Interview: David Eilenberg

The Apprentice, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, and Da Ali G Show are just a few of the shows that David Eilenberg has worked on as a writer or producer.

Eilenberg, who is Head of Development & Current Programming at One Three Television (previously known as Mark Burnett Productions), says, “The sheer variability of projects and the amazing people I get to meet and interact with make this a constantly enlivening, terrifically exciting job. Every day is different, and I am never bored.”

When asked about what some of the key differences are between reality and scripted shows (aside from the obvious), Eilenberg, who has worked on both, relays, “The key storytelling components in good scripted TV and good unscripted TV have a lot more in common than they do not have in common. You have to understand what makes a compelling narrative arc, good pacing, and clear characters. Without those fundamentals, you are not going to produce satisfactory television.”

TSL:  Yes, agreed. I feel many writers often choose a side – reality or scripted – but don’t take into account that they share one primary similarity like you mentioned: storytelling. Speaking of which, as you were growing up, were there signs you would eventually work in reality TV?

DE:  I certainly wouldn’t have recognized it at the time, but I think the fundamental answer to this question is “yes.” Reality TV is grounded in non-fiction and in games, and I was absorbed in both of those from a very early age.

TSL:  And then how did you begin your TV career?

DE:  I didn’t begin [it] in earnest until toward the end of film school, when I was lucky enough to be hired to write on an animated MTV show called Head Trip.

TSL:  Did you have to work any odd jobs before that? If so, how did they help prep you for what you do today?

DE:  I have been very fortunate in that I have been working steadily in the entertainment industry since finishing film school. However, while I was putting myself through film school, I was a temp at a medical insurance firm in Pasadena. I have certainly had some odd jobs while in the entertainment industry.

Each creative and work experience I’ve had has probably played some important role in terms of preparing me for my current career. I would say that maintaining a healthy curiosity about the world at large has been key, as has been the cultivation of a flexible sense of my own “role” within the industry. Had I steadfastly insisted to myself that I could only be a writer (which is where I started) and that anything else would mark failure, it would have been much more difficult to find my way to a different career path.

TSL:  And now you’re in development and current programming?

DE:  Yes. My job entails helping to find, create, develop, sell, and make new projects, mostly in unscripted television, but increasingly for alternative screens as well.

TSL:  How did you know you wanted to focus more on reality vs. non-reality television? I know you worked on the latter, too… For instance, Da Ali G Show is much different than The Apprentice. Both obviously have storytelling elements, but do you prefer reality?

DE:  I still love scripted TV and watch quite a lot of it. My focus on reality has been driven as much by my own evolving skill set and the opportunities presented to me than by any preference as a consumer or viewer. I think there are great shows in both the unscripted and scripted genres, and I enjoy all of them.

TSL:  What are some key differences between them?

DE:  I think that one key and obvious difference is that so much of an episode of reality television is still built in post-production. You may shoot literally hundreds of hours to get one 43-minute episode of TV, which means that a lot of the narrative choices that would be already built into a shooting script for traditional scripted TV are instead determined in the post process. That’s no excuse for lack of preparation, however—if anything, producers have to be really sure that they’ve created the right conditions for an eventual successful episode. There’s nothing quite so gut-wrenching as shooting those hundreds of hours and then finding that you still don’t have the goods, especially since re-shoots are, in reality TV, effectively impossible.

TSL:  So how exactly do producers prepare a reality show? Detailed outlining? “Scripted” situations? What’s the best approach?

DE:  Every show and every company differs in terms of its approach. For competition and game shows, which still tend to be the types of reality shows that succeed best on the major broadcast networks (e.g. Survivor, American Idol, The Biggest Loser, etc.), the most important “outlining” is comprised of the construction of the game itself, casting amazing contestants and talent, and finding great locations (whether that means locating an island or building an amazing studio set). And needless to say, all this prep comes to naught without skilled story producers, crew, shooters, editors, etc., etc., etc., once you are out in the field and are actually in production.

For those documentaries and docu-soaps that tend to dominate cable, the prep process is a little bit different. Because you don’t have a game with clear markers to hang your story on, producers should have at least a very clear calendar of what will be happening in their subjects’ lives during a production period, so they can anticipate certain big events that may help structure particular episodes. All that said, I think you still have to allow for things to go in a direction you don’t expect, as I think the audience has a very keen eye at this point for anything that feels scripted or staged.

TSL:  Now, imagine that one of our readers has the next reality show hit. Can you give them some pitching tips? What makes one pitch stand out from another?

DE:  I do have a few tips, although each person has to develop his or her own style:

1) Don’t overdo the lead-up. No one needs a five-minute lead-in about how amazing and revolutionary the show is going to be. And there's almost no surer sign that I've heard an idea before than someone telling me I've "never heard anything like this before." So set the table as to what sort of show you’re pitching (Competition? Docu? One-hour? Half-hour? Food? Fashion?), give me the title, and let’s get into the details.

2) Don’t disparage other people’s shows as a way of pumping up your own. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people start their pitches by talking about how a successful show “sucks” or is “tired” and how this one will “blow it out of the water.” First of all, this is a very small industry, and you are probably dissing the hard work of several of my friends and colleagues. Secondly, it just makes you look silly to sneer at success.

3) Don’t go over 19 minutes if you can possibly help it. Most execs are scheduled in tight, half-hour increments, and you need to leave time for Q&A. I promise that if we get into business, we’ll have lots and lots of time to hash out the minutiae.

In terms of what makes a pitch stand out in a positive way, it is almost always a really great idea or really great talent. Professional-looking sales materials help, especially if you are new to the field.

TSL:  Very nicely said. Thank you. (If you get hundreds of calls after this interview comes out, I apologize in advance!)What percentage of pitches do you think One Three Television buys?

DE:  One important clarification I should first issue is that, unlike certain parts of the scripted business, production companies in the unscripted area rarely actually “buy” anything. Typically, the production company options the project and then tries to sell it to a network, who becomes the owner or licensee (depending on the type of deal).

I don’t have any firm data on what percentage of pitches ultimately become shows, but industry-wide, it's almost certainly less than half and probably less than 10%. The moral of that story is to not get too precious about any single idea, any more than you should any single screenplay or pilot in the scripted sphere.

TSL:  And once you start to develop a pitch into a show, how long is the development process before it actually airs? I personally think that it is amazing that anything, scripted or not, actually gets on the air.

DE:  I’ve seen the pitch-to-air process take as long as five years and as short as six weeks. The timelines in unscripted TV are still, I believe, more favorable than those in the feature world (where I know it now takes an average of something like seven years to get a movie made even once the script has been bought), but probably on par with scripted TV. In general, an average pitch-to-air process is probably around a year.

TSL:  Do show ideas at One Three Television also come from execs and people from within the company vs. outside people? And does this happen often?

DE:  We have generated shows internally and have had shows come in from the outside. Almost every company in our space is generally going to have a mix of both.

TSL:  I know it is probably difficult to name favorites, but do you have a favorite show you have done?

DE:  Of course I love all of our shows equally, but I have a special soft spot for The Apprentice, because that was the show I really grew up on as a producer and where I truly began to understand the complex and exciting process of making reality TV.

TSL:  In general, what are the key elements to a good show?

DE:  The most important element is to have great people making it, from the showrunner on down. Without dedicated, intelligent, passionate people working on the show, it will never achieve its full potential. After that, it’s everything you’d expect—casting, storytelling, editing, and luck are all very important. Finally, I should make a special plea to prospective unscripted producers not to neglect actual production value. I think there’s a misapprehension that in the era of YouTube, things like cinematography, sound quality, and lighting have ceased to matter as much, especially for unscripted TV. In my personal opinion, nothing could be further from the truth, and if you look at the shows that have maintained their success across network and cable, you will find enormous pride of craft throughout.

TSL:  What would you tell an aspiring reality TV development exec or producer to do to jump-start their reality TV path?

DE:  The best possible thing you can do is to work on reality TV shows. Take a job as a P.A., a camera assist, anything you can get. Your next job will almost certainly come from those you end up working with and, even for those who strive to eventually become executives, spending some serious time in the trenches is the best possible groundwork for your future career.

TSL:  What characteristics do you think are key in someone who wants to develop/produce/become a story editor in reality TV shows?

DE:  Inquisitiveness and tirelessness are both very valuable traits. Most of all, you have to be a collaborator and, if you are not a natural extrovert, find some way to train yourself to be one. Even more than other parts of the entertainment industry, unscripted TV requires constant communication and collaboration. Other than a few very unique editors, it is nearly impossible to find a niche in this part of the business as a "loner genius," who does his or her best work locked in a room.

TSL:  Do you think film school is necessary? Why or why not?

DE:  I personally really benefitted from having gone to film school, both in terms of the connections that I made and the instruction I was given. That said, it would be disingenuous of me to characterize it as "necessary," especially since so many tremendously successful people in this field have never been to film school or, in some cases, school.

TSL:  What final words of advice would you give to someone who wants to be the next you?

DE:  Stop modeling your career on other people's.