Behind the Scenes With the Execs Who Make the Hits
Meet five executive producers who have succeeded in the tough business of creating syndicated programming that hits the Nielsen mark, day after day
By Jim Finkle -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/19/2004 7:00:00 PM
Linda Bell Blue
Entertainment Tonight/The Insider
Linda Bell Blue won't be taking too much time off from work to celebrate the holidays. As executive producer of Entertainment Tonight and Paramount's brand-new companion show, The Insider, she manages a staff of 250 that covers entertainment news 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
Bell Blue rarely goes on vacation. When she does, it's more like telecommuting, because she spends so much time on the phone dealing with work matters. It's the same story when she's ill.
“This is what happens when I'm out sick: I'm lying in bed with three phones to my head.”
But most days she's in the newsroom by 5 a.m. and generally doesn't punch out until after 6 p.m. Her husband, Steve, vice president of production for E! Entertainment Television, gets up to have breakfast with her at 4 a.m. They're able to spend more time together on Sundays, when she works only half days.
At age 48, Bell Blue is at the top of her profession. She's entering her 10th year at the helm of ET, the No. 1-rated syndicated entertainment news show. She's also executive producer of The Insider, a show that tries to dig deeper than ET by concentrating on fewer stories.
Bell Blue has been working long hours for almost three decades, having launched her career producing local news at television stations in Detroit and San Francisco. In 1982, she moved to Los Angeles, where she was executive news producer for KCBS.
When she arrived at Entertainment Tonight, it was already one of the most successful shows in syndication. To keep ahead, she pushes her staff to stay on top of breaking news, championing reporters who have good relationships with celebrities and can score key interviews on short notice.
“It's about breaking news. If we stay in front of the news, then we'll stay in the lead.” And she likes her team. “I don't know anybody out there that I want to hire that I don't already have here.”
There is one area where Bell Blue is not so eager to be first: The debate over sexual content on television has made Entertainment Tonight more selective about the stories it covers and the video it airs.
One example: She says a story on a public figure such as Paris Hilton appearing in a pornographic video would probably get less attention today than in the very recent past.
“America has become a much more conservative place. I think it is unwise to try to shove something down somebody's throat that they don't want to see,” she says. “When it's time to decide whether to air something that might offend, we air that very carefully.”
For the most part, though, it's all about getting the scoop on glittery Hollywood news. Of course, ET isn't always first with the big stories. But Bell Blue knows how to get up when she gets knocked down. “There's always a way to take ownership,” she says. “There's always the next day.”
Carla Pennington Stewart
As Desperate Housewives raced up the Nielsen ratings chart in its first weeks on the air, the show struck a chord with Carla Pennington Stewart, executive producer of Dr. Phil. She noticed something familiar about the characters on the risqué ABC Sunday-night soap.
“I said, 'My God, we get tons of letters from women just like that. Why don't we do 'Dr. Phil's Desperate Housewives?'” She broached the idea with the show's host, Dr. Phil McGraw.
“He didn't get why that was even remotely interesting,” she recalls.
That didn't put her off. She went ahead and explored the subject, eventually coming up with enough material to fill four hour-long episodes. The episodes pulled in some of the show's highest ratings since it debuted in 2002.
The producer's ability to get McGraw on board for shows he's initially hestitant to do is one of the factors behind Dr. Phil's popularity with women. “The staff is sort of his feminine side,” says Pennington Stewart.
Another example: She decided to do a show on millionaire-chasers when The Bachelor was hot.
“He just said, 'I don't get why that's interesting.' I said, 'Trust me. Women love to hear stories about other women chasing after rich men.'” The ratings proved her to be right.
More recently, she produced two shows about a doctor whose family was devastated to learn that he'd had an affair with a nurse who became pregnant. They turned to McGraw for help as they struggled to heal from the crisis.
“The doctor didn't get it,” says Pennington Stewart. “We ended up doing two shows. When somebody doesn't get it, that's when the viewer ends up shouting at the television, 'Come on! Listen to Dr. Phil!'''
Pennington Stewart admires McGraw's ability to see into the male psyche. He's also known for his strong opinions and brash style. But that doesn't bother Pennington Stewart.
“He's not a laid-back guy, but I'm not a laid-back girl. So we get along really well.”
Their partnership has been a successful one. Dr. Phil's distributor, King World, recently announced that it has renewed the show in about half the country through the 2008-09 season. She says she's not worried about running out of ideas to fill the hundreds of hours that lie ahead.
Pennington Stewart's run as executive producer began after she made it through a series of rigorous interviews, including sessions with McGraw and Oprah Winfrey, who had helped usher Dr. Phil into the talk arena. She was co-executive producer of Entertainment Tonight Weekend when she applied for the job. Prior to that she had worked on Hard Copy and, early on, as Los Angeles bureau chief for the national portion of PM Magazine.
McGraw was in Texas when he formally offered her the position over a video feed to her ET office.
By then, she'd already met with plenty of bigwigs from the three companies behind the show: Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions, Paramount Domestic Television and King World. But she wasn't expecting him to offer her the job that day.
McGraw wanted to surprise her with the offer, then watch her reaction. He wasn't disappointed.
“I started jumping up and down and screaming like we were on Let's Make a Deal,” she says. “The security guard came running down the hall to see if somebody was stabbed.”
Live With Regis and Kelly
Most TV viewers know him simply as “Gelman,” the guy who sits on a stool smiling and taking playful jabs just off the set of Live With Regis and Kelly. In fact, Michael Gelman, the show's executive producer, laughs, “Many people believe that's most of my job.”
Hardly. Gelman been running the show since 1987. In the late '80s, he was the youngest producer of a national talk show. Seventeen years later, he's 43 and the longest-lasting producer in syndicated talk.
It has been a wild ride that started when Gelman was just 23 and working with Regis Philbin on a cable show. “At first, it was hard for me to tell Regis what to do,” says Gelman. “But after working for him so long, it's not nearly so hard for me to tell him what I want. He trusts my judgment.”
Within years of graduating from the University of Colorado, Gelman helped bring the morning show that Philbin hosted in New York to national syndication through Disney-owned Buena Vista. It has been a consistent ratings-grabber ever since, with its ranking among the top 10 in first-run syndication.
When initial co-host Kathie Lee Gifford left the show in 2000, Gelman kept things on track by grooming soap star Kelly Ripa as her successor. Ripa began her co-hosting duties in 2001.
Gelman is still best-known for his appearances on the show as the straight-man on the fringe of the action. Making the producer part of the cast is something Philbin had been doing on other talk shows for some 20 years by the time Gelman came around.
But those antics are only a small part of his job, which is a little tougher than some because Live is usually, well, live.
On most days he arrives at the office around 7 a.m. to go over which news items should be discussed on the show. Then he runs through rehearsals to go over music and other issues. That's followed by a quick talk with Philbin, the show's 73-year-old mainstay, whom Gelman describes as his mentor. Because she's newer, he has longer chats with 34-year-old Ripa. At 8:50, he escorts Philbin to makeup. At 8:52, he warms up the audience, as he has for all of his 17 years with the show. About 8:59, he gets Ripa from her dressing room, then they hook up with Philbin and walk onto the set. By 9:00, Gelman is sitting in his familiar chair. An hour later, it's all over.
On most days, Philbin and Ripa are gone before noon; by the time Gelman leaves at 6 or 7 p.m., he has prepared notes that he messengers to Ripa and Philbin for them to read in preparation for the next day's show.
One thing that Gelman isn't eager to talk about is Philbin's departure from the show. But he notes, “Regis is going to be around for a long time. Even at his age, he has boundless energy. He has the energy of a 50-year-old guy.” Still, Gelman concedes that his mentor will eventually slow down. “At some point, he will retire. And I think he will retire before me.”
There aren't too many bells and whistles on Judge Judy. There are also no repeats. Each year, the TV show's executive producer, Randy Douthit, brings some 650 claims to the set, where retired New York magistrate Judge Judy Sheindlin presides over quick-paced arbitration sessions.
At their core, each case is about the same thing, says Douthit: broken relationships.
Entering its ninth season, Judge Judy has been a hit since its launch, bringing in the highest ratings of any court show. The series is a production of Big Ticket Television, distributed by Paramount.
Douthit attributes the show's success to the consistency of Sheindlin's no-nonsense approach to solving small-claims cases that usually result from conflicts between couples, family members, friends or neighbors.
Sheindlin's shtick is reflected in the title of the book she wrote: Don't Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining.
There are no plans to make any changes to the show in the near future, says Douthit.
“This is what this show is. When it's done, it's done. For some reason it's still going, and it's going well. I don't see any reason for it to drop off for at least another five years.
“Essentially, the show is Judy. She has not changed. We are searching for what we believe the daytime audience cares about and what most of us do care about. It's about broken relationships. That's what pulls you in.”
His schedule is about as consistent as the show, which he produces, directs and edits along with a staff of 30.
Every other week, he spends three days shooting several shows with Sheindlin. He works with producers as they screen litigants and write up the case files that she reviews before each hearing. Before Douthit signs off on a show, he watches it at least three times to make sure everything is perfect.
“I'm very hands-on,” he says. “It's fun. I live for this.”
Douthit's television career took off about two decades ago on the set of Seattle Today, a local show whose ratings he helped bring from last to first place.
He moved on to CNN, where he executive-produced Larry King Live and Crossfire. He has also produced Jenny Jones for Warner Brothers and worked as an executive at Quincy Jones Entertainment, where he oversaw work on NBC's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Douthit, 49, says one of the best things about his current job is working with Sheindlin.
“I respect her for her realm of authority, which is the law and being a judge. And she respects mine, which is being a television producer.”
The two have also become friends. “She's a warm and wonderful person,” says Douthit. Unless, that is, you get on the bad side of this tough judge.
Wheel of Fortune
Wearing a leather jacket to keep him warm in the chilly studio, Harry Friedman quietly watches from his usual seat next to a row of writers sitting behind a long table in front of the Jeopardy! audience. During the taping of the day's final episode, action briefly stops when one of the 110 employees who help produce the show discovers that a contestant's score is off by 100 points.
Friedman doesn't say a word. He stretches his legs, smiles and quietly waits for the action to resume.
It would be tough for an audience member to identify Friedman, 58, as the big boss on the set. He's the executive producer of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, game shows from Sony Pictures Entertainment and King World Productions that have long been the No. 1- and No. 2-rated programs in first-run syndication.
The success of these illustrious game shows means that Friedman has one of the highest-pressure gigs in syndication. He doesn't act like it.
He first learned about television from his father, who owned one of the first stores in Omaha, Neb., to sell TV sets.
Friedman graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, subsequently holding jobs in journalism, real estate, public relations and advertising. His dream was to work in television, so he headed to Hollywood in 1971.
It took him about six months to land his first job, as a part-time question-writer on Hollywood Squares. The producers encouraged him to make suggestions on how to improve the show.
“I thought, 'Wow.' I didn't know I was supposed to have ideas,” he says. “They were secure enough about their own positions to let new people have ideas.”
His bosses brought him on staff and promoted him several times through the ranks of writing and production jobs. He stayed with the show for 11 years and some 3,000 episodes. During that period, he also helped develop other shows, including Gambit and High Rollers.
The work on Squares taught him that a show's creators need to work well as a team for a product to succeed.
“The most important thing I learned is how collaborative the creative process should be.”
Friedman says he has worked hard at both Wheel and Jeopardy! to develop a culture that is conducive to collaboration.
He doesn't spend a lot of time focusing on such issues as the occasional error on the Jeopardy! scoreboard.
Instead, he works on bigger issues, such as when and how to renovate the set of his shows or how to spice things up by tweaking the games' rules.
One of his most successful moves was a decision to stop limiting the number of times each contestant could win on Jeopardy!
After about two years of deliberation, the change finally went into effect last year. The move turned Ken Jennings into a millionaire, significantly boosting the ratings of Jeopardy! in the process.
Jennings, a Salt Lake City native, appeared for 75 consecutive shows and won more than $2.5 million; he now holds the record for most money won on a game show.
Other innovations on Jeopardy! include the Clue Crew, a growing team of on-screen correspondents billed by the show as adventurous and inquisitive folks who travel the world helping to bring clues to life.
Friedman is a big fan of road trips, a tool for promoting both shows in local markets. Pat Sajak and Vanna White will shoot Wheel in Las Vegas next month, right before the start of NATPE.
In that case, it's about promoting the show with key customers.
Friedman also introduced an Internet-based “Wheel Watchers Club,” which is sort of a mix between a frequent-fliers club and Lotto that gets viewers more involved.
He has no intention of shaking things up too much.
“There is an inherent risk,” he says. “Viewers don't like change. We can change the show, but we must never change the game.”
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