Summit 2012: “Originality” under the spotlight

An all-star panel of producers and commissioners came together at the 2012 Realscreen Summit to discuss the issue of originality and "copycat" programming in non-fiction, with execs talking frankly about the imitation game. (Pictured: Leftfield's Brent Montgomery)
February 3, 2012

(Pictured: Leftfield Pictures’ Brent Montgomery at the 2012 Realscreen Summit. Photo: Rahoul Ghose)

An all-star panel of producers and commissioners came together at the 2012 Realscreen Summit to discuss the issue of originality and copycat programming in non-fiction, with execs from truTV, Lifetime Networks, Nutopia, Leftfield and LMNO Productions talking frankly about the imitation game.

NHNZ’s Phil Fairclough moderated the anecdote-filled and good-humored “Great Original Programming Debate” closing panel on Wednesday morning (February 1), kicking the debate off with the proposal that “if you don’t own it, you can clone it,” and providing the panel with a bottle of whiskey – an idea he admitted to “borrowing” from David Lyle’s “in conversation” session earlier in the week.

At the core of the session, however, was a serious question. While most commissioners go on record insisting that what they want from producers is really big, original ideas, is that really the case? As Fairclough played an intro tape showing the many swamp, pawn and cupcake shows filling the airwaves, the panel offered different takes on the issue of clone programming.

Marc Juris, exec VP and chief operating officer of truTV, was among those defending having multiple iterations of the same subject matter across different networks, telling attendees that “there are no original ideas,” since everything can be traced back to some other earlier programming.

“They sell shirts in Macy’s and they sell shirts in Bloomingdale’s. Are there too many shirts?” he asked. “The consumer will tell you when there is too much.”

Meanwhile, for Lifetime Networks exec VP of programming Robert Sharenow, “the big wins come when you put a stake in the ground, own it and do something original,” although he admitted “it’s the hardest thing to have something original.”

Asked by Fairclough which idea came first between History’s Pawn Stars and truTV’s Hardcore Pawn,  Juris said, “I think we both came fairly simultaneously” – a quip that drew laughs from the packed room.

However, both he and Sharenow seemed to agree that as producers shop the same ideas to several networks simultaneously, it was no surprise that there would be overlap.

On the producers’ side, Leftfield Pictures owner Brent Montgomery echoed Juris’s point that there was nothing specifically wrong with an array of similar programming, as long as the viewer demand was there. “Look at the scripted stuff,” he said. “There are 100 cop shows and 100 sitcoms.”

LMNO president and CEO Eric Schotz, meanwhile, brought laughter to the crowd by admitting that, although he was “not proud of it,” if Juris or Sharenow came to him asking for a “swamp babe” show, he would be “all over it like a cheap suit.”

The comment led Montgomery to raise a more serious point – that often, the claims made in the trade press by commissioners and buyers that they were looking for fresh ideas, are often not borne out behind the scenes.

“As producers, we take a lot of s*** from buyers that we’re not bringing them something original,” he said. “But I get the same money for doing Pawn Stars as someone doing the eighth version of the show, so we’re not incentivized, in a way, to be the first and the best.”

Schotz agreed, adding that “there are [some programmers] that say ‘Show me something I’ve never seen before,’ but when you do they say, ‘That’s ridiculous.’”

For her part, Nutopia founder and CEO Jane Root said that the main reason her indie didn’t produce knock-off programming was that “I’m really bad at it,” adding: “I’ve tried quite hard at various points in my career. But I do think the biggest rewards come when you take the biggest risks.”

As the whiskey diminished, the consensus the panel seemed to reach was that the biggest wins can come with an original take on a familiar idea. One show highlighted in particular by Sharenow was Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. As Juris pointed out, while there had been plenty of makeover shows prior to its launch, it brought a totally fresh perspective to the genre.

Also highlighted for praise was Project Runway. As Sharenow reminded the crowd, “Project Runway was actually a spin-off of Project Greenlight,” a program about attempting to get movie projects off the ground that had originally performed poorly.

“A complete reinvention of the genre,” he added, “to me, is a completely new genre.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.