This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
More than a decade ago, David Goldberg helped pioneer the reality TV genre as founder of unscripted powerhouse Endemol North America. Such series as Fear Factor, Deal or No Deal and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition followed. More recently, the home of Big Brother and Wipeout launched Endemol Studios and acquired smaller production companies including 51 Minds (Flavor of Love), Authentic Entertainment (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) and Original Media (Swamp People). Now, the Connecticut-reared executive and father of three, who spent several years at Telepictures, is pushing Endemol into new genres: scripted (AMC’s Hell on Wheels) and syndicated daytime (Steve Harvey). The latter, for which he has been commuting from Los Angeles to Harvey’s set in Chicago, is off to a strong start, with an impressive 1.0 rating in the key women 25-to- 54 demographic. Goldberg, 48, sat down in his West Hollywood office — the space that once belonged to Michael Jackson — to discuss the genre ripe for a comeback, the cultural ramifications of Honey Boo Boo and the future (yes, there might well be more) of Fear Factor.
The Hollywood Reporter: What is the next big reality TV genre?
David Goldberg: I think networks are going to look for a big game show because they’re relatively inexpensive and you can produce them in mass quantities and use them to plug holes. On one of our final years of Deal or No Deal, we produced 72 hours. It’s funny because when I sold that show to NBC, I even created something called the “Millionaire clause,” which said that I would not produce more than 65 one-hour episodes a year [fearing burnout a la ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire], you cannot repeat it and you can’t air it in the summer. Even with all of that, they would come to us and say, “Please let us rerun an episode.” We’d say, “No,” though I can remember one time saying to a certain network executive, “Look, if you promise not to call me on my vacation, I’ll let you have a rerun.” That’s how useful those types of show are. They can literally prop up a network.
THR: It’s been awhile since a broadcast network launched a new reality franchise. What keeps you up at night?
Goldberg: How are we going to continue to be able to make money? We’re fighting a war of attrition, and we know that every show we do has a finite lifespan. And when a show does die, it’s often at the apex of its moneymaking possibility because it’s been on the air for a long time, the license fees may have increased, and we’ve been able to exploit a lot of the ancillary revenue. So if you’re making 22 episodes a year, and that show goes away, you’re going to have to come up with three or four new shows to replace that one piece of business.
THR: The networks have wised up and are now looking to own more of their unscripted shows. How has this impacted you?
Goldberg: You have to be willing to give up certain things to get others. We want to own and control as much of the back end as we possibly can, and it’s no surprise that they do too. The advantage we have is that I can get on the phone tomorrow with 40 of my colleagues in 40 different countries and be in front of broadcasters a week from now selling that product.
THR: There seems to be a dearth of formats coming from overseas. Why is that?
Goldberg: When I launched this company in 2000, Millionaire had hit big, and there was just a feeding frenzy on anything foreign that had a hint of a track record. I mean, before I was hired, Endemol had sold a show to NBC called Chains of Love — 17 one-hour episodes about a man or a woman chained to five other members of the opposite sex! For a while, it seemed like everything worked, and maybe for that reason America was slow to get on board creating programs. But then we made things like The Bachelor and The Apprentice, and you saw this reverse trend where we were the ones exporting. I think there’s still an inclination to buy a foreign format before you buy an American one. But there’s no question it’s harder to sell a format today.
THR: Are we near a saturation point with singing shows?
Goldberg: It’s certainly a crowded and difficult category to break into, but just look at The Voice. That show came in and had an interesting, different format, and it’s clever and fun. There’s room for that. By the way, I still rib John [de Mol, the co-founder of Endemol North America’s parent company who now runs Voice producer Talpa] about that show. I’ve said, “John, I don’t understand why Endemol doesn’t get to produce that show.” He said, “David, look, we’re like Romeo and Juliet. We really love each other, but there are just higher forces at work here.” I said, “Yeah, let’s just hope they don’t kill each other or we don’t both commit suicide over this.” Although, he won’t. I might.
THR: You’re responsible for shows like Fear Factor. Where is the taste line for you?
Goldberg: Our feeling then was, if we can capture America’s attention, and we can make money doing that, that’s the business we’re in. I still feel that way to a degree, but I think I may have more of a compass now. It was a different time. It was experimental television. But while there’s a limit to where you go, I still think Fear Factor is a great show, and I worked very hard to get it sold the second time. I’ll never forget when we sold it the first time, because it was right before Jeff Zucker had become president of NBC. He then gets the job, and he calls me one night and says: “It’s Jeff Zucker, the new president of NBC. Tell me about this show, and don’t bullshit a bullshitter.” So I have to go to his new office and show him a tape, and I walk in, and there are boxes everywhere, his famous licorice collection and this bulletproof vest on his desk that says, “Good luck.” He puts the tape in, watches it without saying a word and then walks back to his desk. I’m convinced he hates it. Then, one by one, all of these executives from different departments come into his office. He rolls the tape again, and when it’s over, he looks at them and says, “I want this wallpapered on NBC.”
THR: Why didn’t the 2011 reboot work?
Goldberg: There was one incident [an episode featuring a contestant drinking donkey semen] where our producers got a little overzealous and resorted to their fraternity days, and something got on the air. I think it may have been a bit too much. But, it’s still a great show, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that show comes back in some shape or form in the next year or two. It’s just one of those brands that I think doesn’t die.
THR: With Honey Boo Boo, is the joke on us or them?
Goldberg: Look, people have a fascination with lifestyles that are foreign to them and that they find exotic, unusual and funny. There’s no acting going on here. The Redneck Games exist; people bob for pig’s feet. What a good reality docusoap does is take real people in situations that you couldn’t even write and let them play out. Most of the people who are on these docusoaps appear to be having fun with it and use it to their advantage in advancing their careers.
THR: Is there a subject that’s off-limits?
Goldberg: The one thing that I’ve always shied away from is plastic surgery shows. Maybe it’s because I’m squeamish and personally uncomfortable with it. I know it’s ubiquitous in our society, but we’ve been in business for 12 years, and we’ve never done one. Now you could say, “Wait a second, Goldberg, you’ve done shows like Fear Factor, where people eat the most hideous things imaginable, but you won’t do a plastic surgery show?” I guess we all have our limits.
THR: You’re now in the daytime business with Steve Harvey. What’s the appeal of the crowded genre?
Goldberg: Though the rate of success is very low, it’s still one of the great ways to make money, and it diversifies us as a studio. But we’re not paying for it. [NBC is financing.] Doesn’t mean we wouldn’t. I think that we would have put the money into a Steve Harvey situation, just like we’ve decided in a very rational, calculated way to put money into our scripted business.
THR: What kind of scripted fare are you focused on?
Goldberg: One-hour cable dramas at a reasonably affordable price point. Cable channels don’t overdevelop, so you have a good chance that the thing that you invest in is going to go to series and they tend to sell well internationally. We’re an international company with a very robust scripted business; it just hadn’t been here. The Low Winter Sun pilot we’re doing for AMC is based on one of our English formats. Just as we do in unscripted, we’d like to do a combination of locally developed material and formats from our library.
THR: What do you do to unwind?
Goldberg: I’m a New York transplant, so I still live and die for the Mets, Giants and Knicks. I collect art, mostly abstract expressionist stuff, and I love to cook. Actually, I’ve invested in a bunch of L.A. restaurants [including Sunset Boulevard hotspot Rock & Reilly’s and Santa Monica’s Blue Plate Taco]. Really, anyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with food. I wake up in the morning thinking about food. I go to bed thinking about food. I plan my vacations around food. Of course, when I’m here, you can find me most nights just eating sushi somewhere. I’ve been going to my neighborhood spot, Nagao, for 20 years. For me, it’s like the diner that Seinfeld went to.