Sara K. Hansemann | VP
Development, Zodiak USA
Zodiak USA is a leading producer and distributor of
original content for TV, New Media and Cinema.
Recent hit TV shows include, "Secret Millionaire"
(ABC), "Wife Swap" (ABC), "Hardcore Pawn" (truTV),
and "Being Human" (SyFy). We're pleased to share you
our conversation with Sara Hansemann, VP of
Development, Zodiak USA. She confirms with us her
passion for storytelling, and the importance of
casting in docu-style reality TV.
Scott Manville: Thanks for being with us, Sara.
You’re at the epicenter of activity at a great
company in reality television today, and I know our
members will appreciate what you have to share.
Sara Hansemann: Thank you Scott- excited to have the
chance to speak with you!
SM: Tell me first about your role at Zodiak USA.
What is your main focus, and agenda for project
SH: In development at Zodiak USA we take a
two-pronged attack. One- we create original formats
and docu-series for both broadcast and cable
networks, and two- we adapt and further develop
existing, successful formats from our international
catalogue for the American marketplace. With over 45
companies in the Zodiak Media group, we are
fortunate to have a seemingly endless supply of
proven formats to pitch. We always take the needs of
our broadcasters into consideration when deciding
what projects to add to the slate, but we also aim
to have concepts that are total surprises – the goal
is for the buyer to think, only Zodiak USA would
bring us this project and only Zodiak USA can
SM: How did you find your path into development and
production of reality-based programming? Are you a
fan of the genre as much as you are a pro?
SH: My mom is a librarian, so reading was a
requirement in my house, which led to my love of
storytelling. Television and film take storytelling
to the next level by enriching it with the texture
of sight and sound. So I am definitely a fan of all
genres of TV and film, but I think reality TV is
especially captivating because it isn’t entrenched
in a system yet. The buyers are more adventurous and
open-minded to different techniques and arenas, so
we end up with worlds that are completely
unexpected. American viewers are obviously craving
this with unscripted “sitcoms” rivaling their
scripted broadcast network counterparts.
SM: How do you see Reality TV evolving, and the
types of projects produced today versus years ago
when the reality boom first started? And its future?
SH: As the cable market expands and changes, reality
TV will continue to diversify in order to address
the niche needs of the buyers. This in turn will
lead the broadcasters to take a chance on ideas that
in years past would have been seen as only viable on
cable. I think that the audience is getting fatigued
with expected, retooled reality fare and that we’re
about to enter a new boom of surprising reality
formats and docu-series.
SM: What makes a great reality series format?
SH: A great reality format has a universality to it,
something that can be engaging for not only a
diversified population in one country, but also
around the world. What are those life moments that
regardless of age, gender, nationality, income
level, etc. the audience can relate to, for better
or for worse? If you can pinpoint those moments, you
can build a great reality format around it.
SM: We’ve seen the surge in docu-style series
development, with two shows on-air from the TV
Writers Vault just this year, and the majority of
cable networks filling programming with new docu-style
reality series’. What do you think the future holds
for this hot sub-genre?
SH: The future holds a lot. It’s like any other
genre of TV, there will always be new families,
businesses, subcultures, etc. that deserve their own
TV show for one reason or another. Just like every
year we get a fresh crop of scripted characters on
TV, we’ll get a fresh crop of docu-soap characters
as well. There is an endless supply of stories to
tell with real people, doing real things in the real
SM: How critical is casting in docu-style reality
SH: More critical than in any other form of
television. In the docu world, you live and die by
the characters you cast – even if the world is
interesting, if you don’t populate it with the right
characters you’ll never get it sold. They aren’t
interchangeable the way they are in other forms of
SM: What do you look for in potential subjects,
people, families or businesses if considering to
build a show around them?
SH: Shocking likability – it has to be an area most
people have never seen before, but they can relate
to it in some obscure way. For example, a lot of
Americans have never gone to a pawn shop, but the
loving family at the center of Hardcore Pawn is
super relatable to the general population.
SM: Tell me about some exciting projects in the
pipeline at Zodiak. Any new shows soon to be
SH: We have a number of shows that we’re about to
launch in both the format and docu-soap arenas.
Unfortunately I can’t name names yet, but I can
guarantee that they are in totally unexpected
worlds! And, of course, we have our staples Secret
Millionaire and Wife Swap/Celebrity Wife Swap (ABC).
SM: You’re the hub of all activity for projects in
development, working with various producers,
writer/creators, and network executives. What do you
love most about such a challenging position and
SH: There is no box. No project is the same as any
other, no sale to a network is the same as another
sale and no day is like any other day. The revolving
door and constant change, while challenging and
frustrating at times, is what makes this job unique
SM: What do you find most challenging in getting a
project ready for the Network?
SH: Finding the perfect balance. The networks are so
branded these days that you have to tread a very
thin line between bringing in a project that is
right for a number of networks, but also doesn’t
feel too vague so as to appear underdeveloped.
SM: What are your favorite types of projects to take
SH: Ones I would want my family back home to watch.
Something I can be proud to have been a part of that
uncovers a unique universe without feeling like I’m
compromising my creative integrity.
SM: So we have to ask... What shows are you hooked
SH: Dance Moms, obsessed. I also can’t get enough of
the classic reality shows, such as Survivor and The
Bachelor. Then there are a number of scripted
programs that are just a cut above, like Downton
Abbey, Justified, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones
and Being Human, which, in full disclosure, is a
Zodiak Media Group production. None of these shows
stay on my DVR beyond their airdates. And sports,
I’m a sports junkie for sure.
SM: Best of luck with new projects at Zodiak. We’ll
be tuning in!
SH: Thank you!