TITLE: Executive VP, U.S. Reality and Syndicated Programming, Sony Pictures Television
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: After segueing from working as an art therapist and documentary filmmaker, Jacobs started producing commercial daytime TV for ABC Television and Buena Vista Productions. Prior to Sony, she oversaw development and production of unscripted series for Fox Television Studios.
QUOTE: “It’s great when you get to make quality shows where good things also happen to people.”
— Holly Jacobs
One of Holly Jacobs’s first projects when she became executive vice president of U.S. reality and syndicated programming for Sony Pictures Television nearly a decade ago was the launch of Shark Tank for ABC.
The series has become a flagship show for the network and is currently delivering 9.1 million viewers in the United States. Not only have the show’s investors — known as “Sharks” — become celebrities, but many of the businesses they’ve invested in have become multimillion-dollar companies, and reinvigorated the American dream for a younger generation now charged with entrepreneurial aspirations.
But when the show premiered in August 2009, it wasn’t the dreamy hit it would become.
“It started out in the first season, and even in the second season, it didn’t have good ratings, people weren’t aware of it, we fought very hard to keep it on the air,” Jacobs said from her office in Los Angeles. “We had really great partners in ABC who also believed in the vision of the show and the promise of the show and stuck with it to tremendous results.”
She’s since led the charge for the Emmy-winning show and its spinoff, Beyond the Tank (also for ABC), which premiered last May and gives viewers a first look at what happened after deals were made. The show ranked No. 1 in its time period among adults 18-49 and was second among Friday primetime programs in the demographic, behind Shark Tank.
“For eight years,” said Clay Newbill, producer of Shark Tank and Beyond the Tank, “she’s been, every step of the way with us, helping to hone and keep raising that bar, keeping the show fresh and exciting and helping to keep our machine working smoothly.”
TACKLING A ‘PYRAMID’ REBOOT
With these properties, Jacobs and her team have turned Sony’s Reality Programming division into one of the industry’s leading content providers, characterized by its high ratings and creative diversity. The group spearheads SPT’s Emmy-winning The Dr. Oz Show for first-run syndication and is overseeing the summer’s reboot of Sony’s hit property The $100,000 Pyramid, with host and executive producer Michael Strahan.
“Pyramid is really, truly the jewel in the Sony library format crown, and it’s certainly been on the air in many iterations,” Jacobs said. “We knew that the format was worthy of bringing back only if we found an incredible talent to go with it, and I can’t think of anyone more perfectly suited, and such a world-class talent as Michael Strahan — and as it turned out, this is a show he grew up watching and loving.”
Jacobs will also head up the spring launch of S.T.R.O.N.G. (Start to Realize Our Natural Greatness), a new fitness-focused aspirational reality series for NBC by Biggest Loser creator Dave Broome and executive produced by Broome and Sylvester Stallone.
“It’s not just about getting skinny,” she said, “it’s about being strong, psychically, physically, emotional and in every which way, and the show is a reflection of that experience.”
She added: “This is the privilege of my career … to have a national platform for television shows you’re creating, but to be able to have an impact beyond just the making of the show. I’m very mindful that we make television to impact the culture.”
FROM ART THERAPY TO TELEVISION
Jacobs really believes in the transformative power of television — even though a career in TV was not her first choice.
Growing up in New York, “painting was my world,” said Jacobs . Having earned her master’s degree from New York University, she got her first job as an art therapist at Florence Nightingale, a nursing home in New York City.
“When I was there,” she said, “I was so moved by the elders that I was working with. They had incredible stories and I thought, I’m going to make a documentary film for no other reason except that I thought I would do it to maybe make a film to show other graduate students at New York University: Here’s what happens when you’re an art therapist. Here’s what the work looks like.”
The film, Forget Me Not, was showcased at festivals and won awards — and Jacobs went on to more independent documentary filmmaking, eventually landing a job at the now-defunct New York City documentary house CEL Communications , where she worked on series for A&E, Disney Channel and others before moving into network TV.
“So that was really the switch,” she said. “When I talk to people about the journey of my career, it seems like a strange beginning. But the journey has made sense all the way through. I’m a visual person and I’m a storyteller, and I ended up working on everything from Oprah’s first primetime special, to producing daytime talk for Sally Jessy [Raphael ] and then seguing into the executive life.”
It was around then that she met Zack Van Amburg, now president of U.S. programming and production for Sony Pictures Television and her boss — although, at one time, she almost became his boss.
“I was in syndication here at Sony and she was running syndication and daytime stuff over at Buena Vista,” he said. “She called me one day, and we’d had a series of meetings and said, ‘Let’s make amazing television together.’ It was at a moment in time where Sony was expanding and I had an opportunity to launch a cable division, so I didn’t take the leap to work with Holly and I always regretted it. So the minute we had a chance to relaunch what nonscripted television was going to be at Sony, I came calling and begging and pleading and thank goodness, Holly decided to come over. She’s done a tremendous job since she’s been here.”
One of Jacobs’s goals this year is to do more to help bring more women into the executive suite — and part of why she signed up to mentor a 16-year-old girl through The Hollywood Reporter’s Big Sister program.
“I never take for granted the opportunities that have been presented to me,” she said. “They are beyond my wildest imagination, and I want to be able, in every which way that I can, pay it forward.”