Salsano’s secrets of success

495 Productions' SallyAnn Salsano, the exec producer behind Jersey Shore and Party Down South, chats with realscreen about being a new member of the FremantleMedia family, the importance of a strong work ethic, and why she's not cut out for 9 to 5.
October 2, 2014

​She created the water cooler phenomenon Jersey Shore for MTV and one of her current projects, Party Down South, keeps breaking the record for single-episode ratings for its broadcaster CMT.

No wonder SallyAnn Salsano has been repeatedly referred to as the queen of reality TV. Even less of a surprise: that FremantleMedia, the global media juggernaut responsible for such reality format brands as Idol, The X Factor and Got Talent, scooped up 75% of Salsano’s 495 Productions in March 2014 for a rumoured US$40-50 million.

One look at the schedule of the 40-year-old Long Island native, who founded 495 Productions in 2006 on – as she revealed to Variety – “$7000 and a printer and a fax machine,” reveals a number of unscripted projects on the go, with multiple networks.
There’s MTV’s Snooki & J-Woww, Friendzone and Jerks With Cameras; ABC Family’s about-to-be-launched Freak Out; Spike TV’s Tattoo Nightmares and Tattoo Nightmares Miami; Tattoos After Dark and It Takes A Sister for Oxygen; and, for CMT, the aforementioned Party Down South.

That’s not to mention the September 2014 launch of The Real for Fox, a View-type daily syndicated talk show hosted by Tamar Braxton, Tamara Mowrey-Housley, Loni Love, Adrienne Bailon and Jeannie Mai.

Having so many shows in production might seem like a tough juggling act, but the notoriously hands-on Salsano says the fact that she lives and breathes reality TV and loves her livelihood to the point of obsession works to her advantage.

“You keep focus by taking on projects that you actually like, and I work with people that I enjoy,” Salsano tells realscreen. “If I had to go to work from 9 to 5, I’d blow my brains out. That being said, I’ve been at my desk since 5 a.m. today, and last night [a Wednesday at the time of the call] was the first time I went home since Sunday. Every once in a while it gets a little gnarly.

“But that’s because it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle for me. I basically chose, ‘This is what I want to do and this is how it’s going to be.’ You can’t bitch about it when it’s working.”

Before her career exploded with the 2009 MTV premiere of Jersey Shore and the introduction of its unforgettable cast of characters including Snooki, J-Woww, The Situation and Pauly D, who seemingly vaulted overnight into mainstream celebrity, Salsano had paid her dues in the business: first as an intern for The Howard Stern Show and later as one for Sally Jesse Raphael, becoming that program’s youngest producer by the time she was 22.

“The one thing I can say about both of them is that neither one of them phoned it in,” Salsano says of her former employers. “They cared. They had to be there to get it done, and they expected the same from their staff. You don’t always find talent as dedicated. It made me realize that these guys trust you with their lives: You are putting stuff together behind the scenes and they’re putting their faces, names and brands behind it. That’s a big responsibility. You just can’t put people on TV and not take care of them, and I think I always took that pretty seriously.”

Eventually, Salsano produced and ran ABC’s The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Trista & Ryan’s Wedding and Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition, admitting that the global reach of The Bachelor is part of what piqued her desire to seal the FremantleMedia deal.

“When I worked for (The Bachelor creator) Mike Fleiss and we launched The Bachelor, all of a sudden it was on in every country,” Salsano explains. “I couldn’t even believe it. This is happening all over the world? And the answer is, ‘Yes. It happens.’ It’s crazy.”

The acquisition of 495 by FremantleMedia North America gives Salsano and 495 Productions, which is bringing both Party Down South and Jerks With Cameras to MIPCOM this year via FremantleMedia International, instant access to world markets.

“It’s a global reach for me,” Salsano admits. “It’s getting my product directly from my hands into the hands of the foreign markets, without having to wait for a conference two times a year. I have more access to what’s happening in other countries. It really is helpful.”

However, she admits that the FremantleMedia deal wasn’t quite the no-brainier that one would assume. Retaining autonomy was also a factor.

“It was a big decision for us.” Salsano admits. “We were trucking along and having a good time, but we also felt that in order to expand and grow, the smartest way was to find a partner that understands the way your business runs and is going to continue to let you do it the way that you’re doing it.”

With all that in mind, she says she also favors the current wave of consolidation.

“I actually think it’s good,” she admits. “Back in the day there was so much competition that the feeling was that everyone was your archenemy. The truth of the matter is, all of us in the reality genre are friends. So if I’m having trouble with a show, with a deal or shooting in a state or with a network, I’ll easily call up another production company where I know the person, and say, ‘Hey dude, what happened with this?’ You want to hang out with these people and you can learn from each other. We’re more peers than competitors, so it makes sense.”

But even with FremantleMedia’s backing, Salsano admits that the times are changing. She says that it’s more difficult to get ‘situational’ reality shows commissioned in today’s universe of fragmenting media than it was during the 2009-2012 Jersey Shore era.

“Back in the day they actually used to give you the resources to find the people and do the pilots correctly,” Salsano recalls. “Now everyone’s taking more chances, but not believing in any one of them, and then just seeing what hits. So that’s a bit of a difference. There’s more of an onus on producers – and you spend more money – to try and get something off the ground. That doesn’t mean it’s going to get off the ground, but you certainly spend a lot more money trying.”

Yet she feels that if she were to launch another Jersey Shore today, it would catch on like wildfire.

“100 per cent,” she insists. “We launched Party Down South, which is essentially the redneck version of Jersey Shore for CMT, and it became the No. 1 show in the network’s history [CMT reported its July 17th broadcast delivered the network's highest single-show ratings ever with 1.156 million viewers]. We’ve just wrapped what would be our fourth season.

“If your characters pop, it works. People like to watch other people do fun things, be silly and have a good time. I think people tend to enjoy it because it’s about a particular sub-culture.”

However, she admits that the glut of reality TV shows currently on the air is diluting its impact, as people often underestimate the amount of work involved in producing a successful venture.

“There are so many people who say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do for a living…maybe I could just get a reality show.’ Or, ‘ I’m launching a business. I’m sure someone will want to make a show about it.’

“Too many people think they know what goes into a reality show, and there are too many producers that don’t really get it. Therefore, we all get shortchanged.”

Salsano says if you’re looking to stage a successful show, there’s one element that outweighs all other components.

“Casting,” she declares. “Every single network person will tell you, it’s all about the characters. They need to pop. They need to feel authentic. They need to feel different. They give you all these things. And these people don’t fall out of the sky: you literally have to search for them and find them.

“People underestimate the amount of time and money it takes to find a good cast. Anytime I’ve rushed it and gone cheap, it doesn’t work. When you put the time in and you do it right, you normally hit the ball out of the park.”

Salsano is hoping to have similar results with the Oct 13th ABC Family premiere of the 14-episde Freak Out, the hidden camera phobia and prank show launching with a heavy push from the network.

In five years’ time, Salsano hopes to be “hopefully right where I am” and, along with the expected counsel of “hire the best staff,” she half-jokingly suggests to “start sleep deprivation training now” if you want to follow in her footsteps.

“Honestly, you have to want it, ” insists Salsano.

“I couldn’t imagine doing what I do for a living if I didn’t love it. You just have to remember that you don’t know everything. The minute you think you know, the rug is pulled from under you.”

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