Dan Riley | Executive Producer Port Magee Pictures | E! Entertainment
In our continuing series of conversations with key industry executives, the TV Writers Vault is very pleased to welcome Mr. Dan Riley. He is an executive member of the Television Writers Vault, and boasts an extensive background producing reality-based formats for a variety of Networks.
As Supervising Producer and Executive Producer, Original Programming at E! Entertainment from 2004-2008, Dan produced more than 100 hours of programming including some of the network’s highest rated specials and original series. Most notably, E!’s mega popular 101 countdown series and specials “What Hollywood Taught Us About Sex” with Jenny McCarthy, “Glamour Magazine’s Biggest Do’s & Don’ts” with Garcelle Beauvais, The “Sexiest” series, “Battle of the Hollywood Hotties”, and the launch of the European version of “Wild On!” Dan has also worked as a producer at 20th Television, Renegade 83, and has produced reality shows, specials, and pilots for FOX, UPN, USA, Style and TLC. Most recently, Dan produced the feature film “Pickin’ & Grinnin'” directed by Jon Gries.
Dan Riley is a member of the Producer’s Guild of America and Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Scott Manville: Thanks for sharing your time with us, Dan. We’re happy to have you at the TV Writers Vault.
Dan Riley: Happy to be part of your series.
SM: Your list of credits, producing reality-based formats for cable, covers just about every show my wife is addicted to, and I love watching! What is it about these “100 best…”, “50 biggest…”, “Top 20 Greatest…” formats that makes us love to watch them? And a bigger question… are you addicted to your own shows like the rest of us?
DR: Everyone has an opinion. Countdown shows hook audiences with a question that trigger an instant response from the viewer. Who’s sexier, Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston? You may be disappointed by the given answer within the program, but you will surely stick around to find out why or who may be the #1 sexiest of all. Within the confines of a television network “the list” is taken very seriously. I’ve sat around many a conference table with twenty people arguing every last person, place, or thing on the list. Everyone involved experiences an amusing amount of frustration in creating the list. This is one executive meeting where it’s okay to say to the person across from you, “You’re crazy!” The material is controversial in its infancy and will no doubt be just so when the show hits the air. Anytime one makes a deliberate statement there will always be someone there to say, “No, that’s wrong.” With respect to my own shows, the addiction is over once the show is complete. That doesn’t mean I am any less guilty than the next guy and don’t get hooked into the same format created by others. I do, but not with one of my own creations. I’ll watch the premiere, but it’s more a matter of responsibility than compulsion. Plus, I’ve already seen the show fifty times.
SM: Would you say that you specialize in that one particular genre, or has your success been more a result of the Network trusting you with delivering that particular type of programming?
DR: Success? Love that…nicely done. Well my mother is proud of me. I guess that’s all a guy can wish for. I quite possibly could be the guy that’s done the most guilty pleasure programming, but I’m not the only one. With so many channels available, most cable networks work extremely hard at enticing viewers with guilty pleasure programming. I fell into a niche and rode the wave for a long time. For awhile, I was the dating show guy, then the countdown show guy. Hollywood has a tendency to put people into categories, but when you get right down to the basic process, it’s still television production. First and foremost, I am a producer, a creator. I have to believe I am capable of producing every type of programming known to man. Just because I’ve made a lot of blue toasters doesn’t mean I can’t make one hell of a red toaster …with four slots, dual heat control and bagel mode. Sorry, got carried away.
SM: I love that. I guess you can look at shows as widgets. How did you get your start in this business, and what attracted you to the Industry?
DR: I never imagined being a part of any other industry. After college in the early 90’s, I started producing theatre in LA with a company of about 40 actors, while working as an actor myself. After beating myself up for a few years, I grew tired of pursuing the pipe dream and got a job as an assistant to a production lawyer. Naturally, that was the beginning of an entirely new pipe dream, one that has yet to completely come to fruition. I worked for the entertainment lawyer for a few years and soaked up everything I could about the business side of production. Then, just as the reality boom began, I jumped in and have been working like mad ever since.
SM: In the process of producing, what do you enjoy more; writing/creating, directing, or producing the content?
DR: I enjoy each and every aspect of producing. Writing is by far the most tedious part of the process, but can also be very rewarding and make your job as producer much easier. The script is always the most important piece of the puzzle. Considering the type of programming we’re discussing that may get a laugh, but just like in all forms of storytelling, the text is numero uno. Piecing together a compelling thirty-minute story from 100 hours of field tapes isn’t easy, and creating a three-minute segment with a hook, an arc, and a resolution has its own set of difficulties. In any case, above and beyond the usual story elements, you need a strong point-of-view, detail, texture, and nuance. You can’t build anything expected to stand on its own without a good foundation.
Your creative aptitude can also prove useful in overcoming lack of funds, technical resources, and tight deadlines. You may not have everything you want in your show’s toolbox, but you’ve got to find a way to make it work and still do the material justice. I also really enjoy directing on-camera talent and working with cameras, lighting, crew, etc. Directing is always a fun diversion from all of the other aspects of production. Spending the day directing Jenny McCarthy or Joel McHale is always better than a day in the office or the edit bay. And if you’re well prepared, it’s nothing but fun.
SM: When producing a reality-based show at… for example, E! Network, can you share with us what the process is like from concept to creation? If you’re Executive Producing, where are your energies focused?
DR: I have been a part of creating dozens of shows and other times brought in after the show has been created and given the green light. A show concept can come from anywhere, brainstorm meeting, the Network VP, an idea of mine, an outside pitch, or just a new take on something from the network’s library. The idea factory never stops. Ideas are constantly tossed around by all.
First and foremost, your energy is focused on serving the network’s vision of the show. As the EP, it is your job to first prove you are the man for the job, even if you know you’ve already got the gig. Sometimes the concept is rough and they’re expecting you to make it better. Other times, the concept has already been through the ringer and is ready to be put to paper and/or tape, but even then they’re expecting you to make it better. As the showrunner, you need to clearly convey your ideas and illustrate your plan of attack . Ideas and plans that result in progress or an evolution for the overall concept at hand.
Within a large corporate environment a lot of energy goes into management. That is, management of time, budget, staff, and reporting back to the Network with progress updates. Communication and confidence are crucial in all aspects. If the EP isn’t confident in his abilities and doesn’t communicate well with his staff and with network executives, his staff and the Network’s confidence in him will quickly diminish. The production staff wants to feel like their ideas are important and their hard work appreciated, while network executives want to know that they can count on you to deliver the goods and feel comfortable knowing that you are in control. The execs have twenty projects under their wing so the less time they feel they have to spend with you, the better. If you can establish yourself and acquire their trust, you will have a lot more creative freedom. From there, I’m off running the show, writing, casting, taping, editing, and reporting back as necessary. The process varies from network to network, or company to company, so as a producer I need to be prepared for any number of scenarios. Sometimes that means starting from the beginning, establishing trust.
SM: How many projects do you handle at any given time? When you’re in production, do new projects in development go by the wayside?
DR: I have juggled as many as 4-5 shows in production simultaneously, but not without a tremendous support staff. When things get that busy, it becomes very difficult to develop new material. That said, at the very least, I will take a couple minutes to jot down an idea that I will expand upon later. I’ll just send myself an email from my blackberry. Yes, I leave myself voice mails too. Each show needs constant attention and if you’re lucky, the crucial deadlines (e.g., script, taping, delivery) fall on different days. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been hit with that much programming at once. Nowadays, everything has been scaled down, which equates to less programming and longer work hours for guys like me. Showrunners are required to do a lot more with much less. The budgets are smaller, deadlines tighter, and staffs have been reduced to a handful of people. The development of material has changed as well. A one-sheet and a phone call or meeting used to be sufficient for igniting interest. Now, much of the time, you have to go out and put your idea to tape before anyone will give any consideration at the Network level. You’ve got to make it easier for the Network to say yes.
SM: What advice can you give to Writers selling concepts and formats?
DR: Share your ideas with others and get feedback. Create your own little focus group and really listen to everything people say. You don’t have to use it all, but listen carefully. Your 14-year-old cousin just might surprise you. A filmmaker wouldn’t want to make a movie without at least a few table reads. Why should reality be any different? There are plenty of writing groups out there and if you don’t want to share your idea with them, use your family and friends. Your family will love it, and who knows, maybe grandma will help you find the missing element to your masterpiece?
SM: What makes for great television?
DR: Characters. Doesn’t matter if the show is scripted or reality, without someone to care about or someone you love to hate… show’s over.
SM: Can you share with us details of any current projects you’re working on? We’d love to keep an eye out for them.
DR: I produced a few spec reality pilots (gotta have tape) and am out and about making the rounds, and just wrapped a two-hour documentary on teenage murderers for E! called “Too Young to Kill”, which premieres February 3rd. Also, produced a feature film called “Pickin’ & Grinnin'”. The beginning of my new pipe dream.
SM: What have you enjoyed most about what “Reality” programming has brought to television over the past decade?
DR: Variety. There’s no use in having hundreds of channels without variety. Plus a sociological look into the world of so many weird people. People are strange and that’s fun to watch.
SM: What do you see in the future of reality-based programming? Have things reached a limit, or does the genre simply reflect pop-culture and our world as it evolves?
DR: Reality-based programming is here to stay. The cable networks rely on it almost entirely. Pop culture and trends will change, but the public’s appetite for it will always be ravenous.
SM: People love to complain that Hollywood is stuck in a cycle of re-producing familiar formats, and won’t reach out or take risks with anything outside of proven formulas. What can you tell us about Hollywood’s drive to discover new and original ideas for programming?
DR: Hollywood is chewing its proverbial fingernails and on its knees praying every day that something original and exciting will fall into its lap. Television networks take risks all the time, but a lot of those risky projects never make it to your living room… hence the risky part. Others are simply short-lived unmemorable quickies that got lost in the shuffle. Risk is an inherent part of creating content. Networks work very hard at developing innovative content, but you’ve got to pay the bills while your building the bride of Frankenstein.
SM: What shows are locked into your Tivo or DVR right now for recording?
DR: Seinfeld, Cheers, Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab, Man vs. Food, and Boxing. True, I just checked.
SM: Thanks for spending the time with us, Dan. Best of success with your shows!
DR: My pleasure. Thanks for thinking of me.