our continuing series of conversations with key
industry executives, the TV Writers Vault
is very pleased to welcome Mr. Dan Riley.
He is an executive member of the
Television Writers Vault, and boasts an
extensive background producing reality-based
formats for a variety of Networks.
As Supervising Producer and Executive Producer,
Original Programming at E! Entertainment from
2004-2008, Dan produced more than 100 hours of
programming including some of the network's
highest rated specials and original series. Most
notably, E!'s mega popular 101 countdown series
and specials "What Hollywood Taught Us About
Sex" with Jenny McCarthy, "Glamour
Magazine's Biggest Do's & Don'ts" with
Garcelle Beauvais, The "Sexiest" series, "Battle
of the Hollywood Hotties", and the launch of
the European version of "Wild On!" Dan
has also worked as a producer at 20th Television,
Renegade 83, and has produced reality shows,
specials, and pilots for FOX, UPN, USA, Style and
TLC. Most recently, Dan produced the feature film
"Pickin' & Grinnin'" directed by Jon Gries.
Dan Riley is a member of the Producer's Guild of
America and Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Thanks for sharing your time with us, Dan.
We’re happy to have you at the TV Writers Vault.
Happy to be part of your series.
Your list of credits, producing reality-based
formats for cable, covers just about every show my
wife is addicted to, and I love watching!
What is it about these “100 best…”, “50
biggest…”, “Top 20 Greatest…” formats
that makes us love to watch them? And a bigger
question… are you addicted to your own shows like
the rest of us?
Everyone has an opinion. Countdown shows hook
audiences with a question that trigger an instant
response from the viewer. Who's sexier, Angelina
Jolie or Jennifer Aniston? You may be
disappointed by the given answer within the
program, but you will surely stick around to find
out why or who may be the #1 sexiest of all.
Within the confines of a television network "the
list" is taken very seriously. I've sat around
many a conference table with twenty people arguing
every last person, place, or thing on the list.
Everyone involved experiences an amusing amount of
frustration in creating the list. This is one
executive meeting where it's okay to say to the
person across from you, "You're crazy!" The
material is controversial in its infancy and will
no doubt be just so when the show hits the air.
Anytime one makes a deliberate statement there
will always be someone there to say, "No, that's
wrong." With respect to my own shows, the
addiction is over once the show is complete. That
doesn't mean I am any less guilty than the next
guy and don't get hooked into the same format
created by others. I do, but not with one of my
own creations. I'll watch the premiere, but it's
more a matter of responsibility than compulsion.
Plus, I've already seen the show fifty times.
Would you say that you specialize in that one
particular genre, or has your success been
more a result of the Network trusting you with
delivering that particular type of programming?
Love that...nicely done. Well my mother is proud
of me. I guess that's all a guy can wish for. I
quite possibly could be the guy that's done the
most guilty pleasure programming, but I'm not the
only one. With so many channels available, most
cable networks work extremely hard at enticing
viewers with guilty pleasure programming. I fell
into a niche and rode the wave for a long time.
For awhile, I was the dating show guy, then the
countdown show guy. Hollywood has a tendency to
put people into categories, but when you get right
down to the basic process, it's still television
production. First and foremost, I am a producer,
a creator. I have to believe I am capable of
producing every type of programming known to man.
Just because I've made a lot of blue toasters
doesn't mean I can't make one hell of a red
toaster ...with four slots, dual heat control and
bagel mode. Sorry, got carried away.
I love that. I guess you can look at shows
How did you get your start in this business, and
what attracted you to the Industry?
I never imagined being a part of any other
industry. After college in the early 90's, I
started producing theatre in LA with a company of
about 40 actors, while working as an actor
myself. After beating myself up for a few years,
I grew tired of pursuing the pipe dream and got a
job as an assistant to a production lawyer.
Naturally, that was the beginning of an entirely
new pipe dream, one that has yet to completely
come to fruition. I worked for the entertainment
lawyer for a few years and soaked up everything I
could about the business side of production.
Then, just as the reality boom began, I jumped in
and have been working like mad ever since.
In the process of producing, what do you enjoy
more; writing/creating, directing, or producing
I enjoy each and every aspect of producing.
Writing is by far the most tedious part of the
process, but can also be very rewarding and make
your job as producer much easier. The script is
always the most important piece of the puzzle.
Considering the type of programming we're
discussing that may get a laugh, but just like in
all forms of storytelling, the text is numero
uno. Piecing together a compelling thirty-minute
story from 100 hours of field tapes isn't easy,
and creating a three-minute segment with a hook,
an arc, and a resolution has its own set of
difficulties. In any case, above and beyond the
usual story elements, you need a strong
point-of-view, detail, texture, and nuance. You
can't build anything expected to stand on its own
without a good foundation.
Your creative aptitude can also prove useful in
overcoming lack of funds, technical resources, and
tight deadlines. You may not have everything you
want in your show's toolbox, but you've got to
find a way to make it work and still do the
material justice. I also really enjoy directing
on-camera talent and working with cameras,
lighting, crew, etc. Directing is always a fun
diversion from all of the other aspects of
production. Spending the day directing Jenny
McCarthy or Joel McHale is always better than a
day in the office or the edit bay. And if you're
well prepared, it's nothing but fun.
producing a reality-based show at… for example, E!
Network, can you share with us what the process is
like from concept to creation? If you’re Executive
Producing, where are your energies focused?
I have been a part of creating dozens of shows and
other times brought in after the show has been
created and given the green light. A show concept
can come from anywhere, brainstorm meeting, the
Network VP, an idea of mine, an outside pitch, or
just a new take on something from the network's
library. The idea factory never stops. Ideas are
constantly tossed around by all.
First and foremost, your energy is focused on
serving the network's vision of the show. As the
EP, it is your job to first prove you are the man
for the job, even if you know you've already got
the gig. Sometimes the concept is rough and
they're expecting you to make it better. Other
times, the concept has already been through the
ringer and is ready to be put to paper and/or
tape, but even then they're expecting you to make
it better. As the showrunner, you need to clearly
convey your ideas and illustrate your plan of
attack . Ideas and plans that result in progress
or an evolution for the overall concept at hand.
Within a large corporate environment a lot of
energy goes into management. That is, management
of time, budget, staff, and reporting back to the
Network with progress updates. Communication and
confidence are crucial in all aspects. If the EP
isn't confident in his abilities and doesn't
communicate well with his staff and with network
executives, his staff and the Network's confidence
in him will quickly diminish. The production
staff wants to feel like their ideas are important
and their hard work appreciated, while network
executives want to know that they can count on you
to deliver the goods and feel comfortable knowing
that you are in control. The execs have twenty
projects under their wing so the less time they
feel they have to spend with you, the better. If
you can establish yourself and acquire their
trust, you will have a lot more creative freedom.
From there, I'm off running the show, writing,
casting, taping, editing, and reporting back as
necessary. The process varies from network to
network, or company to company, so as a producer I
need to be prepared for any number of scenarios.
Sometimes that means starting from the beginning,
How many projects do you handle at any given time?
When you're in production, do new projects in
development go by the wayside?
I have juggled as many as 4-5 shows in production
simultaneously, but not without a tremendous
support staff. When things get that busy, it
becomes very difficult to develop new material.
That said, at the very least, I will take a couple
minutes to jot down an idea that I will expand
upon later. I'll just send myself an email from
my blackberry. Yes, I leave myself voice mails
too. Each show needs constant attention and if
you're lucky, the crucial deadlines (e.g., script,
taping, delivery) fall on different days. It's
been a couple years since I've been hit with that
much programming at once. Nowadays, everything
has been scaled down, which equates to less
programming and longer work hours for guys like
me. Showrunners are required to do a lot more
with much less. The budgets are smaller,
deadlines tighter, and staffs have been reduced to
a handful of people. The development of material
has changed as well. A one-sheet and a phone call
or meeting used to be sufficient for igniting
interest. Now, much of the time, you have to go
out and put your idea to tape before anyone will
give any consideration at the Network level.
You've got to make it easier for the Network to
What advice can you give to Writers selling
concepts and formats?
your ideas with others and get feedback. Create
your own little focus group and really listen to
everything people say. You don't have to use it
all, but listen carefully. Your 14-year-old
cousin just might surprise you. A filmmaker
wouldn't want to make a movie without at least a
few table reads. Why should reality be any
different? There are plenty of writing groups out
there and if you don't want to share your idea
with them, use your family and friends. Your
family will love it, and who knows, maybe grandma
will help you find the missing element to your
What makes for great television?
Doesn't matter if the show is scripted or reality,
without someone to care about or someone you love
to hate... show's over.
Can you share with us details of any current
projects you’re working on? We’d love to keep an
eye out for them.
I produced a few spec reality pilots (gotta have
tape) and am out and about making the rounds, and
just wrapped a two-hour documentary on teenage
murderers for E! called "Too Young to Kill", which
premieres February 3rd. Also, produced a feature
film called "Pickin' & Grinnin'". The beginning
of my new pipe dream.
What have you enjoyed most about what “Reality”
programming has brought to television over the
Variety. There's no use in having hundreds of
channels without variety. Plus a sociological
look into the world of so many weird people.
People are strange and that's fun to watch.
What do you see in the future of reality-based
programming? Have things reached a limit, or does
the genre simply reflect pop-culture and our world
as it evolves?
Reality-based programming is here to stay. The
cable networks rely on it almost entirely. Pop
culture and trends will change, but the public's
appetite for it will always be ravenous.
People love to complain that Hollywood is stuck in
a cycle of re-producing familiar formats, and
won’t reach out or take risks with anything
outside of proven formulas. What can you tell us
about Hollywood’s drive to discover new and
original ideas for programming?
Hollywood is chewing its proverbial fingernails
and on its knees praying every day that something
original and exciting will fall into its lap.
Television networks take risks all the time, but a
lot of those risky projects never make it to your
living room... hence the risky part. Others are
simply short-lived unmemorable quickies that got
lost in the shuffle. Risk is an inherent part of
creating content. Networks work very hard at
developing innovative content, but you've got to
pay the bills while your building the bride of
What shows are locked into your Tivo or DVR right
now for recording?
Seinfeld, Cheers, Dr. Drew's Celebrity Rehab, Man
vs. Food, and Boxing. True, I just checked.
Thanks for spending the time with us, Dan. Best of
success with your shows!
My pleasure. Thanks for thinking of me.