Business Booming for Reality Reps

Mar 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In December 2004 William Morris Agency announced that Mark Itkin, executive VP and worldwide head of syndication, cable and nonfiction programming, would head TV operations and take on additional responsibilities, putting him in the top echelons of the agency’s power structure.

Mr. Itkin, a seasoned and respected representative, is just one of many talent agents whose careers have skyrocketed along with the reality programming boom. At talent firms across Hollywood, agents who have made careers representing reality clients have become high-profile players in their companies, while the “alternative” departments that they manage have been growing by leaps and bounds.

Both midsize agencies like Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann and larger firms such as United Talent Agency and Creative Artists Agency have been bolstering their alternative ranks. In February, Endeavor gave partner stripes to Sean Perry, a former King World Productions executive who built the agency’s alternative business.

In fact, insiders say the influence of top-rated shows such as CBS’s “Survivor” and Fox’s “American Idol” has impacted the agency business as much, if not more, than it has affected prime-time schedules.

“It’s a big part of our business,” said John Ferriter, senior VP and head of network alternative packaging for the William Morris Agency.

Reality television is not new. A host of shows have performed for broadcast and cable networks and syndicators for years but were low-profile and not big, sexy moneymakers or huge cultural phenomena. Rather, they often played as specials and stunts used to fill troubled time slots.

But in 1999 ABC altered the programming landscape with a monster game show hit.

“One show changed everything: ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'” said William Morris’ Mr. Ferriter, whose agency helped package the show in the United States. “They were always there, but nobody wrote about them-shows like ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ ‘Unsolved Mysteries,’ ‘Cops,’ ‘Candid Camera,’ ‘Rescue 911.'”

Steve Wohl, senior VP and head of alternative and syndication for International Creative Management, was also there before everyone came to the party. For more than a decade he represented Bruce Nash, who created shows such as Fox’s “Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed,” which drew big ratings before the days of “Millionaire” and “Survivor.”

“We [ICM] were dominant in the network reality business,” he said. “All of the aggressive clip-based shows back in the day on Fox, we just had hours and hours of that stuff.”

Even with the success of “Millionaire,” “Survivor” and “Idol” in recent years, executives, producers and critics alike questioned the longevity of the reality genre. But if recent moves in the agency business are any indication, reality will continue to be a factor in prime time and the agency business for a long time to come. Reality already has begun to pay off for those who just a few short years ago bet on its long-term viability.

Mr. Ferriter said William Morris saw a sea change back with the launch of “Millionaire” and advised clients that a budding network interest in the genre beyond throwaway time periods and nights with low viewership could mean new opportunities. “We talked to a lot of our clients and said, ‘We think this is going to work,’ and told them to be prepared,” he said. “That’s when a lot of the agencies that had a presence … realized there is a business here.”

The explosion of reality helped expand agency divisions that were once considered much less strategically important to the bottom line.

But with the boom in top-rated reality programming came a new understanding of the genre’s impact on the business. Certainly gone are the days when a TV lit agent at a major agency has to be persuaded that a reality gig might be a good move for his or her client.

“I don’t think educating is necessary,” said Andy Stabile, an agent at CAA who focuses primarily on nonfiction television. “We are truly part of the TV department.”

For Chris Coelen, who started his career at UTA in the talent department and is now head of the agency’s alternative TV department, the fact that he was a known commodity within his agency when he set out to develop an alternative presence made it easier to convince the rest of UTA’s agents his was a viable business. “There is a historic familiarity and respect and understanding that comes with that,” he said, “and that makes it easier rather than if I had plopped in from the outside.”

Mr. Ferriter said at his agency the alternative department now has “the ability to eradicate any walls that may have existed in the past.” But the fast-changing nature of the alternative genre makes for a sharp learning curve and an environment where there is always something new to digest, even in the most forward-thinking agencies.

“It is established here, and it has always been established here,” he said of alternative programming at William Morris, “and it is also growing, and we have to constantly educate our associates.”

Reality as Frontierland

In terms of deal-making, Mr. Stabile said, the world of nonfiction television is something of a field day for agents looking to break new ground. The guidelines used for a show with one format may not be applicable for another, and what was standard a year ago may now be obsolete, thanks to creative evolution within the genre.

“The biggest factor in the deal-making is the show itself,” he said. “The half-life is incredibly fast and the genres change overnight, so these deals were never made on any template.”

In terms of packaging a traditional scripted network drama or sitcom, the classic model of getting a show on a network, making sure it gets through five seasons to 100 episodes and making tons of money in syndication is still the rule of thumb. Not so for most reality projects, which often have limited rerun appeal, so agents have to think outside the box as far as creating revenue beyond network license fees.

“Primarily there is no big back-end,” Mr. Coelen said. “Yes, there is a format business internationally. Yes, there are a couple of markets where you can sell completed episodes of U.S.-produced shows. You have to look at things like product integration, the wireless space. You have to look at your shows as ultimately driving a business outside of television.”

Mr. Coelen described that integration of new business models as “embryonic” but added that it is part of the fun of developing a new revenue stream and of growing his business along with the changes in the TV landscape.

“The tools and the platforms that we have to exploit are still being figured out,” he said. “Are people making money on [reality] shows? Sure. Are they making as much money as people on ‘Friends’? Not yet.”

Michael Rizzo, an ICM agent who primarily represents writers or directors versed in the scripted world, works closely with Mr. Wohl. “It grew intrinsically,” Mr. Rizzo said of their relationship. “We started working together, and it became part of my coverage.”

Because of the changes in the genre, Mr. Wohl and Mr. Rizzo said, they see reality as a place where someone with scripted experience is a necessary component to a show’s creation and production.

“With the business becoming more hybrid, there was more opportunity for these people in reality, if you still want to call it reality,” Mr. Rizzo said of his clients. “There is more need for comedic writers.”

That emphasis on bringing people with different backgrounds into the genre works with Mr. Rizzo’s goal in agenting. “I’m not interested in repping the format,” he said. “I’m interested in repping talent.”