High Noon Entertainment Celebrates Two Decades of Bringing ‘Heart’ to Reality TV

Randee Dawn

Name your unscripted reality TV production company High Noon, and inevitably the question comes up: Is founder and CEO Jim Berger a Gary Cooper fan?

“Nope,” says Berger, who explains: Just as his 20-year-old Denver-based company was about to launch its first show, “Work in Progress,” execs learned that Food Network scheduled it at noon. “We needed a name,” he continues. “So I said, ‘We’re in the west, it’s about to air at noon, let’s call it High Noon.’ My friend designed the logo in about 20 minutes and it hasn’t changed since.”

Hitting the bullseye on the fly like that takes a rare combination of industry insight, gut instinct, and sheer luck — and High Noon Entertainment, which Berger runs with co-founders Duke Hartman (COO) and Sonny Hutchison (chief administrative officer) — has a surfeit of all three.

Over the past two decades, with such hits as “Cake Boss,” “Fixer Upper,” and “Tough Love,” the company has provided more than 500 series and specials for more than 5,500 episodes to at least 30 networks, redefined the personality-centered informational reality show, and emerged as one of the most enduring reality production houses in the business.

And High Noon has done it all from headquarters located approximately 1,000 miles from Los Angeles (though it does maintain offices in both LA and New York).

“Maybe it’s because we’re centered in Colorado,” says Berger, “but finding everyday people who are passionate and experts in their world and have strong points of view is part of our mission statement. We haven’t done a lot of ‘dark’ programming.”

Adds senior VP of programming Scott Feeley, “Our brand is talent you can fall in love with. Shows with a heart. We joke that we don’t really do the shows about women behaving badly. We find the talent America is going to fall in love with.”

Recognizing that talent requires understanding what sorts of personalities will pop on TV. The down-home New Jersey guy who owns a class-A family pastry shop — “Cake Boss’” Buddy Valastro — has done so well that the show has its ninth season already ordered for TLC, and continues to soar overseas. The married couple who are also savvy and personable about remodeling newly bought homes — “Fixer Upper’s” Chip and Joanna Gaines — hit new highs in HGTV’s target 25-54 demo in its third season.

“We joke that we don’t really do the shows about women behaving badly. We find the talent that America’s going to fall in love with.”
Scott Feeley

“They understand characters and they understand family,” says TLC president and general manager Nancy Daniels about High Noon. “I can call Jim when things are going great, and I can call Jim when things are going horribly — and I feel like he really listens and takes ownership.”

In fact, if casting a central personality to burst off the screen in a reality show about a company that makes reality shows, Berger would be an ideal candidate. Those who have worked with him note he’s a big part of the reason they like doing repeat business with High Noon.

“Jim Berger is one of a kind,” says Shed Media general manager Pam Healey, who spent 10 years at High Noon. She started out as a transcriber and rose to the level of exec VP, West Coast, opening and then running the company’s West Coast office for seven years. “He’s the ultimate CEO: A natural leader, brilliant at getting ahead of the curve, and has a clear vision. It’s incredibly rare in what we do to have someone like that at the top — and it trickles down into an environment where magical things can happen.”

Reality TV wasn’t Berger’s first stop-off in entertainment. Following a stint in standup comedy post-college, Berger says he learned his lesson: “I’d rather be coming up with ideas and making up shows than standing on stage.”

He turned to journalism, working for 10 years in local news and then three years at Tele-Communications Inc. (now Comcast) just as the possibilities of a multichannel universe were taking hold. As networks broadened their bandwidth, Berger’s job was to program the new channels. But once TCI hit around 300 channels, Berger’s position evaporated.

“I was out of a job and I needed to make money,” he admits. “I didn’t have any grand master plan.”

But he did have an extensive resource thanks to his previous job: he knew the presidents of the channels he once helped program, and he knew they still needed content. “I started pitching ideas,” he says. “It was the right place at the right time.”

He quickly hit the bulls-eye. Reconnecting with a fellow former journalist, Kathleen Finch, now chief of programming, content and brand officer at Scripps Network Interactive, the pair birthed the idea for “Unwrapped,” which took viewers behind the scenes in the making of packaged food items. Finch recalls she and Berger wandered up and down grocery store aisles, trying to figure out what products they could create episodes around.

The Dog Doctor Is In: Clint Kuban examines a patient at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Animal Planet’s “Life at Vet U.” Courtesy of Animal Planet

“It was a really good collaboration,” Finch says. “What I love about [Berger] is that he’s a creative partner and very hands-on. He’s also a really good storyteller — and a lot of that is his training as a journalist. We’ve spent a lot of our careers in the field as producers, and we can close our eyes and figure out if something will be a good show. He’s not just a suit, he’s a producer.”

“Reality has gone through so many different versions over the last 20 years, but at its heart it’s longform journalism,” Berger says. “It’s not news, but many precepts of journalism play into longform reality, especially when you emphasize authenticity.”

Over the years, High Noon has also learned to expand and shift with changing trends in the business. Berger brought on Feeley from Pilgrim Films, where he’d been showrunner on such programs as “American Chopper,” and the company shifted from magazine-style shows to follow-based documentary style programming.

Then in 2011 Berger says he began paying more attention to marketplace integration, realizing that similar production companies, including Bunim/Murray, 51 Minds, were selling. Simultaneously, High Noon was being courted by overseas buyers. In 2013, Berger sold his company’s controlling interest to ITV, which allows the company more flexibility and reach in overseas market pitches.

ITV America CEO Brent Montgomery says he made it a priority to give production companies like High Noon and other ITVA companies access to ITV’s global formats. “Now Jim can say, ‘I like that format for my company’ and they have the right to go shop those formats. Conversely, Jim could bring a format to the group and we could shop it to international territories and networks prior to pitching it in the States.”

And that seems to point to the future for High Noon: a bigger playing field and more opportunities to sell shows. “Our next iteration is to create content that will appeal across platforms, whether moving into Netflix and Hulu or mobile apps,” says Berger. “There will be challenges across the board with content that’s non-traditional. Those are exciting new places.”

But no matter where High Noon’s content finds a home, the company’s heart and soul reside in Denver. The connection is so strong that ITV has even located some post-production facilities there. While Berger may be going everywhere, he’s also happy staying put.

“Being in Colorado, it’s very different,” he says. “We are embedded in the Midwest and it’s a great area to headquarter for us, because we’re closer to interesting, extraordinary people whose lives are still to be discovered. I like that.”

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