A question for reality producers and network execs: ever find yourself in a situation where the only way to proceed with a show is to shoot a second season before season one has aired?
That’s the situation producers behind A&E’s breakout unscripted hit 60 Days In found themselves in when production wrapped on the first season last year.
The show sent seven law-abiding citizens undercover in an Indiana jail rigged with cameras for two months in order to help the sheriff suss out illegal activity among inmates and corruption among his staff.
Neither the inmates, nor the correctional officers were in on the ruse, so to ensure the safety of the eight new cast members recruited to go in for season two, the network opted to keep the ball rolling – even though execs had barely seen any footage.
“It was a very ballsy move that I’m proud of,” says Elaine Frontain Bryant, head of programming for A&E. “I hadn’t even seen a rough cut of episode one. None of us had when we went in looking for season two.”
The gamble paid off. 60 Days In‘s premiere in April attracted 1.08 million viewers in the 18-49 demo and climbed over its eight-episode run, becoming the number one new non-fiction show on cable among total viewers, as well as adults 25-54 and 18-49, according to A+E.
Two weeks into production on season one, Lucky 8 TV co-founder Greg Henry and Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel both felt good about the experiment – the producer had an entertaining show and the sheriff had valuable intel – and discussed extending the program.
A producer from A&E visited the crew, who were in the jail using the premise of filming a documentary about first-time offenders, and saw promise in the dailies. Henry took the footage back to New York and quickly cut it together.
“We realized that the way to do it again is we do it now,” he recalls. “We couldn’t step down for three months. We were there and we were going.”
When 60 Days In returns for a second season tonight (August 18), viewers can expect a few tweaks. The number of participants is eight, instead of seven and this time they were introduced into the inmate population as transfers rather than recent arrests.
Also, in the first season, participants were told to say they were busted on out-of-state warrants.
“We had folks going in one at a time and we realized a lot of them were going in with the same cover story,” says Henry. “Because the sheriff is well connected, he was able to reach out to get jumpsuits so our participants could come in as transfers due to overcrowding in other jails.
For viewers, a big question is whether 60 Days In has had a measurable impact on eradicating the drug use, corruption and other activity Sheriff Noel hoped to stamp out by inviting the production to film covertly in his jail.
Since the seasons were shot in quick succession, viewers will not see the effects of the intelligence gleaned from season one in season two, according to Henry. However, he says new training procedures were implemented to root out contraband, a number of officers have resigned and female inmates were moved to different housing units to curb unruly behavior.
From a production standpoint, season two primarily involved a technical reset of equipment, but the cast also underwent more rigorous training and background checks than the season one cast.
The intense scrutiny in the casting process was partly intended to avoid the situation that arose when season one cast member Robert, the first to enter the jail, nearly blew his cover. Inconsistent accounts of his cover story immediately raised red flags among inmates. Sensing they viewed him as a plant, Robert blocked a surveillance camera and got himself thrown in solitary.
“It was shocking that we had done such due diligence and incorporated so many checks and yet he did what he wanted to do,” says Henry, who adds, “Thankfully, we don’t have a ‘Robert’ in season two.”
Although Henry will not talk budget figures, 60 Days In was an expensive undertaking. The four-month production involved a control room staffed 24/7 by 16 people per shift. Data storage is also a massive part of the production. For example, the crew recorded more than two petabytes of audio – or more audio than the entire iTunes library.
Lucky 8 TV also spent months researching legalities of the undertaking for the production bible. The inmates on screen were awaiting trial and had not been convicted of a crime at the time of taping. Everyone that appeared on camera signed a release, but how they were portrayed had to be handled with sensitivity.
“Our first responsibility is to keep the participants safe,” says Henry. “We flipped the priorities for crew members who are used to hearing, ‘Let’s get the best television we can.’ It was more like, ‘Let’s get through the program.’”
Henry estimates that he has worked on more than 160 hours of jail and prison-related programming, including A&E’s Behind Bars: Rookie Year, and conceived the idea for the show as a way to gain an unfiltered view on life in jail. Typically, when a camera crew enters a jail or prison, inmates are often happy to talk, if just to break the monotony of their day.
“You always feel as if you are getting a filtered view of their world,” says Henry. “The goal here was to have a truly unbiased view from ordinary citizens who did not have anything to gain by talking to us.”
That concept excited the network, but given A&E is going into season two on both 60 Days In and Behind Bars: Rookie Year execs are not looking to do more in the space. “I feel like once you have the category crusher you move on,” says Frontain Bryant, who adds that A&E is hopeful 60 Days In will go into season three but that “nothing is confirmed yet.”
A third season would require negotiating access in a new location. Now that the concept is widely known, the challenge in producing another season is not unlike those faced by international networks interested in adapting the format in their territories.
60 Days In worked in Clark County, Indiana because the sheriff has full jurisdiction over the pre-trial detention center and bought into the concept. Gaining permissions and access was relatively easy, but could be trickier in another jurisdiction where filming inside a jail or prison could be subject to restrictions.
Most importantly, the concept hinges on a penal system that is having problems.
So far, two companies have snagged overseas’ rights including Pulse Films in the UK.
“We would have to rebuild our cover story if we get an opportunity to do another season,” says Henry. “Obviously we want a chance to do it again, but it will be orders of magnitude more difficult because this first one is out there.”
60 Days In airs on A&E tonight (August 18) at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST.