Reality Week: ‘Ink Master’ Producer Truly Original Explores Hybrid Unscripted Animation As It Ramps Up Broadcast Network Business

Peter White
·6 min read

Truly Original, the Banijay-backed producer behind the Ink Master and Swamp People franchises, has been dipping its toes into new areas of unscripted television with a remake of a British panel show for The CW and is now working on a hybrid animated series.

Glenda Hersh and Steven Weinstock, Co-Presidents and Co-CEOs of the company, which also produces The Real Housewives of Atlanta, told Deadline that they have received a pilot order from one of the broadcast networks for a new type of unscripted format.

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It marks the latest producer to move into this new area after Kids Say The Darndest Things exec producer Eric Schotz told Deadline that it was developing a mix of non-scripted comedy entertainment and animation – a genre that was previously unaffordable in the non-scripted world.

The unusual moves are part of a strategy that has seen it score work with the major broadcast networks – previously largely the domain of the major studios.

They recently secured a deal with The CW to adapt long-running hit British comedy entertainment format Would I Lie To You? The show, which has run on BBC One for 14 seasons, sees a team of celebrities try and ascertain truth from fiction with questions and stories.

Another unusual partnership saw The Good Wife and The Good Fight exec producers Robert and Michelle King team up with former The Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, who stars in the King’s drama Evil and Truly Original, to exec produce the remake.

The UK panel format has never successfully translated to the States – for instance, James Corden’s A League Of Their Own ran as Game On! for one season but there is hope for this one.

Hersh said, “There was always that barrier of American networks not thinking it could work, and it’s really brave of The CW to say ‘Let’s try it’, because I think if we rethink it a little bit we can actually, this can work.”

Gaye Hirsch, EVP, Development for The CW, told Deadline that her and her team were big fans of the format. “We recognized it both as an acquisition in terms of a fun show that feels like it would pair well with other shows that we have on the network in the alternative space as well as potentially being a show that would lend itself to a U.S. adaptation, which is something that we’re incredibly excited about.”

“It’s a very straightforward concept that you can jump into any episode and get it,” Cyle Zezo, VP, Alternative & Digital Programming, The CW, added. “But at the same time, because of that it gives the talent so much room to play and take the comedy in unexpected directions, which is the same thing that happens on Whose Line Is It Anyway. So, even though they may not be, you know, fundamentally identical in that sense they do share some DNA, which makes us really, you know, excited about testing this out.”

Before they crack on with the U.S. adaptation, Truly Original are in the process of re-editing the BBC version for The CW. The UK show runs for an hour so they need to squeeze some time out of it – which can be a challenge for a comedy-based show, and, as Hersh says, “put some bubbles in that explain some of the things that the British say”.

One of the other challenges for the U.S. version is that The CW would like to have a live audience for it – and despite the rise in vaccinations – it’s not entirely clear when that will be able to happen. “When I think about when we made Deal or No Deal two summers ago, we did 31 shows down in Orlando, and we were moving hundreds of people in and out of the set,” said Weinstock. “I mean, it would’ve been beyond impossible [in Covid times]. You couldn’t even think about something like that.”

During the pandemic, Truly Original was able to navigate their way to produce a number of series. It produced Serpent Invasion – a spinoff of its long running History show Swamp People – with Troy and Chase Landry and Bruce Mitchell teaming with Florida natives Zac Catchem and Bill Booth to eradicate pythons from the Everglades. “Because it was done in the Florida Everglades and at the time there wasn’t a lot of Covid there, we were able to drive people there. We were able to isolate. We had an incredibly successful shoot,” said Weinstock.

Then it was able to roll in to new seasons of The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Potomac, which are in their 13th and 5th seasons respectively, using Covid protocols and a season of Bravo’s Summer House. “We were able to sort of reinvent the show a little bit because of Covid,” he added. “Instead of being back and forth in the city, we kept everybody in a bubble. We kept everybody out in the Hamptons for the whole time, and that allowed an evolution of the storytelling that was a lot of fun.”

Weinstock said that the business has never been “one kind of shop” and has produced a wide variety of non-scripted television from gameshows to reality shows. The pair originally founded True Entertainment in 2000, before it was acquired by Endemol in 2003 and merged it with Endemol Shine North America’s Original Media in 2017. They reupped their deal with now-Banijay in May 2020.

It is currently in the early stages of development on a reboot of Ink Master for Paramount+, which was announced at the company’s big investor day. The original series, which was hosted by former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, ran for 13 seasons on ViacomCBS’ Spike and Paramount Network and was only cancelled last year as a result of the latter’s new focus on scripted miniseries and television movies.

Hersh said, “We’re getting ready, trying to get to pre-production on it, and we’re just super excited to bring it back. It’s a perfect example of how the streaming world has made room for things that there wasn’t room for before. It was too old for MTV. It wasn’t diverse enough, honestly, for VH1, and so it kind of hung out there and it didn’t have a spot, and then with Paramount+ it’s got a perfect place for it.”

They, like many other producers, are also on the lookout for new reality stars to build on its docusoap shows like Real Housewives, Basketball Wives, Shahs of Sunset and Family Karma.

Hersh said it was like “truffle hunting.”

“You’re always looking for it, and whether you stumble across this next great thing with that X factor that has some mystery element that resonates in some magnificent way, it’s very hard to know,” Hersh said. “You try, and you try a lot, but there’s no question that there’s a desire for new franchises and new formats. It’s just hard to break them right now.”

Weinstock concluded, “They’re all looking for it but if you would’ve told me and Glenda 13 years ago that The Real Housewives of Atlanta would still be the biggest show on Bravo, we’d say ‘What are you smoking?’”

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