Our week of training: NSI Lifestyle & Reality Series Producer students

Training for our second year of NSI Lifestyle & Reality Series Producer took place in Toronto recently and, as always, we got our students to write about what they learned during the week.

NSI Lifestyle & Reality Series Producer is an advanced training course which focuses on the specific skills required to produce a lifestyle or reality series. The course includes a week-long training session followed by an eight-week hands-on mentorship on an existing series which has been green-lit by one of our Program Partners: Shaw Media, Bell Media and Corus.

The course aims to empower students to confidently take on the challenges and responsibilities of producing a lifestyle or reality series.

Students connect with top lifestyle and reality series producers, network executives, production executives and other industry leaders to round out their knowledge base and industry contacts.

Sam Linton (Urban Legends, Ice Pilots, Secret History, Mother of the Bride) and Allan Novak (Kids in the Hall, The Newsroom, Canada’s Next Top Model, Recipe to Riches) are the program advisors and Brandice Vivier (NSI Totally TelevisionNSI Features First) is the program manager.

Andrew Murray, Buck Productions

Andrew Murray

Walking into the NSI course, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Sean Buckley, owner of Buck Productions, had sponsored me. I’ve been directing shows not only for Sean, but for many other companies for well over a decade.

Sean had put me forward to run a couple of his shows in the past but, despite the fact my responsibilities as a series director often overlapped with those of a series producer, the networks were always hesitant because I had technically never done the job before. My primary goal for the week was to further my contacts in the industry and come out on the other side with the stamp of approval to run my own shows.

Day 1

The first order of business was introductions and orientation. Allan Novak, Sam Linton and Brandice Vivier are going to be running the course. There are five other participants.

Our first panel of speakers included executive producers from some of the biggest production houses in Toronto. I was excited to meet with them. These are exactly the people I need to connect with in order to take the next step in my career. They shared their thoughts about what they expect from the series producers who work for them.

They also shared stories about experiences with network executives. The insight was invaluable and I realized very quickly that the more I engaged in the discussions, the more I’d get out of the course.

Next up was a panel of experienced series producers. They were brought in to share their tales from the trenches, and that they did.

They all also shared stories of how they became series producers. Each had an entirely different trajectory to get where they are today. One of them had come from the same world that I now work in. He was a director with both single and multi-camera experience. The common theme with these stories is that someone had taken a chance on them. This was something that really resonated with me.

I’d made it through day 1 and was excited for the next four days.

Day 2 

The morning of day 2 was devoted to legal and financing – Tara Parker from Goodmans was coming in to speak. Call me crazy, but this was one of the sessions that I was looking forward to the most.

With most of my experience on the creative side, I haven’t had a lot of exposure to this side of the business. While I was aware of the importance of agreements, releases etc., there were certainly topics like E&O insurance and the paramount need for Chain of Title that I wasn’t really aware of. There was so much information that was shared. I look forward to getting some practical experience with this stuff but, at the end of the day, Tara’s message was to never make assumptions and make sure that you have a good lawyer. Message received!

The first session of the afternoon on day 2 was casting for characters with Sue Skinner.

Although I don’t think we’d ever met, Sue had casted shows of mine in the past. She was lovely. Lots of fun and incredibly insightful. She has been on the front lines to see the evolution of lifestyle series casting. She shared the evolution of the casting process – it was one of those things that I thought I knew all about but in listening to what she shared, I know I’ll be much stronger in this capacity moving forward.

Series producer Barri Cohen was next. She is the business partner of mediator Allan Novak. Barri’s focus was story including the need for beat sheets, act breakdowns and outlines for the network. These were items that I was well versed in so I was looking forward to her take on it. Her approach was a bit of a case study from one of her shows. I liked the approach as it made the information tangible rather than just broad stroked. She was VERY smart – wish we’d had a bit more time with her.

The final panel of the day focused on editing. Over the years, I have spent a lot of time in the edit suite. What I was reminded of here was that no two production companies do things the same way. I came out of this session even more confident in my abilities to not only work with story editors and editors but also my skills to tell a great story.

Day 2 is now complete. It has been a long day. A wide range of information to digest.

Day 3 

Hump day began with a bit of a review of what we had learned so far and the need to understand our strengths in order to be good leaders. Lots of what was shared in terms of leadership fit my skill set perfectly. As a director, I am always managing people – both talent and crew (at times as many as 40 people). It’s one of my greatest strengths. What was shared validated that I am very good at leading people and that my instincts, for the most part, are bang on.

Marnie Sugarman, series producer of Four Weddings Canada was up next. She shared her tales from the trenches and her experience running a format show. It was very interesting to hear her talk about obstacles she has faced and how she dealt with them. As she spoke, I was able to put myself in her shoes and think about how I would have addressed the same types of issues.

The final panel of day 3 was a group of line producers. Much like the legal session on day 2, I was looking forward to hearing what they had to say.

As a director, I never get a chance to deal with (or even see for that matter) the budget. It was fascinating to hear how they do their jobs; how they juggle budgets to make things work. I’ve worked with line producers that I loved and some that I didn’t like so much. I’d jump at the chance to work with these three – Betty, Dean and Suzanne. There is often a misconception among the crew in the field that the line producers are there to represent the interests of the production company alone. They dispelled that myth. Could have spoken with them all day.

Day 4 

Day 4 began with a session on post-production – primarily flow and processes.

While I had spent a lot on time in the suites as mentioned, I hadn’t done much in terms of setting things up for it. Lots of technical info came out of this session. At the end of the day, a great post coordinator and a great post supervisor are essential hires. It’s also imperative that post be part of the conversation during pre-production in order to guarantee a manageable workflow on the back end.

This afternoon begins with production executives from many of the big networks. This, too, was a session I had been excited about.

I consider myself very fortunate to have access to these network execs and plan to take full advantage of it! It was invaluable to listen to what they had to say. It was equally invaluable to be able to share my story with them.

I’d been frustrated that network execs had turned me down as a showrunner in the past. I always thought it strange that networks had no problem with me directing their shows but got cold feet at the thought of me producing them. I came away more certain than ever that I am ready to take on this role. Beyond that, it was a rare opportunity to hear exactly what these networks were looking for from a programming perspective. Great session.

Our last speaker of day 4 was Grazyna Krupa from CBC. She is a production executive there and oversees Battle of the Blades. I had been really looking forward to this. I had been in development at CBC on one of my ideas in the past and it was a concept that Grazyna had always loved.

Going into pitch to networks is not the easiest thing in the world. Grazyna was always a friendly face in the room. The focus of this session was understanding your brand. Grazyna walked us through Battle of the Blades from inception to where it is today. What resonated with me most was that not much had changed with this show once the format was buttoned up early on. If you build a concept (as well as its brand) properly on the front end, it will be a success on the back end.

Day 4 down, only one more to go.

Day 5 

The focus of the final day was deconstructing a series.

Up first was Michael Prini from Primevista. Michael’s company produces the Sarah Richardson shows. They have just launched a new show for Sarah that’s a bit of a separation from what her shows have been in the past. It was interesting to hear how Michael managed this not only with Sarah and her team but also with the couples that had been cast for the show.

They had expectations based on what they knew about Sarah but this show was different. Michael also serves as showrunner for his shows. Often the owners of companies will take more of a hands off approach where they hire the right people to run there shows. A self-proclaimed micro manager, Michael likes to have his hands all over his shows. It’s certainly an approach that works for him!

Lunch on the last day was fun. Allan [Novak] had an idea for a game to play (complete with cheap door chimes as buzzers). We split into two teams and played a quiz covering what we’d learned throughout the week. It was a great team building exercise and really helped to refresh what had been shared. There was so much information that had been covered throughout the week, it was great to see how much of it had been retained.

The last order of business for the week was a series deconstruction of You Gotta Eat Here. Showrunner Steven Mitchell was in to tell the story of this show. It had gotten off to a bit of a rocky start – the production company and the network were having a hard time really finding the groove with this show.

Steven, who had a history of doing shows with Food Network, was brought in to turn it around. He shared his process in approaching a show that was struggling to find its identity. It was fascinating to see the elements that he keyed in on to turn it not just around but into a very successful show.

All in all, the week was amazing.

It’s so great to see an organization like NSI take the steps necessary to help grow a new set of series producers. I have zero doubt coming out of it that not only will I produce series, but will thrive in doing so. The curriculum was spot-on and Allan, Sam and Brandice did such an unbelievable job running things. I would recommend the experience to anyone who is looking to make a move into series producing.

JD Scott, Cineflix Productions

JD Scott

Producing the Producer

Color me impressed by the sheer volume of knowledge and industry wisdom I’ve seen this past week. As someone who has been in and around production for years, I can fully appreciate the time these professionals have taken out of their busy schedules to impart their stories to us few who were privileged enough to be accepted into this program.

Of particular interest have been the segments on legal and budgeting. Both areas I had little to no experience with and found myself eager to learn about.

Tara Parker, a lawyer at Goodmans, was an impressive wealth of entertainment law information. In such a specific and sensitive sector, it’s a relief to understand the relationship between a production and its legal representation, specifically what they are looking out for and how that all factors into the overall progression of a show.

The key point I took away from listening to Tara was not to assume you as a producer understand all the intricacies of contract and liability law. These experts spend years studying this specific portion of the process and it would be remiss to believe I could step in as a layman and know the same things.

Also of particular interest was Wednesday’s panel on keeping to schedule and number crunching. Betty Orr from E1, Dean Perlmutter from Insight and Suzanne Chapman from Cineflix delved into the budget and explained in detail many of the reasons and definitions of various areas of that budget.

For someone who has never formally created or used a proper budget, I found this great. Knowing where savings can be found in various line items, equipment, cameras and even editing will be invaluable to future shows I am involved with. Simply getting the chance to hear their stories of what has worked and what has not will likely save me from traversing some of those same pitfalls.

As many of the series producers we heard from said, having this course available to us is such a step up that hasn’t been there for many people moving into these roles in the past. I’m not going to lie: they were long days but the content and people were so interesting that I couldn’t help but feel inspired.

Of special note would be our illustrious leaders in the course, Sam Linton, Allan Novak and Brandice Vivier. Their direction of guests, information and course framework was great. This has been a rare opportunity and one I will always be grateful for.

Sylvie Brownlow, Peace Point Entertainment Group

Sylvie Brownlow

I didn’t know what to expect when I took my seat on Monday morning at the biggest boardroom table I’ve ever seen.

As the other participants filed in and we made our introductions I was pleased to learn that, though we all came from different areas of production and were at various stages in our careers, we all had in common an excitement about television and what we do.

I was thrilled to meet our program advisors as well. Brandice,  Allan and Sam were open and welcoming and, as we would learn throughout the week, brought a great balance in perspective from both sides of the table. They could speak to their experiences as both producers and broadcasters.

The week was designed to give a full overview of the role of a series producer – so we had a lot to cover. I was surprised at how well the role was distilled and yet how much information we were able to cover.

Each day I would look at the schedule and what was ahead. I was amazed how the hours flew by. Imagine an eight-hour boardroom meeting but everything that you’re discussing is useful and engaging. Ha!

Each day we would get to meet industry professionals from various departments and levels of productions. From EPs to veteran series producers, story editors to line producers – it was a pretty incredible cross section of the industry. It was great to see some former colleagues and meet potential future ones.

It was inspiring to hear from like-minded people and learn about their personal successes and challenges. I really appreciated their candor.

Day four was a particular source of anxiety for me. Not only were we going to face six top network executives for a two-hour roundtable discussion that afternoon, but in the morning we faced the dreaded headshot. We all had a good laugh watching each other squirm as we took our turns getting directed on the other side of the camera. [Ed: the resulting headshots are shown on this page. And very nice they are too.]

All jokes aside, the broadcaster portion of the week was pretty nerve racking. I was excited to see the list of speakers and was comforted to know that I had met a few of them before but two hours with that many top PEs at one table? That’s a pretty (insert hand held bleeper from day 5 here) fantastic opportunity.

Without divulging too much, and with respect to our ‘cone of silence,’ I come away from this experience with so many new insights. Though some of the curriculum was familiar, the old adage (about the truest wisdom in knowing that you know nothing), was a good starting point for the week.

A sentiment that was echoed throughout – about common characteristics of great series producers – was being open. It’s key to be open to new ideas, personalities and perspectives (network notes). It’s a concept that certainly applies to this job. Definitely a great reminder to take forward through the rest of the program.

Did you make it this far? Congrats! Thank you again to everyone who was involved in designing this program – and thank you to Peace Point Entertainment for putting me through. It really was such a fantastic experience. What a week!

Ryan Valentini, Peacock Alley Entertainment

Ryan Valentini

The week has come to an end. I have to say I feel extremely lucky to have been part of this fantastic program. It’s not every day you have the chance to pick the brains of so many industry professionals. A big thanks to Brandice Vivier, Allan Novak and Sam Linton for running such a great week.

The number of things we learned this week would be impossible to sum up in one blog post so I’ll go with what I feel was the most important thing I’m walking away with.

A television show is not made by one person.  There is a large team of people that work extremely hard to put it all together. Respect for everyone’s expertise and an understanding of what they do is the most important thing for a series producer.

Thanks for a great week.

Meredith Veats, Proper Television

Meredith Veats

As visual storytellers, most of us thrive in the chaotic fast-paced world of television production. We tend to be a highly caffeinated bunch with short attention spans who secretly do best when we’re putting out fires and working in extreme and impossible situations. ‘Making it work’ despite all odds.

We seem to share a common quirk that causes us to immerse ourselves so deeply and passionately into our subject matter – whether it’s a mythical sea creature, new cooking technique or a dancer from Delaware – that our friends ask if we’ve moved continents and our children confuse us for the babysitter. Then we stay awake at night finding a way to share our new-found knowledge and stories with the world in a fresh and interesting way.

All this to say that we rarely, if ever, take time to review the very subject matter that is the engine of what we do – television production itself. Then along comes this, the NSI Lifestyle and Reality Series Producer program: a full five-day seminar hosted by industry pros, followed by mentoring a star series producer. Would I be interested? Uhm yes! Big YES!

So here we are. It’s Monday morning. I’m walking into a giant, calm and corporate boardroom – the environmental antithesis to most television sets.

It’s spacious and sunny with those office chairs that go up and down, five fellow producers and three program directors. The goal here is to thoroughly dissect the core role of a series producer by taking an intense look at the many facets that comprise the mega-gig.

Ultimately, how does the person running the show make each episode click on-screen with the least amount of pain, tears, headache and heartache?

The week is slated to include a top notch Rolodex of Canadian television’s most accomplished executive producers, line producers, story editors, editors, network executives and many more. I am truly lucky and extremely thankful to have the unique opportunity to soak up information and conversations among these key players as they chat, dish and divulge.

So, just what do they say? And what does it mean to me?

The seasoned series producers say …

You’re the snowplow; you’re the one who clears all the obstacles so they (the team) can do their best work. Makes sense: set up your team for success and you’ll all look good and do well.

You have to do what’s best for the show, meaning I may have to fire people and have ‘difficult’ conversations. Yikes!

The network executives say …

You should be able to watch a show without sound and know what it’s about.” Got it – make it clear from the get-go.

Watch everything. Always be a student of television.” I happen to be a TV junkie. I’ve been calling it ‘research’ for years. Now someone at the top has confirmed it.

From the story editors

What is the shot before you turn on the camera? What was the moment just after you turned off the camera?” Simply, keep rolling!

Get the best person for the job and let them do their job.” Don’t micro-manage. Trust your team because, despite what you might think, you can’t do everything.

From the entertainment lawyer

Ask the right questions and “Anticipate what can go wrong.” In other words, use common sense: if you think you might get sued, think again about doing the thing that might get you sued.

From the line producers

It’s always better to put the money on the screen.” Spend on hair, wardrobe makeup and a jib. Save on fancy crew coffees.

Our job is to be great negotiators.” Phew, because I am not.

About casting

You can’t make someone funny.” No, you can’t. As a casting director I’ve tried. And failed.

Overall

A series producer is the person who holds the creative vision and stays on time and on budget.” Got it – no pressure!

There is so much more but really the main message for me is to either become an accountant or love what you do, work hard and have integrity. I’m walking away from the program feeling inspired and engaged in the world of unscripted television.

I was given access to valuable insights and gained inside knowledge that will propel me to continue pushing the boundaries far beyond ‘good enough’ when it comes to this, or any other subject matter that can be shared on the small screen.

Veronica Saluzzi, Temple Street Productions

Veronica Saluzzi

Storytelling: it’s the reason I love what I do

This has been an amazing week. I can confidently say that I have gained a tremendous amount of insight thanks to all of the candid conversations had within the walls of our room.

The speakers proved the Canadian landscape for media professionals is as vibrant as ever – overflowing with passion and perspective. The common denominator tying all makers of content together is our love of storytelling. And that rang true in every dialogue – everyone agreed on that.

The process is understandably very different from one professional to the next: a network executive’s focus is very different than that of a story editor’s but the bottom line is we all just want to tell a good story.

Rule #1: a good leader knows their strengths as well as their limitations

The main strikethrough question this week was, “What are the most in-demand qualities for a good series producer to have and why?”

The answer that I’ve drawn up is as follows: a series producer’s responsibility may vary from one project to the next, however I think the key is to have strong creative vision, always strive for clarity and know how to build a stellar team. You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with and the beauty of our industry is how much collaboration is involved to produce one final product. To funnel everyone’s input into one cohesive vision will always present its challenges but a good series producer will know how to balance between the ‘divides.’

Rule #2: don’t always be a YES woman or YES man

The key is to empower the crew while respecting the network’s requests and the only way to do that is to pick and choose your battles and always make calculated decisions.

Getting to the finish line with smiles all around does not mean you have to be a ‘yes’ woman or a people pleaser. In fact one of the most important takeaways I’ve pulled from this week was that being too flexible could backfire.

Flexibility is definitely needed at times but I’m coming from a more personal space here when I say that I’ve oftentimes been guilty of nodding my head in ‘agreement’ without speaking my mind and, as a result, in those instances my vision was never communicated.

Respectfully explaining why a note or suggestion might not work is a difficult dance that few can do gracefully but I think it’s what makes the strongest series producers stand apart from the rest and this is something I am determined to address within myself.

Rule #3: DO empower your crew. DON’T micro manage them

After our final day in the theoretical trenches I went to see Enders Game – the military science fiction film adapted from the book by Orson Scott Card (side note: I recommend reading the book).

I was able to draw so many parallels between the protagonist’s climb to a leadership role and this NSI training course.  It may sound a tad dramatic (which for those of you who know me are permitted to crack a smile here) but I couldn’t help myself. My thoughts were brimming with all the amazing conversations from the past week. Ender’s tactical genius made me reflect on what it means to be a good leader.

Having the right balance of empathy and authority, empower your team, never micro-manage them. More on building a great team

Sam Linton recommended we all take the Strengths Finder assessment with the underlying message that to be a great leader means to know who you are and what makes you stand apart. Instead of approaching tasks and highlighting our inadequacies, it’s proven to be much more beneficial to think first and foremost about our qualities. We can achieve our fullest potential if we acknowledge our strengths, act on them and surround ourselves with people who compliment us; people who can fill in the gaps; people who are the missing pieces to our puzzle. Empower your team because they too have unparalleled strengths.

Anticipate obstacles and be flexible enough to recalibrate your trajectory at a moment’s notice. More on thinking on the fly

Marni Sugarman’s lesson from the trenches taught me that in order to overcome any obstacle, open communication and clear direction is necessary.

Managing up sometimes means notifying the network executive as soon as there’s an unexpected change of plan (not a problem). This is a way to avoid explaining why later on. Looping the network in when there’s a bump in the road is a way to respect their input and prove your efforts to achieve open communication.

Explaining that the solution will work out even better than intended is key to showing that you’ve got things under control. In addition, knowing when to play gatekeeper and leaving the network executives out of unnecessary obstacles is a strategy that both sides will benefit from. Managing down means always being open to hearing input from all levels and never forgetting to say thank you.

Trust your instincts while spinning many plates because you’ll oftentimes have to think fast. Be confident in your creative vision.

More on the importance of loving what you’re doing

Nikila Cole expressed that no matter what the project is that you work on, you must always find a corner of it that you love. You will only feel proud and accomplished with your work if you have a passion and appreciation f­or its subject matter or process.

As soon as we get a green light it’s almost like going to ‘war’ – figuratively speaking of course – the grueling hours, the intensity on set, and the bonds built with our fellow ‘soldiers.’

The term ‘we’ve been through the trenches together’ is something I’m sure we’ve all said at least once in our careers because there’s nothing more gratifying than the pride a team shares after wrap.

Make the process enjoyable and the finished result something to be proud of. Let’s tell great stories on and off the screen.

NSI Lifestyle & Reality Series Producer is made possible by Program Partners Shaw MediaCorus Entertainment and Bell Media; Supporting Sponsors Buck ProductionsCineflix ProductionsPeace Point EntertainmentPeacock Alley EntertainmentProper Television and Temple Street Productions; Industry Sponsor Canadian Media Production Association (CMPA).

Leave a comment