In Depth

Smith & Co. Expands Reach

Producer Inks Deal With Cupcake Brown

The producer of "Hell's Kitchen" is getting into the Cupcake business.

A. Smith & Co. has signed a series development deal with Cupcake Brown, the crack addict turned lawyer, motivational speaker and best-selling author. The alternative-production powerhouse is looking to build a reality show concept around Ms. Brown.

The deal with Ms. Brown is part of a packed slate of existing and future projects in the works at A. Smith, the Los Angeles-based production shop that has turned into an alternative-TV powerhouse for founders Arthur Smith and Kent Weed.

The company is preparing to launch the second season of ABC's "I Survived a Japanese Gameshow" later this month, while the same network has also ordered the competition series "Crash Course" for later this summer. Its A. Smith Company Properties unit, headed by Frank Sinton, has helped the company dramatically expand its cable operations with shows such as "Pros Vs. Joes" for Spike and "Trading Spaces" for TLC.

And then there's the "Hell's Kitchen" franchise.

"It's become this great ride for us," Mr. Smith said of the Gordon Ramsay-anchored brand, which is produced in conjunction with ITV Studios. "Nobody knew that it was going to be as big as it has become. When we started, the novelty of reality shows was starting to fade."

Indeed, Fox can't seem to stop dining in Mr. Smith's "Kitchen," which wrapped its fifth cycle last month. Another season will start up in July, with season seven already in the can for a 2010 premiere.

The original series has been supplemented by "Kitchen Nightmares," a successful spinoff in which Mr. Ramsay tries to help struggling eateries whip themselves into shape. And in November, the network plans to extend the brand further with a live cook-along-with-Gordon special.

Mr. Smith, who possesses the reality-producer gene for promotion, said season six of "Hell's" is nothing less than "phenomenal."

"It's the most intense season we've had yet," he said. "In some ways the last season was our comedy season. Season six is different."

Mr. Smith is nearly as upbeat about the sophomore season of "I Survived a Japanese Gameshow," which just won the Rose D'Or best of 2009 award for best reality program.

"It's one of those shows you work really hard on, and sometimes we wonder if anyone appreciates this," Mr. Smith laughs, adding that the Rose D'Or award is a nice validation of his staff's efforts on the ABC series.

"I Survived" is actually two shows in one. Half of the show is a traditional reality soap, capturing the drama of Americans living in the alien culture of Japan. The other appeal of the series comes from American contestants attempting to compete in over-the-top Japanese games ("Big Bug Splat on Windshield," anyone?).

Mr. Smith said season two of "I Survived" will depart from the show's first year. "The novelty is gone, so we really have to push it," he said. "We have to make all of it bigger and better."

That means contestants will likely play at least one more Japanese game show in each episode. Time spent following the contestants off-stage might be cut back, Mr. Smith hinted. The show's episode count has also been increased, up to 10 hours (versus last summer's seven-episode run).

"I'm so happy we got a second season," Mr. Smith said. "The first season was so hard, it was almost impossible. The whole show is a test of international relations."

In addition to his network projects, Mr. Smith has expanded his company's production capacity with the launch of A. Smith Company Properties, the unit devoted to cable projects. Mr. Smith said bringing on Mr. Sinton to run the unit was key to quality control.

"We were turning down cable work because we didn't have the time," Mr. Smith said. "We had to increase our capacity, so we brought in Frank. It lets us be a big boutique."

While Mr. Smith spends most of his time working on network projects, A. Smith Company Properties "will probably do nine or 10 shows" this year, Mr. Smith said.

"We have three shows at Tru, two shows at Spike, and projects for Travel, BET, Discovery and TV One," he said. "I would have never been able to do all this if we hadn't gone to Frank."

At Tru, Mr. Smith has teamed with producers Michael Braverman and Barry Bloom for "Conspiracy Theory," a project that will be hosted and produced by Jesse Ventura.

A. Smith & Co. is also developing the "Dummies for Life" books into a potential syndicated series.

As for the deal with Cupcake Brown, Mr. Smith is, true to reality-producer fashion, mum on details. "But we have an idea that's based on overcoming," he said. "She'll be working with people who are in trouble and getting them over it."

The tentative title for Ms. Brown's project is "House Arrest."

"In a society where tragedy has the ability to overtake an individual's life course, we feel strongly that her narrative will translate well to television," Mr. Smith said.

Ms. Brown's dramatic life story, documented in her Oprah-approved memoir, "A Piece of Cake," has possibilities beyond the reality TV arena, Mr. Smith said.

"This will be a movie one day," he said, noting that A. Smith & Co. has purchased the life rights to Ms. Brown's saga.

Mr. Smith, like many reality producers, is hoping his company will be able to expand into scripted projects. A. Smith has a scripted development deal at Fox Broadcasting and is already working on one idea at the network, Mr. Smith said.

"We're good at telling real stories," he explained. "Now we're going to try to do it in a dramatic fashion."

Mr. Smith said he also has another "half dozen shows in the closet that we don't talk about it." His challengeis getting shelf space on broadcast and cable networks, many of which these days seem content to keep expanding current concepts to almost ridiculous lengths (see VH1's "Daisy of Love").

That's one reason Mr. Smith is so upbeat about the return of "I Survived a Japanese Game Show" to ABC. While not a breakout hit last summer, the network saw enough potential in the concept to renew it--a display of patience Mr. Smith believes needs to be repeated at other networks if the unscripted genre is to continue flourishing.

"Networks have to give shows that are doing modest ratings a chance to come back," he said. "You have to take risks. Viewers are really discerning now. I don't think they're going to keep falling for the same rhythms."