What happens when a team of intrepid local TV journos with a nose for news collaborates on a business idea? They plant its seed and grow it into a competitive national business.
That, at least, is the story of High Noon Entertainment, whose founders captured a window of opportunity in the TV biz 20 years ago this year and turned it into an unscripted content hit maker.
Over that period the prodco’s CEO Jim Berger and co-founders Duke Hartman (COO) and Sonny Hutchison (CAO) have become veterans of the genre, producing more than 25 series and seeing over 5,500 episodes air over 30 networks.
Under the shade of the Rocky Mountains, High Noon has built an impressive show catalog despite its size and location – or perhaps because of it. Colorado – and the proximity to what Berger calls “real American stories” – may, in fact, be one reason for this prodco’s successful business story. In 2016 alone High Noon produced 14 series, with 15 network-funded pilots currently in development.
Its most successful show is Cake Boss – into its eighth season on TLC and hitting 200 episodes. Another hit is Fixer Upper on HGTV, in which charismatic husband-and-wife remodeling team Chip and Joanna Gaines (pictured, above) redo homes with real estate potential into high-design properties. It’s one of HGTV’s highest rated shows, seeing over 25 million viewers in its third season, and winning a fourth season.
A current show, Mexicanocos, on Discovery Español, is the highest-rated show on that channel. And other hits include Tough Love, a dating show-cum-boot camp, which ran for six seasons on VH1; and Extreme Waterparks, currently on Travel Channel.
The diverse slate of programming at High Noon now falls under the ITV banner. In May 2013, the U.K. network acquired a controlling interest (60%) in the prodco.
Berger says the company enjoys “tremendous autonomy” with a mission to “go do what you guys do.” Increased market consolidation drove Berger’s decision to sell. “It became obvious to me in the world we are in today it can help you be more competitive if you are linked to and owned by a bigger company.”
Specifically the deal gives High Noon access to international distribution deals. And while nothing has come to pass yet, international markets are part of the vision for the company, which hopes to pitch more shows overseas.
“It’s easier to sell a hit show in the U.S. if it is already doing well overseas.”
To understand the company’s future plans it’s worth taking a walk down memory lane. As a cameraman for Denver-based NBC-affiliate KUSA-TV, and as a lover of the outdoors and a ski enthusiast with a passion for video storytelling, Berger had bagged the ultimate gig. Plus, KUSA-TV was where he met Hartman and Hutchison, forming a lasting friendship and alliance.
“Journalism was terrific background for creating unscripted content,” says Berger. “What we do today…is we’re journalists and we’re looking all around the country for super interesting people in extraordinary worlds.”
Most of that work gets seen on channels like Home and Garden, Animal Planet, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Discovery, Travel Channel and TLC. Not keen on dark, overly dramatic stories, the prodco hunts for people who are doing “incredible things” with their lives.
While journalism provided the prodco with its content background, the business idea emerged elsewhere. Eight years after working at KUSA-TV, Berger was hired as president of Liberty Media-owned Intro Television, a division of TCI Media (now Comcast). There he evaluated 30 new networks like Animal Planet and Food Network to air some of their content on a single TCI channel. In Berger’s words he ran “a channel of channels.” He brought Hartman and Hutchison into TCI and together they gleaned insights about the challenges and opportunities the then-new networks faced.
“I was lucky enough to know all the general managers and presidents of the channels,” reminisces Berger, who, three years into the role, found his division on Liberty Media’s chopping block. With Hartman, Hutchison and himself jobless, Berger’s Rolodex came in handy. The timing was perfect; indie channels prepping for full-service programming were hungry for content.
High Noon came into being with two shows: Unwrapped for Food Network and Emergency Vets for Animal Planet. The former was a behind-the-scenes look at guilty-food pleasures, while the latter took viewers into life at a Colorado-based vet hospital.
Today, High Noon employs 300 people, with a core staff of 35. Twelve of its employees work on development, with casting producers assigned by genre, and producers dedicated to high-growth verticals like property and food. While the company remains (by choice) headquartered in Denver, it has offices in Los Angeles (established in 2004) and New York (2008).
The blueprint for High Noon’s immediate future is still cable-focused, specifically on property, food, lifestyle and travel. Alongside linear development the prodco is also getting its feet wet in digital, though Berger estimates three-quarters of its business will center on traditional linear development five years from today.
Despite advertising and network pressures, Berger feels confident about the future. Armed with perspective from his old-school journalism days, he says his team will continue to make warm, light-hearted shows located squarely in the real world.
This story first appeared in the Jan/Feb. 2017 edition of Realscreen magazine