Over the past decade, Los Angeles based Fly on the Wall Entertainment has produced big unscripted successes for broadcast, cable and now streaming platforms. Here, its principals discuss the company’s evolution and its approach to meeting the challenge of delivering hits in our fragmented media era.
When Fly on the Wall co-founders and CEOs Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan (both pictured below) reflect on a decade of running their Los Angeles-based unscripted indie, they see themselves as the last of a breed of producer — the jack-of-all-trades.
“We pride ourselves on being able to work for all different sizes of networks and streaming services, and all different levels of shows creatively and from a budgetary standpoint,” Meehan tells Realscreen.
Founded by Grodner and Meehan in the winter of 2009 from the merger of two unscripted production companies, Allison Grodner Productions and Meehan Productions, Fly on the Wall has gone on to produce major hits on cable and broadcast, including the long-running reality competition format Big Brother on American broadcaster CBS, which just wrapped its 20th season this past summer.
Fly on the Wall came to produce the American adaptation of the John de Mol format — and its spin-offs, Celebrity Big Brother, Big Brother After Dark and the late-night show, Big Brother Over The Top — when CBS came to Grodner and her partner at the time following a first season, saying it wanted to keep the format on the broadcaster but was looking to change it up. Grodner pitched a version of the show that diverted from other international versions of the format, with the evictions being decided upon by the house guests — not by an audience popular vote.
“You had a hierarchy in the house that was won and would change week to week,” explains Grodner. “That helped drive the drama and the conflict in the game.”
The producing team says it learns something new with each season, either in front of the camera as house guests touch upon current issues in the zeitgeist, or with challenges behind the scenes.
“Whether game related or personal, when you have a group of people locked away for 99 days you have to prepare for anything that can happen, whether it’s inside the house or outside the house,” says Meehan.
Indeed, Grodner recalls working on the second season of Big Brother, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. Due to the nature of the show’s format, it meant that the three finalists in the Big Brother house would only find out about the attack after the event happened. Grodner says the finalists did not see the news broadcasts until after they were out of the house — weeks after the tragedy occurred.
The unpredictability baked into the series makes it must-see television for its fans.
Even though it’s not the viewers who evict the guests, Meehan says the team still keeps the viewers involved with real-time voting that can impact the game and the opportunity to vote on their favorite house guests each season.
Big Brother remains a juggernaut for Fly on the Wall and CBS, as it topped the 10 summer shows — out of approximately 150 — in the key adults 18-49 demographic during its 20th season this past summer. The series averaged 5.5 million viewers weekly, with the finale also winning its time period in A18-49 and A25-54.
But beyond that series, Fly on the Wall has carved out a slate that ranges across a swath of genres, including home renovation via Flip or Flop Atlanta (below) for Discovery-owned cable channel HGTV. The series features Ken and Anita Corsini, owners of a family business that renovates old Southern properties into charming, modern-day homes.
Flip or Flop Atlanta went on to garner 16 million total viewers in its debut season and wrapped up its sophomore season in December.
Sarah Kuban, director, original programming & development for HGTV and DIY Network, was involved in the development process for the series, and tells Realscreen that she found the Fly on the Wall team to be creative, adaptable and understanding of the HGTV brand, adding, “They have been willing to do whatever it takes to produce a successful show.”
Having substantial experience in navigating the twists and turns that come with live production via Big Brother‘s “eviction” episodes, Fly on the Wall is keen to capitalize on the current hunger for live content. Recent projects in that vein include TLC’s This is Life Live!, a miniseries that follows families as they face life-changing events live on television.
Fly on the Wall has also produced multiple projects for YouTube, including Katy Perry’s Witness WorldWide, a live streaming event from June of 2017, which featured the singer living in a Big Brother-style house to promote her fifth studio album, Witness. The event garnered a whopping 49 million views.
This past September, Fly on the Wall was behind the YouTube Original special event Will Smith:The Jump, in which the actor live-streamed a bungee jump out of a helicopter near the Grand Canyon to mark his 50th birthday, and for charity.
Will Smith: The Jump generated over 17.5 million views within the first 48 hours of the video going live.
YouTube Originals wants to create innovative content unique to its platform while teaming with established partners such as Fly on the Wall who have years of experience in the live genre.
Ben Relles, head of unscripted programming for YouTube Originals, worked with the indie on the Katy Perry and Will Smith events. He describes Fly on the Wall as “exceptional collaborators” who were open to feedback over the course of producing those two projects.
“They have truly made an effort to understand interactivity on YouTube and how to leverage some of the tools [within the platform],” says Relles.
“For example, on both the Katy Perry and Will Smith specials, viewers could choose their camera angles in real time, and Fly on the Wall’s experience with Big Brother was a huge asset there.”
But even with years of experience in the live space, Grodner says the genre brings its own challenges. While shooting The Jump, for example, the team had to figure out how to stream live from a location with no production infrastructure or even WiFi capability. Thunder and lightning storms leading up to the actual jump jeopardized the project up to the very last minute.
Looking forward, Fly on the Wall is working with SpringHill Entertainment, the shingle established by basketball legend and executive producer LeBron James and producing partner Maverick Carter; in association with Warner Horizon Unscripted & Alternative Television, on another reality competition series for CBS, Million Dollar Mile.
Hosted by former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, the 10-part series will head to major U.S. cities where everyday athletes will have the chance to compete to win US$1 million every time they run the Million Dollar Mile. The key challenge of the course is that it also features elite athletes whose only goal is to prevent the contestants from winning the money.
Describing the format as a “massive undertaking,” the production challenges on the upcoming project include shooting mammoth obstacle courses in downtown Los Angeles at night. During their first night of filming, the team was once again faced with weather issues, as condensation made the obstacles slippery.
“We had to move quickly to resurface everything in order to still stay on budget and schedule,” says Grodner.
Meehan says this type of project is unlike anything they’ve done up to this point and he’s hopeful the competition-meets-game show will stand out.
But even with having the star power of a heavyweight such as James behind the project, Meehan says it’s still a battle to attract substantial audiences in an era of fragmented media.
“That’s the big challenge: how do you launch a show and get a second cycle?” Meehan asks.
Ultimately, a show can only be as good as the team behind it, and both partners say that working as trusted and trusting collaborators is essential for giving a project its best shot. And when it comes to managing a diverse slate, this synchronicity allows them to “divide and conquer.”
Fly on the Wall has a small group of approximately 12 full-time staff based out of their Los Angeles headquarters. However, depending on the productions on the slate, throughout the year they bring on approximately 500 freelancers on a number of projects.
In 2018 alone, the prodco partnered with 12 networks and produced more than 500 hours.
YouTube’s Relles says he senses that from a production teamwork standpoint, Fly on the Wall has a solid, dependable core working on the projects.
“They’re very collaborative and truly understand how to work together.”