True Originals

When Endemol Shine North America merged its production companies True Entertainment and Original Media in January of 2017, the hope was that the new entity would become a powerhouse that would dominate the reality programming space with high-quality, highly viewed original content spread across a multitude of distributors.

Fast-forward a little more than a year later and the new entity, Truly Original, has checked off all of those boxes. New York-based Truly Original, led by co-CEOs and veteran producers Glenda Hersh and Steven Weinstock — who founded True Entertainment in 2000 and sold it to ESNA in 2003 before becoming co-CEOs of both True and ESNA’s Original Media in 2015 — have successfully melded the best of the two companies to offer arguably the most robust, diverse and successful lineup of unscripted cable shows in the industry today.

From Bravo’s long-running series The Housewives of Atlanta to History’s signature series Swamp People, Paramount Network’s distinctive Ink Master or Investigation Discovery’s Vanity Fair Confidential, Hersh and Weinstock have left an indelible mark on the reality genre.

Read More: ‘Ink Master’ Host Says Show Strikes Right Chords | American Values, Reflected in ‘Swamp People’ | Atlanta’s Diversity Keeps This ‘Housewives’ Series Real

“Truly Original is truly amazing,” is how Connie Orlando, executive vice president and head of programming for BET, which last month launched Truly Original’s unscripted series BET’s Mancave, put it. “My creative executives love working with them, and the meetings I have had with them have been really easy. They know what they’re doing, and that’s always refreshing.”

Hersh and Weinstock’s success, dedication and hard work as partners — they profess to brainstorm on their shows over lunch virtually every day — has earned the duo honors as Broadcasting & Cable’s Producers of the Year for 2018.

The two co-CEOs discussed the company’s content development strategy as well as how Truly Original plans to remain viable and successful in a fast-changing, crowded entertainment marketplace.

When Truly Original was created, did you believe that the merger of True Entertainment and Original Media would be so successful?

Steven Weinstock: At the time of the merger, our company, True Entertainment, had been incredibly successful in terms of not just the amount of shows we sold but the way it was managed. Our reputation had garnered lots of praise in the industry and, as a result, Enedmol thought it might make sense to have Glenda and I run both companies.

Glenda Hersh: It really made sense, because while the companies were different, they were very complementary. True Entertainment tended to have focus on more female skewing programming, and Original tended to be more male in its skew with some female. By bringing them together we brought the brains, the minds, the creativity of each company with great teams together and it made actually one plus one equal four.

What type of content are you now looking to create for Truly Original on the development front?

GH: We look for shows that are new and different. We try to develop shows that you haven’t seen before — that are going to get viewers excited and that feature new formats, different talent and more exciting ways to tell those stories. We are always looking to reinvent the form. Something that we have done over the last 25 years is come up with new ways to tell unscripted stories and new ways to make it feel like scripted, as well as new ways to evolve the stories and to grow formats. We’re looking to not be derivative; we’re looking to find things that are fresh. But it’s really hard. [Laughter.] A lot has been done already, But we feel like one of our big successes is we’ve managed to come up with shows that feel new.

SW: I also think that we are at our heart great storytellers, and we apply it to a lot of different kinds of genres. We have never been a company that has excelled at just one thing, whether it’s a glossy competition shows or ensemble docusoaps or male alligator hunting. We have always prided ourselves on the fact that we love telling stories and we’re really good at it. We have been able to take that talent and use it to really create compelling television for a lot of different networks.

Bravo is one network that's benefited from Truly Original shows, including two shows from the Real Housewives franchise — Real Housewives of Atlanta and Real Housewives of Potomac. What did you see in that franchise that made it an option for your company?

SW: Initially, Glenda and I had gone into Bravo and they already had I believe Orange County and New York [versions] in production, and they asked us if had we any thoughts about what else we would do. Really off the top of our heads we said, ‘How about some diversity because you don’t have that?’ And they said, ‘Oh that’s interesting … where would you go?’ And again off the top of our heads we said Atlanta, because it’s a place where there’s a real African-American affluent population. That was 10 years ago.

We are now in our 10th season and it is still, by a significant amount, the No. 1 show on Bravo and, on Sunday nights, the No. 1 show on cable. If somebody would’ve said to us then that 10 years later would you still be doing Real Housewives of Atlanta, we’d sit there and say ‘no, I think you must be crazy.’ And yet here we are.

Shows like Real Housewives of Atlanta and Potomac, as well as many of Truly Original's shows, skew toward female audiences. What has been the advantage of reaching that audience in terms of the success of your shows?

GH: I think it’s always been true that women watch a lot of television. They just do. I think women have traditionally watched more unscripted television because they’re not watching sports. I mean, some are but most of my friends are watching Bravo and HGTV, they’re not watching football. So I think you have a much broader audience of women watching entertainment-driven unscripted television in general, so it’s a bigger market right now and it always has been.

But what’s amazing about our shows is that they’re not exclusively female. For example, a show like Ink Master on the new Paramount Network is really a 50-50 split of men and women. I think that men love a lot of the artwork and I think women, while they love the artwork as well, are very interested in the drama that takes place.

While History’s Swamp People would skew more male than female.

GH: Yes, Swamp People is predominantly male, but not exclusively, because it’s a family show and people watch it as a family. It’s telling a great cultural story and I think everyone loves a cultural story, but it is predominantly male.

Many of your shows also feature very diverse casts. How important is diversity in the content creation process?

SW: I think it’s incredibly important. We’ve been able to capture a significant part of the American experience and relate it in a way that makes people in some ways understand one another more clearly. With [Real Housewives of] Atlanta, I think part of the reason that the audience is as big as it is, is because it crosses over the cultural and racial divide. You find African-American women watching it, but you also find white women watching it. It’s what I would call kind of the Oprah halo. The same may not necessarily be true for other shows within the [Housewives] franchise. We found these great characters in Atlanta and decided that this is a really, really important and at the same time an incredibly entertaining place to mine.

GH: In the end, television is going to be successful when it reflects the American public. It’s a diverse culture and to the extent that our shows can reflect what’s really happening in the real world, I think people will watch it and the shows will be successful.

Given the current discussion about women in the workplace, how many female employees do you have within the company in executive roles?

GH: We are very diverse and we are also very female-centric. So first, there are not many large companies actually owned by women. There are a lot of women in executive positions, but very few entrepreneurs themselves, and that’s something that I’ve always been really proud of as an owner. Our CFO [Brenda Hurley] is a woman, our executive vice president of programming [Lauren Eskelin] is a woman, our SVP [of production Carol Klein] is a woman, our EVP of production management [Nikki Borrelli] is a woman. Our controller [Jo-Ellen Sarnelli] is a woman.

SW: There was a time when we’d sit and I was the only guy in the room.

GH: There are a few men now; we’ve hired some token men. But in the end, as a woman and a woman entrepreneur, it’s been very important to me that women’s voices are heard both not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera. And it’s been a real commitment to always trying to find female show runners, and female executives.

What about how women are depicted on-screen on your shows?

GH: A lot of people can say a lot of things about the Housewives franchise, but I happen to think that we produce the most comedic versions, where women are in on it in a way. And look, I mean, I’m very proud of what we make, whether it’s the Housewives or even a new show called Ink Master: Angels, a spinoff from Ink Master. We finally had a female Ink Master last season as well as a female finalist, and we took them and another tattoo artist from the series and we spun them off to have their own show. The tattoo world is a phenomenally, famously male-centric world, and the idea that we’re taking three women and having them travel around the U.S. and compete to find the greatest tattoo talent in the country is a step forward for women in an industry where you haven’t seen it before.

Have your shows all managed to avoid scandal and, if so, how?

SW: [Knocking on wood.] I mean we’ve had our moments, but thank God, we’ve never had anything major. We’ve been luck and we are also very careful. We have an in-house lawyer and we’re smart about not doing something stupid. By the grace of God we are fortunate because you can’t control those situations.

GH: I mean no matter what you do, no matter how well you plan, things could go awry. But you try to be smart about the way you produce.

SW: You have to be smart about how you deal with your talent, making them understand the implications of what they’re doing. We spend a lot of time talking to talent. On the one hand, you want these big personalities and you want these people who have got enormous bounces in terms of their moods and that makes for interesting characters.

I want to take a broader look at the business. A lot of the talk in the industry revolves around original scripted content, whereas maybe a decade ago the conversation was dominated by unscripted fare. Where is the unscripted business is today in terms of its appeal to the audience. Do you think it's as strong as it was a decade ago?

GH: I honestly think it’s never been stronger. I just think there are so many more outlets for [unscripted content] and so many more ways to tell those stories. I just think the universe for content in general is bigger, so I think there is room for both.

SW: While the cost issue of unscripted has grown mightily from the original days, it is still significantly less than if you were doing scripted content. I think it’s great that scripted content is having this sort of golden moment and there are some amazing shows that are going on out there. But all of the OTTs are now looking to see how they are going to enter the nonscripted business, and how they are going to brand nonscripted programming in a way that is distinctive and relates to their brand. I think it actually creates a kind of new competitive environment; they have a lot of money, they are looking for the right kind of content and they are not scared to spend. The cable universe is going through a transition right now, and how it gets organized and whether or not it becomes a branded package of a bouquet of channels as opposed to just single channels remains to be seen.

How do you see the business shaking out over the next few years? Do you see more industry consolidation, and if so are you concerned about a shrinking of potential partners?

GH: I believe that if you have a great story and a great idea, it’ll always find its home and there will always be multiple people who want to put it on the air. The notion that some networks will go away and it’ll be organized differently doesn’t really scare me at all, because I feel like people will always want to watch something. Now it’s called TV — it may not be called TV five years from now, but they’ll always want to watch and they’ll always want great stories. We can tell them in eight-minute bits, in 22-minute bits, in 44-minute bits. So I feel like we’re in a phenomenal position as producers and content creators because we can work on any platform and any context. So the future looks only brighter for us.

SW: I think we are fortunate in that we have a handful of really big, successful series. We find in this environment where there are so many options, that people are actually coming to some of the programs that are tried and true, whether it be [Real Housewives of] Atlanta, Swamp or Ink Master or Comic Book Men that have succeeded and that almost provide a kind of comfort viewing.

GH: It’s great for us to have shows that people know and recognize and remember. It’s an advantage to having these shows that are presold — everybody knows that Swamp People is going to be on Thursday.

Have you considered offering more short-form unscripted content to reach a millennial audience that may not be watching traditional television?

GH: We haven’t spent a lot of focus on it. If we come across something and we say, ‘Wow, this is something that every 14-year-old is going to want to watch,’ then we’ll figure out the right place for it.

SW: Conceivably, we could make something in eight minutes that could be really compelling, but at the end of the day, we are storytellers and we want to weave a narrative that is compelling and that will grab an audience. We have had a lot of success doing it in the 30-minute or 60-minute form. The eight-minute form? I mean, it might eventually get there, but it’s not something that we’re just terribly focused on.

Are there any plans to get into the scripted arena?

GH: We have looked at some scripted options and we’re experimenting with some places there for sure. We can’t really talk about it yet, but we’re certainly looking at doing that. But really, I mean, we’re passionate about unscripted worlds. We’re passionate about real people and real places and strange contexts. In some ways, the real can be more fabulous than the unreal, and so we’re going to continue to grow that business. We feel really strongly about it.

SW: We are developing some broader big documentary series and limited miniseries. We’re optioning books and looking to convert those into three- or four-part miniseries for either cable or one of the OTT services. So we’re moving strategically. We’re looking for the right stories, but for the most part it’s in the nonfiction realm.

On the unscripted side, are there any genres that you really want jump into that you haven't done so far?

GH: We’re always looking for the next big competition format. It’s a great space. It’s a hard space that’s been mined. But if you can find a good one, they live forever, and we really enjoy making them. We are always looking for great talent, because in the unscripted world your show lives and dies by the talent. We are always looking for interesting social experiments that we think will challenge people to think differently in the unscripted space.

Are you getting longer orders for your shows from distributors, to provide more time to let your shows build an audience?

SW: No, initial orders tend to be on the shorter side.

GH: It used to be that [networks] would order 13 episodes out of the gate, now there are six to eight.

SW: We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve had a number of very big shows, and we’ve also been able to creatively come up with spinoffs out of those shows, and that gives you a tremendous leg up in terms of the audience.

We’re doing a spinoff of Swamp People with [series star] Troy Landry. We’ve done a number of spinoffs of Atlanta. It immediately allows you to draw the audience, to aggregate the audience. We did a spinoff with [Real Housewives’] Kandi Burruss [Xscape: Still Kickin’ It’]. We did a four-part series, and it was one of the highest rated new shows in two years on Bravo.

GH: So to answer your question, new shows that are completely fresh, I think the orders are actually a little smaller. People are a little afraid to take a big step with a brand new show. But with the existing shows, they’ve actually gotten bigger because networks need to know that they can reliably have those kind of numbers.

What's the biggest challenge for the industry right now?

SW: I think it’s aggregating eyeballs. There was a period of time where all the cable networks had enormous upside and were making lots of money. It’s not that the audience has gone away from nonfiction or reality. I just think it has dispersed and, as a result, each of the actual networks or platforms are not getting as many people as they had in the past, which naturally puts some downward pressure on budgets and what they can spend on. But I don’t think cable is going away.

GH: The way it comes into your house might change but the content of what’s on it is not going away. People like to watch shows, so if they watch it on the television set, they’ll watch it on their computer or some smart TV device on their refrigerator. However they consume it, it doesn’t change the fact that they are consuming shows and stories. So the biggest challenge for the industry is figuring out what that looks like and how that affects storytelling or how that affects the economic package both from the point of view of the networks, if you want to call them that in the future, and the producers. That is still in flux, and I think we won’t know for a bit what it looks like.

R. Thomas Umstead

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.