"Real Life in Reality TV"

Real Life in Reality TV

Shawn Witt ’01 develops reality shows such as Alone, Pawn Stars, Tiny House Nation and many others. As senior vice president of programming, he juggles projects, fields calls and learns.

Q. It’s been more than 14 years since you graduated. Tell us about your journey.

A. I moved to NYC the day after I graduated in 2001 with nothing more than a friend’s couch to sleep on and a couple industry contacts I’d made during my senior year by sending some unsolicited (but charming) handwritten letters to television executives asking for advice. Those contacts didn’t ultimately pan out, but I employed the same strategy during my first couple weeks in the city—knocking on as many doors as I could—until opportunities slowly started to present themselves. My first postcollegiate job was for the Late Show with David Letterman—as an audience ‘page.’ It bought me some time to continue sending unsolicited (and increasingly charming) letters to television execs hoping that someone would tell me the secret to getting into the business. Two months later, I lucked out and an executive at MTV offered to meet me during her lunch break to answer any questions I had. It turns out that she liked that I’d taken French in college because she had as well. Lesson learned, Bears: take French not Spanish. It otherwise may be completely useless, but it could get you a life-changing lunch meeting! For me, this meeting was just that, as it led to my first real freelance television job as a production assistant on a three-day Bon Jovi (Google him) concert shoot. I apparently drove a van so well that the network offered me a full-time production assistant job on what was then a relatively up-and-coming live studio show called Total Request Live (TRL). After a couple years of living on minimum wage and off blueberry Pop Tarts I’d steal from the celebrity green room, I was given the opportunity to produce the show. I stayed at MTV and parent-company Viacom for 10 years, overseeing TRL until its 2008 cancellation and producing tons of live studio shows, events and reality programs for MTV and Nickelodeon. I was made an executive producer in 2009, and in 2011 I was recruited by a former boss at an upstart production company called Leftfield Pictures.

Q. Has Ursinus had any impact on your career?

A. The best thing about Ursinus is that it allows students to make the absolute most out of anything they’re willing to put the time and effort into learning outside the classroom. The faculty is beyond supportive of and attentive toward those students who want to try new things, challenge themselves outside of the standard curriculum, and make their own opportunities. If you’re willing to get off your butt and do something to better yourself— whatever it may be—there’s not a better, more encouraging place to spend four years.

Shawn Witt ’01 in his midtown Manhattan office.Shawn Witt ’01 in his midtown Manhattan office.Q. What do you do as Senior V.P. of Programming?

A. My day-to-day involves overseeing all aspects of production (development through postproduction) for our many series and specials. I typically have 15 to 20 projects on my slate at any given time and supervise separate teams for each. Leftfield Entertainment works closely with a large number of cable and broadcast networks, and my job primarily focuses on making sure they’re getting exactly what they want while managing the fact that they rarely know what that is. I take every series I run from concept through delivery and create, sell and execute original concepts as well.

Q. Tell us about your impact on Alone, the longest survival experiment ever captured for television.

A. There’s not a single project I’ve worked on that I’m more proud of than Alone. A coworker and I were huge fans of survival-based programming, and back in November of 2013 there was a big push from the networks to come up with a format that would redefine the space. Shows like Naked & Afraid were perceived to be both overly produced and exploitative so we were tasked to come up with something more authentic and unproduced. While researching ideas, we found an Internet video of a man who’d gone a little nuts after challenging himself to spend a couple months alone in the wilderness. He documented the whole experience himself and after 40-plus days he was so emotionally drained that he couldn’t look at a plate of cheese or a fire extinguisher without crying. My coworker and I brought this video to a brainstorm session and discussed with the group how we thought we could turn this into a human experiment by tasking the nation’s best wilderness self-reliance experts to self-document their own personal journeys as they attempted to survive in the wild, alone, for up to a year. It took almost a full year of creative development, casting, location scouting, safety research and rules writing to create what aired in 2015, but it was the single most creatively rewarding and emotionally satisfying project I’ve ever been a part of. I don’t typically push my projects on people, but if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. You’ll learn something about surviving in the wilderness, but more importantly, you’ll learn something about yourself.

Q. How about Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunting?

A. Tiny houses…huge headaches! The year 2014 was both great and frustrating for me because of the Tiny series. Believe it or not, there truly is a popular movement in the country right now in which people build diminutive homes (300 square feet or less!) in order to eliminate mortgages and minimize their footprint on the earth. I was brought on to figure out how to turn this movement into a viable series while working within a very tiny budget. Build shows are already very difficult to produce as you’re at the complete mercy of the builders and any complications that delay the process along the way. When you add the ‘tiny’ factor, it doesn’t get easier—it actually gets harder because small houses require all of the same things big houses do, just with way less room to fit things and maneuver within.

The budget for Tiny House Nation allowed us seven days to build each home and if you speak ‘contractor’ you know that ‘seven days’ more accurately translates to ‘four weeks.’ We spent the better part of eight months in 2014 managing complex construction challenges and transportation logistics on top of the emotions of exhausted crews and homeowners. Despite the challenging start, I absolutely love the show, the talent (John and Zack are the nicest guys you’ll meet), the customers, and the team that spends three-fourths of the year on the road putting it all together.

Q. Describe working in a production company in New York City. Frenetic?

A. NYC doesn’t faze me anymore, but the majority of the frenetic activity happens in my brain as I juggle dozens of projects at once while fielding calls from networks, agents, series talent, showrunners, potential new hires and the occasional telemarketer. I think we all spend more time putting out fires than being creative—but we do our best to find a balance. Everyone who knows me will say I’m always on my phone, always stressed, never taking vacation or unplugging, but to be honest I can’t see myself doing anything else. The insanity is fun and although I spend 75 percent of my day at my desk, that time is usually spent watching and critiquing television or finding creative ways to make even the most ridiculous concepts into tangible entertainment. That’s really not a bad way to make a good living, and a bonus is that twice a year Freddie Prinze Jr. (Google him) is bound to tweet about liking shows that I make, so there’s that.

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Q. What can you not work without?

A. Eyes! The Internet and my phone. Everything we do in entertainment requires we be plugged in 24/7. Whether it’s production emergencies, unhappy talent, confused network executives, insane deadlines or just wanting to be ahead of the curve on industry trends, creative developments, and business opportunities, if you’re not connected, responsive and quick to act, you’re going to be left behind. You definitely need to find a life-work balance, and I make an effort every day to do just that; but be prepared if you want to get into entertainment that your phone will be the third wheel no matter where you go or who you’re with. It doesn’t stop. Not even on Christmas.

Q. Is there a skill you have now that you did not have before?

A. The most tangible thing I’ve gained over the past 14 years is an abundance of knowledge about a wide range of fascinating subjects. Every day is a learning experience and the variety of series I produce forces me to develop an understanding of otherwise niche topics such as deep brain stimulation, sword forging, wilderness self-reliance, classic car restoration, cruffin baking, and more! I’m constantly learning and adapting so I can speak the unique ‘languages’ of our many contributors as I attempt to convey those worlds accurately and enjoyably to the viewer.

Q. Advice for students going into this field?

A. First, get as much hands-on experience as you can. This includes learning how to use a wide variety of cameras, lenses, editing equipment, lighting and audio gear, etc. The immediate goal is to experiment, be creative, take chances and have fun. This will help you develop your own unique style while allowing you to learn the equipment inside and out. With network budgets nearly evaporating and DIY media on the rise, the jack-of-all-trades is the most employable in today’s marketplace and will have the most long-term success.

Second piece of advice would be to ask for it. Identify and connect with people who have jobs you think you might enjoy and offer to take them to coffee. Prepare a ton of questions but do not ask for a job. Meet as many people as possible and there’s a really good chance one of them will lead to your first, or next, great job opportunity.

Finally, never make any decisions about what to pursue in this industry (or any industry, for that matter) based on potential income. Follow your gut and choose those projects and opportunities that inspire and challenge you. Stick with employers who respect you and companies where the people feel like home. A minimum of one-third of your life will be spent at work and in entertainment it’s more like 50 percent, so you’d better like what you’re doing and whom you’re doing it with. If you’re lucky enough to make a good living along the way, that’s a win … but not one worth losing yourself over.