Rita Mullin | Executive VP,
Programming & Development
OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network
In this age of Reality TV, its exciting to have a
Network whose programming inspires. Even more
exciting is meeting one of the key women who develop
and oversee that programming. Rita Mullin is the
Executive Vice President of Development and Current
Programming for OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
She's been responsible for shepherding recent hits
for the Network including "Welcome To Sweetie
Pie's", "Married to the Army: Alaska", "Staten
Island Law", "Six Little McGhees", "Life with LaToya",
and fostering dozens of other pilots in development.
Prior to her role at OWN, Mullin has served at Vice
President of Development for TLC, developing "19
Kids and Counting", "The Little Couple", "Four
Weddings", and "Sister Wives", all critically
acclaimed series'. We welcome her to the TV Writers
Vault, as she shares her perspectives on creating
and producing reality television for OWN.
Scott Manville: We’re excited to have you share your
time and insight with us. First, can you tell us a
little bit about OWN’s target audience, and your
approach to finding new projects for the channel.
Rita Mullin: OWN targets women 25-54. Our focus is
on finding non-scripted programs that complement
Oprah Winfrey's own programs -- shows with high
entertainment value that have some additional levels
of insight, and that resonate emotionally with our
core audience. We're very story and character-driven
in our approach.
SM: How did you get your start in the Industry?
RM: I've been at Discovery Communications for 17
years and started on the print side as managing
editor of Discovery Channel Monthly. After working
in the book publishing business and as a web
producer at the company, I became director of
development of Discovery Health Channel early in the
life of that channel, about twelve years ago. It was
a great place to learn the business. We developed
"Jon and Kate Plus 8" and the "Duggar" family show
there, both of which went on to have long lives on
SM: How is OWN unique from other cable channels,
from your position and experience?
RM: So many channels have to struggle to define
their brand, to differentiate themselves in the
noisy cable environment. Our channel launched with
one of the most recognized brands in television. Our
goal is to develop good cable programming that feels
true to that brand, while based in what we know
people watch on cable in primetime. So every show
really needs to first be entertaining, and then
layered on that we look for surprising insights and
emotional honesty. We also work to ensure that the
channel has a good dose of humor and isn't too
SM: What is the key to creating a great reality
series, from idea to air?
RM: A great reality series is about strong
characters and great stories--the same two things
that define all literature. Whether we're working on
a docu-soap or a closed-ended recreation-based
series, I look for both. Even in more formatted
series I look for loose formats that will reveal
character. Undercover Boss, for example, is a great
format that delivers all those things. I also like
to dig a bit below the surface to feel confident
that the people and their stories will remain
interesting to viewers over the long term. One-note
shows can be the flavor of the month, but when
people move on to the next flavor of the month, what
have you got?
SM: It seems that much of the success for any show
is in casting the right people. Are there any common
threads of personality or other factor that you look
RM: I'm always looking for people who are bigger
than life but who have great heart. I don't find
mean spirited people interesting. I don't mean they
can't be edgy--in fact, I like edginess--but I want
there to be more than meets the eye.
SM: How do you know if a particular family,
individual, or group would be able to handle a
production crew in the middle of their lives?
RM: I think people under-estimate the impact that
doing a series will have on their lives. We work
closely with the production company to ensure the
participants thoroughly understand their
participation in the series before the cameras roll.
SM: In dealing with the many talented Producers
involved with your shows at OWN, what do you like to
see most in any Producer you work with on a show?
RM: I like to see a history of producing successful
programs in the same genre. For example, I would
hesitate to hire a company to do a recreation-based
show if their experience was only in formats or docu-soaps.
It doesn't mean we wouldn't move forward, but we
would be much more involved in the staffing to
ensure that the show team had the right skill set.
SM: If a project you like is delivered by a
Production Company you haven’t worked with before,
how much of a negative bearing does that have on
your decision? Or does a great idea conquer all
RM: We have done a number of shows with companies I
hadn't worked with before. I look at their track
record with similar shows. And if it's a great idea
or they have unique access to a world, but the
producers are inexperienced, I might pair them with
a production company with more experience with that
type of show. That way everyone wins.
SM: Its exciting to see some of the new
reality-based programs in the pipeline from your
company. Are you seeing docu-style reality series
formats as a large part of OWN’s future? Can you
bank on that genre for Ad revenue return like you
might with a hit scripted series?
RM: Docu-soaps offer lots of opportunities for ad
sales. I haven't done scripted, having grown up at
Discovery, but I think that reality series offer ad
sales terrific opportunities.
SM: What advice can you give to Producers developing
projects to pitch to OWN?
RM: Come prepared. Watch what's on our air, check
what we've announced in the trades, and if possible,
come with a strong sizzle tape. The tapes help us to
see the characters but also give us a sense of the
visual style you have in mind. There are only so
many ideas--sometimes a fresh approach to a familiar
theme can win the day over a new idea that is not as
well thought through.
SM: What do you like to see on TV, when and if you
have time to enjoy it?
RM: I love strong characters and stories. When I
have time, I like to watch scripted shows, myself. I
think we're in a golden age for scripted right now,
and they often inspire my thoughts about making our
own non-scripted shows stronger. I'm very excited
that Tyler Perry is producing a brand new sitcom and
a new dramatic series for our air later this year.
They feel like a perfect fit for the network.
SM: Thank you, Rita. We look forward to your
continued success at the Network.