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HRTS Panel: Managing Reality Talent is a 'Dance to Play'

'Duck Dynasty' Producer Discusses Salary Standoff with A&E Hit's Cast 3/27/2013 6:11 PM Eastern

A panel of unscripted producers at Hollywood Radio & Television Society's Non-Scripted Hitmakers event Wednesday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles discussed one of the toughest aspects of maintaining a hit show -- managing the talent.

"You want everything to be successful, and then when it gets successful you have more problems that go along with it," said Craig Piligian, president and CEO of Pilgram Studios, which produces such shows as Syfy's Ghost Hunters and History's Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy, adding that it's a "dance to play."

"It's not a big problem, but then it becomes a big problem," continued Piligian. "You have to deal with your talent; they're going to want a lot more money." The panel was moderated by B&C editor-in-chief Melissa Grego,

Deidre Gurney, who runs Gurney Productions and which produces Duck Dynasty, is currently dealing with some of those exact problems with the stars of the A&E hit, which is currently in the middle of a salary standoff. She is confident, though, that a deal will get done.

"It's going to get done, but there are a lot of factors at play." One of those factors is social media. "They want immediate feedback about themselves... one negative Tweet really worries [them]." The other roadblock is that the stars know they can make more money through outside endeavors.

The key is to remind them of what got them famous in the first place, the panelists emphasized. "It's easy to forget that the show is what leads them to all the other opportunities," Gurney said.

She said one challenge in the business is out-pricing yourself, because negotiations first happen when the show is doing really well. "You know it won't stay there forever."

Philip Segal, CEO and executive producer of Original Productions, seconded that notion, stating that the talent cost of his company's reality series Storage Wars: LA is actually higher than its production cost. "At a certain point there is a tipping point," he said. "The network has to look at it and say 'what is the value of this show?'"

Gurney added that it's been difficult to see the Robertson family -- who run the Duck Commander company on which the show is centered around -- go through it.  But she rests on the relationship she has built with them: "If they trust you, you can help them through it."

One way Gurnery thinks contract issues could be resolved in the future is through ratings bonuses, something she hopes will one day become the norm. . "I love this model," she said. "When a show blows up, the stars benefit. If not, they don't feel cheated." When asked if Duck Dynasty has such a model, she was noncommittal.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen with the show when it goes on the air," added Segal. He said one of the chief causes for talent squabbles is that as soon as the network sees the show's successful, it puts the talents' faces on billboards and other promotional things, "and then they [the network] want to know why they're [the cast] a problem."

Segal also pointed out that the types of people who resonate with audiences are not always the most stable. "They're genuinely crazy," he said. "That's what makes them magnetic."

Dana White, president, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), is thankful he doesn't have to deal with many of the talent problems in the same the way the others do, mainly because they are already locked into their deals.

He said the FX reality series The Ultimate Fighter is filmed well in advance, and that's not until months later when the show airs that things can get tricky.

"As soon as that thing airs, then it gets weird," said White. "Everywhere they go, people recognize them and start asking them for autographs and pictures."

White also touched on another hot topic during the discussion: where they see the reality business heading. For White, he sees UFC's growth coming from the fairer gender, with the upcoming season of Ultimate Fighter featuring two women coaches and fighters. "I never thought that women would fight in the UFC," he said. "That's how big the sports has grown." 

White also recalled the chirps he heard from those in the industry who thought the UFC was not a worthwhile investment. "When we bought the UFC [for $2 million], people thought it was the dumbest purchase in the history of the world."

Eli Holzman, president of All3Media America, talked about the benefits of smaller, independent companies partnering with larger ones. "As our business booms, if you have the ability to identify and grab or take the best people in the business, then you have an advantage," he said, arguing that smaller companies can have too much to handle.

"A strategic partner like that can be very beneficial, but you have to learn how to work with them," said Segal, whose own company recently partnered with FremantleMedia. "It gives you this opportunity to really have a global reach," he said. "Fremantle has really allowed us to continue to do all the kinds of things you can't do as a small independent."

Piligian, for his part, likes the freedom of not having to answer to corporate bosses: "I like staying independent. I think you work harder as an independent"

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