Design Star’s creator SallyAnn Salsano on being fired by HGTV, Mark Burnett’s version

Jersey Shore creator SallyAnn Salsano told me that being fired by HGTV from another popular reality show she created, Design Star, “really hurt my feelings,” but that watching Mark Burnett’s version of the show made her realize that she and her team are “geniuses.”

Today, in The Daily Beast, I profile SA, as she’s known, based on a conversation we had in Los Angeles, where she was promoting TV Guide Network’s upcoming series The Nail Files. When writing the story, I realized that the press release announcing she’d been replaced as producer of the HGTV show went out on the same day as the debut of her MTV series; the world is funny that way.

I included some of her comments about the HGTV show in the story, but didn’t have space to include them all, and she offers a lot of insight into both the process and the politics. When I asked about the HGTV competition, SA told me, “I loved Design Star. Design Star was my baby. There is no show that I loved more than Design Star. To say that I was devastated when I was fired–fired!–from having the number one show on a network, never being over budget, and working my ass off, harder than I’ve ever worked. It’s the hardest show I ever produced.”

I asked her specifically about the one thing I’ve hated about Design Star from the beginning: the lack of clear deliberations from the judges. “It’s so hard, because they were so long. Our eliminations, we would shoot for five hours. And I have six minutes, and the big thing is showing the before and afters,” she told me. “Normally in reality TV that you and I watch, we want to hear the back and forth of the judges, but to the HGTV home audience, they want to see the reveal of the rooms. It was actually doing two shows in one. I was doing a competition elimination show, so fans of that were coming, but the core audience of HGTV wanted the process … where you may not have cared. That was hard for me; that was a learning curve.”

SA praised now-retired HGTV president Judy Girard, who let SA and her newly formed 495 Productions shape Design Star into what it became. “When we came in, that show was so different. We transformed it,” Salsano told me. “They had a whole different show,” but she told them, I don’t think it’s going to work. Everyone was like, ‘It’s so much more money, the way she wants to do it.’ I know it, but I know this one’s going to work.” Girard told SA, “If you think you can do it, I’m going to back it.”

As to Mark Burnett’s version, SA told me, “Truly, I was so nervous when the show premiered, because I was like, ‘Oh my god, what if it’s so much better and I can’t produce? What if everyone’s talking about the fact that when SA did the show it sucked? ‘Look how good Mark made it!’”

But her concern was unfounded. “Me and my entire staff worked on that show, we were 10 minutes in, and we were like, ‘Not a worry! We are geniuses.’ And I will say that proudly because the amount of tears that I shed over getting fired from that show, I took it so personal, because it was personal. Because in the end, it was the number-one show, it was great, the ratings were up 37 percent in season four. That never happens. Saying it was a blow to my ego was an understatement. It really hurt my feelings,” she said.

SA also said, “It’s a case of people thinking it’s super-fancy to work with the fanciest producer in town. And my whole thing when any producer–and this is not directed toward anyone in particular–my thing is, you can pay a producer any amount of money to produce a show. What you can’t pay a producer to do is care. And if you hire a producer that’s going to live on that set, show up every day, and rock it out as if it was their own kid, there’s no price tag for it … In regime changes, everyone wants to make something their own, and I’ve never been a network executive, but I have learned one thing: If I went into a network and there was a number-one show, I’d work on the other shows that maybe were in trouble, and leave the number-one show alone.”

Even though her firing from Design Star was painful, she said, “I wouldn’t take back that experience for anything, because it is the show that launched my company, I learned a lot doing it, and it was a great experience. And it’s such a great show. I hope that this year, it’s back to what it was. Aside from producing that show, I was a fan of that show. I gotta tell you, I miss Clive.”

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.