True Entertainment, which has been a division of Endemol since 2003, has been a prolific producer of reality television over the past 15 years. They’ve produced some of my favorite series, including Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes and the first season of Design Star, but their most high-profile show is The Real Housewives of Atlanta. It’s the one Housewives series that hasn’t suffered ratings declines but instead has grown its ratings every season, most recently breaking a Bravo record for its seventh-season premiere in November.
The production company, led by its founders Steven Weinstock and Glenda Hersh, has also produced RHOA’s spin-offs, such as Don’t Be Tardy, I Dream of NeNe, and Kandi’s Wedding, in addition to a really diverse group of other series, such as Animal Planet’s Too Cute, TLC’s A Baby Story, E!’s Gastineau Girls, and NatGeo’s Going Deep With David Rees. Their latest series is Vanity Fair Confidential, a series on ID that’s drawn from the magazine’s stories and is basically a highbrow version of Dateline except without recreations.
I talked to Steven and Glenda about their shows, including RHOA and Oprah, and the state of reality television.
Where reality TV is today
Steven and Glenda both worked on “very early reality shows,” including Trauma: Life in the ER, and Glenda said that she thinks the genre “comes in waves. Like fashion, it’s cyclical. In many ways reality TV has evolved into a sophisticated platform that has phases and trends, so where things go from being more organic to being more semi-scripted, and from semi-scripted it goes into competition. And then competitions fall out of favor again and more organic television re-emerges. I don’t think it’s a continuum; I think it’s cyclical.”
Now, she said, “I think there is somewhat of a return to people wanting things being real, people wanting to see things that are organic, people wanting to see stories that they can relate to.”
Steven said the attraction to reality TV has to do with connecting to a show’s characters. “People like reality because in some ways they could imagine themselves in the actual narrative. In many ways, reality has replaced the soap opera,” he said. “We have been able to take real situations and craft them in such a way that they begin to have lots of the components of scripted material. They’re not just exposition; they’re story. We’re able to take people into worlds they otherwise wouldn’t have access to, but find characters that are incredibly relatable.”
The Real Housewives of Atlanta’s big characters and narcissism
Those relatable characters include even the wealthy and dramatic housewives. “Real Housewives of Atlanta are like a lot of women as friends: lunch a lot, they’re catty, they have aspirations, alliances are formed. What we’ve been able to do is be able to capture it and weave it into a story narrative that keeps people engaged,” Steven told me.
“Without a doubt, if you don’t have big characters, people who are unabashed and who have what I call a very helpful dollup of narcissism, you really have a hard time making them appealing or compelling, even if your editing process is really good. You need big characters. We spent a lot of time, looking, casting,” he said. “We are looking for people that are really genuine. That are not acting, are not trying to be somebody but are in and of themselves big characters.”
How RHOA is filmed
Production on a season of RHOA lasts for about four months. “We film for long periods of time with a lot of cameras so that we’re able to capture what really happened and make it feel cinematic,” Glenda said. “We edit for many weeks to be able to compress all of the shoot into 44 minutes.”
I asked about the process of planning a season, and Steven disagreed with the phrase I used to characterize the series: “I wouldn’t say ‘soft-scripting.’ We sit the women down and we talk to what’s going on in their lives,” he said. “We don’t tell them what to say, we’re not sitting there, creating dramatic situations. All of our leads come from what is organically going in their lives or in their relationships with one another. That’s something that we feed of and use to structure the production schedule.”
The season six RHOA reunion
I asked about the season six reunion drama, which involved NeNe and Cynthia; after the reunion, NeNe posted to Instagram a text from Cynthia that discussed a “change of plans for the scene,” suggesting their confrontation was planned.
“The reunion is like group therapy. They come to those situations after a long season of filming along the way there are bumps, bruises and egos,” Steven said. “We don’t in any way set–what we do is go over the season. That’s what Andy [Cohen] is doing. He goes over those parts of the season that are provacative that the audience wants to hear about. The questions that he’s reading from are truly questions that we get off of [social media]. We’re picking questions that are going to get answers that the audience is curious about.”
As to the confrontation, he said, “the eruption or fight that happened, or incident, we had no idea that was going to happen. That completely took us all by surprise. ... I’ll be honest with you: I’m not happy that it happened. Because ultimately I think when women act in a way that crosses the line and becomes physical, it isn’t what the show’s about. I think the audience turns off. At the end of the day, the audience doesn’t want to see them go there. Yes, they like the sass and they like the interplay and they like the innuendo and they like all of that, up to a point. Then it just becomes ugly.”
Why RHOA ratings have continued to grow
Steven attributed The Real Housewives of Atlanta‘s ratings success to its cast and their wide-ranging appeal. “First, I think it’s a great cast of characters. Second, I think, they’re funny. They have a real sense of humor and they make people laugh,” he said. Glenda agreed: “It’s not just emotional, but it’s funny.”
Steven also said that the audience is diverse. “Third, and I think the most important thing, they have a cross-over effect in terms of the audience that’s watching. African-American watch them, but white women watch them. I don’t know how many African-American women watch [The Real Housewives of] Beverly Hills. I think it’s too removed from their everyday experience; they don’t relate easily to those characters,” he said.
How True came to produce RHOA
All of Bravo’s Housewives shows are produced by different production companies, even though all the shows have similar DNA. Glenda told me that “the format itself is flexible enough that each individual company can create their own feel and look for the series and still make it feel like it belongs in a whole.”
Bravo approached True Entertainment about creating another Real Housewives series. “They asked us to find a cast. At the time, there were only two other shows going on: New York and the O.C. And what became obvious to us was there wasn’t a cast of color,” Steven said. Though they had many possibilities for affluent people of color, they were eventually drawn to Atlanta.
Oprah’s involvement in Oprah Behind the Scenes
I asked about the genesis of OWN’s Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, a series I loved and that was OWN’s highest-rated show at the time. Several production companies pitched to OWN and True was selected to document what it was like to produce the final season of Oprah’s talk show.
When the show started filming, Steven said, “there was a concern about [Oprah’s] time and her availability in the beginning. We wanted her to be involved in it, and we wanted as much time with her as possible, but at first that didn’t seem to be the case.”
Glenda said that, as production on the series progressed, Oprah “slowly realized that this is really her show and she wanted to play a bigger part and make sure that her voice was heard, and that it represented what her show was. She embraced it wholeheartedly. She was always for it the whole time, but she thought it would maybe be more about the staff. Then, as we went along, she decided she really wanted to play a bigger and bigger role. We were thrilled. In the end, there’s no Oprah show without Oprah. There’s forever a fascination with how she runs her world, how she makes her decisions, what her thought processes are like, and how the world around her works.”
Once she became more involved, Steven said, Oprah “really threw herself it. She would sit for two hours and do those interviews; in order to do those interviews she would have to screen material in order to be able to comment and amplify the story we were telling.”
Shows True Entertainment loves
I asked Steven and Glenda about shows from their careers that stood out as their favorite or most underrated shows, and about what they were looking forward to.
First, for brand-new shows, Glenda cited Love, Lust, or Run, which airs Fridays on TLC and stars What Not To Wear‘s Stacy London. Glenda called it a “fun new spin on the make-under space” and said “it’s funny, it’s emotional, it’s inspiring, and it’s informative. In a classic Stacy way, you learn things about yourself and about fashion along the way.” She called Stacy “really smart” and “really talented.”
Steven talked about Vanity Fair Confidential, which airs Mondays on ID and re-tells “the great stories of Vanity Fair.” He said, “it harkens back to my and Glenda’s earlier years in journalism, when we were both were working for other networks or public television. He pointed out that they retell the stories “without using recreations, which unless you have lots of money, tend to be cheesy, and it’s just something that Vanity Fair is not about.”
As to their previous, perhaps underrated series, Glenda mentioned Bravo’s Platinum Hit, the competition with Kara DioGuardi, and “most recently, Town of the Living Dead on the Syfy channel. It was a joy to make. It was funny. We laughed out loud in the edit room, over and over. We thought the characters were great, the situation was hilarious. We thought we had a little lightning in a bottle: a way to do sci-fi and comedy, a way to bring zombies to the heartland, a way to bring regular people to the movie-making world. It had a lot of things we really loved about it, and a great, authentic cast of really well-meaning people with big passions and big dreams. And nobody watched. … For some reason, it just didn’t resonate. Maybe wrong channel, maybe wrong scheduling, maybe–there’s just so much programming out there it’s hard to break through.”
Steven identified a very different series: “the Princesses of Long Island, which we did for Bravo about two years ago, about a group of late 20-somethings who live in Long Island, who were still living at home, who were still struggling to find Mr. Right. I thought it was hysterically funny; there were scenes that felt to me like they were right out of a Woody Allen film. It was a pleasure to make; it was almost easy to make.” But, he said, “nobody came to watch it.”
Despite the shows that don’t do well, Glenda told me, “you just have to keep telling great stories regardless. In the end, you have to draw your success from being proud of the things you make, because you can’t control who’s going to tune in.”