There aren't many bona fide road maps to success in reality television, at least not yet. Reality is too new for genre pioneers to have left behind step-by-step instructions. Most are still figuring out the way for themselves.
But when reality producers of the future look back on this time of constant germination, one route that'll be worth a studied look is the one taken by Eugene Young, though Young himself never would have predicted that working in local news and for the newsmagazine Extra would have led him to become a genre icon.
Young is chief creative officer at FremantleMedia North America, the production outfit behind reality king American Idol, NBC's summer series America's Got Talent and CBS's new primetime game show Million Dollar Password.
“I'm a journalist by trade—I'm a broadcast news producer,” Young says. “I went from hard local news to Extra, which was a big jump for me. I developed journalistic newswriting and decision-making skills early in my career.”
It turns out this is a good resume for reality TV, where the pace of developing ideas and getting shows on the air, as with news, is lightning fast.
“The great thing about non-scripted reality programming is that it's so immediate,” says David Goldberg, president and CEO of reality powerhouse Endemol USA. “People who do well have their finger on the pulse and can come up with 100 ways to do something and craft it into a pitch and get out there and sell it. Those are the things Eugene is very adept at, based on his news and newsmagazine experience.”
Young began his career as a CNN video journalist working the low-paying midnight shift. That led to jobs in news in New York (as a producer for WABC-TV) and Los Angeles where, a couple of months into an executive-producer gig at KCBS, he was rocked by his first temblor, the 1994 Northridge earthquake that landed the station an Emmy for its coverage. The murder of O. J. Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown came months later.
“A lot of people who worked in news and documentaries have built big businesses in the non-scripted world,” says Mark Itkin, EVP worldwide and co-head of television at the William Morris Agency. “It's a natural background because they know how to tell stories.”
Young then went on to lighter fare as a senior supervising producer/show runner at Extra. He tapped into his news background to tweak its format from Hollywood fluff to entertainment news with more bite.
After seven years, Goldberg brought Young over to Endemol in 2001, where he worked on shows that would come to define reality subgenres, such as ABC's family-friendly Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and NBC's stomach-churning competition show Fear Factor.
“A lot of this business is timing—that [period] was the gold rush, the wild, wild West,” Young says. “When David Goldberg and I saw Fear Factor, which is the American name for Now or Neverland from Holland, we were like: 'What are we getting ourselves into?' There was nothing as provocative, gross or enthralling on television.”
Young moved to Fremantle in 2006, and has set out to create the next new wave in unscripted programming. One show in the works is based on a YouTube sensation: the Japanese game show Human Tetris, where nerdy contestants squeezed into unflattering bodysuits re-create the classic video game Tetris by contorting their bodies through odd-shaped holes in a moving wall. Fox has ordered episodes of the series, now called Hole in the Wall.
Young is also jumping into new media. Fremantle has been tinkering with online content for years. The company now appears likely to spawn a TV show from a running skit on the Website Atomic Wedgie called “Secret Girlfriend.”
It's a natural evolution for Young, who sees his role at Fremantle as being about taking great ideas and getting them in front of viewers no matter where they see it.
When asked about a successful reality road map, Young says great unscripted show concepts come in one of three ways. The first is the old-school method. You dream up a new idea, which begins in Fremantle brainstorming sessions, and then write it, craft it and build it till it's ready to be filmed. Toward that end, says Young, a big current trend in the genre is talent-driven reality, where celebrities such as singer Justin Timberlake star in programs that showcase their talents.
The second idea-generator is to tap into hit programs from other parts of the world, like Human Tetris.
The third method means diving into classic TV content, like the old game show Password, and tinkering with the formula until it's ready for today's viewers. That's what Fremantle has done with the gussied-up Million Dollar Password, hosted by Regis Philbin.
Young is also plunging into scripted programming with Man/Woman, a late-night sketch comedy series in development for Fox based on a British series, and starring Will & Grace's Sean Hayes.
Young's life, perhaps not surprisingly, is consumed by television. But no matter how much of his day revolves around work, once out of the office, he spends his time thinking of anything but TV.
“Eugene is probably the hardest-working and most committed person I know, which is true in his professional and family life,” Goldberg says.
A native New Yorker who'd never set foot in California prior to landing at KCBS in 1993, Young approaches home life with work-like enthusiasm. He loves the time he gets to spend with wife Kelly Mack—a former KNBC anchor—and their two daughters. A rare but cherished treat is a quiet morning reading the Sunday New York Times.
“There is so much content we're producing that I spend time watching that I don't go home and sit in front of the tube,” says Young, 49. “It's the last thing I want to do. I love coming up with shows and entertaining people, but outside work I have a lot of women in my life—I'm blessed with a great family.”
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