Building Pilgrim Into a Powerhouse

Independent production company Pilgrim Studios is one of the most successful and prolific producers of unscripted reality programming on both cable and broadcast television, responsible for more than 25 reality shows that are currently on the air or in production. At the helm of the company is Pilgrim’s energetic CEO, Craig Piligian, a 56-year-old former assignment editor at CNN. Piligian recently offered his vision of the reality genre’s future in a wide-ranging discussion with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead. He talked about his voyage into the scripted-series arena and gave his thoughts on the higher costs and increased competition in the reality space. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: Reality seems to be as strong as ever. If you’re a reality producer, is this the best of times, given what’s going on on the cable and broadcast side — or the most difficult?

Craig Piligian: I think reality TV is a good business to be in. I think that it’s a genre that’s not going away. I think that the networks look to reality to make money quickly, and it’s a good business for them. If you look at The Voice, Survivor, Big Brother [and] Amazing Race on the network side, you see those big, nonscripted shows pull in a lot of money. On the cable side, you can look at hits like Fast & Loud, Street Outlaws and Ghost Hunters which is, after 10 seasons, still a workhorse for Syfy, along with their scripted fare. I just think that’s here to stay. I think it’s a big business.

MCN: Is the ability to create and produce a quality reality series easier in today’s environment than it was before, and by easier, I mean cheaper and with more outlets to distribute it?

CP: I’ll answer the latter first. It’s easier to distribute it because there are more outlets. Say we have an idea. We have to tailor that idea to seven different networks, so when we shoot the idea, we produce a sizzle reel or a presentation tape that’s shot very open. We take a very broad approach. But in the editorial, we take a very narrow approach for every network.

We would cut it differently for Discovery, we’d cut it differently for History, we’d cut it differently for A&E. So you’d take a more focused, creative approach once you get in the edit.

It’s good for us, because it’s a competitive situation, especially for a company like ours that is known for producing a good product. It’s good for us, because they know when they see a tape from us that they better get in the game.

MCN: Is it now cheaper?

CP: No. The networks would like it to be cheaper, but it isn’t. The talent costs more and productions cost more. You’re changing over to cameras that are very expensive … you need a little more time in editing because on a show like [Discovery Channel’s] Street Outlaws, where we’re using 20 to 25 cameras to show races and you’ve got to digitize all that media. It’s not like we’re shooting these shows in the old days with one, two or three cameras.

Nowadays, the networks are expecting reality shows to look like scripted shows. They want them to look beautiful, and they want them to be shot amazingly and they want it cheaper, and it’s tough to do. We’re always fighting to make sure our creative vision stays our creative vision so that does cost money.

MCN: Having been in the business for so long and seeing the development of the business, are you concerned about the competition in the marketplace?

CP: I’m never concerned about the competition … I love and live for competition. It’s out there, but I’m not going to be scared of my competition. The competition in the field has narrowed because so many companies are now under bigger umbrellas. So I look at it as an advantage to our company.

We’re a little faster, we can make decisions quicker, we can do whatever we want to do without asking anyone and I think the networks appreciate that. With that said, there are a lot of talented people out there. The producers are talented and it makes us everyday come in and rise to the level of being the best.

MCN: You mentioned the production companies and how large they’re getting because they’re buying up other companies. Do you see the consolidation of production companies as a trend?

CP: I have no idea. I don’t know. Everyone’s talking about a bubble, but I guess the answer is, I don’t know. I would love to be able to look into the future and see that, but I just can’t.

MCN: What’s in the future for your company?

CP: As a company, we are always looking to expand our horizons. We’re not only in nonscripted right now, but we’re doing a lot of live television, and we’re also doing scripted TV. On ABC Family, we are one of two companies to get our pilot picked up [drama series Recovery Road] and we’re hoping that it goes to series. It would be a big feather in our cap, if that happens, for a nonscripted company to get a series on ABC Family. We’ve been doing Lifetime movies for the last three years and we have a couple more that are in the pipeline.

We have a couple of big scripted projects that we’re talking to History about and we have a project with Discovery we’re talking about. We think we can compete with the scripted people, but it won’t take away from our content. It will actually enhance our unscripted world, and we’re looking at all our unscripted fare to see what we can make into a scripted project.

And we are expanding our digital media platform. We’ve got to crack that code, because I think that the networks are looking for a way to monetize that. I think that that’s going to be the next wave of where programming is goning go. I think you need to be able to monetize that as a production company.

We are starting a digital-media arm in our company and we’re exploring opportunities in that arena. That’s going to be our next big growth arm of this company.

MCN: When you say digital media, are you saying you want to keep the rights to your shows and offer them on a digital platform, or create content specifically and exclusively for digital?

CP: Both. The first one is a little harder, so if we can’t hold onto those digital rights we are going to create our own digital media and we are going to make our own partnerships with the YouTubes and Googles and those kind of places that are into that. We’re going to create content that will live on those platforms.

MCN: What changes can we expect in reality from the production side?

CP: I think both broadcast and cable networks are going to be buying a lot more unscripted. I believe the ratings between scripted and nonscripted are going to become very narrow and the ratings are going to be on par with each other. In fact, a lot of unscripted fare rates the same or better than scripted fare.

Overall, I think that the landscape for the next couple of years looks very promising. I think that the broadcast and cable networks are looking for content. Content is king, so anyone that can provide good content will be a viable company. And we’re in a good position because we are a content provider — whether that be scripted, unscripted, reality or digital — we are a content creator and that bodes well for the future of our company.