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Accounting for Reality

When Joey Carson was studying finance at Texas A&M University, his advisor urged him “to be as accounting-centric as possible” to increase his marketability. There was only one problem, says Carson, CEO of pioneering reality shop Bunim/Murray Productions (BMP): “I hated accounting.” Sure enough, when he moved to Los Angeles after graduating in 1989, he ended up as a loan accountant at a bank.

Despite his aversion, it was Carson's talent for accounting that led him to a job at Columbia Pictures Television and laid the foundation for his later success as a financial innovator. Indeed, since joining BMP in 2001, Carson has helped restructure the production company and triple its output of programs.

It wasn't accounting that drew Carson out West, however. A rock drummer who played in two bands in college to help pay his way, he headed to L.A. to pursue a music career. But in five years at Columbia, he mastered the intricacies of studio accounting, and in 1995, Rich Battista (now CEO of Gemstar-TV Guide) hired him to be director of production finance at Fox's Twentieth Television.

At Twentieth, Carson worked with producer Kevin Burns to expand documentary unit Van Ness Films, which soon became a chief supplier of programs for A&E's Biography series. The most enduring contribution of his tenure, however, was the launch of Divorce Court and Texas Justice.

Carson built a financial model for a “slow-rollout” of the court shows on Fox's owned-and-operated stations before going national. The shows' success led the studio to embrace the low-cost genre and to use Carson's model for a variety of programs.

When Greg Nathanson became Twentieth's president of programming and production, he lobbied to make Carson VP of production, finance and administration. “He put his trust in me to run the $100 million business,” Carson says. “He also dared me to date his assistant, who is now my wife and the mother of my two beautiful children.”

In 2001, Mary Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, the producers behind MTV's early reality successes The Real World and Road Rules, invited Carson to help them expand and put financial controls in place. Bunim, who had been battling cancer for a number of years, was eager “to position the company if she lost the battle,” Murray says.

As BMP's COO, Carson helped streamline the company into a mini-studio. Output soared from three to 10 productions, including reality sitcom The Simple Life (now on E! after three seasons on Fox); the reality feature film, 2003's The Real Cancun, with New Line; and the reality daytime show Starting Over (recently cancelled by NBC Universal after three syndicated seasons).

Forays into the Web

With Bunim's death in 2004, Carson became CEO and, says Murray, “a part of the family” when he produced a memorial service for Bunim. “He really stepped in … and showed what a good heart he has,” Murray says. The next year, Carson led BMP into forays on the Web and other distribution platforms.

Carson is also a lifelong tennis player and, at 43, is a nationally ranked senior. His BMP contract stipulates that he be allowed to play twice a week, a ritual he often enjoys with a regular group of high-powered insiders that includes Frank Biondi Jr., a former chief at Universal Studios and Viacom, and self-help guru and fellow Texan Dr. Phil McGraw.

Carson has also returned to making music with his new rock band, 72. While he enjoys playing with bandmates 20 years his junior (including McGraw's son Jordan on lead guitar), he is less impressed with the “kids” he encounters in the business. Their “sense of entitlement” rankles Carson, who paid his dues digging ditches, running a deep fryer and, of course, crunching numbers.

“They want to start off as president of the company,” Carson says of the new generation. “I wouldn't be as good at this job if I hadn't done all of those other, crummy jobs.”