Dan Riley | Executive Producer
Port Magee Pictures | E!
In 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.
Scott Manville: Thanks for sharing your time with
us, Dan. We’re happy to have you at the TV Writers
Dan Riley: Happy to be part of your series.
SM: 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?
DR: 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
SM: 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?
DR: Success? 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
SM: I love that. I guess you can look at shows as
widgets. How did you get your start in this
business, and what attracted you to the Industry?
DR: 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
SM: In the process of producing, what do you enjoy
more; writing/creating, directing, or producing the
DR: 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.
SM: When 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
DR: 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, establishing trust.
SM: How many projects do you handle at any given
time? When you're in production, do new projects in
development go by the wayside?
DR: 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 say
SM: What advice can you give to Writers selling
concepts and formats?
DR: Share 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 masterpiece?
SM: What makes for great television?
DR: Characters. Doesn't matter if the show is
scripted or reality, without someone to care about
or someone you love to hate... show's over.
SM: Can you share with us details of any current
projects you’re working on? We’d love to keep an eye
out for them.
DR: 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.
SM: What have you enjoyed most about what “Reality”
programming has brought to television over the past
DR: 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.
SM: 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?
DR: 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.
SM: 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
DR: 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
SM: What shows are locked into your Tivo or DVR
right now for recording?
DR: Seinfeld, Cheers, Dr. Drew's Celebrity Rehab,
Man vs. Food, and Boxing. True, I just checked.
SM: Thanks for spending the time with us, Dan. Best
of success with your shows!
DR: My pleasure. Thanks for thinking of me.