Why This Matters: From Black Ink Crew to Live PD, Dan Cesareo’s Big Fish Entertainment has broken ground and drawn ratings in the reality genre, earning it recognition as B&C’s Producer of the Year.
When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought New York-based TV production company Big Fish Entertainment in June of 2018, it acquired one of the most innovative and successful players in the crowded unscripted television category.
Two years prior to the MGM purchase of Big Fish — created in 2006 by former National Geographic Television and Discovery Channel producer Dan Cesareo — the company teamed with A&E Network to launch Live PD, a groundbreaking weekly show that follows as many as eight police departments across the country in real time as they patrol their communities. It has become A&E’s most successful series, averaging nearly 2 million viewers since its 2016 launch.
Live PD was the launchpad for a new subgenre of live, unscripted programming that includes Discovery Channel’s Border Live and Nat Geo Wild’s Animal ER Live, set to debut next month and produced by Big Fish, featuring live footage from animal hospitals and veterinary offices.
“[Big Fish] makes an unproducible show each week, as far as I’m concerned,” A&E executive VP and head of programming Elaine Frontain Bryant marveled. “How do you really, technologically, get eight different cities to broadcast live, and get the access and trust of so many different departments, and manage to do that in an entertaining way? They are remarkable partners.”
Big Fish’s influence within the unscripted industry goes beyond the live genre. Its diverse roster of hits includes VH1’s Black Ink Crew, about a lively Harlem tattoo shop, now in its seventh season; spinoff Black Ink Crew Chicago, now at five seasons; MTV’s How Far Is Tattoo Far?, co-hosted by Jersey Shore’s Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, which finished 2018 as a top-10 new unscripted series among adults 18 to 34; WE tv’s restaurant-themed series Hustle & Soul, entering its third season later this year; and VH1’s Cartel Crew.
“We do a lot of research into acquiring companies, and they were one of the few standouts where every buyer we spoke to loved working with them,” MGM president of unscripted television Barry Poznick said. “Big Fish brought in a ready-to-run production team that has not slowed down from the day we met them — and is just getting started.”
Even with new owners, Cesareo and Big Fish still have the autonomy to create new and innovative unscripted programming. The network has seven unscripted shows set to premiere on cable networks in 2019.
“Their approach to development is very broad, and they are able to deliver on those big ideas,” Poznick said. “We’re here to support them, but they are really leading their own charge — we’re not going to get in the way of any deal they tell us they want to do creatively.”
Cesareo’s production and leadership skills has earned him and his company, Big Fish Entertainment, the nod as B&C’s 2019 Producer of the Year. He outlined his content development strategy, and offered his thoughts on the future of content distribution, in this conversation with senior content producer R. Thomas Umstead. An edited transcript follows.
B&C: When you launched Big Fish back in 2006, did you foresee the content development and business success that the company has achieved today?
Dan Cesareo: When we launched Big Fish in 2006, I just wanted to make shows. I wanted to be able to make creative decisions — I mean, obviously, the networks ultimately exert creative control — but I wanted that autonomy, and I had the idea that we could do it better or at least as well as other companies. But never in a million years did I think that we’d end up here. I joke that we’re a 13-year overnight success, because a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, they’ve grown so much so quickly.’ And I say, ‘We’ve had sustained growth for 12 of the 13 years that we’ve been in business. We’ve just had a lot more growth recently.’ To put it in perspective for you, our first office in D.C. was probably about a 1,200-square-foot row house in Eastern Market. Next month, we’re just moving a couple blocks up into 60,000 square feet in New York City.
B&C: You started at Nat Geo and Discovery. What was it about the business at the time that made you feel you could make a run as an entrepreneur?
DC: Prior to Nat Geo, I worked at a small production company and I had come out of working on live events and wanted to work on television, so I made this transition and worked at a small production company. Like all small companies, there was far more work and far more opportunities than the staff on hand, so I was given a lot of opportunities — some that I was woefully underqualified to do at the time — but you learn by being thrown in the mix.
I was hired as a production coordinator and within a couple months was basically in Morocco and sort of being left alone to field produce, yet I had no qualifications at the time to technically be field producing. After that, I worked at National Geographic Television, which is National Geographic Studios now. I worked on these small production teams at National Geographic, where you had to do everything. You look at the size of the teams that we have on some of our shows today, and there’s over 100 people working on Live PD. I came up at a time when it was maybe you and the camera operator and an audio guy, or maybe sometimes you were the second camera guy, or maybe sometimes you ran audio. I had the opportunity to really hone my storytelling skills and was forced to learn all the different facets of the business.
B&C: What’s the origin of the name Big Fish?
DC: The name Big Fish was aspirational. I think it sort of captures our ethos in terms of our goal and our drive to be bigger and better every day.
B&C: Take me through the development process. How do you determine what might be a hit or what you might want to pursue?
DC: We have an incredible development team. We start every week early Monday morning with a development meeting. I’m not going to lie: On the the train ride in or drive in, I hate the fact that I have a development meeting first thing Monday morning, because you have all these things that you didn’t get to last week or that have come up over the weekend that you want to get started on. But the great thing about it is it really focuses us as a company.
We are a development company that does production. We love production and I love storytelling, but you’re only as good as your next show, so we really started focusing our energies on, how do you find that next breakout hit? It takes a lot of brainstorming and we’re always trying to think outside the box. We spend a lot of time thinking about, historically, what has worked on television and whether there’s a way to reinvent it.
If you look at our slate, Black Ink Crew was an opportunity to explore the highly successful tattoo world on cable television, which at the time had sort of fallen out of fashion, and really merge it with the world of the docusoap. With Live PD, we had tried for years to develop something in the law-enforcement space with A&E and they would always point to [A&E’s] The First 48 as the gold standard of television, and unless something comes in and blows away our gold standard, we’re not going to buy something to be second best. We don’t want to make the next version of X, and we don’t want to be derivative of something else that’s already on the market. We want to create the shows that make you nervous and make our stomachs hurt a little bit.
B&C: Where did the idea for Live PD come from?
DC: We’ve always wanted to be in live programming, but as a company we’d never made a live hour of television before. We knew that A&E was going to make a push into the live space. We have a very close relationship with Elaine [Frontain Bryant] and [A&E senior VP of development and programming] Shelly Tatro and the team over there, and the way we develop as a company is, it’s very tailored and personal to the networks we’re working with. I would rather have less clients and produce more content for each one of those clients than to produce shows for everyone. We knew they wanted to be in the live space and we spent a lot of time talking about it. We’d come across an article that police departments were live-tweeting their patrols, and we thought that was fascinating that they were communicating with their communities while on shifts. We started to dig in deeper, and Live PD was born.
B&C: Along with the audience success of shows like Live PD, Big Fish has been able to garner huge social media buzz for its series. How important is that for the success of a reality show in today’s crowded environment?
DC: We make some of the stickiest, most social shows on television — Black Ink Crew is highly social for VH1, and we recently launched Cartel Crew a few weeks ago and it has been doing really well socially. We’re trying to find either the loudest ideas or the loudest characters and execute them at the highest level. When you can get that recipe right, the audience responds.
Live PD, I think, is incredibly unique because the social audience has galvanized and they’ve basically formed this community that has declared themselves ‘Live PD Nation,’ and they have strong opinions. It’s incredibly fun to make a show with that real-time response, and I think some of the ways the audience has interacted with the show are incredibly unique. I mean, they’ve alerted departments to crimes that have been committed on camera that the officers themselves didn’t witness or that they’ve seen. They go back and they rewind the footage and they freeze-frame things. I think it has created this level of interactivity that is unique and definitely drives the viewership and the stickiness of the show.
B&C: Is it more expensive to do unscripted television now than when you started?
DC: I think the cost of unscripted has come up. I think we’ve always prided ourselves that we can make hours [of content] for next to nothing and hours that cost a million dollars. It’s really about production design. It’s about how you create a team and structure for the people you hire and how you approach it, because I think we’ve done stuff on the digital front that costs nothing and we’ve done some stuff that’s pretty expensive. Sometimes the less expensive stuff challenges you to be more creative and forces you to think outside the box.
Everyone wants the unscripted industry to maintain its health and continue to be robust, but I know there’s a bit of doom and gloom at times because of ratings pressure and advertising dollars coming down. We believe we can build productions at different price points and create content that are brands.
Content is always going to be king. How the viewers access that content may change over the next several years, but the demand for content is higher than it’s ever been. We have developed, arguably, the deepest relationships with two of the largest buyers in unscripted television, A+E Networks and Viacom, and I think that’s a testament to our ability to understand their wants, their needs, how to tailor specific content for them, but then also how to work within their production process, because we all have idiosyncrasies and we all have strengths and weaknesses.
B&C: Does it concern you that, at this moment at least, scripted shows seem to be getting all the buzz in the marketplace?
DC: Listen, there is an incredible plethora of scripted content. There’s so much incredible scripted content that I can’t even begin to find half the new stuff or know where to watch it. I do think it’s a swinging pendulum and the pendulum is swinging back.
You’ve already seen several networks drastically reduce their investments in scripted content. There’s such a longer gestation period on scripted shows, and the cost is so much higher. Obviously, the profit participation can be more advantageous for networks when scripted works, but you have to take a lot of swings before you find a hit in scripted, and at what total investment are you willing to make to land those scripted hits?
If you think about it on a dollar-per-eyeball basis, the cost benefit of everything we’re producing right now exceeds a majority of the nearly 500 scripted series produced each year. So, I think that you’re seeing a lot of the OTT services, including Netflix, make much larger pushes into unscripted. Overall, I just think more content is beneficial to the entire industry.
B&C: MGM acquired Big Fish last summer. Was that something that you guys initiated or did MGM reach out?
DC: It was a little of both. I always look at the evolution of our company and the development of our company on a two- to three-year basis. So, given our success, various players in the market have reached out to us and we thought it made sense strategically to at least have those discussions. But for us, there wasn’t any pressure to make a deal. It was really being driven by the question of whether there was a strategic partner that made us better. Is there a relationship that’s additive, that helps our continued growth and helps us to expand into the digital and OTT worlds? Is there someone that makes us smarter and makes us better?
When we met with MGM, it just clicked. There’s a very similar ethos there. [MGM Worldwide Television Group chairman] Mark Burnett has been involved in some of the largest hits on television. Survivor was the birth of reality television. He builds teams that execute, and it’s about the shows and it’s about building brands. [MGM president of unscripted television] Barry Poznick had obviously built a very successful production company [Zoo Productions] and sold it and now has come back to work at MGM, and it was about the creative. For us, it really matched up well.
We have brainstorm sessions with them and lean back into them for certain things and expertise, but they have a very light touch. What was important to me was we had built a company and a culture that was really driven by talent. I didn’t want it to disrupt our culture and what we created. I didn’t want to fold it and be company No. 12 under a large aggregator, because I didn’t think it made sense for what our goals were and what we were trying to accomplish.
B&C: So what does MGM bring to the table for Big Fish?
DC: MGM has a large international presence. They’re heavily involved in the digital and OTT space. They have a strategic partnership on [Walmart’s video-on-demand service] Vudu; they have a marketing arm, a scripted arm. They have all this different talent and resources and research that we can tap into when we want, and the rest of the time we can run our business and hopefully keep generating hits.
B&C: You mentioned Mark Burnett. How big is it for you, as a producer, to be working with him going forward?
DC: Mark is incredible to work with. He knows exactly what he wants and he’s incredibly creative. I remember watching the first season of Survivor and being in awe at the time, because it was like nothing else that you’d ever seen on television. So it’s great to work closely with both him and the team that he’s built. And I think there’s just been a lot of thought that he’s put into it in terms of building those teams and how they’ve gotten to where they are.
B&C: Does MGM have a hand in the type of unscripted content Big Fish develops?
DC: No. They’re very hands-off. There are a couple of ideas that they brought to us that we were excited about, but there are a couple ideas they brought to us that we’re like, ‘Ah, we’re not interested in developing that and we’re not passionate about that.’ It is very much a collaborative relationship and they’re just trying to foster an environment for us to continue to succeed and continue to do what we do well.
B&C: Big Fish has developed some very diverse shows such as Black Ink Crew and Hustle & Soul. Where does diversity and inclusion fit into the hierarchy of importance when you look to develop a show?
DC: Diversity is incredibly important to us, not just on the programming side, but also on the production side. We have an incredibly diverse company and we think a lot about creating programming that looks like the country we live in and looks like the communities we come from. I think that we’ve had a lot of success in doing that.
Black Ink was the first diverse show we developed, and I’ll never forget the first time I walked into the Harlem tattoo shop. It’s three steps below street level, and you walked down into it and it was like part art gallery, part tattoo shop, and what you had is a group of individuals that were on the cutting edge of tastemaking for the city and arguably the country. It just oozed creativity and personality.
Then you also had this element of a makeshift family, but they had all come together to fulfill familial needs and create this unit. I remember being so excited when we put together that show. When we started out it was going to be a half-hour comedy, and as we started shooting season one and started digging into the depth of the characters and peeling back those layers of the onion, the network decided to make it an hour. But that show’s incredibly remarkable because in New York we’re at, I think, over 126 episodes with essentially the same core cast. We’ve seen characters grow across six, seven years and how they’ve evolved, and it’s a storytelling challenge and it’s a ton of fun to work on.
The Black Ink franchise, between New York and Chicago, we’re at 204 episodes and we’ll see the expansion of a third city that’ll be announced in the coming months.
B&C: What other shows does Big Fish have in development?
DC: We want to continue to develop and produce in the live space. We went from never producing an hour of live television to being roughly at 600 hours of live television by mid-March, and we have a couple of new series coming out. One is Animal ER Live; it’s an animal emergency concept. It’ll be a blend of the busiest animal hospitals in the country, as well as some on-call vets. We’re excited about that, because it’s a real-time look at the top vets in America, actively working to patch up and fix and save the lives of animals and pets across the spectrum. When you think about live, there’s got to be additive value to it. If we’re developing it, you just can’t add live to something and make it better. Along with that, we already have six or seven new series that we didn’t produce last year that we’ll be launching in the first two quarters of this year.
B&C: How do you see the unscripted series category developing over the next five years?
DC: Listen, I think the cable networks are under a lot of pressure in terms of ratings and viewership numbers, but they still need content. I think the type of content we’re creating will always continue to evolve, but content is king. The viewer at home might get it in a different way — maybe they’re getting it via 5G, versus over a dumb-pipe cable line, which to us just means opportunity. I think the interactivity we’ve seen on Live PD gets us excited about what the next generation of unscripted content is going to look like.
Where can we go once we can have true, two-way conversations and interactions with the viewer on a real-time basis? We’re starting to see that with Live PD, but I think we’re just at the beginning of where all of that’s going to go.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.