Natalie Mashaal | Executive Producer
In the world of Reality TV today- compelling worlds, unique people, obscure professions, and Experts are a critical component of all programming content. For our readers and members pitching, its important to understand how Producers view projects and what they look for when casting. To that point, we’re very pleased to bring you an exclusive conversation with Executive Producer and Television Branding Expert, Natalie Mashaal.
Ms. Mashaal brings an extensive background in casting and producing for The Oprah Winfrey Show and other hit daytime programs under the King World banner. She is the founder of Kingfish Productions, and Executive Producer on dozens of pilots for various major networks, as well as serving as Showrunner for “Relationship Rehab” on the Style Network. She is currently sharing her professional insights through live speaking engagements on the subjects of “Branding Yourself For The Media” and “How To Create, Develop and Sell Your Reality Show”. We welcome her to our Executive Interview Series at the TV Writers Vault.
Scott Manville: Natalie, thank you so much for being with us. I’m excited to see some of the work you’re doing in television, and I know our members and readers will appreciate your experience.
Natalie Mashaal: Thank you so much for having me, Scott. This should be fun!
SM: From what we’re experiencing at the site, and seeing in TV development, it seems like virtually every spectrum of our world and society may deliver people and subjects ripe for reality TV. What’s your perspective?
NM: That’s true! Interesting people or places or sectors of the world – tiny slices of life that we never realized existed – those make for the best stories. Or a person living a life so different from ours, like Honey Boo Boo. Or an expert with an outrageous personality or specialty, like Dog the Bounty Hunter. Or something we know exists but have very little access or information about like the Amish. The best thing to do is to look at your own life first – who do you know or where do you have access that might be interesting?
SM: What can a person who is the subject of a proposed TV show, or creator of a new show concept communicate to you as a Producer when writing a pitch? What should they key on in any pitch to peak your interest?
NM: Presentation is huge. I am very self-aware when taking pitches. I really listen to myself – am I interested in what this person is saying? Does it intrigue me? Do I want to hear more? If you don’t get me at the beginning, I’m usually humoring you the rest of the time. I do listen to the rest of the pitch and I do try to spin it and ‘fix’ whatever I feel is missing, but rarely change my mind. It just reinforces my notion when I am asking hard questions and seeing big holes. If it isn’t packaged well, I am out. Way back when, I would try and cast a good idea with no access. I would try to get access because the idea was so intriguing – most of the time I was just wasting my time. I also like to see things visually so I can better understand the person, place, slice of life you are trying to explain to me. I want to see it for myself. I am always super excited when a project is packaged and always take it much more seriously. But, I am usually annoyed when I find out that a well-packaged, good idea has already been pitched at a bunch of places without success. That just usually means it wasn’t pitched properly or to the right person. So now that the contact/network is now used – we can’t pitch there again, and that I will probably pass on the project. Be very strategic about how, when, and with and to whom you pitch your project – you may not get another chance.
SM: Can you share with us an overview of the opportunities you see for people in reality-based television (Reality, Docu-series, Talk series, etc.)? What can people go after, and what do you have in mind when you’re scouting people?
NM: Casting for main characters for a reality show is tricky – I am looking for just the right combination of ordinary (relatable) and extraordinary (memorable). The point of all story telling is to elicit emotion from the viewer – happy, sad, appalled, disgusted, envious, disappointed, shocked, elated…whatever. The characters are the measure as to whether or not a story will play out in a compelling way. As for booking Experts as the star of their own reality show, the same applies. I need you, as the expert, to draw the drama out of yourself and the supporting characters to create something interesting to watch.
Now, daytime is a whole other beast. An expert in daytime, while needing to be dynamic and interesting, is also about trust, credibility, and relevance. What information do you have that is new, current, or updated from the last time I saw a segment on weight loss, looking younger, or potty training? That’s what is important from a professional standpoint. Personally, I want you to be interesting, presentable, flexible, and likeable. Know your stuff inside and out. Take some media training – know that lingo. I shouldn’t have to explain what sound bytes are and how to speak in them.
But know this – we are looking for you! We want to find you. When you are everything I mentioned above, you make us look good. So position yourself so we can find you. Be out there. Get quoted in magazine and newspaper articles. Start a blog or be a guest blogger on a respected, well-trafficked site. Write a book. Do television – local TV is how most start. Do a podcast. Let me find you on youtube. All that is an investment in perfecting the way you position your brand.
SM: Knowing the professional advice you share in some of your speaking engagements, I see that you really are hitting on a unique niche of opportunity for people breaking into television by getting cast as an Expert, Author, or other authority on subjects related to a show’s content. How did you first come to understand this specific area?
NM: Well, Scott, I was lucky enough to have worked with some of the smartest people in television. My very first job in TV was at The Oprah Winfrey Show. Every day was like a Masters class in television. From then on, I knew how to be uncompromising in my search for the most niche expert at the top of their industry with the most current and relevant information to add. Personality is a must, must, must – you must engage me. If I don’t want to listen to you, I can’t expect millions of viewers to want to, right? I must respect and like you the minute I lay eyes on you, or its over. So many experts today don’t know how to present themselves – their “walking brand” – properly. My advice is threefold – get to know your brand, get to know yourself, and get to know how the television industry works – what producers are looking for and how to fill that need – how you fit in as the solution.
SM: And if they’re pitching themselves as an Expert or authority on a specific subject, what is important for them to communicate? What does a Producer want to see in a profile?
NM: Television experience goes a long way. We want to be able to convey to the viewer that you are credible – via a degree, book, business, website, experience. Every last thing should be professionally done – your headshot, business cards, website. Your blog should be current. We want to know you mean business and that you don’t just dabble in your expertise. Nothing makes me happier than when most of my questions are answered before the pre-interview.
SM: I’d like to focus on “creating” the pitch, for a proposed reality-based program. You’ve been an executive scouting the TV Writers Vault, you’ve probably seen tons of writing styles from both experienced creators and amateurs. What does the amateur often miss in communicating their concept?
NM: I know it sounds so basic but I rarely read one-sheets or treatments without spelling errors, or errors in grammar. I’m out if that happens. That means you didn’t care enough to proof your work. Or you know your weakness and didn’t care enough to have someone else proof your work. To me, the best writing styles are those that flow -confident but not unrealistic. Phrases like ‘…destined to be known as the craziest reality show ever…’ I highly doubt that.
SM: How important is the Logline, and first paragraph of a Synopsis in a pitch?
NM: Logline – so important. As I mentioned before, you have 10 seconds to 1 minute, so it had better be good. Be sure it sums up the concept and the hook, and makes me want to hear ‘”How?” How are you going to do that? I can’t wait to hear the details!
SM: What advice can you give to Writers and Creators on conceptualizing projects… you know, cooking up ideas!?
NM: Keep your eyes and ears open. Be aware of what is around you – what is unique, or funny, or bizarre, or fascinating. What makes you not want to look away. That’s a good idea.
SM: What type of projects or formats are ideal? What’s hot right now?
NM: Well, the best formats are those that can be sold internationally – that’s where the real money comes into play. ‘Pop Idol,’ for example, was a hit reality show in the UK. That format of a singing competition using judges to comment and the country to vote, was sold all over the world. All each country had to do was plug in their own host and judges. America, of course, knows it as ‘American Idol.’ Needless to say, huge hit. On a more domestic stage, the best projects are those that have ‘legs’ or can continue for countless seasons if successful, and those that cross as many demographics as possible. To use ‘American Idol’ again, viewers young and old, from all backgrounds – cultural and economical, from which most parts of the country are represented at one point or another (someone to root for) watch the show and vote. With the market as saturated as it is right now, viewers are also flocking to shows with which they find some sort of connection like cooking or interior design or business. Also, the big shows from back in the day that are well produced are still in the mix and doing well – The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, Survivor, Celebrity Apprentice. People are looking for quality.
SM: Can you share with us any details on current projects you’re involved in? I’m guessing not, but we want a clue about any irons in the fire you’ve got!
NM: Now who is going to hire me if I give that up?
SM: I had to try! In addition to your Producing and Casting, I’d love to know more about your expanded business, and what you offer the industry and creators of projects.
NM: I just recently opened my doors to consulting and speaking about the media. Understanding the media – taking the mystery and aloofness out of the mix for people. I consult and speak about Branding Yourself for the Media – how you ARE your project, business, service, or product. What does it take to get on television? What materials do I need? What is a Producer looking for? How do they get their ideas? How do you fit into those ideas? Once I get on television, what do I do? What is the process? I take the mystery out which builds up your confidence and changes your odds. As for selling a television show, I consult and speak on How To Pitch and Sell Your Non-Scripted Show Idea. This is all about show development – are you asking the right questions and do you have the answers. Preparation – do you have all the materials you need including a one-sheet and treatment, and selling – understanding the potential client (in this case the network) and how to position yourself – your brand – for success. Check out my website www.nataliemashaal.com for more!
SM: I think it serves our writers and creators well to know a bit of what its like dealing with a Network, Net Executives, and the challenges of pitching and selling from the position of a Producer. Can you give us a perspective on that?
NM: The most important thing to remember is to be flexible. The pitch will change depending on the network to which you are pitching. In fact, the pitch will change in the room as the network’s development execs give clarity on what it is exactly that they are looking for. Just because you have a great idea that would be a great fit for a particular network does not mean that it’s a homerun. Even if the exec loves it, the network might be looking for a competition-based reality show and not a docu-reality. It’s all about what the client is looking for and how easily you can manipulate the idea, but remain organic to the concept, to fit the networks needs.
SM: Now, when a project gets a “Go”, how do things change with regard to your activities on that project?
NM: Sometimes I am the creator of the project, and sometimes I am not. But I always have an agreement in tact on any idea I pitch. I’m usually not the Show runner on a series, although I have done it, because that ties me up. I am typically an Executive Producer by credit and consult on the projects. I will often do a casting reel or a non-airing pilot in order to sell a show to a Network. As for the rights, those are given up to the network upon selling.
SM: What should people know about the realities of being involved in a production, or being cast as the key subject of a show?
NM: You should be aware that in order for the show to be a success, the audience has to be able to connect emotionally. In order for the audience to connect emotionally, raw stuff, real stuff has to surface. It’s not that reality producers are looking to ruin anyone’s lives – they’re looking for a way to connect via emotions.
SM: For the Writer/Creator who sells a concept to you, what’s the process like for them? More specifically, if you buy the concept and you’re the producing company, what relationship does a creator find themselves in with regard to the development process and production of the show?
NM: I don’t “buy” an idea from someone. I make a deal for exclusive rights to sell that show for a certain amount of time. In that time, the creator is critical in the development stage for access to proprietary relationships that person has built. As for what role the creator will play if the show gets picked up – that’s up for negotiation. It really depends on your experience. A creator will often be a Consulting Producer, Co-Producer, Co-Executive Producer, or just a Creator.
SM: Tell me a bit about your own favorite shows on TV right now. What grabs you and why?
NM: I am drawn to the big shows that are well done by producers like Mark Burnett. He is a mentor to me – though I don’t think he knows it! I respect the way he takes an idea that resonates with a large sector of people and turns the volume up. And, if an idea doesn’t work, he moves on. Don’t know until you try.
SM: Natalie, thanks for sharing your own Expertise, and giving us your time. We look forward to your continued success!
NM: This was fun! Thanks for having me, Scott!