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High Noon for Unscripted Television

A top producer of unscripted television looks for what’s trending - a year from now.

Iva-Marie Palmer
  • Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper

    High Noon
  • Buddy Valastro of Cake Boss

    High Noon

Say "home remodel" and many people will tense up: The subject initially sounds like potential stress, not entertainment.

But think about it: What do the home owners want? How much can they spend? Who's in charge? Will it or won't it work out?

Suddenly, you have a show. Or, you do if you're Jim Berger, one of the co-founders of High Noon (with Chief Operating Officer Duke Hartman and Chief Administrative Officer Sonny Hutchison), one of the largest producers of unscripted programming. You have Fixer Upper, HGTV's highest rated show in history, which just wrapped its final season and fostered a spin-off show Wood Work.

Fixer Upper, starring Chip and Joanna Gaines, found the drama at the heart of a home remodel, while inviting viewers into the lives of its stars.

Berger and his team are great at spotting that X factor, with Buddy Valastro in Cake Boss, mother and daughter team Mina Starsiak and Karen E. Laine in Good Bones, and now Von Miller, who headlines Von Miller's Studio 58, a Facebook Watch comedy-variety show that expertly showcases Denver Broncos linebacker Miller (a Super Bowl MVP) and his quirky and entertaining adventures.

Some may think the X factor in Miller's case is his known skills on the field, but few football stars could tackle real-world comedy as Miller does, something Berger and his team were able to suss out.

With 25 pilots in the works, as well as 15 returning shows, including Flip or Flop: Vegas and Ayesha's Homemade, Berger and his team are as busy as ever.

Right now is a time when producers are testing their concepts—from what aspects get most emphasis to whether the music fits. "I can't really reveal too much on the pilots but one show we're excited about is on opening new restaurants. There's another …. that goes into history. … One delves into legends and monsters and another goes into renovating barns on the East Coast," Berger said.

Berger and the High Noon team are able to do such varied topics because they bring the sensibilities of a good journalist (Berger's University of Missouri major and initial calling) to the fore: there's both curiosity and an ability to find the story.

Berger, who spent his first 15 years working in local television, first in news then in local programming, came up, as he put it, when "non-scripted television was moving from the PBS-style documentary programming to the Wild West." He took a job at TCI in Denver (which is now Comcast) – when it was the biggest Multiple System Operator (MSO) in the country, serving 22 million, at the very beginning of channels like HGTV, Food Network and Turner Classic Movies.

At the "epicenter of an explosion of new channels," Berger took the ropes as president of a TCI channel that was a collection of programming from many other channels. Essentially scouring other channels for their best reality TV offerings, he realized after three years – when his channel was no longer needed and he was out of a job – that he knew what executives wanted. So he started his own company to make it himself.

"We started a small company and I was a pitching machine," he said. Though High Noon obviously knows the way to make a hit, Berger said he enjoyed some good timing, too. It's harder now. "If you fast-forward to today, it's extremely difficult. Now these channels are mature, they have lots of inventory, they have limited slots," he said. "It's very different than it was 25 years ago when they were like, 'yes, we need to fill up our prime time and day time and we're ready to go and need some shows.'"

Adaptability and an attentiveness to what's going on is what keeps High Noon able to tap into what the average American will want to watch. Berger also operates out of Colorado, rather than L.A. or New York, which gives him an edge in staying attuned to what viewers in the oft-ignored but very large and important middle of the country want to see.

"[At High Noon], we pay special attention to what's trending and we're really thinking 12 months ahead.

"So it's not what's interesting today because we don't want to pitch and hear,' Jim, are you aware that's already a hit?' [We're] really looking out 12 to 18 months: Where is everyone going to be in property design – are they looking for tiny houses, back to bigger homes, or are they looking for home additions to have their parents or 25-year-olds live with them? What's happening in the food scene? Where are men in 18 months – is the average American male still going to be excited to see guys striking it big finding gold on the edge of the wilderness?"

In other words, for Berger and his team, it's as much about good timing as it is an ability to take the lead.

"The myth is that everyone is chasing that hit all the time but most networks will tell you no we want what's next," he said. spoke to Berger about working in unscripted television and how his team finds the next big thing.

Looking at the wide swath of different things you've done and all the things you have going, where does that come from? How do you cover so much territory and keep so many properties going?

For me personally, I grew up in the Midwest in St. Louis, went to school at University of Missouri, and majored in journalism. I think it begins with the journalism training in Missouri and that I've always had just a natural curiosity about – probably from my local tv news days – real people and the extraordinary within real people.

I connect that with how I've always been fascinated by popular culture. What captures the imagination of the public? Whether it's television, music, movies, fashion. So it's a great fit or me personally because it's a marriage of pop culture with ordinary everyday people. Now it's fantastic as a producer that I'm no longer in news, I can kind of follow what interests me.

And you have a lot of interests, it would seem.

To be clear, it's not me only. We have a development staff of 12 people and they're all ages and male and female, and that's for a reason. I do not just want to produce guy shows for one channel. I have a lot of interests and the people around me have a lot of interests so then it's a matter of saying, we want to produce what captures our imaginations and we're not satisfied with just a narrow niche, we want to capture it all. So we're not just a one-note producer.

When you started the company, you described things as the Wild West, and it seems you could launch shows for channels and almost help build the network and its brand, sometimes producing that network-defining show. Now looking at today, you've made a lot that has captured the zeitgeist. Do you get a sense when something's really going to hit or do you find out along the way?

After 25 years, I have instincts based on two things: One is, the human beings, the talent. I like to think I have a sense of whether they are break-out or not. But the caveat is, you do never know. I've had talent I thought were really good who for whatever reason didn't punch through. Then I've had talent like a Buddy Valastro on Cake Boss, or a Chip and Jo Gaines, Mina and Karen from Good Bones, some of these shows they just punch on through.

Two is, the stories surrounding them. We direct our team in stories, and maybe this comes from all the years in journalism. It's a waste of time to pitch talent in a world where nothing happens. You've got to marry it with something that happens, even a process like making a cake which when you think about it is so process-oriented, and so fascinating - there are 30 steps to making an amazing cake - or renovating a home.

We've done shows on prospectors in the middle of nowhere up in the Colorado mountains and it's so very complicated in what they do. The worlds where we find our talent have to have depth and "gee whiz." It has to [make a viewer say], "I never would have known that. I pass these people on the street every day and who knew what they do is so fascinating, so complicated, has conflict has drama, has so much at stake" If all those things come together - if all those boxes are checked – then, only then, does the show even have a chance of breaking through.

Giving them stakes. So, getting back to the people you cast, with Fixer Upper for example, you didn't audition people, you found the Gaines couple. Can you train people to find them or do the people on your staff have to have those instincts to bring you good people?

Our development team, from the senior executive of development on down, they're all constantly searching and hunting and casting for the next breakout regular person. We put them into different target zones, and we have one person who's always looking for who's breaking through in their industry whether it's chefs, property designers, it could be survivalists, comedians, all different areas. We're constantly looking.

Those people on our development staff, if you said, 'What makes a great development person in some way?' I'd say they need to be smart, super-curious, know story and need to conversely understand the marketplace so well that everything they're looking for can fit and be produced for someone.

They need to understand what TLC is programming right now, what Discovery is interested in. Or Home and Garden Television, what are they interested in today, are there new formats they're looking at, are they interested in homes that are renovated or built from the ground up? Good, strong development people need to understand the marketplace because if you don't, you're developing for a buyer that may not be out there.

So you need to know there's a place where this can exist and hopefully be successful. You can't be making it for yourself. Is there a moment when you have a sense about people when you know they'll punch through – you seem able to find people who are that perfect mix of relatable but also aspirational.

It's really hard. Let's take an example of Fixer Upper. Two things on Fixer Upper: Our VP of Development Katie Neff, she's the one that found Chip and Jo. She found them in social media somewhere, I can't recall where, their Magnolia Homes site. We reached out, looked at a clip of Magnolia Homes and sent a crew down.

There was a wonderful scene when we were shooting with Joanna and, nothing staged, Chip drove up in his truck hauling an old boat and jumped out of his truck all excited like a little kid and said, "I just bought this online." We just rolled and she walked around, didn't say a word and you could kind of see where it was going. They had a wonderful scene together and it was clear that they were a couple very in love and that they had a special chemistry. He just adored her. That scene was just special.

Then when we started shooting the show, we started shooting funny stuff, outtakes almost, interviews with them where they're standing side-by-side and he was just being goofy. We convinced the network to let us use these outtakes within the show… and it was clear to viewers that this was an authentic, normal couple and those are the best kind of people on TV.

They don't care what they look like, they don't think about what they're saying. It's almost like they don't care if the camera is there or not. If that happens, much like a Buddy Valastro on Cake Boss, that's when I think you have the beginnings of a potential breakout hit.

It's like they're doing their jobs, not being TV stars. They're more passionate about what they're doing, than their image so to speak. They want to get that creative project right, which is interesting to people: That peek at how stuff really happens. As to how you make your work happen, what advice do you have for people interested in pursuing a career in unscripted television?

In order to succeed in the non-fiction or alternative side, you need to make sure you're intensely curious about every thing around you and also that whatever you're curious about, you make sure millions of others are, too. If you're pursuing something that's interesting to you only and your friends could care less, that won't work.

And then I'd say to people who want to get into the business, if you have those attributes be prepared to get in and spend five to 10 years at the lowest level, learning everything you can and then marry it all together. I've seen too many people who want to go right to the network, pitch them the next big idea and then, guess what, five years later, I run into those people and they have not worked a day in the business because they don't want to get in and figure it out.