Executive positions: Greif, Lambert and Smith

Realscreen spoke with three unscripted production veterans about their thoughts on the present and future of reality programming, trends to watch out for and their efforts to evolve their own businesses.
May 25, 2011

Leslie Greif/ Founder and CEO, Thinkfactory Media

(Gene Simmons Family Jewels; Mounted in Alaska; Unleashed: K9 Broward County)

You recently rebranded your company from Boutique TV to Thinkfactory Media. Why did you feel that was necessary and does it mean you’ll be diversifying your offering?

I have great producers, Adam Reed and Adam Freeman, and I wanted to be able to build this as a company rather than having it focused around me. A successful company is never hinged on one person but is based on the pooled efforts and cumulative talents of those you work with closely.

While our focus has been on reality for the last few years, since I come from the scripted world as well, we feel we needed to diversify and produce in all mediums to stay current, relevant and hedge our bets.

Right now, we’re in the process of doing a number of scripted things including two features, a mini not yet announced, and we’re in the pilot world.

One of your most successful programs is Gene Simmons Family Jewels, and you’ve recently launched Sinbad: It’s Just Family. Do you feel celebreality still has legs?

I think it’s a challenging sub-genre. Some consider The Osbournes the first, as it was the first raw reality show taking you into someone’s personal life. But while The Osbournes didn’t really have a structure, it was sort of raw vérité, with Gene, it’s more of a reality situation comedy where we’re able to take their real lives and put them into the context of entertainment and fun. So we were first in that regard. Trying to do a new celebrity show is always difficult. Are fans still interested in them? Why? Is it “trainwreck?” Is it compelling or dramatic?

As someone who has being doing this for a while, what are the main challenges you see today in producing unscripted?

Because there’s so much competition out there, as all the networks are clamoring for reality, the challenge is to try to find truly interesting characters in an interesting world that isn’t necessarily extreme. At a certain point, everything becomes so extreme it becomes the theatre of the absurd. When is reality great TV with great storytelling, versus theatre of the absurd? Every producer and network has to figure out for itself how far it wants to take the audience.

Reality seems to be hotter than ever, with even more cable nets bolstering their unscripted content, and new series performing well for broadcasters. Do you think it will ever reach a tipping point?

In the old days you’d have cable shows and broadcast network shows, and now the audience looks at something as a TV show. The line had blurred recently but it might now be invisible. So with networks seeing a big audience for the unscripted world, if they can get a bigger audience or an equal audience to a scripted show for a fraction of the cost, there’s a business model that will always keep unscripted out there.

Stephen Lambert/ Chief executive, Studio Lambert

(Undercover Boss, Fairy Jobmother, Three in a Bed)

You’ve recently established partnerships with two UK-based prodcos, Betty and Nutopia, to bring their formats to the U.S. What was the reasoning for that?

There’s no doubt that Britain is the best place in the world to sell a paper idea. The way in which the market is regulated here means that broadcasters are very receptive to new ideas that are not already on tape.

America is receptive to great ideas but particularly great ideas with tape. There’s nothing better in terms of tape than shooting that idea in an English-speaking territory, so if one is able to access new formats from the UK and take them to America, you should have a good business.

If you want to have a big pipeline of UK tape, you can either rely on yourself or do deals with creative UK companies that don’t have a U.S. production arm. Betty and Nutopia are among the most creative independents in the UK who don’t have a relationship with a bigger group. We’ve sold some shows that haven’t come on air yet but are working their way through.

Are there any trends you see emerging in terms of subject matter?

There’s a hunger for authenticity on both sides of the Atlantic. Something like Undercover Boss is a format – what we’re filming wouldn’t be happening unless we were making the program. But we’re capturing it in a documentary way as the boss is going on a genuine journey – he doesn’t know who he’s going to meet and those people don’t know who he is. Audiences can tell when things are too set up and are turning away from that.

With Seven Days on Channel 4, you tried to bring audience participation into an unscripted property in a unique way that went beyond voting and elimination. Do you think producers haven’t fully tapped into the possibilities for audience engagement?

If you think about it, the two biggest shows in Britain and America are shows that are made in what I call “real time” – what you’re seeing has only just happened and you have the ability to influence what happens next. If viewers like that sense of participation or [having] influence by voting, there must be other ways of building on that. There must be other ways for viewers who care about the characters to be able to influence their behavior. It’s too interesting an idea to just limit it to elimination.

Arthur Smith/ CEO, A. Smith & Co.

Your company recently celebrated 10 years in business and this year you’ve launched some new initiatives. What are they and why did you feel the need to branch into those areas?

Towards the end of last year we made a couple of moves that are going to pay off in the future. One of them is going into the management business – we made a deal to acquire Braverman/Bloom, which manages Jesse Ventura. We produce Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura so there’s a great connection there. They manage Chris Jericho, who was on Dancing with the Stars, and Shawn Michaels, another wrestler for whom we have a deal with one of the networks which we’re negotiating right now. So that was a natural extension.

We’ve always done a number of international deals and coproductions. We did a show for ABC called I Survived a Japanese Game Show that was the first American series to be shot entirely in Japan. So we worked with a company called Taiyo Kikaku, which is one of the largest commercial production companies there. We got along so well with them that last year we built a development structure – an exchange of programming ideas. We set up this unit and there’s a game show that we’ve developed together, and we’ll start rolling it out by the end of the summer.

We’re also growing our genres. We have two new scripted deals that haven’t been announced yet – one’s for cable and both are development deals. So there’s a lot going on.

What sub-genres do you think are growing?

I have a passion for variety – we’ve done Skating with Celebrities and a couple of music shows. We’ve seen what’s happened with The Voice, we see how well Idol‘s doing. There’s a lot of energy in that area, and variety can mean a lot of things. It can be more of what they call in Europe the “shiny floor show,” and I think there’s an opportunity to do more of that in the U.S., especially on the network side.

We’re seeing a fair amount of activity in certain subject matter, such as the pawn craze. When should a producer pitch in a hot area and when should he or she know to leave it alone?

We are cognizant of network needs but we fall in love with ideas. If there’s something similar out there, is ours different enough to break through? We don’t jump on bandwagons but we don’t avoid them either (laughs). I always get most excited by things that are fresh. That’s the great thing about working in the genre – taking chances.

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