Piligian Putting ‘Bounty’ on Cable

Feb 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Reality producer Craig Piligian generally doesn’t like to repeat himself. He’s produced shows about cops, motorcycles, casinos, ghosts, dating, extreme fighting and even unfortunate occupations.

His latest effort will showcase a trio of female bounty hunters for a Court TV pilot called “Bounty Girls,” which he will shoot next month.

“They’re tough chicks with guns, yet it shows women in a very smart and powerful way,” Mr. Piligian said.

But when it comes to reviving network lineups, Mr. Piligian is always up for duplicating his success.

In the three years since the debut of his breakthrough series “American Chopper” on Discovery Channel, Mr. Piligian has become one of the most prolific producers of cable reality programming.

Mr. Piligian has twice helped pull Discovery out of ratings doldrums-with “Chopper” in 2003, then with his newest hit, “Dirty Jobs”-and has pulled off similar feats for Sci Fi and Spike TV. In each case, he tackled underexposed subject matter via compelling, real-life characters.

“Craig is one of the best out there,” said David McKillop, VP of production for Discovery Channel. “He consistently provides high-quality, innovative series that prove to be leaders in the marketplace. He knows how to bring viewers into the action and show the human side of relationships.”

Sci Fi has a huge Friday night with “Battlestar Galactica” and “Stargate SG-1,” but the network needed an anchor program for another weeknight-preferably a show that would help broaden the network’s fan base beyond viewers of hardcore sci-fi space operas. The fix: Mr. Piligian’s paranormal docu-soap “Ghost Hunters,” which became a break-out success in 2004 and is about to launch its third season.

At Spike TV, the channel was facing a certain massive ratings drain on Monday nights after losing the World Wrestling Entertainment franchise to USA Network.

But Mr. Piligian’s reality elimination series “Ultimate Fighter,” though not able to beat WWE numbers, became a hit for the channel and drew the same young male demographics as WWE. Last November’s live finale bout drew 2.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. “Craig Piligian created the first truly successful reality show for guys on TV and, by any measure, the most successful,” Kevin Kay, general manager for Spike TV, said of “Fighter.”

Like all reality producers, Mr. Piligian considers his instincts his most valued assets. Listen to the stories behind his shows, and he frequently refers to situations in which he had to trust his gut when the facts were stacked against him. “There’s no book you can read that tells you whether somebody will be good on TV or not,” he said. “I just sit down with somebody. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong, but most of the time I do OK. Because I get bored by everything. If something is entertaining to me, I trust it will work.”

Mr. Piligian’s success has not translated to broadcast, however.

His two CBS efforts, “Cupid” (a relationship reality series from “American Idol’s” Simon Cowell) and “The Cut” (in which Tommy Hilfiger channeled Donald Trump) failed to draw viewers.

“I don’t know what it is. The audiences in cable are more loyal, I guess,” he said. “There’s no blame to lay. I thought both those shows were good, solid television series.”

Mr. Piligian cut his reality teeth in the 1990s, executive producing 625 episodes of “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol,” then later served as Mark Burnett’s co-executive producer for the first three seasons of “Survivor.” In 2003 Mr. Piligian formed Pilgrim Films and Television and began providing documentary programming for Discovery.

Looking forward, Mr. Piligian is about to start shopping a female boxing reality series with the working title of “Eye of the Tigress.” Eventually, Mr. Piligian said, he would like to add a new format to his resume: scripted dramas.

“Everybody’s a reality producer now. I get ideas from the store clerks,” he said. “I know a lot of drama guys going into reality, so why can’t us reality guys go into frickin’ drama?”

Going With the Gut

Reality producer Craig Piligian attributes much of his success to trusting his gut. Here are three examples of his instinct paying off.

  • When TBS’s “Worst Case Scenario” flopped Mr. Piligian trusted that the host, Mike Rowe, would still be perfect to lead Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs.”

  • After he cast “American Chopper,” Mr. Piligian abruptly switched to his backup choice 72 hours before start of production due to a “gut feeling” that he was going with the wrong team.

  • When the brutal “Ultimate Fighter” was rejected in 2001 for being “too risky,” Mr. Piligian kept pitching it in the marketplace until Spike TV finally bought the show last year.