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Tight Budgets— No Problem

Season two of TV One’s The Ultimate Merger premieres this week. With Donald Trump as an executive producer of the series, the dating show’s got to look like a million bucks. But the network doesn’t have a billionaire budget. And that’s just fine with Bob Horowitz, founder of Juma Entertainment, which co-produces the show.

At a time when a broad range of networks are ramping up original series, Horowitz believes a production company has to be able to sell and produce shows at any and all price points.

Juma produced half-hours of The Singing Bee for NBC in 2007 with a seven-figure budget. It now makes hours of Singing Bee for CMT for half that number. It makes Ultimate Merger for about $400,000—or a third of what ABC probably spends on The Bachelor. It also makes Yard Attack for DIY at about $90,000 an episode.

“The bottom line is you should be able to make the same amount of money whether we’re producing for a network or we’re producing for cable,” Horowitz says.

No matter how big the budget, the shows are hugely important to the cable networks, and they expect their shows to look as good as anything on TV.

“We’ve come up with some innovative ways to make the show look and feel on par with any network show, and I think Juma has done an amazing job in achieving that,” says Toni Judkins, TV One’s EVP of original programming and production.

“The truth is, if you have a good, clean, simple concept, you can produce it for whatever the network budget,” says Jayson Dinsmore, executive VP for development at CMT. “I don’t think there’s any bellyaching from producers. They generally know what networks have for money, and networks expect great shows at any price.”

How do you cut how much NBC spent to produce The Singing Bee, which drew 16 million viewers at its peak in 2007? It requires a lot of efficiencies, says Horowitz.

A new set takes up less room on the sound stage they use at CBS’ Television City. Since they’re more experienced with the format, shooting days are shorter. On cable, music rights cost less. And a live band has been replaced by pre-recorded tracks.

“It actually sounds amazing. That actually helps the show because the focus became more about the contestants,” says Dinsmore, who helped develop The Singing Bee while at NBC.

The Ultimate Merger is shot in Las Vegas, where Trump has a hotel. Horowitz says the bachelors stay in suites that rent for $10,000 a night. “We were in that for 21 nights,” says Horowitz, who estimates the show paid about 10% of that. The Trump connections open a lot of rich-looking doors, he says. “What you’ll see on the screen looks unbelievable.” Juma’s Lewis Fenton, a Bachelor veteran, also does double duty, serving as both EP and director.

There are other ways to keep costs down across the board. A key one is not wasting post-production time waiting for notes from the networks. “You eat money up in post production. Everyone understands we’re trying to put as much money on the screen as possible,” Horowitz says.

“We’re constantly on standby to meet their deadline,” says TV One’s Judkins. “We have to keep the train running at all costs, at all times, because if you don’t, there’s a financial implication.”

Horowitz says he is also being helped by the declining prices in cameras and editing equipment. “For 12 grand today, you get what used to cost you 50,” he says. And by owning instead of renting, you can afford to spend more time tweaking shows.

Horowitz says Juma plans to set up an East Coast production arm at its New Hope, Pa., headquarters that will be better able to cater to cable shows than its current Hollywood facilities.

“If you’re given high five figures to do a series, can you make that $90,000 look like $180,000 or $200,000? The answer’s yes,” Horowitz says. “And more often than not, when you do that, you get the repeat business.”

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