From shareable Snacks to commando comedy, truTV forges a new direction and identity.
It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a small army of production assistants to pull off the truTV hit Billy on the Street.
Host Billy Eichner has been known to run for miles during a day of shooting on the streets of Manhattan, barging into the personal space of unsuspecting New Yorkers while asking odd questions ("Would you have sex with Paul Rudd?") for cash and prizes (usually a dollar bill) — often followed by overreactions from Eichner.
"The unsung heroes are the production assistants," says executive producer Mike Farah. They're usually about 15 strong, trailing behind Eichner and making sure all participants sign a release form. "A few seasons ago, some P.A. followed a rabbi all the way to his temple in the Bronx to get him to sign the release," Farah recalls. "They're remarkably successful."
Billy on the Street was just the kind of distinctive comedy that Chris Linn was hoping to develop when he left MTV in August 2013 to run truTV (formerly known as Court TV, it was renamed in 2008). Linn's mandate as the new president was to get some distance from the drama of former network hosts Nancy Grace and Jesse Ventura.
"Billy on the Street really felt aligned with our DNA," Linn says. "[Billy] was a distinct talent, he had a strong point of view, he had a unique execution and he was building a very strong following."
It took nearly a year to convince Eichner that moving his show from Fuse to the rebranded truTV was a good idea. He wasn't alone in his skepticism.
"It was a challenge at first for people to understand the new direction," Linn admits, "because we were so defined by reality in the past."
But nearly three years after his arrival, the network has hit its stride. Viewer median age has dropped from 43 to 33, and advertisers are happy — the network has seen a 19 percent growth among viewers 18 to 34 and an even larger rise — 25 percent — among men of the same age.
That is thanks largely to prank shows like The Carbonaro Effect, Fameless and Impractical Jokers, the lone holdover hit from the pre-Linn era.
"The challenge is to reinvent the prank space so it doesn't feel derivative and repetitive," he says.
TruTV has also expanded into new formats with shows like Hack My Life and Adam Ruins Everything, which are part of the network's "brain candy" development bucket — shows that deliver humor, "but also shareable takeaways," Linn says. "That's important because we all need our audiences evangelizing for us. And we know they like to share unique comedic contests."
To crank up the shareable content, the network also recently premiered Rachel Dratch's Late Night Snack, a weekly half hour with rotating short-form content produced exclusively for the network. Among the offerings: Passive Aggressive History, Celebrity Storytelling and Alec Baldwin's Love Ride, in which the actor offers relationship advice from the back of a limo.
Linn sees Snack as an ideal place to incubate talent, establish relationships and test ideas for long-form possibilities. “If not," Linn says, "then this is the perfect home for them. And we can use them across digital and social [media]."
The truTV reset seems to be working for audiences and creatives alike,
"They've been incredible to work with," says Krysia Plonka, an executive producer on Those Who Can't, the network's first scripted comedy.
With her producing partner, Tracey Baird (Flight of the Conchords), she has a few yet-to-be-announced projects brewing at the network. A comedy veteran who got her start on Mr. Show two decades ago, Plonka calls Those Who Can't "the best experience of my entire career."
For Linn, the network strategy is can-do. "A lot of networks will rebrand — then they rebrand again, then again," he says. "But we've stayed true to what we say we're going to do. So now people believe that this is going to continue. Because it is."