From ‘Real Housewives’ to the ‘Living Dead:’ A reality TV pioneer on 20 years in the business of unscripted drama

Date: Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Hilary Burns, Bizwomen Reporter

A handful of strangers are put on a remote island with limited supplies and food. Young women compete for a bachelor’s hand in marriage. Celebrities pair with professional dancers to compete for ballroom dancing stardom.

Reality TV has exploded into an industry that transcends channels and genres. But 20 years ago, it was a strange concept that had not yet taken hold. That’s when Glenda Hersh got her start, telling nonfiction stories in creative ways long before the trend.

Hersh is the co-founder and co-president of True Entertainment — the company responsible for “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and Stacy London‘s new show, “Love, Lust or Run.” An investigative journalist by training, she saw the staying power of telling true stories in an entertaining way. People told her reality television was a “fad,” but Hersh refused to listen. First, she founded a company with her business partner, Steven Weinstock, that was later acquired by The New York Times, becoming NYT Television. Then, in 2000, she founded True Entertainment, based in New York. In the 15 years since, Hersh has created shows such as Animal Planet’s “Too Cute” and Bravo’s “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes” and watched them take off. She’s also seen her share of failures — shows that for one reason or another fell off the air, months of hard work and millions of dollars later.

“I don’t think any of us could imagine how big and broad and ubiquitous it’s become,” Hersh said. “It’s not going anywhere. Everyone agrees now that this is a kind of storytelling and entertainment that is here for good.”

In a recent interview with Bizwomen, Hersh talked about the evolution and future of reality TV, as well as the moments of humility in her career. Here’s a look:

 Telling a story is telling a story’

Hersh started her career as a print journalist. She covered Mexico and the wars of Central America for United Press International and was also a Washington correspondent for Agence France-Presse.

Then she decided to leave print.

“I saw the industry shifting,” Hersh said. “Newspapers were closing. Opportunities were narrowing. So I decided at that point to go back to school, to Columbia, and refocus my career.”

She studied visual media at Columbia University and found the transition from written word to video camera pretty simple.

“In the end, telling a story is telling a story,” Hersh said. “I made the transition first to news. There was no reality back then.”

She went to work for ABC News’ ”Good Morning America” before leaving to start her own company, which became The New York Times-owned NYT Television. There, Hersh developed “Trauma: Life in the ER,” “Police Force” and “Paramedics.” Her shows were nominated for five Emmy awards.

In the ER

The idea came from a trip to the emergency room. Hersh’s friend had fallen down the stairs, so there she was, sitting in a Philadelphia ER all night long.

The drama was already there — emergencies, distressed characters, tension — and it made Hersh think. What if she could tell the story of an emergency room through multiple points of view? The stories would all be true, and they would feature real-life characters and different perspectives. She thought it could work.

Hersh and her team created a pilot episode of “Trauma: Life in the ER” and pitched it to TLC. The network loved it and ordered the pilot, which debuted in 1997 as a “raging success.” TLC then ordered 12 more shows, then 12 more. It became an Emmy-winning series.

Hersh went on to create a number of reality series after “Trauma: Life in the ER” as she grew her company (called Video News International before the New York Times acquired it). Highlights include ESPN’s “The Season” and TLC’s “Police Force,” “Paramedics” and “Maternity Ward.”

“That was the bread and butter of what we did,” Hersh said. “Tell great stories and tell them in a creative way. Nonfiction, factual — reality TV that felt like fiction. I think that was something that really resonated with both of us.”

Before long, Hersh had bigger plans in the nonfiction TV space. So she and her business partner left NYT Television (which was 100 percent owned by the Times at that point) to launch True Entertainment in 2000.

“The vision when we first created True Entertainment was to create a company that told great stories, that could keep redefining what nonscripted TV could be,” Hersh said. “A company that could be on the cutting edge of what people are watching and wanting to watch.”

A money saver

The timing was right for Hersh to pursue a career in the nonfiction TV space. The entertainment industry as a whole was going through a transitional period. Networks were still recovering from the introduction of cable and VCR players in the 1980s, which fragmented the major networks’ audiences.

Networks were in need of less expensive ways to produce shows, and reality TV fit the bill. With lower production costs and a lack of big-name stars, reality shows are less expensive to create than scripted TV shows, according toHowStuffWorks.

Hersh agreed, noting that there are exceptions (scripted shows done on a budget or the over-the-top reality show), but for the most part, it’s faster and cheaper to produce reality.

Some numbers that illustrate her point: The BBC reported in August that the three main characters in the show “The Big Bang Theory,” were guaranteed to earn $72 million each over the next three seasons. On the other hand, The Hollywood Reporter reported that the family from TLC’s reality hit “Honey Boo Boo” earnedbetween $2,000 and $4,000 per episode.

Growing True Entertainment

In the early days, Hersh rolled up her sleeves to lift True Entertainment off the ground. It was a startup — the support systems and mechanisms were not yet in place — so she did much of the work herself.

As the company grew and the term “reality TV” became commonplace, Hersh was able to focus more on what is most important to her — developing and selling shows. Today True Entertainment has about 25 full-time employees, but that number increases to a couple hundred, depending on the number of shows the company has going. The company declined to comment on revenue.

True Entertainment shows range in topic from one about a soap opera to a look into Vanity Fair’s greatest stories to “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.”

“We’ve always been really open to doing a big range of shows,” Hersh said. “We never wanted to get pegged as ‘they’re the people who do X,’ or ‘they can only do Y.’”

When asked if she ever worries about the quality of a show like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” given her journalistic background, Hersh said that there is a place for all kinds of stories.

“To me, it’s all about great storytelling,” Hersh said. “I don’t believe there is one kind of storytelling that is better than another.”

At the end of the day, she explained, it’s most important for a show to have strong characters in an interesting situation. That’s what makes a hit.

‘Teflon skin’

But even when shows do have compelling plots with dynamic characters, success is never guaranteed.

Television, Hersh explained, is a tumultuous industry — one that requires optimism and thick skin.

“There is a lot of humility in this business,” Hersh said. “For every hit and great idea, there are 100 ideas and 10 shows that just don’t make it, and it’s hard sometimes. You care very passionately about a show. You think it’s great, and it just doesn’t get the numbers. Sometimes it’s not because it’s not a great show, it’s the wrong network. There are a million different reasons for why something did not hit. You learn to have Teflon skin.”

Recently, for example, True Entertainment created a show for the SyFy Channel called “Town of the Living Dead.”

“It’s a great show about people in a small town in Alabama trying to make a zombie movie,” Hersh said. “The whole town is involved. They all rallied behind these amateurs as they attempted to finish the movie.”

Hersh said it had the makings of a hit show — a unique situation with funny characters and an intimate setting. But viewers disagreed. IMDb users gave the show a 4.4 rating out of 10. It fell off the air.

“Everyone was surprised, from us to the network to the cast members. Everyone thought we were on a hit,” Hersh said. “You just don’t know. You just make the show as best you can and make it passionately and then see what happens. It just happens sometimes. No one can predict what’s going to work. Ultimately that’s what makes the business so exciting, so fun and full of surprises.”

On the other end of the spectrum, some shows become hits unexpectedly — “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” for example. It was doing well, but after a couple years, it really took off. Today it’s still one of the company’s biggest hits.

“It was like finding out you have free dessert after you’ve eaten dinner,” Hersh said. “It was awesome. I had no idea it was coming.”

Back to the roots

So what’s next for reality TV? Hersh said that viewers want authenticity. They want to know that the characters and situations are real. And the shift in delivery — with different options for consuming TV becoming increasingly popular — won’t have much of an effect on the genre itself, Hersh said.

“I don’t believe that affects the storytellers,” she said. “People always need great stories to be told, whether that’s through VHS, cable. If it’s a story, people will watch it.”

As for True Entertainment, Hersh wants to see it grow and hopes to take on more challenging projects.

Her personal dream reality show?

“I would do it about the wine business,” Hersh said. “I don’t think it would be popular, but I would really like it. It’s a complicated, cutthroat business full of crazy characters, great stories and lots of history. Good, juicy things that make for fabulous stories.”