Half Yard says yes to success

On the heels of their 10th anniversary, Half Yard Productions' Abby Greensfelder and Sean Gallagher talk to realscreen about wedding dress successes, conquering the Last Frontier and striding into digital and virtual reality.
June 20, 2016

Having spent more than a decade overseeing programming and production on the network side of the industry, in 2006, former Discovery Channel exec Abby Greensfelder and TLC alumnus Sean Gallagher transferred their insights into audience and network needs to the seller side of the fence.

That know-how led their production company, Bethesda­-based Half Yard Productions, to be one of the first to dive into the primetime wedding space, stylishly breaking through with TLC’s docusoap Say Yes to the Dress (pictured, above) in October 2007. Nearly 10 years later, the company is still making waves in the genre, having most recently launched season 14 of the long-running gown series.

“We want to be the best that we can be and that means taking risks and doing things that are different,” says Greensfelder, as the company marks its 10th year in business. “I think with our background as programmers, we’re populists – we want to make shows that people want to watch and we’re not embarrassed to say it. That’s what we’re good at.”

The bridal space has certainly proved fruitful, with the company bringing wedding makeover show Brides Gone Styled to TLC; launching a British adaptation of Say Yes to the Dress for TLC UK – currently in production – with acclaimed Welsh fashion designer David Emanuel at the helm; and developing wedding format All Hail the Veil for Channel 4 Daytime, which beat the average slot for young demographics by over 25 % when it aired in January.

“We’ve been out [in the UK] trying to sell that format internationally and we’ve had some interest,” said Greensfelder of All Hail the Veil. “Our core business will always be the U.S. market but finding those right projects and formats that can travel to the UK market is something we’re interested in.”

say yes to the dress 1

TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress

The sub-genre still has plenty of legs, especially in Half Yard’s hands. It recently launched Say Yes to the Prom for TLC on May 20. The Monte Durham-hosted one­-off reaches out to underprivileged high school women and provides them not only with access to top designers and prom dresses, but pathways to internships and scholarships.

Though currently only an hour-long special for the network, the Say Yes to the Dress spin-off has the potential to become an annual tent-pole event around the network’s existing initiative, Greensfelder explained.

“Half Yard really excels at digging into the personal stories of the women on these shows and the relationships that go on between daughter and parents, her friends and bridesmaids,” offers Howard Lee, executive VP of development and production at TLC and GM for Discovery Life.

“It’s such a specific type of storytelling to make sure there’s an honesty and it’s incredibly emotional,” Lee continues. “That’s hard to get out of people who are not part of the TV world and it’s amazing how they can draw that out of the women on these series.”

Another area in which Half Yard excels is pitching passion projects, says Denise Contis, executive VP of development and production at Discovery Channel. Drawing on his personal interests as a springboard for series ideas, Gallagher has traveled across the U.S., Canada and Europe in search of unique characters hoping to share their personal stories through the Half Yard lens.

When Discovery revealed that it was looking to bolster its slate with another motorcycle series, Half Yard’s Gallagher – a former executive producer on the Pilgrim Media Group-made American Chopper – began pitching various talent and storylines to the network. The end result is the forthcoming Sacred Steel, which provides an inside look at one of the most exclusive biking brotherhoods in the world that creates and restores high-end, well-run motorcycles.

“We figured if we’re going to do a motorcycle show, somehow it needs to stand apart from what was done before and that’s the straight up, brightly lit garage build show,” explained Gallagher. “It’s not a tack-on, weld-on show – it’s about really getting your hands dirty and knowing what you’re doing.”

“Sean [Gallagher] worked with the development team [at Discovery] to really create something that ticked off the boxes for us [and] makes a show successful in the motoring genre, so that when [Half Yard] actually did come in and pitched the show, it was a must buy,” Contis added. “He was that passionate, that sure and had dug in that deeply to what really turned into an easy buy for us.”

Though an exact premiere date had yet to be announced at press time, Sacred Steel is scheduled to bow at the tail end of summer.

Elsewhere, in April, History launched Half Yard’s Iron and Fire, following Arkansas blacksmith Daniel Casey and his Casey Arms business as it crafts a variety of historic weapons from raw steel and timber. In addition, the prodco is behind National Geographic Channel’s Diggers, and sophomore seasons for Velocity’s Junkyard Empire, which premiered as the channel’s second-highest rated series ever among men 18 to 49; and Animal Planet’s acclaimed The Last Alaskans.

last alaskans

Discovery Channel’s The Last Alaskans

For the latter, Half Yard’s Greensfelder tells realscreen numerous other networks and production companies had been sniffing around the series’ talent with the hopes of securing them to contracts.

What eventually swayed the cast’s decision to sign with Half Yard, however, was the company’s willingness to not only take risks but also its strong track record of capturing intimate stories with accuracy.

“We spent a lot of time and resources [cultivating] the natural, boots-on-the-ground relationship-developing and story-developing, and I don’t think a lot of companies would,” Greensfelder explains. “That was a belief from the top down that this [story] was something really special.”

The risk that Half Yard took with the series was to allow the storyline to unfold through a “quality premium documentary style” that utilized cinéma vérité and other techniques seen more often in feature docs than unscripted television.

In the end, that decision has paid dividends as the first season of the series rated as Animal Planet’s second-most watched series to date with an audience of 1.5 million, behind only River Monsters.

“I think at the time that we had decided to do Last Alaskans, we had decided never to do another Alaska show,” says Marjorie Kaplan, president of content at Discovery Networks International, with a laugh.

With the market pretty well saturated by Alaska-set non-fiction series already, the ethos at Animal Planet was to ensure that a series taking place in The Last Frontier would be unlike anything that was already on air.

“What sold us was the concept and the creative vision that we saw in the tape. We were absolutely certain [that ethos] was shared by Half Yard when we sat down to talk creatively, because what we saw and what we talked about was such a fresh and surprising perspective on something which could have been entirely familiar,” Kaplan, who greenlit the series at the time as group president of Animal Planet, TLC and Velocity, explains.

The prodco – which was acquired by ProSiebenSat.1 subsidiary Red Arrow Entertainment Group in 2014 – has also been making new strides into the digital space thanks in part to Red Arrow’s production entity Ripple.

Half Yard’s first fruits in the digital sphere have come in the form of Elevator Makeover, a makeover series that takes place between the first and 42nd floors of a Manhattan high-rise, for Condé Nast digital vertical; and the company’s first foray into virtual reality with an experience accompanying The Last Alaskans. Greensfelder says Half Yard is “sort of” investing in the burgeoning VR space and “playing around” with a rig for potential future projects.

“ProSieben has looked at the VR space in general so there may be some opportunities through Red Arrow to work with other VR partners,” she offers.

iron and fire still

History’s Iron and Fire

New platforms create new opportunities, and Half Yard is now looking into further chances to develop content direct for digital, having set up meetings with various buyers and streamers like Amazon and Netflix, according to Gallagher. As for what else is in store for the future, Greensfelder says Half Yard’s dedication to developing signature series remains intact.

Still, both Greensfelder and Gallagher are looking to expand the company’s event docuseries, event miniseries and hybrid-scripted programming, having most recently optioned the company’s first book property deal for a fictional telling of a real life story, to be developed into an event miniseries.

“We can continue to do these special event things but we’re always going to do these core series that become the mainstays of the network,” Greensfelder maintains. “We’re also looking for the right opportunities to grow and sell some more things internationally.”

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