Sorting letters in the mailroom of a California TV station at the age of 20, Scott Sternberg hatched a plan to get fired. “I walked into the production manager's office and told him I thought the commercials on the local stations really sucked,” Sternberg says. “I figured that would do it.”
Then the manager told him to go home and draft six good commercials. The next day, he was informed that the station was going to make two of his six suggestions into actual local TV spots. “Well, what do I do?” Sternberg asked, incredulous. “You sit in the corner,” the station manager replied curtly. “And you keep quiet and you learn something.”
Today, Sternberg is one of the more successful reality producers in Hollywood. After a career of producing successful game shows and TV specials, he will produce Hey Paula on Bravo, in which cameras reveal the daily routine of American Idol judge Paula Abdul, and The Academy on Fox Reality Channel, both of which will debut over the next two months. The Academy documents the private lives and intense training regimens of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department recruits.
Born and reared in Princeton, N.J., Sternberg got his first reality check when his father received a job offer in San Marino, Calif., and the family moved across the country. “All of a sudden, I had the wrong clothes, the wrong bike, the wrong haircut, the wrong accent—the wrong everything.” After a few years of teen angst, he headed off to San Diego State University as a telecommunications major. The summer after his sophomore year, his father—an RCA employee—landed him a part-time job as an NBC page, which piqued his curiosity about the industry.
After the mailroom gig at the TV station, he returned to NBC for another summer. He quickly became a runner for several shows, including the Grammy Awards and the Oscars. He then took a job as a researcher on a game show, and in the years that followed, he grabbed for every rung on the proverbial career ladder: from runner to writer to director to game-show host to executive. “I really feel like having worked so many different positions allows me to understand all my current employees and treat them with respect,” he says. “I've been there, you know?”
From 1987 to '91, Sternberg served as executive VP of Guber-Peters Television, where he oversaw all development and production for network, syndication and cable programming. In 1991, Sternberg launched Scott Sternberg Productions. His credits include highly successful game shows Hollywood Squares, Love Connection and The Dating Game, and his company produces TV Guide's Square Off, with Brian Lowry and Andrew Wallenstein, Rock and Roll Jeopardy for VH-1 and GSN's That's the Question.
He also produces AMC's Sunday Morning Shootout, with Peter Bart and Peter Guber. “He knows the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and he gets both done,” says Guber, CEO/chairman of Mandalay Entertainment. “That is the art of it. He brings all of his resources to bear on problems without losing his sense of humor. He's a solution-oriented person, and that is the kind of person you want to have as a partner and as a producer.”
Sternberg, 53, has amassed a collection of awards for his work, including an Emmy for Best Information Special for PBS' A Special Class With… and a Cable Ace Award for Remember With Roy Firestone.
He admits to being mono-focused on projects he loves. “I like to focus on one thing at a time,” he explains. “I don't think multitasking is very effective. And Blackberrys really demand you multitask. I asked my secretary to throw my Blackberry away, in fact. And I do not have one.”
His latest projects are focused purely on reality programming—something Sternberg says he never really left. “Game shows are reality shows if you think about it: You don't know what is going to happen. The reality shows of today are the same thing, just in a different dress. It is here to stay because people are addicted to it and the economics of it are right. It's a way to create stars, and the 'water-cooler' component of it is essential. People come in and say 'Did you see this?' or 'Can you believe that?' You never know what is going to happen. You never know what is right around the corner, and that is what keeps people coming back. It's an addiction.”
Although he has spent most of his career on “reality” programming, he's still not a cynic on the subject. Sternberg and his crew spent long days with 111 Los Angeles sheriff recruits, ages 18-49, that make up The Academy, watching them suffer through an endless barrage of drills and exercises, then documenting how they manage personal lives at home.
Their sacrifice was an eye-opening experience for him. “Basically, they train, study, eat and sleep. It was an intense and incredible journey for me as a producer,” Sternberg says. “And it changed the way I look at the police. When I see an officer now—even if I am just in line at Starbucks—I have to go up and shake their hand and say thank you.”
Pondering what challenge to take on next, Sternberg says he'll try to serve what the audience wants. He is currently working on Seduce a Celeb, an original dating program on GoFish.com. “Reality is going to be around for a long, long time,” says the confessed American Idol-addict. “The 18-34 demo has grown up with reality shows, and they love the intrigue. We all like to expect the unexpected.”