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Magical Elves reveal what TV networks want from reality TV today

Magical Elves is not just the best-named production company in reality TV history—for example, after you read this, you can tell people, “I just read a story about Magical Elves”—but has also produced some of the best reality TV in the genre’s history.

The production company has defined sub-genres with shows like Bands on the Run and Project Greenlight, and Project Runway and Top Chef, and more recently have redefined a genre with Nailed It! and their newest series, Best Leftovers Ever.

But there was a major change recently. Magical Elves’ founders, Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, sold their company to Tinopolis in 2014, and five years later, in 2019, left the company.

The executives who took over as co-CEOs, Jo Sharon and Casey Kriley, have now been running the company for a year and a half, but they aren’t new to Magical Elves. They were integrally involved in shows from Cold Justice to Nailed It! Kriley has been with the company since its founding.

Vanessa Lachey, Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz, Magical Elves
Magical Elves’ Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz (center and right) with Top Chef Junior host Vanessa Lachey at an Oct. 12, 2017, premiere party at Gwen Restaurant in L.A. (Photo by Evans Vestal Ward/Universal Kids)

“Jane and Dan were amazing mentors,” Casey Kriley told me when we talked recently. “I stayed for so long because I loved their creativity, I loved how they what they were passionate about in terms of the brand, and what kind of shows they’re making.”

She added, “I always joke with Jane and Dan: I have three voices in my head. One is mine, and then I have Dan’s and I have Jane’s, and I still rely on that.”

Jo Sharon agreed that what the company’s founders created is still there, even though the people have left. “Dan and Jane helped created the brand and the DNA of the company, and it’s still there, because that’s what the company is. But we have always looked at Magical Elves as a collection of people,” she said.

“We have amazing people who work there that, unlike many other companies in the business, have been here for a long time—like pretty much every department head in our company has been there for at least a decade,” she added.

The transition, Sharon told me, “was challenging, but we’re really proud of how seamless it was, and everything we accomplished in the last few years for sure.” That includes winning being nominated for more Emmys this year “than we had in previous years,” Sharon added.

How Magical Elves created Best Leftovers Ever

Best Leftovers Ever! judge David So, judge/host Jackie Tohn, and judge Rosemary Shrager talk to a contestant during episode 7
Best Leftovers Ever! judge David So, judge/host Jackie Tohn, and judge Rosemary Shrager talk to a contestant during episode 7. (Photo by Netflix)

Casey Kriley told me that “preserving the [Magical Elves] brand is so key to us,” and while they continue to produce the shows that defined that brand, they’re also creating new shows, such as a forthcoming spin-off of Top Chef and a new Netflix cooking competition.

What is that brand? Jo Sharon said the two CEOs define Magical Elves as a company that produces “aspirational programming,” with “authenticity” and “sophistication.”

“We definitely don’t want to do anything that doesn’t feel authentic, both in our characters and in our storytelling,” Sharon said.

In addition, she said, “we push ourselves and our team to be genre-breaking. The Elves have always been that.”

Netflix’s Nailed It! is the best example, as it breaks the fourth wall and even pokes fun at the cooking competition genre that was refined and perfected by Bravo’s Top Chef. The idea, Sharon said, was “let’s take a really familiar format that is super easily digestible and flip it on its head and produce it in a way that no one has before.”

The brief was that Nailed It! needed to be “comedy first and baking second.”

Best Leftovers Ever, which I called Nailed It’s “calmer, more assured sibling,” had a different mission. “We really wanted to make sure that the chefs were talented, and ultimately they were making really creative, interesting, great dishes,” Kriley said. “It consciously has a bit more of a serious foundation, in terms of being a credible cooking show.”

One similarity between the two shows is their comedian hosts: Nicole Byer and Jackie Tohn. But Kriley said that since “their comedy, and humor and timing is very different, we let Jackie bring herself to Leftovers, similar to how we did with Nicole.”

Along with judges David So and Rosemary Shrager, producers made sure they were “allowing them the space to figure out their own rhythm when it comes to comedy, and their relationship in the show, versus heavily scripting it,” Kriley added.

What networks want reality TV producers to pitch to them

Nailed It! host Nicole Byer in season 3, episode 1
Nailed It! host Nicole Byer in season 3, episode 1 (Photo by Adam Rose/Netflix)

As I’ve written about, Hollywood is fear-driven and risk-averse, which got worse as audiences fled traditional TV for streaming. Now, networks are building their own streaming platforms, and that’s created a new challenge for reality TV production companies like Magical Elves.

Casey Kriley told me that they “try and embrace change and use it as a way to challenge us and make us grow, and make the show grow.” She spoke specifically about Project Runway, which was rebooted on Bravo by Magical Elves, its original producers, after years on Lifetime being produced by another company. “We adore Heidi and Tim, but we also adore the new talent,” she said. “They were just phenomenal and contributed so much.”

I asked about pitching new, genre-breaking shows like Nailed It! “It’s always hard to sell something that’s the first of its kind,” Jo Sharon told me. “Netflix took a risk,” as they “were in the very early stages of sort of starting to do unscripted and they were taking a lot of risks back then, and moving fast.”

The success of Nailed It! “opened people’s eyes a little bit. You can kind of really try something different and and break through,” Sharon said. Now, networks “certainly ask for it: what’s genre-breaking, what’s new, what’s different. [Nailed It] kind of opened that door.”

“Big, loud, buzz-worthy, buzz-worthy, buzz-worthy … Everybody just wants stuff that breaks through.”

Jo Sharon, Co-CEO of Magical Elves

Today, she said, the rise of streaming services means there’s an “interesting shift pitching things that everybody wants to put on multiple platforms.” For example, that means they have to develop “ideas that, for example, could be on Discovery, and HGTV, and Discovery+.”

Magical Elves are considering things like “what are those touch points that make an idea able to cross multiple networks, either because they’re broad enough, or because they have a piece of DNA that you could see on either of those platforms,” Sharon told me. “As sellers, that’s a fun new challenge. You’re pitching people from different networks under the same umbrella.”

The other challenge, Sharon added, is that “there’s so many platforms and places that everybody just needs stuff that breaks through and makes noise and that zeitgeist-y.”

And that’s what everyone wants right now: “big, loud, buzz-worthy, buzz-worthy, buzz-worthy,” she said. “Everybody just wants stuff that breaks through.”

The challenge, she noted, is that “those that those aren’t specific needs. It’s hard to know what those things are. But they’re looking for stuff that breaks through—whether it’s in the title, the concept, or a combination of both.”

From their two decades of reality television to the title of their company, Magical Elves certainly have done that in the past, and hopefully will for at least another 20 years.

About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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