said producers should always have their eyes open for talent. ‘Anyone could have a next door neighbor that could be the next big reality star,’ she offered.

Next, with ‘Genre Busting: Whose Network Is It, Anyway?’ Original Productions’ CEO and executive producer Thom Beers hosted a candid talk with network heads about combining and creating sub-genres and widening the scope of programming on niche networks to draw new audiences. Beers began the session with his own anecdote about a time when he planned very targeted pitches for a trio of networks and successfully sold each program – though each went to a different network than the ones they were planned for.

As seen via Beers’ experience, when networks incorporate new genres into their programming slates in order to broaden audiences, it can make add confusion to the pitching process. With each of the execs assembled asked to explain their programming strategies, DIY Network’s VP of programming, Andy Singer, said being a recognizable brand is both a blessing and a curse. The goal of each network, said Singer, is to maximize eyeballs. While they may each try to stay within their brand’s mandate, they also need the freedom to bust out of their niche genres enough to attract a more general audience alongside their dedicated viewers.

DIY did this by moving away from specifically do-it-yourself programming and into the wider home improvement genre. Syfy made its move when it rebranded from the Sci-Fi Channel in 2009 in order to expand its audience beyond a pure science fiction crowd, said Tim Krubsack, Syfy’s VP alternative programming. Sundance Channel’s VP original programming and development, Nicole DeFusco, said that her channel looks for left of center, subversive characters, while TLC’s COO, Edward Sabin, asserted that his network is the definition of genre busting. In the beginning, TLC stood for The Learning Channel, but now the three letters have taken on a new meaning as a symbol of the net’s character-centric programming. ‘It’s not about ‘learning,’ but you still feel like you’re getting value from what you’re watching,’ said Sabin.

The final roundtable, ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’, took stock of the current state of factual entertainment with an eye towards the myriad opportunities available for producers as the genre expands. Moderated by Fox Look president David Lyle, Beers and Telegdy returned to the stage, joined by Pilgrim Films & Television president/CEO/EP Craig Piligian, A&E SVP of non-fiction and alternative programming Robert Sharenow, RDF USA’s chief creative officer Natalka Znak (making her first appearance on an industry conference panel in the U.S.) and Christine Weber, VP of specials and events for Discovery Channel. As for what the panel saw as the immediate future of fact ent, Weber said that Discovery is aiming for ‘more optimistic programming’ while Znak said that although in the U.S., nets seem to be more risk-averse, there is a desire for ‘incredibly loud, noisy and different’ programming that could result in a breakout hit.

‘The good news for everyone here is that this is a thriving business,’ Telegdy told the hundreds of delegates assembled, noting that a growing segment of today’s TV-viewing audience only watches reality and fact ent. ‘Factual entertainment and reality TV are here to stay.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.