Corie Henson | Vice President, Alternative Series & Specials ABC Entertainment
The Television Writers Vault is thrilled to welcome Ms. Corie Henson, Vice President of Alternative Series & Specials for ABC Entertainment, in a personal interview for our continuing series of conversations with key Industry executives.
Ms. Henson oversees the development and production of current alternative and reality-based programming for ABC Entertainment, including the hit series “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”, “Shark Tank”, “Dating in the Dark”, and “True Beauty”. Additionally, Henson has overseen production of “I Survived A Japanese Gameshow”, and produced such reality skeins as “Big Brother”, “Tommy Lee Goes To College” and “Grease”. We’re honored to have her with us to share her insights on development and programming in today’s television market.
Scott Manville: Thank you for sharing your time with us, Corie. How’s the pilot season shaping up for you at ABC? Maybe a better question would be- Is there really a “pilot season” for reality-based programming, or is the Network on a constant run for new alternative programming?
Corie Henson: We’re looking for new projects year round. There really is no “season” for us, but with the scripted shows in repeats or on hiatus, summer is definitely a busy time for us with new series.
SM: You have an impressive background, having been involved in a broad spectrum of shows, varied even within the reality genre, such as, “I survived a Japanese Game Show”, and “Tommy Lee Goes To College”. Which is more difficult to produce, a weekly variety/gameshow with content that needs to be newly created and fabricated each week, or a docu-series that seems to follow a unique person through an interesting course of life? And what’s your favorite type of program to work on?
CH: I’m addicted to great competition elimination shows like Dancing with the Stars or Bachelor/Bachelorette… and I love a good strategy driven elimination like Survivor or Big Brother. The horse race and the play along is so engaging as a viewer. As a producer, it’s like unwinding a spool of thread with so many exciting twists and turns. It’s great to get to spend that much time with a character and really dig in to their strengths, game-play and quirks. I’m also a fan of docu-series. It’s a totally different skill set from a producer perspective and a big challenge to make it feel real. You need to create invisible rails for the story and be careful to not over-produce it, while still building in real stakes for the subject. Otherwise you run the risk of it falling flat or feeling like its bad acting. I loved working on docu-series as a producer because of the challenge, but I’m not a committed viewer. If I’m going to watch doc, it’ll be something gritty like Intervention, or Hoarders, or the new weight loss series we’re doing at ABC.
SM: What attracted you to the industry? What was the catalyst that sent you in the direction of television development?
CH: I started in news, so I always appreciated the immediacy of television. I was developing a lot of original ideas on my own as a producer, but more often than not, you’re brought on at the last second as a producer. I missed being in on the ground floor, getting to dig into the original creative, the casting, format, host casting, staffing, etc. That’s something I get to do now at ABC, and I do it over multiple shows, so it never gets old and I get to work with some of the best producers in the business.
SM: ABC consistently produces America’s favorite “appointment” programming. And thanks to Tivo, my wife takes three hours to get through one hour of The Bachelor, constantly rewinding to re-watch each moment. We’re also glued to the set watching “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”, waiting for that big “move-that-bus” moment. What is the key to creating these entertaining and highly addictive shows?
CH: Across the board, the most important thing is casting. Two totally different approaches on Bachelor and Home Edition, but if you’re not into the family, Ty and the designers, you’re probably not as engaged by that episode, and you’re not as invested in the big reveal. Same for the men and women on the Bachelor. If you’re not dying to know who Jake will pick, Vienna or Tenley, it’s not your season.
SM: How many projects, from development to on-air, are you currently involved in? Can you mention any exciting programs yet to unfold?
CH: At any given time I’m usually overseeing 3-4 current shows that are in pre/production/post phase, plus 2-3 pilots that are waiting for pick-up and another 2-3 shows I’m working on developing internally. We have what is shaping up to be an amazing extreme weight loss show. The production cycle is really unprecedented at the network. We will be shooting with each participant for a year of their lives as they lose weight. No prize, no eliminations, no competition, just one person’s story each hour, and the deep emotion as we really get to know these people. I compare it to Home Edition in that they’re difficult stories to hear. These people are in dire need of help. But you know in the end, that reveal when the person has lost half their body weight (in some cases 300lbs +) is just going to be amazing.
SM: You must deal with an extraordinary mix of Producers. What qualities do you like to see in a Producer who is involved in any specific production you have?
CH: It is one of my favorite parts of the job. As someone who came from production, I’m now getting to work with and be pitched by producers that I’ve admired for years. When we’re looking at producers for new projects, it obviously depends on the type of show – if we’re developing game, then we’re looking for someone with game experience, stunt/stunt, performance/performance, etc. Beyond that, I’m looking for someone with confidence that can back it up. They need to be a big thinker, creative and to take the idea beyond what’s on the paper pitch and make it feel broader. I’m looking for someone that has good relationships and brings a strong staff with them. If you have people that love to work with you over and over, you are most likely a good collaborator. That means you’ll hear other people’s creative ideas, let others step in to help with your weaker spots, be able to execute notes, and stay on budget. Production value is very important to me, so someone that’s going to be able to multitask and not just consider the story (which is obviously key), but what it’s going to look like on screen. One of the best parts of being at ABC is that there are several executives that came here from production, which hopefully means a more open line of communication with producers. We all want the same thing… a hit show.
SM: How critical is the process of hiring the right Producers for the right show? As a program develops and evolves, sometimes refining itself in a new direction, does the show ever dictate that new or different producers and writers be brought in?
CH: That happens. We pilot a lot of shows, always with the intention of the pilot being successful and going to series. As part of the decision of whether a show will move forward, we take a really close look at what worked and what didn’t, and we take into account everything that could possibly make the show better. Many times that means creative will change and the original producer is no longer the best fit. It’s unfortunate, but not every producer is right for every show. Also with returning shows, we’re always reassessing how we can make the show better. Sometimes the show just outgrows the producer and vice versa.
SM: “Shark Tank”. Another great show from Mark Burnett, and ABC. I love the panel of venture capitalists, and the cross-fire of the bidding war. How was that process in discovering the panel? And was it difficult to create that sharp and cutting chemistry they each have? Can you share a bit of that process?
CH: Mark Burnett and his team really did due diligence. They met with or talked to every multi-millionaire/billionaire that was willing to give away their own hard earned money to entrepreneurs! Barbara Corcoran, Kevin Harrington and Daymond John were found through rather tradition means. Research, interviews, casting sessions, etc. Here’s a little inside Shark Tank nugget about Kevin O’Leary and Robert Herjavec. We were looking for our real “shark,” the investor who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is, and we were getting close to a pilot shoot date and we didn’t have our final five yet. Shark Tank is produced all over the world – where it’s called “Dragon’s Den.” Mark Burnett sent us a tape featuring Kevin O’Leary, one of the Canadian “Dragons.” O’Leary was abrasive, honest, articulate and cut-throat – not just with the entrepreneurs, but his fellow “Dragons”… and we loved him. But we couldn’t help notice one of his fellow Canadians (and one of O’Leary’s favorite targets), Robert Herjavec. He was sharp, sympathetic, boyishly handsome and he was truly self-made. His family came to Canada from Croatia with only $20. What a great story and we almost missed out on him. We pursued both Robert & Kevin and those two rounded out our team of sharks.
SM: What do you feel is the greatest impact that reality-based programming has had on the industry? In contrast, what have the challenges been?
CH: Reality offers cost-effective, repeatable original programming. That is also one of the greatest challenges. Because we grew so big so fast, people were quick to realize the impact of reality both creatively and financially. Many broadcasters got greedy and started to rush shows and/or create lesser quality shows. The industry cannibalized itself. Many of our shows started to feel derivative and almost a parody of ourselves. Unfortunately that stigmatized reality and many times I think we have to prove ourselves with each good show. But that’s just it, bad reality is bad reality. Bad scripted is bad scripted.
SM: We see a huge amount of activity with Docu-series’ at the TV Writers Vault being pitched and scouted by production companies, mostly with cable nets in mind as an outlet. Even though they’re often too specific a subject for a primetime audience, do you think there will ever be a place in primetime for a docu-series at a major network?
CH: Hopefully, because I think there are definitely broad enough subjects that can carry a show. A few networks have tried – One Ocean View (ABC) and Tuesday Night Book Club (CBS) came out the same summer and tanked. It’s not just because of the creative specificity, but because we can’t repeat the *$&%# out of those shows like cable can. I didn’t see Jersey Shore the first couple of weeks, but everyone was talking about it. Three weeks in, I went into my Tivo and they were still rerunning the premiere episode. It was great, I caught up in one afternoon! Also, I think there’s something to the docu-series working better as a half-hour and we don’t do many half-hours (other than scripted sitcoms).
SM: How do you feel the content and landscape of reality programming in television has changed over the past decade? Are formulas as strict as most think, or has cable and reality programming brought new license for experimenting?
CH: COPS was the first network reality show and if you go back and watch the earliest episodes from the late 80’s, it was what we’d consider a very traditional reality show now. They followed the cops in the field on the job, then home to their families, all peppered with sit-down interviews. I think we’ve come a long way in introducing new versions of the format – the competition elimination, stunt, performance – but there’s a certain comfort in the familiar.
SM: Do you have a strict mandate for the types of projects your team will develop with Producers, or are you open to projects that may challenge the focus that ABC and Disney have traditionally had with programming?
CH: We’re really looking for something that will be the next step in reality. Not to reinvent the wheel, because there is comfort in the familiar, but to think big and take a unique approach. Easier said than done. So yes, we’d consider something unorthodox, but it still needs to work within the Disney/ABC brand. That said, it’s a wide swath… from Dancing with the Stars, to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, to Wipeout. All shows you can watch at 4 or 40.
SM: For those who have a great concept for a reality series, what is the most important element that makes you- a Programming Executive, believe that it would have potential as a new show?
CH: Ideally, it should be something the whole family can watch together. I always tell producers comedy is the most reliable pitch. It’s easy to watch, fun to make, and about as broad as it gets. Also, keep it simple (which doesn’t mean it can’t be clever and/or unique). Try to steer clear of anything really derivative, and please don’t come in and talk about how you’d fix the network’s already existing shows or why yours is a better version.
SM: Time to admit your guilty pleasure… What reality series, on any Network other than ABC, would you love to be a contestant or participant on, and why?
CH: I’d love, love, love to be on Survivor. It’s the perfect storm of mental and physical challenges, and it really tests every facet of the contestant’s strength, will, faith, diplomacy and perception. I’d love to push myself like that, and it really seems like an opportunity where you’re forced to get to know yourself better. It’s a classy show, and while they aren’t afraid to have fun with the contestants, it never feels like they’re making fun of them. Although I do love food. So that may be a problem come about day two or so when I’m starving and cranky.
SM: Thanks for sharing your time and thoughts, Corie. Keep up the great work at ABC, and continued success in your career!
CH: Thank you!