Phil Gurin | Executive Producer
The producer of “Shark Tank” & “Weakest Link” shares his approach to creating formats, and crafting a career…
By Scott Manville
Founder, TVWritersVault.com | Contributing Writer, NATPE (National Association Television Program Executives).
With the explosion of reality TV and the global format business, Executive Producer Phil Gurin navigates the always-evolving landscape of TV programming with a killer-instinct for strategy, and a spot-on intuition for what engages viewers around the world. Adept at genres ranging from studio game shows to docu-reality and live-event productions, he has a passion for storytelling and character development that have become his hallmark, stemming from his early career as a writer. As a result, he now has shows in various stages of development and production in more than 30 countries, and spanning more than a dozen U.S. outlets.
Gurin has created, written and/or produced thousands of hours of television, with shows appearing on networks such as ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, UPN, PBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1, USA, FX, GSN, CMT, HBO, Lifetime, A&E, Bravo, TV Guide Channel and Discovery Channel, along with numerous shows in syndication. He currently produces Shark Tank with Mark Burnett. His credits include Weakest Link (NBC network and syndication), Lingo (GSN), Miss Universe and Miss USA, Singing Bee (NBC, and the #1 Show on CMT), and Candid Camera (CBS). He has newly created shows debuting soon in France, Germany and the UK.
Having developed strong relationships with marquee International talent, such as Donald Trump, Ryan Seacrest, Regis Philbin, Mark Burnett and countless others, Gurin continues to expand the development and packaging of new TV formats for imminent success. We’re thrilled to share this time with him, exploring his world of creation, and his approach to producing for today’s television market.
Scott Manville: Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to chat with us, Phil. I’m excited to share your insight with other Producers and Writers at the TV Writers Vault.
Phil Gurin: My pleasure.
SM: The level of success you’ve accomplished with a refreshingly varied slate of formats is inspiring. What brought you into this business, and what led you to having such a broad, yet specific sense of what works for television audiences?
PG: I fell into this side of the business completely by accident. I began my career as a writer and development guy, working with some great producers and studios developing movies, miniseries and dramas. But I needed a job once and wound up working on MTV’s “Remote Control”, and that changed everything. Over the years I worked as a writer-producer-director for nearly 70 different companies before I hung out my shingle as an independent producer. And I’ve always hoped that the things I like, that interest me, are popular, mainstream forms of entertainment. It’s what I enjoy watching so I guess it’s what I enjoy making.
SM: Can you detail for us the current focus and agenda for The Gurin Company? Any exciting new projects ready to launch?
|“The best executives are the ones who take the initial risk on the style of a format, and then when it works, it seems to set the pace.”|
PG: Everything that’s old is new again. When one thing works, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and thinks that that is now the only way to do things. The best executives are the ones who take the initial risk on the style of a format, and then when it works, it seems to set the pace. When “Millionaire” broke, every show had to have a money ladder, one contestant playing against the house, and really cool sets and music. And, of course, every show that came after it had some sort of “lifeline”. Then, with “Deal or No Deal”, every show has to have family members rooting for you in the audience, and some sort of omniscient “banker”. There have been stunt shows, panel shows, dating shows, comedy shows, Q&A shows, and they all worked before and will all work again. It’s just aligning the right format with the right producers, designers and talent. Its alchemy, and we’d all be rich if we all were right all of the time.
SM: Would you agree that reality television has refreshed the game genre and what audiences will embrace as a format?
PG: Sure, reality has influenced game shows, but truly it is the other way around. Every reality competition show is a game show, and every one of them can be traced back to some original source or influence during the past 75 years. Audiences, though, will embrace something that is well made and doesn’t feel like it’s the same old thing with a new wrapper on it.
SM: It does seem that some of today’s game shows in the U.S. are born out of a clever gimmick; whether it be sending expensive merchandise off the top of a building at the mercy of a ticking clock, or picking numbers showcased by a bevy of beauties… Is there ever a time or place for a more emotional narrative in a game show? Must it always be light entertainment?
PG: “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” has drama. “Moment of Truth” had emotional narrative. I absolutely believe game shows can have that kind of depth. But they need not be exploitative to succeed. Create a game that is easy to understand, compelling, cast well, and the story will unfold in a great way that audiences will appreciate. Of course, by the very word “game” in the title, a game should be something people want to play – and play should be fun. There is absolutely nothing wrong in working in a genre where the highest ideal is to have fun.
SM: What is the appetite for new game formats today? Does the genre have more heat overseas?
PG: Traditional US game show outlets – daytime syndication, cable, network – are constantly in a state of flux. There was a time when all game shows were launched in network daytime. Maybe the current economic climate will help bring that need back. We all know that there hasn’t been a successful syndicated game show launch of a title that didn’t first appear on network in, what, 30 years? The big broadcast networks will still develop a big, wide reaching game show. I would like to see the advent of other game show outlets. Around the world, game shows are a wide part of the television diet in virtually every culture. That used to be true here in the United States. In some respects I don’t think many executives buying programming think it’s cool to develop game shows. It’s not what they want to talk about when they are hanging out with their friends, or trying to leverage their careers. But all careers are helped by success, and if a great game brings in both eyeballs and revenue, then I guarantee the ballsy executive who helps launch a great game show will watch their career grow, too.
SM: The Gurin Company has a global reach, producing and distributing formats for television around the world. How do you view the traffic flow of formats being exploited globally? Is there a larger appetite for European formats being brought to the U.S. market? Or is there opportunity in exporting formats to foreign markets?
PG: I have been speaking about this for nearly a decade. I have always welcomed the flow of content from abroad into the United States. But the reverse is just as viable. Americans are GREAT creators of ideas and formats. The rest of the world sees America as the Holy Grail when it comes to where they want to sell and produce their shows. But the rest of world is hungry for great ideas, and Americans should be eager to share original product with everyone, everywhere. We should be the leading exporter, not only the leading importer, of creative game and reality formats.
|“The idea is king… plain and simple.”|
SM: If a Writer or Producer has a new format for a game show, is there any element other than the format itself that can give it an edge for selling to a Network? Or is it strictly about the format and proposed content?
PG: The idea is king. Plain and simple. But it has to be made well, and it needs many elements to succeed. I always say a good game needs to have both sizzle AND the steak. The steak is the solid format. The sizzle is what makes it a television show and not a board game.
SM: Lets talk reality. It seems that in about ‘03, the genre just took off with new life, opening up the possibilities of new formats and unique content for TV. What is it specifically, that you feel will give reality TV its longevity?
PG: Reality is a part of the television diet that has always been here, but no one called it that. Candid Camera is 60 years old. Reality never left; the broadcasters just realized it could fill more parts of the schedule. And with an entire generation, now maybe a second generation, having grown up watching cable reality shows shot with Flip cameras and stuff, everyone is used to seeing any kind of video on television. It is here to stay, and that’s a good thing.
SM: Do you think reality programming has evolved in a good direction over the past decade? Do you see audience’s tastes moving in any new direction?
PG: Audiences – and I’m an audience, and you are an audience – what do we want? To watch something that will hold our interest. Whatever that is, whatever mood we are in. Reality television is so mature now that it has the same ups and downs as the scripted business. Things move in waves, in cycles, and one kind of reality will lead to another and then another and then another and then, maybe, back again.
SM: We’ve seen countless successful reality programs that are derivative of others, especially in format. Do you, yourself, push for more original and unique wrinkles and twists in formats as you’re developing a concept, or does the content really dictate the best format?
PG: I have a simple philosophy about pitching: if it is already on the air, don’t bother to pitch it. If the networks send out word that they are looking for one type of show, move on to something else, because it’s likely that once the need is announced, somebody else got there first. Go create something that is not on anyone’s radar.
SM: Take us inside your process of conceiving and developing an idea? Where do you get your inspiration, and how do you work it out?
PG: If I knew, I would tell you. I just hope we talk enough about things inside my company, and take a thorough, professional approach to fleshing the idea out to the fullest. Ask yourself: What am I going to see onscreen? What’s the eye candy for the viewer? And is there a beginning, middle and an end? What is the narrative through-line? Every genre – game, music, variety, reality, etc. – every show has to tell a story. So think it through, be able to answer every question, and spend time developing only those things you would be passionate about to make. And finally, think about the broadcast outlet you are asking to give you money to make your show, and wonder if the idea and its execution will bring in millions of eyeballs to make it worth it for the broadcaster to write you that check.
SM: Is producing docu-reality a refreshing change-up from the world of formats?
PG: I am sure it is for some people, but I am more interested in shows that can travel the world, and the formats I work on are designed to be international in appeal. Docu-soaps tend to be local in their appeal.
SM: Is there any value to distributing a docuseries internationally? Or is the potential more insulated because it may only relate to our pop-culture?
PG: You are absolutely right. Some docu-soaps about ideas and interesting non-celebrities can travel, but American celebs? Will they really care around the world?
SM: When scouting subjects or people for a possible docuseries, what do you look for? What makes for a show?
PG: For me, on the docu-soaps we are developing, it has to have an idea that can travel. I am simply not interested in docusoaps that are US-centric.
SM: What’s easier to sell as a Producer; a Game Show Format, A Reality-Competition Format, or a Docu-Style Series? And what is your favorite to produce?
PG: I like all forms of entertainment. Light entertainment. Shiny floors, moving lights… that’s me. Music, variety, comedy, game…entertainment.
|“Know your idea inside and out. Be original. Be thorough. And don’t be clever…be clear.”|
SM: For Writers and Producers at the TV Writers Vault, what advice can you give on selling original ideas and formats for shows?
PG: Know your idea inside and out. Ask yourself all of the hard questions before you go pitch someone your idea. Don’t be derivative; if you are, you are probably too late to sell it. Be original. Be thorough. And don’t be clever, be clear. It will help in the pitch.
SM: In your view, is Hollywood a collaborative community driven by “idea”, or an insulated machine driven by formula?
PG: It’s neither. It’s a mess. And that’s what makes it fun.
SM: So true. Thanks again for your time and perspective, Phil. We’re excited to see your continued success.
PG: Thanks. And good luck to you and everyone at the TV Writers Vault.