How Sharp Entertainment finds the stars of its reality shows — and the talent behind the scenes

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By Daria Meoli

Photography by Mindy Best and courtesy of Sharp Entertainment and Travel Channel

In 2000, you could easily name all the top reality shows on the air. Ten years later, there were more than 300 shows, and that number has continued to rise. With networks up and down the cable dial hungry for unscripted content, a high-growth industry has popped up around the genre. Matt Sharp, CEO, founder and “chief creative voice” of Sharp Entertainment has grown his business in tandem with the trend. In the process, he’s learned a thing or two about surviving and thriving in a highly competitive market.

Sharp started working in unscripted television — more commonly referred to as reality television — at the dawn of the genre. Since its founding in 2003, Sharp Entertainment has produced reality television’s smash hits like Man v. Food on Travel Channel, Extreme Couponing on TLC, and Biography on Biography Channel.

But like winning a food challenge, the stars of those shows don’t come easy — and neither does the talent behind the scenes.

“A couple of years ago, you would go to hire people, and you’d have four or five candidates come in and say, ‘I really want to work on this show.’ Now, we have people basically interviewing us, and saying, ‘What shows do you have? I may or may not be interested in them,’” Sharp says.

Whether recruiting a Punkin Chunkin competitor or the editor cutting the footage, the 200-person production company aggressively pursues the cream of the crop. In show business, the talent determines whether the show can go on.

From Law Student to The Fabulous Life

In the summer of 1993, Matt Sharp was an undergrad on the law school track. He spent the summer doing the reverse commute — living in Manhattan and interning for a judge in Mineola, Long Island. But living in the city at that age opened his eyes to more creative endeavors, and he subsequently decided to put law school on hold. After graduation in 1994, Sharp scored an internship at MTV in the winter of 1995.

“On my first day at MTV, I wore an olive green suit, and there were kids riding past me on skateboards wearing shorts and T-shirts, and I realized I had mis-dressed for the part,” Sharp remembers. “The mid-’90s was a really fun time to be there.”

After his internship, Sharp went to work at CBS as a page. “I was the CBS equivalent of Kenneth on 30 Rock,” he says. “I was in a uniform with a nametag, showing people to the bathrooms and seating people at the Ed Sullivan Theatre. My parents, at the time, were thinking, ‘Wait, we sent you to college to show people to the bathrooms?’”

But his career as a page was short-lived. Sharp was picked up to work on the CBS News magazine show Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel as an associate producer. He got to travel the country, but he realized the news wasn’t his passion.

Sharp left CBS and went to work at VH1. It was there that Sharp began his career creating and producing reality television programs. In 2003, he created a special for the cable network called The Fabulous Life of… Jennifer Lopez. It had a narrow focus on the perks, luxury and crazy spending habits of the pop culture celebrities of the day. The show became the highest-rated, non-promoted special in VH1 history at the time. VH1 immediately ordered The Fabulous Life series.

At the same time, Sharp began to get approached with other opportunities and decided to start his own production company to produce The Fabulous Life independently.

“My roles at CBS and VH1 had satisfied the creative part of me, but I was always very interested in starting businesses,” Sharp says. “The president of VH1 at the time, Michael Hirschorn, was very supportive in terms of outsourcing The Fabulous Life to me.”

Not only was Sharp able to take production of the show outside VH1, but he also took some employees.

“We were in mid-season of The Fabulous Life,  and I had my Jerry Maguire moment in front of the staff working for me at VH1,” Sharp says. “I basically said, ‘Hey, who’s coming with me? Bring the goldfish!’ A bunch of those people came down with me, and we opened up offices on 29th Street while producing the shows. We were literally constructing edit rooms around editors who were editing the show.”

Today, the company averages approximately 200 employees — 90 percent of whom are freelance and 10 percent are overhead employees. Over the course of a year, Sharp Entertainment works with between 15 and 20 network clients across the dial.

Talent Wars

After that initial talent grab, that Jerry Maguire enthusiasm wasn’t enough to attract qualified talent to come work for his business. “Talent Wars” may sound like the basis for one of Sharp’s shows, but it has become the standard for the burgeoning reality TV market.

“The TV industry now is not unlike the tech industry with Google and Facebook constantly fighting over really talented people,” Sharp says.

In 2012, Sharp Entertainment brought on a full-time employee whose sole job is to actively engage and recruit the best of the best in the TV industry. That role, Sharp says, is hugely important in today’s market because of the drastic amount of reality content produced — and the people producing it.

“The difference between a successful production and one that isn’t as successful is the people working on that show, not necessarily the concept of the show,” he says.

The same goes for the people on the screen. Sharp point’s to Adam Richman, host of Travel Channel’s Man v. Food as a perfect example of how the right talent makes all the difference.

“That casting process lasted weeks,” Sharp says. “Originally, we thought we would cast a former NFL guy or a professional eater,” but when Richman “walked through the door, he had a restaurant T-shirt on, he knew everything about food — it was his life. You felt the enthusiasm. We turned off the camera after the casting, we looked at [one another] and said, ‘That’s the guy.’”

Richman had the type of passion Sharp identifies as a kind of x-factor for on-camera and off-camera talent alike.

“When he walks into a restaurant on that show, you feel his enthusiasm — you’re tasting it through him,” he says. “Without Adam [Richman], that’s a completely different show.”

Richman was also a perfect example of two hiring lessons that stuck with Sharp. First, it’s important to keep an open mind and recognize that your preconceived idea of the perfect fit isn’t always correct. And second, credibility matters.

“It’s very important for us to find knowledgeable and credible insiders in the world the show covers,” Sharp says. “Adam is a great example. He’s a guy who had been working in the restaurant industry for years. He had traveled the country and created a journal of all his favorite places to eat.”

Today, recruiting an Adam Richman for a reality show is harder than ever before. As reality content continues to grow in popularity, Sharp Entertainment has found itself competing not just with other production companies but with the networks themselves. By the time a casting director reads a great story in the paper, chances are the subject is already getting calls from other companies who want to make him a reality star.

What Sharp Entertainment has going for it is a proven history of producing wildly successful reality TV.

“We always talk to the talent and say, ‘Do you want a show or a hit show?’” Sharp says. “I think our track record [proving] that we can make a hit show makes a big difference when it comes to the talent.”

From Richman’s perspective, Sharp’s competitive edge comes from the way the staff treats its talent. He points to the respect and hospitality he received from the get-go, even as “a nobody.”

“I was shocked that the dude with his name on the door was as cool as he was,” Richman says. “In the midst of the audition process, I showed up for a meeting, and Matt’s previous appointment was running late. He jumped up, gave me a bro hug, apologized for the delay and asked his assistant to take care of me and to find me ‘something delicious.’ At that stage of my career, I was lucky to get a place to sit, let alone personal treatment from the executive producer.”

Employees that Rocked the World

As the talent wars heat up, retaining quality employees has become as big of a challenge as finding the talent to begin with. Sharp Entertainment executive Bob Larson was one of the company’s first employees. It was a good fit because Larson had experience starting up an independent production company.

Larson says he is just as excited by the work he is doing today as he was in those scrappy first days on 29th Street. “What keeps me here is seeing the content evolve,” Larson says. “There is so much variety in what we’ve done. We started with pop culture commentary and red carpet paparazzi. Then we became known for taking existing genres and turning them on their ears. In Extreme Couponing, for example, we took the docudrama format and added the element of the viewer watching the totals come down on the register. That is very engaging. Or in Man v. Food, Adam does a silly eating competition just to win a T-shirt, but viewers really root for him every week. The challenges made these shows home runs, and it’s that kind of fresh content that keeps me excited.”

In an industry where new ideas are the lifeline for success, maintaining a creative and entrepreneurial environment is critical. Sharp never forgot how the environment of skateboards and jeans at MTV contributed to the employees’ ability to maintain an edgy brand. While Sharp and his staff left 29th Street years ago for offices on 6th Avenue with a view of Bryant Park, the team still enjoys bagels and beer on Fridays, ping pong tournaments, summer hours and other low-cost perks usually found at start-ups.

Sharp and his executives also keep the start-up mentality alive by entertaining any and all ideas from anyone in the company. “We foster a truly collaborative environment,” Larson says. “Even if you are the low man on the totem poll, you have a voice here.”

The staff holds regular company-wide “bullpen meetings” to talk about all the projects in production, as well as new projects in the pipeline. “If an employee is working on a show that is ending and he is looking to do something new, these meetings are a great way for him to learn about new opportunities,” Larson says.

“We do so many kinds of shows now, it affords people the opportunity to do lots of different kinds of work within one company. We built this place so anyone can start as a runner and eventually move up to a producer. If you do a good job on your first couple of shows, we will help you advance. And that is true for finding people for positions in finance and production management as well.”

That kind of environment doesn’t just benefit employees; it’s good for the company as well.

“It costs you every time you have to go back to the drawing board and fill a position,” Larson says. “It helps us and it helps them … to have a career.”

Underdog to Wonderdog

In 2012, Sharp Entertainment was acquired by CORE Media Group. Core owns, develops and commercializes entertainment content worldwide, including the powerhouse reality television brands American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.

“Matt [Sharp] is the poster child of this new era of explosion of unscripted TV,” says Marc Graboff, president of Core Media Group and former chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. “He has become such a go-to producer for unscripted ‘docuseries.’ He also ran a very smart business at the same time. You don’t always find people with that dual skill set.”

For Sharp, the acquisition meant he would have the resources to go after more networks, pursue more digital opportunities and possibly work on scripted shows. However, to keep Sharp Entertainment as successful as it has been, it’s been key for Core to strike a delicate balance between support and autonomy.

“We want Sharp [Entertainment] to stay scrappy and entrepreneurial,” Graboff says. “Operationally, we let Sharp be a mom-and-pop shop, but [it is] powered by the bigger economics and reach of our parent company. We provide relationships with big broadcast networks and back-office functions like accounting. But we have to do it in an under-the-radar way so they can maintain that entrepreneurial, creative vibe. It’s special, and we don’t want to get in the way of that.”

Thanks to Core’s support, Sharp Entertainment opened a U.K. office in September 2013, which will allow it greater access to European television markets.

While the Sharp brand of television is growing in size, scope and global reach, it’s the personalities of the key executives that will maintain the culture of the company and, as a result, the innovative quality of the shows intact.

“My loyalty to Sharp Entertainment could be based on the great work we’ve made together and the honest, open dialog we have about the work,” Richman says. “But for me, it’s based on much more than that. The folks who [were] with me as story producers on season one are still with me four series later. Dan Adler, the producer I did my final screen test for, is now my co-executive producer and like a brother to me. They sent flowers to my mom when she was in the hospital. Bob Larson comes to my house for barbecues on [July] 4th. Sharp Entertainment has spoiled me a bit. They are more of a family than they are a production company.” CEO

Daria Meoli is a freelance writer and editor based in the New York City area. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

 

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