Magical Elves Co-CEOs Talk Pushing ‘to Be First to the Party’ in Breaking Reality TV Ground

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Magical Elves is an unscripted powerhouse that just banked eight Emmy nominations to add to its tally of 42 overall since launching in 2001. They’re the production company behind “Nailed It!,” the addictive Netflix show where so-so bakers attempt to recreate daunting desserts, and the long-running Bravo culinary competition “Top Chef,” which is gearing up for Season 20.

It’s one thing to have an unscripted hit, but it’s another thing to have a handful of series that every other company is scrambling to copy. “We really push ourselves to be first to the party, if you will,” Magical Elves co-chief executive officer Jo Sharon told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View.

She added that “Nailed It!” was “a little bit of a genre breakthrough” and that it sent “everybody else looking for their [own] ‘Nailed It!'”

The show made history in 2020, when Nicole Byer became the first Black woman ever nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program category. She’s nominated again this year.

Nicole Byer, Nailed It!
Nicole Byer, host of “Nailed It!” (Netflix)

“Cold Justice,” which launched in 2013 on TNT before moving to Oxygen, also spawned a series of similar shows, said Sharon, who joined the company in 2010 as VP of development: “That was the first crime show that wasn’t on just Court TV. It broke out and started a bigger and bigger push in our industry.”

They partnered with “Law & Order” franchise creator Dick Wolf on the unscripted series, which stars veteran prosecutor Kelly Siegler and her team as they dig into cold murder cases in small towns. So far, the “Cold Justice” crew has helped to generate 55 arrests and 21 convictions.

“To be able to effect real change in real time and put criminals in jail, the work that we do is incredibly rewarding,” she said. “A lot of that goes back to Kelly Siegler, who’s just absolutely best-in-class and phenomenal at what she does and a great team that supports her to be able to do that.”

Cast of "Cold Justice"
The cast of “Cold Justice:” Abbey Abbondandolo, Tonya Rider, Kelly Siegler, and Steve Spingola (Chris Knight/Oxygen)

Meanwhile, “Top Chef,” which has won two Emmys and spawned a number of spinoffs since its 2006 debut, remains Casey Kriley’s favorite series. She joined Magical Elves when it was founded in 2001 and became EVP of current programming in 2008 before being named co-CEO with Sharon.

“I feel very fortunate that after working on 20 seasons of ‘Top Chef,’ every season when I walk on that set, and we start shooting the first episode, I still love it,” Kriley said. “I still feel really passionate and love that show and love working with Bravo on it.”

Season 19, which was won by Buddha Lo, welcomed back “Top Chef” alums like Season 10 winner Kristen Kish as guest judges and shone a spotlight on different Houston-area cuisines, including an episode where competing chefs fed locals at the Asian Night Market.

Kriley praises Ron Mare, who was promoted to head of casting in February, for finding great emerging culinary talents and meeting Magical Elves’ self-mandated challenge to find more diverse contestants.

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“I think that’s had a huge impact on the show in the last three years,” said Kriley. “We were really surprised and thrilled with the fact that by having more diversity in our chefs, it opened up the aperture in terms of exploring new cuisines and food on the show. The commitment we made to diversity in the chefs and the guest judges [absolutely paid off] since the show was nominated for an Emmy in casting, which was wonderful.”

Read on as Sharon and Kriley explain the Magical Elves company philosophy and how they approach development.

What’s your philosophy as a company?
Jo Sharon: We definitely pride ourselves in making really great, authentic, aspirational TV. We have that reputation as a company who is organized and buttoned up and delivers and has great partners. I think that’s something that people feel when you have a well-oiled machine. I think it comes through on camera as well. Also, storytelling is massively important for us and that starts with casting. We want to make sure that our casts are diverse, and also very well rounded and not one-dimensional. We want to be able to tell full, amazing stories. And so we really hyper-focus on that in any show that we do.

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When you’re developing new shows, is it something that you’re personally excited about or that you think there’s a market for?
Casey Kriley: It’s definitely a combination. We’re very thoughtful about how we’re expanding and why and what those partnerships look like, but also listening to the intel of the market and trying to find that white space and clever ways to fill it. It’s big, loud, fuzzy, sticky ideas of the feedback that we’re getting from the market. Everyone’s just trying to get eyeballs and trying to break through because there’s so much content. On one hand, it’s wide open, but what’s gonna break through is also somewhat subjective and hard to figure out.

You’re best known for your cooking shows. Are there other areas of unscripted you’d like to get into that you haven’t done before?
Sharon: We’re definitely known for competition. That’s been our staple since the company was founded. That lifestyle space is definitely a sweet spot for us — lots of cooking, lots of baking. We also love to tackle things that we’ve never done before. We have stuff in development right now that’s animated, we have a scripted project we recently did. This last year, we did game shows “Brain Games” and “Brain Games on the Road.” We had never done games before. We’ve got stuff in the dating space we’re developing so we’re constantly trying to find the Magical Elves version of things that we haven’t done before, which is fun to tackle.

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