Producer Perspective: Paul Dowling

Original: is honored to bring you this exclusive interview with Paul Dowling co-founded Medstar Television 25 years ago. Medstar produces and distributes a daily subscription news service to commercial television stations across the country. In long form programming, Medstar has produced programs for NBC, HBO, TNT, PBS, Discovery Channel, TLC, CourtTV, TruTV and syndication. Dowling is currently in his 14th season as Executive Producer/Creator of Forensic Files which is fast approaching 500 episodes and airs in over 100 countries.


In 2000, while writing & co-producing a one hour special that aired on TLC, Dowling uncovered new evidence that eventually led to the Governor of Virginia pardoning the 3 men who were convicted for the rape / murder of an 18 year old girl. The 3 had served almost 15 years in prison before their release.

Where do you find inspiration for a new show idea?

One way is to mix and match genres and networks that don’t usually go together and see what you come up with. It’s a commonly used trick, as you can see:

Discovery Channel + game show = Cash Cab
HGTV + crime investigation = Holmes on Homes
HGTV + game show = Property Virgins
Golf Channel + comedy = The Haney Experiment-Charles Barkley
Comedy Central + News = The Daily Show and Colbert
VH1 + Biography = Behind the music
CourtTV + murder mystery = Forensic Files
Playboy Channel + Poker tournament = Sam’s Game
History Channel + the hail Mary pass = Ice Road Truckers (kidding, sort of)

HGTV’s Holmes on Homes is really a crime investigation series disguised as a home fix it show. Holmes plays the “cop” doing a “forensic criminal investigation” of the malpractice done on people’s homes by incompetent contractors. It’s everything a crime show has without the indictment.

Cash Cab and Property Virgins are game shows. Property Virgins has less to do with real estate, and is more about trying to figure out which house the couple will buy.

Forensic Files mixed a murder mystery fictional format with true crime.

The Golf Channel found a celebrity with the worst golf swing imaginable and paired him with Tiger Woods golf coach, and you have a comedy show.

You get the idea.

What research do you do before going into a pitching session

Obviously, you need to watch the network’s programming to be familiar with their schedule and the types of programming they’re doing. You also need to know what the network is looking for. CableU is perfect for that. Literally, one stop shopping.

Networks are often worried the producer won’t have the necessary ‘access’ to produce the show they’re pitching. To pitch something like “Scotland Yards toughest cases” might sound great but will the producer get access to Scotland Yard? I’d recommend researching questions like this before you pitch the show so you’re not caught off guard by a simple question like “can you get in there?”

What advice do you have for upstart producers trying to get their foot in the door?

A network programmer told me that half of their producers miss their production deadlines and/or go over budget. This tells me it’s better for an upstart producer to hook up or partner with a producer/production company with a proven track record until he/she can establish a track record on their own.

What show do you wish you had produced and why?

In terms of trailblazers, I wish I had produced the Ernie Kovacs show (a true genius), American Bandstand & Dragnet. These 3 shows laid the groundwork for many of the shows we see on TV today.

In terms of financial/business return, I’d say Jeopardy, Mash and Cops. The series I’m still impressed by after all these years is Frontline.

What types of shows do you think are most in demand now?

Radio Comedian Fred Allen once said “Imitation is the sincerest form of television.” There’s an awful lot of sincerity on television these days. The networks are all looking for the next new thing, but they all seem to imitate their popular shows and want more just like them.

What types of programs do you wish were in demand now? (or think should be)

What isn’t in demand today? Puppet shows like Howdy Doody is about all I can think of. There’s more sports, classical music, arts, comedy, animation, documentaries, made for TV movies, game shows, home fix it shows, how to’s, religious broadcasting, adult entertainment, true crime, action adventure, real estate, nature, financial news, 24 hour news, international programming being produced now than ever before.

What types of projects interest you most and why?

My favorite projects involve dramatic storytelling, using techniques most commonly used by screenwriters and playwrights’.

How important do you think it is for your show idea to have an online component?

Depends what kind of show you’re doing. The home decorating/fix it shows have a very sophisticated online component. Those websites offer more info than the shows. In other genre’s the online component is little more than promotion.

Where does most of your budget funding come from, if not from the network?

If it’s not from the network, we deficit finance it ourselves.

How often do you attend industry conferences and festivals, and which are most important for your business?

I personally go to Realscreen and sometimes Mip. I don’t find it terribly important to attend many others, although we have a representative who goes to the other big meetings.