Summit 2012: Less fizzle, more sizzle

During "From Sizzle to Show," the creators behind three hit reality shows shared the stories behind their successful sizzle reels, and how the development process shaped the projects.
January 31, 2012

Dimitri Doganis, Jonathan Murray and Dolores Gavin at the 2012 Realscreen Summit. Photo: Rahoul Ghose

The original sizzle reel for what eventually became the reality series Hoarders so offended the network’s programming team that the exec who eventually green lit the series dubbed it “the worst-received in the history of my time at A&E.”

The revelation was one of several instructive tidbits during a 2012 Realscreen Summit panel examining the art of the sizzle reel – or teaser videos  producers use to pitch their series to network programmers. “It was so offensive and so wrong on so many levels,” Robert Sharenow, A&E’s former EVP of non-fiction and alternative programming, told attendees at the Renaissance Hotel.  “But there was something so compelling emotionally.”

Moderated by Electus MD of branded content Mike Duffy, “From Sizzle to Show” paired the creators of A&E’s Hoarders, Oxygen’s Bad Girls Club and Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush with development execs from the respective networks to discuss best practices for cutting a successful reel.

After playing the initial sizzle that landed each producer a development deal, the panel probed the stories and strategy behind each show’s origins.

The reel for Hoarders, a docuseries about people struggling with compulsive hoarding disorder, demonstrated how a show pitched as one thing can wind up on television in a completely different form.

The five-minute reel that Screaming Flea VP of development Jodi Flynn first shopped at the Realscreen Summit in 2008 framed the show as Dirty Deeds, a dark comedy about a real-life family of cleaners that earn a living by clearing homes from putrid waste, feces and dead rodent carcasses in the homes of hoarders.

After a narrator asked, “What happens when your hobby becomes an obsession?” over campy pipe organ music, the audience watched raunchy footage of the family sifting through piles of rotting garbage, stomping on rats and dodging what  appeared to be some sort of decomposing rodent dangling from a ceiling.

One cleaner recounted the tale of a hoarder that urinated in thousands of Pepsi bottles to avoid calling a plumber after her toilet broke. In another scene, the family surveyed a living room buried in refuge and read aloud a lengthy list of items a hoarder want to preserve. “So we dust and we’re done?” one character quipped.

Although his team and advertisers were disgusted, Sharenow, now a programming EVP asisr net Lifetime, saw potential in the basic concept of hoarding, so rather than pass on the show he asked Flynn to lose the family and the gags and refocus the show.

The team aired a one-off episode on A&E sister channel Bio and it did well so the network ordered a series. It debuted after Intervention and became a hit. It is now in its fourth season.

That particular sizzle served as an example of one that leads to a back-and-forth process of a network and producer reworking an idea, something Flynn said she was receptive to do for A&E even though she had received offers while shopping it around. “The jocularity [of the show] and the seriousness of the disorder weren’t going to work in a show,” she admitted, although she maintained that she is still proud of creating the most offensive sizzle viewed yet by Sharenow.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Bunim-Murray Productions’ two-and-a-half-minute sizzle for Bad Girls Club. Producer Jonathan Murray, best known for creating reality hits such as The Real World and Keeping Up With The Kardashians, explained that the reel was assembled using existing footage from other series in order to articulate the format:

“Six bad girls who’ve hit rock bottom, one fabulous home and a pledge to hold each other accountable. One last chance at the life they know they should have… if they don’t kill each other first.”

Oxygen instantly ordered 22-episodes of the show based on the strength of the reel and the prodco’s past credits. Murray explained that he created the show specifically for Oxygen, which wanted to rebrand as edgier and younger with more “guilty pleasure” programming. The show is now in its eighth season.

“It made sense to put together a tape of existing material rather than going out and shooting new material,” he explained. “A lot of people will watch it for the pure voyeuristic pleasure but there has to be something beyond that to succeed as a show.”

He said the reel required US$10,000 to $15,000 in initial investment and six or seven cuts to get it right. He keeps his sizzles short and always insists on screening it in person so he can set it up and answer questions after.

Oxygen Media senior VP of development Cori Abraham, who wasn’t at the network when it greenlit the show, explained that the reel worked not just because it was “juicy” but because it showed how the troubled women were seeking redemption.

When the network asked Murray if the show could be piloted, her maintained at the time that it was not necessary. Sharenow countered that the show was pilotable, though expensive, and said that Murray’s track record of creating hit formats is what sold it.

The third series featured in the session was Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush, produced by Raw TV. Founder Dimitri Doganis first pitched it to the network two years ago at the Realscreen Summit. The pitch? “This is about a bunch of people who believe in the American dream and want to embody the American dream,” the producer said. “The show should give you the sense of spirit that anything is possible if you put yourself on the line.”

The sizzle essentially resembled a condensed version of the show, with intense, ominous music and loud sound effects underscoring the story of tough, gun-toting men who leave small town Oregon and head to the Alaskan wilderness to prospect for gold. Doganis and his crew spent six days on location shooting and, like Murray, re-cut it several times with multiple editors to get it right.

Discovery’s senior VP, development and production Dolores Gavin told the panel she could barely contain her excitement upon first viewing the reel. She immediately wanted 10 episodes and lauded Doganis for creating a reel that made it easy for her to sell to the network internally, noting that sometimes an idea is good but the reel doesn’t sell it well enough. That was not the case with Gold Rush, however.

“What I love about this reel is there’s no fake fighting,” she added, “which happens a lot in reels.”

Though the panel couldn’t agree on a perfect sizzle length, the shorter the better seemed to be the general consensus. Whenever possible, always pitch in person. “We try to avoid sending discs out into the ether,” said Doganis. “Sometimes it feels like we’ve lost the first battle by doing that.”

What do the execs hate to see in reels? Fake-fighting, trailer-style edits with too much blaring music and an over-reliance on straight sit-down interviews. They also agreed on one band that’s music should be banned from the sizzle: Coldplay.

So overused are the British rockers’ invigorating anthems, Sharenow says their music screams “just another sizzle tape.”

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