Founder, TVWritersVault.com | Contributing Writer,
NATPE (National Association Television Program
With the explosion of reality
TV and the global
format business, Executive Producer Phil Gurin
navigates the always-evolving landscape of TV
programming with a killer-instinct for strategy, and
a spot-on intuition for what engages viewers around
the world. Adept at genres
ranging from studio game shows to docu-reality and
live-event productions, he has a passion for
storytelling and character development that have
become his hallmark, stemming from his early career
as a writer. As a result, he now has shows in
various stages of development and production in more
than 30 countries, and spanning more than a dozen
Gurin has created, written and/or produced thousands
of hours of television, with shows appearing on
networks such as ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, UPN, PBS, MTV,
Nickelodeon, VH1, USA, FX, GSN, CMT, HBO, Lifetime,
A&E, Bravo, TV Guide Channel and Discovery Channel,
along with numerous shows in syndication. He
currently produces Shark Tank
with Mark Burnett. His credits include
(NBC network and syndication),
Lingo (GSN), Miss Universe and Miss USA, Singing Bee
(NBC, and the #1 Show on CMT), and Candid Camera
(CBS). He has newly created shows debuting soon in
France, Germany and the UK.
Having developed strong relationships with marquee
International talent, such as Donald Trump, Ryan
Seacrest, Regis Philbin, Mark Burnett and countless
others, Gurin continues to expand the development
and packaging of new TV formats for imminent success.
We’re thrilled to share this time with him, exploring
his world of creation, and his approach to producing
for today’s television market.
Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to
chat with us, Phil. I’m excited to share your
insight with other Producers and Writers at the
TV Writers Vault.
: The level of success you’ve accomplished with a
refreshingly varied slate of formats is inspiring.
What brought you into this business, and what led
you to having such a broad, yet specific sense of
what works for television audiences?
: I fell into this side of the business completely
by accident. I began my career as a writer and
development guy, working with some great producers
and studios developing movies, miniseries and
dramas. But I needed a job once and wound up
working on MTV's "Remote Control", and that changed
everything. Over the years I worked as a
writer-producer-director for nearly 70 different
companies before I hung out my shingle as an
independent producer. And I've always hoped that
the things I like, that interest me, are popular,
mainstream forms of entertainment. It's what I
enjoy watching so I guess it's what I enjoy making.
: Can you detail for us the current focus and
agenda for The Gurin Company? Any exciting new
projects ready to launch?
: Our company is constantly developing new shows,
building new relationships both here in the US and
with producers, creators, talent and broadcasters
all over the world. International television is
truly exciting. Meeting people and exchanging ideas
- and commerce - with like-minded people from all
over the globe is both good business and basically
just plain ol' fun.
: With my own background developing game formats
for Merv, I have a particular admiration of your
success in producing game shows. How have you seen
the genre change over the past decade?
: Everything that's old is new
again. When one thing works,
everyone jumps on the bandwagon and
thinks that that is now the only way
to do things. The best executives
are the ones who take the initial
risk on the style of a format, and
then when it works, it seems to set the pace. When
"Millionaire" broke, every show had to have a money
ladder, one contestant playing against the house,
and really cool sets and music. And, of course,
every show that came after it had some sort of
"lifeline". Then, with "Deal or No Deal", every
show has to have family members rooting for you in
the audience, and some sort of omniscient "banker".
There have been stunt shows, panel shows, dating
shows, comedy shows, Q&A shows, and they all worked
before and will all work again. It's just aligning
the right format with the right producers, designers
and talent. Its alchemy, and we'd all be rich if we
all were right all of the time.
: Would you agree that reality television has
refreshed the game genre and what audiences will
embrace as a format?
: Sure, reality has
influenced game shows, but truly it is the other way
around. Every reality competition show is a game
show, and every one of them can be traced back to
some original source or influence during the past 75
years. Audiences, though, will embrace something
that is well made and doesn't feel like it's the
same old thing with a new wrapper on it.
: It does seem that some of today’s game shows in
the U.S. are born out of a clever gimmick; whether
it be sending expensive merchandise off the top of a
building at the mercy of a ticking clock, or picking
numbers showcased by a bevy of beauties... Is there
ever a time or place for a more emotional narrative
in a game show? Must it always be light
: "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" has drama.
"Moment of Truth" had emotional narrative. I
absolutely believe game shows can have that kind of
depth. But they need not be exploitative to
succeed. Create a game that is easy to understand,
compelling, cast well, and the story will unfold in
a great way that audiences will appreciate.
Of course, by the very word "game" in the title, a
game should be something people want to play - and
play should be fun. There is absolutely nothing
wrong in working in a genre where the highest ideal
is to have fun.
: What is the appetite for new game formats today?
Does the genre have more heat overseas?
: Traditional US game show outlets - daytime
syndication, cable, network – are constantly in a
state of flux. There was a time when all game shows
were launched in network daytime. Maybe the current
economic climate will help bring that need back. We
all know that there hasn't been a successful
syndicated game show launch of a title that didn't
first appear on network in, what, 30 years? The big
broadcast networks will still develop a big, wide
reaching game show. I would like to see the advent
of other game show outlets.
Around the world, game shows are a wide part of the
television diet in virtually every culture. That
used to be true here in the United States. In some
respects I don't think many executives buying
programming think it's cool to develop game shows.
It's not what they want to talk about when they are
hanging out with their friends, or trying to
leverage their careers. But all careers are helped
by success, and if a great game brings in both
eyeballs and revenue, then I guarantee the ballsy
executive who helps launch a great game show will
watch their career grow, too.
: The Gurin Company has a global reach, producing
and distributing formats for television around the
world. How do you view the traffic flow of formats
being exploited globally? Is there a larger appetite
for European formats being brought to the U.S.
market? Or is there opportunity in exporting formats
to foreign markets?
: I have been speaking about this for nearly a
decade. I have always welcomed the flow of content
from abroad into the United States. But the reverse
is just as viable. Americans are GREAT creators of
ideas and formats. The rest of the world sees
America as the Holy Grail when it comes to where
they want to sell and produce their shows. But the
rest of world is hungry for great ideas, and
Americans should be eager to share original product
with everyone, everywhere. We should be the leading
exporter, not only the leading importer, of creative
game and reality formats.
idea is king...
plain and simple."
: If a Writer or Producer has a new format for a
game show, is there any element other than the
format itself that can give it an edge for selling
to a Network? Or is it strictly about the format and
: The idea is king. Plain and simple.
But it has
to be made well, and it needs many elements to
succeed. I always say a good game needs to have
both sizzle AND the steak. The steak is the solid
format. The sizzle is what makes it a television
show and not a board game.
: Lets talk reality. It seems that in about ‘03,
the genre just took off with new life, opening up
the possibilities of new formats and unique content
for TV. What is it specifically, that you feel will
give reality TV its longevity?
: Reality is a part of the television diet that
has always been here, but no one called it that.
Candid Camera is 60 years old. Reality never left;
the broadcasters just realized it could fill more
parts of the schedule. And with an entire
generation, now maybe a second generation, having
grown up watching cable reality shows shot with Flip
cameras and stuff, everyone is used to seeing any
kind of video on television. It is here to stay,
and that's a good thing.
: Do you think reality programming has evolved in
a good direction over the past decade? Do you see
audience’s tastes moving in any new direction?
: Audiences - and I'm an audience, and you are an
audience - what do we want? To watch something that
will hold our interest. Whatever that is, whatever
mood we are in. Reality television is so mature now
that it has the same ups and downs as the scripted
business. Things move in waves, in cycles, and one
kind of reality will lead to another and then
another and then another and then, maybe, back
: We’ve seen countless successful reality programs
that are derivative of others, especially in format.
Do you, yourself, push for more original and unique
wrinkles and twists in formats as you’re developing
a concept, or does the content really dictate the
: I have a simple philosophy about pitching: if
it is already on the air, don't bother to pitch it.
If the networks send out word that they are looking
for one type of show, move on to something else,
because it's likely that once the need is announced,
somebody else got there first. Go create something
that is not on anyone's radar.
: Take us inside your process of conceiving and
developing an idea? Where do you get your
inspiration, and how do you work it out?
: If I knew, I would tell you. I just hope we
talk enough about things inside my company, and take
a thorough, professional approach to fleshing the
idea out to the fullest. Ask yourself: What am I
going to see onscreen? What's the eye candy for the
viewer? And is there a beginning, middle and an
end? What is the narrative through-line? Every
genre - game, music, variety, reality, etc. - every
show has to tell a story. So think it through, be
able to answer every question, and spend time
developing only those things you would be passionate
about to make. And finally, think about the
broadcast outlet you are asking to give you money to
make your show, and wonder if the idea and its
execution will bring in millions of eyeballs to make
it worth it for the broadcaster to write you that
: Is producing docu-reality a refreshing change-up
from the world of formats?
: I am sure it is for some people, but I am more
interested in shows that can travel the world, and
the formats I work on are designed to be
international in appeal. Docu-soaps tend to be
local in their appeal.
: Is there any value to distributing a docuseries
internationally? Or is the potential more insulated
because it may only relate to our pop-culture?
: You are absolutely right. Some docu-soaps about
ideas and interesting non-celebrities can travel,
but American celebs? Will they really care around
: When scouting subjects or people for a possible docuseries, what do you look for? What makes
for a show?
: For me, on the docu-soaps we are developing, it
has to have an idea that can travel. I am simply
not interested in docusoaps that are US-centric.
: What’s easier to sell as a Producer; a Game Show
Format, A Reality-Competition Format, or a Docu-Style
Series? And what is your favorite to produce?
: I like all forms of entertainment. Light
entertainment. Shiny floors, moving lights...
that's me. Music, variety, comedy,
your idea inside and
out. Be original. Be
thorough. And don't
: For Writers and Producers at the TV Writers
Vault, what advice can you give on selling original
ideas and formats for shows?
: Know your idea inside and out. Ask yourself all
of the hard questions before you go pitch someone
your idea. Don't be derivative; if you are, you are
probably too late to sell it. Be original. Be
thorough. And don't be clever, be clear. It will
help in the pitch.
: In your view, is Hollywood a collaborative
community driven by “idea”, or an insulated machine
driven by formula?
: It's neither. It's a mess. And that's what
makes it fun.
: So true. Thanks again for your time and perspective,
We’re excited to see your continued success.
: Thanks. And good luck to you and everyone at the
TV Writers Vault.