Cover Story: Cable TV's Hit Man

5/31/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

In this crowded and difficult television programming environment, most producers would call getting a single show on the air a success, never mind a run of several successful seasons. And getting two or three hits at a time would be a rare feat indeed.

But in the cable reality-programming arena, one prodigious producer stands out: Craig Piligian. His production company, Pilgrim Films and Television, has its fingerprints on 21 reality series that have launched or will launch in 2009 on eight different cable networks.

Pilgrim Films and TelevisionThe 51-year-old Piligian, also an early co-producer of CBS's long-running Survivor, has been able to ring up millions of viewers for his shows, as well as a substantial repeat business from his network partners. He's achieved this by telling compelling stories featuring mostly amateur talent that target the core audiences of the networks he's working with.

Piligian harbors a unique talent for taking the mundane stories of everyday people and turning them into dramatic, must-see TV. In 2001, he saw the inherent drama in a family-run, New York-based custom motorcycle workshop and decided to create a reality show based on their experiences. American Chopper, which revolved around Paul Teutul Sr. and his son “Junior,” proved to be a major hit initially for Discovery Channel, and now for TLC.

In 2005, Piligian plucked a relatively unknown personality named Mike Rowe to star in a TV series that examines some of the most thankless and disgusting jobs in the country. Four years later, Dirty Jobs is one of Discovery Channel's most successful shows, averaging 1.3 million viewers.

Piligian also muscled his way into developing Ultimate Fighter for Spike TV, based on a combat-sports organization run by two Las Vegas casino owners. Now the male-targeted network's most watched show, the series has averaged 1.8 million viewers and, more importantly, more than 1 million young male viewers aged 18 to 34 over its nine-season run.

And after reading an article in The New York Times about two plumbers moonlighting as paranormal investigators, he made Ghost Hunters Sci Fi Channel's most popular reality series. In its fifth season, the show is averaging nearly 3 million viewers — more than double the 1.3 million it drew in its freshman season.

It's an impressive run for the tall, slender Detroit native. The married father of two recognized early on the ratings and revenue potential of the reality genre, creating such long-running reality fare as Emergency Call and Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, both of which had long syndication runs.

“At the time, stations were looking for low-cost, high-volume television, which we believed that could be done through the reality shows,” said Piligian.

While Piligan has produced reality series with nine different cable networks, he's been most prolific for Discovery Networks, the first cable programmer to sign with Pilgrim in the mid-1990s. After producing several CIA-related docu-reality series for Discovery Channel, his big break came in 2001 with the launch of American Chopper. Piligian's company now boasts 300 employees.

“The very first big show was American Chopper and it was perfect programming for what we wanted to develop, which was low-cost, high-volume reality television that's all about character and integrity,” Piligian said. “What [the Teutuls] do is make people go, 'Wow, that's interesting,' because they're doing something of interest for our viewers.”

Over its six-year run, American Chopper has averaged more than 1.2 million viewers for Discovery and TLC, which picked up the series from its corporate sibling in 2007.

“He's able to collaborate with networks and tell relateable stories with relevant characters and authentic situations and create content that works,” said Discovery Networks senior vice president of production and development Gena McCarthy, who has worked on nine different reality shows with Piligian for Discovery Networks over the past five years.

But Discovery and Piligian haven't always met eye to eye: Piligian admits that he was adamantly against Discovery's move of American Chopper to TLC in 2007 — part of an overall programming revamp for Discovery — and fought hard against the shift. “I felt Chopper should have stayed on Discovery Channel, but the fact that it's on TLC, we changed the creative to fit that network and it shows — this season we've gone up in the ratings and hopefully it maintains.”

Discovery's McCarthy confirmed that Piligian has “very strong opinions” regarding his shows, but adds, “I think he trusts the network, so it's a collaboration between us,” she said.

In fact, McCarthy continues to rely on Piligian to create hit programming for the network's stable of channels. He's already developed shows for Science Channel (Build It Bigger: Rebuilding Greensburg); Planet Green (Greensburg); TLC (American Chopper); and, of course, Discovery Channel (Dirty Jobs).

“The hallmark of good, successful producers is that they're versatile — they can create strong viewership and perform on a widely diverse [range] of networks,” she said. “He's one of the few that does have a track record in that area.”

For Piligian, creating such venerable ratings hits is just the tip of the iceberg. While other producers would be content with strong viewership numbers, Piligian says his goal is to build recognizable television brands that resonate with viewers beyond the networks they air on.

“They're not just TV shows at the end of the day — they're brands for the people we're in business with,” Piligian said. “Mike Rowe was an on-air TV presenter before we ran into him and created a Mike Rowe brand with Dirty Jobs. When people say Mike Rowe, they know the brand he's created and they know that brand is tied to Discovery.”

And Piligian has proven he's not afraid to tackle some touchy and controversial brands. He initially approached two Las Vegas-based casino owners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, about creating a reality series about the rough-and-tumble world of legal casinos. But it was another business that the Fertitta brothers had — the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed-martial-arts franchise — that caught Piligian's keen development eye, according to UFC president and co-founder Dana White.

Despite negative publicity surrounding the UFC and mixed martial arts at the time — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) once referred to the sport as human cockfighting — Piligian decided to get into the ring with the Fertitta brothers and create a series pitting several up-and-coming UFC fighters living under one roof against each other in a week-to-week elimination tournament.

That was the beginning of the Ultimate Fighter, now Spike TV's No. 1 show. The current season of UFC — a faceoff between U.S. and United Kingdom mixed martial artists — is averaging a hefty 1.6 million viewers.

Indeed, White — who also hosts the series — said the UFC franchise, which will distribute its 100th pay-per-view event in July, would not be where it is without Piligian, Spike TV and Ultimate Fighter.

“He's a partner, he acts like and partner and he's probably the best partner we've ever had,” said White. “In my opinion he's the best reality show producer on television — he's aggressive and he knows what he's doing.”

White said part of Ultimate Fighter's success is that Piligian puts the real in reality, allowing the action to flow seamlessly without staging or crafting situations to help draw ratings.

“You never have to watch the Ultimate Fighter and wonder if the action is contrived,” White said. “He lets the action run its course. I'm no actor, but the great part of doing the reality show is that he lets me be me.”

While Piligian may let his reality shows imitate real life, he's never too far from the action. Piligian said he makes a point to remain an integral part of the day-to-day operations of all of his reality series, however grueling and time-consuming that may be.

“Think about all the shows that he produces, and yet he's at every fight for the Ultimate Fighter,” White said. “He's an animal — an absolute lunatic — he's very aggressive and very good at what he does.”

Discovery's McCarthy said she's on the phone with Piligian “three to five times a day” talking through various series developments. Piligian even stepped from behind the camera to get his hands “dirty” creating custom car wheels in an unaired episode of Dirty Jobs that's available on iTunes.

Piligian, who said he gets “enough sleep,” says being integrally involved in each show is imperative to building strong relationships with his network partners.

“You have to remain involved in all the shows — when they call with a concern they call me. If I say, 'I don't know,' that doesn't go over too well,” he said. “We're involved on a daily basis with the networks.”

It's his innate attention to detail that places him in a producer's league all his own. Sci Fi Channel's Ghost Hunters has been so popular that it's spurred several competitors on such networks as A&E and VH1. But Sci Fi executive vice president of original programming Mark Stern said Piligian's diligent work ethic and attention to detail on the show even now five seasons into the series has kept Ghost Hunters at the top of the paranormal genre.

“I think you can see people who have tried to duplicate Ghost Hunters, but they don't match up,” Stern said. “Craig makes it look so easy, people think they are easy and they're not, and eventually I think a lot of folks learn that the hard way.”

So what's next for a producer that already has 21 series on the air or in production? More shows, of course. Piligian said he's developing four more original reality series for 2010, although he would not reveal specific details. He's also working on his first scripted show — a pilot script for Sci Fi Channel tentatively titled Blue Trace that's set in the paranormal world.

“You can't just rest your reputation on one show … you have to be able to do and repeat that formula over and over again. We're going to strike out — that's a given — but hopefully when we get up to the plate we hit more doubles and triples than we foul balls off or strike out.”

Craig Piligian-produced reality series currently on the air or slated to launch this year:

Series Network Season*
*Some series have more than one season during a calendar year.
SOURCE: Pilgrim Films and Television
The Ultimate FighterSpike TV10
American ChopperTLC6
Ghost HuntersSci Fi Channel5
Dirty JobsDiscovery Channel4
Street CustomsTLC2
GreensburgPlanet Green2
Destroyed In SecondsDiscovery Channel2
My Fair WeddingWE TV2
Ghost Hunters InternationalSci Fi Channel2
Doing DaVinciDiscovery Channel1
Out of the Wild: The Alaska ExperimentDiscovery Channel1
Inside the FBIDiscovery Channel1
Extreme PerilDiscovery Channel1
Swamp LoggersDiscovery Channel1
Extreme LoggingDiscovery Channel1
Ice LoggingDiscovery Channel1
Wedding Cake WarsWE TV1
The MediumsTLC1
The Scott Hamilton ProjectTLC1
Man vs. CartoonTruTV1
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