Allison Grodner, partner at reality TV production company Fly on the Wall Entertainment, has adhered to one very important lesson during her career: always keep the cameras rolling.
In her early days, Grodner recalls shutting down production for a break on TLC’s A Wedding Story. Shortly after, the groom brought his children in; it was the best moment of the night and “hugely emotional,” Grodner says. “I kicked myself for it. I have been a stickler ever since. I never want to miss the real stuff happening.”
Grodner is able to apply this to all her productions, but it’s particularly successful on CBS’ summer staple Big Brother, where cameras literally “never stop.” The series, where contestants are isolated in a house for three months battling for $500,000, premieres its 15th season June 26 at 8 p.m.
After more than a decade, Big Brother is still a solid performer, averaging 7 million total viewers last season and a 2.6 rating among adults 18-49. With three episodes airing per week (one live), Grodner has found a rhythm for the hectic pace, but she says the show still keeps her “on her toes.”
“She has this incredible ability to adapt and thrive in really challenging situations,” Jennifer Bresnan, CBS executive VP, alternative programming, says of Grodner’s attitude when the pressure is turned up high.
With Big Brother’s live nature, viewers and voyeurs can subscribe to a 24/7 Internet feed and watch curated footage on Big Brother: After Dark every day from 12-2 a.m. on TVGN, the late-night show’s new home after airing on Showtime for seven seasons.
Grodner says TVGN—which CBS acquired a 50% stake in last March—not being on pay cable has its challenges, like the censoring of certain elements, with the exciting trade-off being the potential to reach a wider audience.
A New Reality
Grodner grew up in San Diego in a family of psychologists (she now likes to joke that she performs psychological and social experiments on TV). She was a child actor, performing in local theater and commercials.
While attending UCLA, Grodner shifted her focus to working behind the scenes. She graduated in 1988 with a degree in theater arts, emerging from school during a writers’ strike with limited scripted opportunities. She contacted docu/reality producer Arnold Shapiro, with whom she had once worked, and landed her first job in 1989 on Rescue 911, a series about real-life emergencies. Unscripted was still in its infancy at the time, and Grodner soon fell in love with the fast pace and constantly changing subjects and backdrops.
Grodner has since produced series for History, A&E, TLC, ABC, The CW, TVLand and Bravo, among others. Her 2000 docuseries for UPN, The Teen Files, which touched on topics such as drinking, drugs and sex, earned three Emmys.
A defining break came in 2001, when CBS chose her and Shapiro to revamp the second season of Big Brother (also produced in association with Endemol USA), and Grodner has been executive producer ever since.
Given her Big Brother schedule, Grodner— now a new mom to a baby boy—doesn’t exactly look at summer as a time for the relaxation she enjoys, which includes travel, good food, movies and watching shows including Homeland and Breaking Bad.
This summer, Grodner is adding a new series to her roster. Summer Camp—produced in association with Sony Pictures TV and premiering July 11 on USA Network— features 16 adults engaging in camp-style competitions for a $250,000 prize. “A balance of nostalgia and comedy in a competition show is something that we wanted to capture,” she says.
Grodner points to Summer Camp as an example of the shrinking divide between programming for cable and broadcast. “This is a [broadcast] network show from [an undertaking perspective], and USA is taking that on,” she says. “I’m finding it’s harder to say I’ll only sell this show to one or the other.”
It’s All About the Story
Fly on the Wall, which Grodner founded with partner Rich Meehan in 2009, also produces docusoaps such as Style Media’s Big Rich Texas, which centers on Dallas socialites and their daughters. The show averaged 372,000 total viewers in its recent third season and spawned Big Rich Atlanta last January. An untitled Big Rich Texas spinoff is scheduled to air this fall.
Among current projects are pilots at Food Network and VH1 and a 10-episode fall cable series that has not been announced yet. Grodner says no matter what the programming, “great storytelling and characters” are the core elements of her company’s projects.
She is also pleased to see how far reality programming has come since her start. “There’s a whole generation who have grown up on it as just TV,” she says. “It’s nice to not always be separated out.”
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @stephrobbins
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