A dinner out inspires a magical reality hit.
Are you a producer looking for a hit?
Take a tip from Craig Plestis: pay attention to where you go for dinner. It's a lesson the former head of unscripted programming at NBC learned last year when he took his wife and daughter out in their suburban L.A. neighborhood.
"I could have had Indian food that night, or Mexican or Italian, and if I had, I wouldn't be talking to you now," he says, laughing.
Instead, they chose a Thai place, where his daughter urged him to turn around and check out a singer on TV wearing a pleather kangaroo outfit. That chance sighting of the South Korean reality competition series The King of Mask Singer led Plestis to acquire the format for his company, Smart Dog Media, and to transform it into Fox's mega-hit The Masked Singer.
The format suggests a melding of Dancing with the Stars with The Voice and a hefty dose of LSD. Singing celebrities compete while disguised as creepy monsters, unicorns, aliens and other oddities. When it debuted in January, this fever dream of a series scored the highest-rated reality debut in seven years; its second season has been confirmed.
Plestis is pleased but hardly surprised. He knew from the instant he saw the pleather kangaroo that The Masked Singer had the same elements that had catapulted his NBC series — like America's Got Talent, Deal or No Deal and The Biggest Loser — to the top.
"Part of the magical elixir of formats, especially for broadcast shows, is having a spectacle," says Plestis, whose company is housed at reality giant Endemol Shine North America.
"It has to be larger than life, and it taps into proven formats in a fresh way. What gives Masked Singer that flypaper element are the unusual costumes, but also the gameplay. It harks back to the '50s, when celebrity judges would guess someone's talent or specialty."
Also essential: a high level of secrecy. At tapings, the singing celebrities wear cloaks, masks and gloves to conceal their identities whenever they leave their dressing rooms and are always accompanied by security.
"Once you let the secret out, you lose the magic," Plestis explains. "We probably had more people on our security detail than we had working on the whole rest of the show. And that was even before the show was on anyone's radar." Now that the secret of his Singer success is out, dinnertime really has changed for Plestis. Consider his recent trip to Korea:
"A few broadcasters knew how I'd found Masked Singer, so they were conspiring to take me into different restaurants and putting their show formats up on the televisions," he says. "It just shows how good it is to get out and see what life has to offer. I still feel lucky I decided to have Thai food that night."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019