Reality TV Casts Main Street as Its New Star

Willie of “Duck Dynasty,” a show about the homegrown business Duck Commander, which makes duck calls and decoys out of salvaged swamp wood

Photograph courtesy A and E Television Network

Willie of “Duck Dynasty,” a show about the homegrown business Duck Commander, which makes duck calls and decoys out of salvaged swamp wood

Beautiful, blonde Lynnae Schneller, 29, started her Tacoma (Wash.) gourmet pickle business two years ago after a career in sales management and running a staffing company. She and her sister-in-law, equally blonde and beautiful Aly Cullinane, 25, produce about 20,000 jars of sweet-and-sour dills a month and brought in $280,000 in 2012 revenue.

A classic tale of reinvention and entrepreneurship, sure, but would you watch a reality TV series about Lynnae’s Gourmet Pickles? Darryl Silver is betting you would.

Silver, the founder of the Idea Factory, a Van Nuys (Calif.) independent TV production company, contacted Schneller in March 2012 about turning her company into a show. “Everybody wants larger-than-life characters in worlds we haven’t seen before, and if you add in the drama inherent in family, it adds to the layers of story and character,” he says. The Idea Factory shot video footage at Lynnae’s Gourmet Pickles last spring and plans to pitch the show later this month at the Real Screen Summit, an entertainment industry conference.

Nearly a decade after The Apprentice took off, small businesses are now routinely featured on reality shows. There are restaurants, tech startups, preppers, even duck-call carvers. “There’s money, there’s risk, there’s family. You can lose everything or you can have great success,” Silver says. “It’s inherently dramatic.”

With hundreds of programming hours to fill and reduced budgets to do it, television programmers increasingly look to low-cost, quick-delivery reality television to fill the gaps in their programming lineups. There are 90 network and cable channels listed on the whiteboard in Silver’s office, about 60 of which he pitches regularly. “We have over half a dozen job docs in development, ranging from pickles, to cupcakes, to dress companies and salmon fishermen,” he says, noting he gets hundreds of inquiries every month from entrepreneurs.

How did business drama become fodder for reality TV? Silver was in the room in 2004 when TV producer Mark Burnett, creator of Survivor, gathered a creative team for The Apprentice, as was Justin Hochberg, co-founder of another L.A.-based production company, the Hochberg Ebersol Co. The two of them, and several others, had backgrounds as serial entrepreneurs. Despite skepticism about the show’s overt business angle, they argued that the idea could work. “Anybody who’s worked in a business knows that it’s the most dramatic thing in the world,” Hochberg says.

Of course, sharing startup pain isn’t enough to make it big on reality TV. Christopher P. Velona is an independent producer in Los Angeles who has worked in the reality niche for MTV, A&E, and Bravo. “Everyone thinks they are worthy. But I’ve learned that you have to have a super-boisterous personality in order to be a character on a show,” he says. Silver agrees: “There definitely have to be Type A personalities as the leads who drive the story. You don’t need 20 people who are crazy, but let’s face it, who wants to watch boring people?”

Hochberg, who along with his partner Charlie Ebersol is developing a business makeover show with the working title The Big Fix for CNBC, says companies that average Americans can relate to have a better chance of getting on air. “There’s a reason why certain types of businesses are highlighted, like restaurants, tattoo shops, and bars,” he says.

Brent Ridge says he was “pegged as the villain from Day One” on The Fabulous Beekman Boys, a reality TV show set at the historic Sharon Springs (N.Y.) estate where he and his partner, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, farm and raise goats. He didn’t mind the bad-guy persona, although he was inundated with negative feedback about his behavior. “It doesn’t bother me, because I know what’s going on,” he says. The exposure did boost sales of the farm’s goat cheeses, soaps, and cookbooks, Ridge says, but it wasn’t enough for the pair to reach their goal of paying off the farm.

Another reality show, The Amazing Race, did that. The pair entered—and won—the 21st season of that show, netting the $1 million prize ($550,000 after taxes). Ridge is not sure whether Beekman Boys will be coming back for another season, nor whether the two will continue to do reality television in future. “The only thing I always say is that when Dancing With the Stars calls, I’m doing it,” he says.

Companies that do appear on reality TV should not expect huge paychecks—or, in some cases, any pay at all. The host of The Big Fix, Marcus Lemonis, chief executive of Camping World and Good Sam, will invest in each company featured on that show. But more often, so-called talent fees are nominal in a first season, though participants can renegotiate for more if the show is a hit.

Schneller says the chance to get national exposure for her pickles, and a shot at wider distribution in retail outlets like Whole Foods (WFM), is her goal. “This would be an invaluable boost to the business. It would open doors for us and get us more meetings [with retailers], more recognition and more online orders,” she says.

She’s also aware that if the show gets picked up, she’ll have no say over how she and her family are presented to the public: “The way they edit it may put across certain things, but we decided that people are going to love you or hate you no matter what you do. We’ve decided to stay true to the relationships and try to filter out hurt feelings.”

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