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 development?

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 produce it.

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 world.
SM: How critical is casting in docu-style reality TV?

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 programming.

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 launched?

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 process?

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 and fulfilling.

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 on?

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 on watching?

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!

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