CBS’ launch of Survivor in 2000 ushered in the modern- day commercial reality series, a new genre of unscripted television that followed the lives and exploits of ordinary people often placed in extraordinary situations. The series also served as a launching pad for Survivor coexecutive producer Craig Piligian, who would win an Emmy for his work on the show. Over the next 15 years, through his production company, Pilgrim Studios, Piligian would become one of the most prolific and successful developers of reality TV programming. Piligian currently produces more than 45 original unscripted series across 27 networks. The shows feature a diversity of topics and characters ranging from the exploits of an African-American restaurant entrepreneur (OWN’s Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s) to fisticuffs from mixed martial arts competitors (FS1’s The Ultimate Fighter) to the inner workings of a paranormal investigation unit (Syfy’s Ghost Hunters) to more recently a Kardashian-infused, star-studded talk show (FYI’s Kocktails With Khloé).
Not content to sit on his laurels, Piligian this past November delved into the new digital media world, launching more than 10 short-form, unscripted and scripted shows as part of Pilgrim’s newly created 1620 Media. The company also added scripted content to its portfolio with the debut Jan. 25 of Freeform’s (formerly ABC Family) new drama series Recovery Road(see review).
Piligian’s Pilgrim Studios brand is so popular and successful that late last year multimedia company Lionsgate agreed to pay $200 million for a 62.5% stake in the company, aligning Pilgrim with Lionsgate’s worldwide marketing and distribution footprint. This deep resume and a continued push into new programming genres and distribution platforms has earned Piligian Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable’s inaugural Producer of the Year honor.
Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead recently sat down with Piligian to talk about the producer’s vision for Pilgrim Studios, his thoughts about the changing television marketplace and his partnership with Lionsgate in a wide-ranging interview.
An edited version of the interview appears below.
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When you look back at the beginning of your career as a producer, did you ever envision that you would have achieved so much so quickly in a very competitive television environment?
I never would have thought when I started out in reality television that I would ever get to this point. I mean you don’t think that way—you do one show and then another show and you try to compile a good resume, but I never thought I would reach the point that I’m at now. Obviously I’ve hired great people and I have a great team around me—you really can’t do it alone.
Growing up, did you dream of being a television producer?
No. When I grew up you had four channels in Detroit, but you tend to migrate to the things you like, and I like watching old movies. You always kind of think that you can achieve something that isn’t achievable, so eventually I migrated my way to Hollywood. I didn’t know what I was going to do but I knew it was better than Detroit or any place I’d ever been to. I got into TV news and found that I had a knack for the energy of it and making decisions on the fly. There really wasn’t reality TV at the time—there was Cops and that was once a week on Fox.
What was the show that made you really believe you had the talent to be a reality producer?
It was Real Stories of the Highway Patrol in 1991. I was working for Genesis Entertainment at the time, and the show was the first reality syndicated strip show—we did 650 shows over four years. It was really a hard grind, and you learned almost everything you needed to know about production— location, shooting, on the fly, editing quickly—everything you learned. After that there wasn’t really a market. I did a few shows for ABC, but there really wasn’t anything successful until Survivor.
How big was Survivor to not only your career but to the reality genre in general?
It was big. Before I worked on Survivor I started my own company— Pilgrim Films and Television at the time—and did some documentaries for Discovery like Inside the CIA in 1997, before I was introduced to Mark Burnett. He asked me to come aboard Survivor. I was reluctant to do it at the time but I figured I’d take a flyer, and the rest fell into place. If you look back at the landscape of television, Survivor really created it. Survivor created a billion-dollar industry that before didn’t exist. It really built networks and conglomerates and cable divisions—it helped create Discovery and A&E and other cable networks that showcase reality programming. It screamed loudly from the hills that people like this kind of programming.
For me, out of Survivor came American Chopper, American Hot Rod, Dirty Jobs, The Ultimate Fighter, Ghost Hunters, My Fair Wedding With David Tutera. We were able to successfully establish a foothold in the genre. We had some foul balls and struck out at times, but we had a lot of hits. If you’re hitting .333 in this business, you’re doing a great job.
You mentioned a lot of reality shows there, many of them in different programming categories reaching a wide range of viewers. How important was it to you to diversify your programming offerings across different genres?
At the time some people were focused on a particular niche—you’re either creating programming for macho guys or for females. But we decided at an early age in our company’s history to not be a programmer for a particular audience. We wanted to be storytellers no matter who it was targeted to. We were doing My Fair Wedding and Ultimate Fighter and Dirty Jobs With Mike Rowe at the same time—all targeting different audiences. Anytime we saw a good character or a great story we just kept it going. We’re doing Kocktails With Khloé, a talk show on FYI, and we still do Street Outlaws on Discovery and Ghost Hunters—no one thought you could keep a ghost show on the air for 250 episodes and no ghosts. It’s a fun business and fun ride.
As you mentioned you’ve done a lot of shows across a lot of different genres. What you haven’t done are the more salacious reality shows. Is that by design?
I’ve stayed out of the fray of real salacious, heavily directed programming—I don’t like it and it’s not our brand. It’s not spontaneous— the best stuff comes from the people that you cast. Take Wicked Tuna—I couldn’t tell those guys what to say because they’re going to say whatever the f--- they want to say. Look at Ultimate Fighter. I wasn’t going to get [Ultimate Fighter host and Ultimate Fighting Championship president] Dana White to say anything he didn’t want to say. We take the way we do unscripted and apply that methodology to anything we do to every and all genres. It works because it’s honest and truthful and organic to who we cast in the environment.
You’ve also produced programming for as many as 41 different networks. What’s the secret to pleasing such a diverse group of nets with different programming objectives and audience targets?
We have a great development team. We look at a network, see what kind of programming they offer and ask all the right questions to see what they need. You try and be the best partner you can to every single network partner you get. That goes with thought. You’re thoughtful about what their needs are, you’re smart about how you present it to them, and then you’re very diligent. Once they buy it you keep providing what you promised them year after year, season after season. That’s what makes you a good network partner. People don’t always do that, and that’s what makes them a bad network partner. By all accounts we’re a good network partner.
You’ve conquered the reality genre. What drove you to create scripted content like Freeform’s Recovery Road?
You always want to spread your wings and fall out of the tree once in a while because you learn from that. It wasn’t out of boredom, it was more out of seeing if we could compete with the scripted guys, because I’ll tell you it’s tough for the scripted guys to compete in the unscripted market because you have to think smaller, quicker and smarter. We thought we were good with telling stories and we’re good with character, so it took putting the right team together to create a scripted series. It’s a tough business and there’s not a lot of money in it. It takes a long time to build a reputation, so we’re still in our infancy and I think we have a lot of room to grow and expand and learn. We’ve just taken on a great partner in Lionsgate, which has a great scripted series and fi lm division, and we’re hoping that the waterfall will splash down on us and we may be able to experience some of their success in our scripted department.
Speaking of Lionsgate, how important was that deal strategically for Pilgrim?
First of all, they are a great partner. I was asked to the dance by everyone and we were talked to by other companies, and I always said no because I didn’t really feel the partner. From the moment I came into the business I always said I wanted to be like Lionsgate with my company because they were run like us and they had the same mental mindset that we had. Jon Feltheimer is a great CEO and [Lionsgate Television Group chairman Kevin Beggs] runs a division so wonderfully. When they called I said that could really be a good fi t for us. Then when we designed the model and the basic tenants of the relationship of our partnership it worked for me. They saw the company, our management team and what we were about and allowed us to continue doing what we’re doing. They also had things that we didn’t have—they have a big international side that we wanted to partner with, they have digital, they have big scripted and movies that we’re interested in doing. So a lot of the boxes were checked, and the management team at Lionsgate is top notch and they made the deal easy. At the end when both people are happy it means it was a pretty good deal, and it was a surprise to everybody.
As if you didn’t have enough on your plate, Pilgrim this past November delved into the digital arena and created a new company.
We did—1620 Media. That was something that we needed to do. It is not something that is always financially beneficial and doesn’t have a huge financial return, but if you’re going to be in this business in this day and age, you must recognize that digital is here to stay. It’s really crazy—anybody can be a star. Anybody in Iowa can turn a camera or their phones on themselves and tape a minute and 30 seconds of video, post it on the Internet and get 6 million views. You put it on YouTube and advertisers come in and then he or she is making money off that. It used to be a very protected environment where a few people held the secret on how to get on television. Now there are no secrets anymore. It’s there. And anyone can command a worldwide audience of followers on a regular basis. That’s why we got into digital so that we can create our own YouTube content, because that is going to be the wave of the future.
If anybody can be a star and a producer, how do you keep a production company like Pilgrim relevant in a wide-open video arena?
Anybody can be a star, but everyone can’t be a producer. It’s a diff erent set of skills. Being a producer you have to know more than just turning a camera on yourself. You have to be able to think about content and the box that you’re in and about what the audience wants. That is a stage in the player setting for your audience.
Where do you see the business headed over the next few years? Everyone says we’re in the Golden Age of Television but some executives say that there’s too much good television in the marketplace. Do you believe the industry is close to hitting its ceiling?
If you look at Netflix, Amazon Prime—they have great shows and people will pay a subscription to watch Orange Is the New Black or whatever is on those services. If it’s good television, people are going to watch a show however they get it, as long as it’s good content.
If we’re talking a year from now, what will Pilgrim Studios look like?
If we’re having this same conversation next year I hope we expand our growth in digital. We hope to have our next YouTube star create a voice on a digital platform on our own that we can as a company exploit and get people to come to us because we’re saying something important or fun. I hope to have the Ghost Hunters movie going and at least one more scripted series on the air, as well as keep our unscripted business going even bigger because that’s our bread and butter and makes everything else possible. We want to own the world. We’re not here to participate; we’re here to take over and that’s the way we want to play. It’s a dangerous game and we’re willing to be a little dangerous in it.