Toeing the Line: Characters key to a show's success

In a world where everything seems to be a reality show, nearly everyone appears to believe that his or her life qualifies for national exposure. The guy with a wacky family. The odd couple running a dry cleaners. The crazy old lady who never throws anything away.

[For the record: An earlier version of this piece stated "White Color Brawlers" was created by Authentic Entertainment and developed by Olkkonen. Neither is correct.]

But it turns out there's a little more to it than that. Being a strange character with a unique story to tell isn't quite enough. And it's separating the golden ideas from the ordinary ones that defines Dana Olkkonen's job as vice president of development at Burbank's Authentic Entertainment.

Olkkonen is one of the execs credited with launching a phenomenon called "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" for TLC back in August 2012. It had started with the appearance of pint-sized beauty queen Alana (a.k.a. Honey Boo Boo) on the Authentic-produced series "Toddlers & Tiaras"."

"One thing that made her different from the other families on the show is this massive Internet and viral presence she'd already generated," Olkkonen says. "My job was to reach out to the other members of Alana's family and see what those other characters were truly like, what the dynamics were — and if they could (hold their own in) an ongoing series."

The breakout success of "Honey Boo Boo" would prove a feather in Olkkonen's cap and a rare case of a spinoff becoming more success than the series that spawned it.

Authentic’s latest new effort is "White Collar Brawlers," which premiered this past week on Esquire TV. It features white-collar employees who carry a personal or professional dispute, then train for six weeks and get into the ring to settle it like men.

Unlike most shows that wind up getting produced by the company,  “WCB” wasn’t a homegrown Authentic Entertainment idea. And under the theory that you never know where the next blockbuster hit is coming from, Authentic maintains a website for taking public pitches at www.authentictv.com/PitchUs.aspx

Olkkonen estimates that only about "one out of 100" pitches leads to further investigation.

"It may be the best idea under the sun," she explains, "but at the end of the day, there has to be a market for it or it won't pay off."

A portion of Olkkonen's duties is devoted to traveling around to investigate ideas that bear further scrutiny. She makes sure there is enough potential in terms of story and character, however, before ever booking a flight and a hotel.

"We get pitched crazy ideas all the time that we know would never work and nine months later, it shows up on a network," she says. "The thing is, the reality business isn't a science. It changes constantly. We're always keeping our ear to the ground looking for that lightning in a bottle."

But there are certain ideas that remain nonstarters for Olkkonen and her Authentic associates. One is "anything that has to do with depicting death in a humorous way," she stresses. "We've been pitched 'The Real Six Feet Under' a bunch of times. And I mean, it worked well as a scripted series, but it's different trying to be funny about death when you're dealing with real people and real lives."

Another area that didn't resonate as a pitch was a "Last Virgin Standing" competition series to see who could lose their virginity first. Virginity, Olkkonen believes, is simply too touchy a subject. Or perhaps too non-touchy.

"Some topics are just too tough to present in a way that doesn't come across as exploitive or disrespectful," she says.

Then there are the access pitches — where people discuss peeking behind the scenes at the CIA or the FBI. The problem, she notes, is that those government organizations would never let cameras in.

"And it's too bad," Olkkonen reasons, "because it would make for fascinating TV."

However, Olkkonen's mantra is generally that any subject can be made to work if done in an intriguing way with the proper personalities. That's certainly the secret of "Honey Boo Boo's" success.

"It's all about the people involved," she says. "I can't tell you how often we're pitched concepts with talent that is just incredibly dull. It can be the greatest TV show idea ever. But if the people don't have much going on, it's never going to fly. That's really the bottom line."

--

RAY RICHMOND has covered Hollywood and the entertainment business since 1984. He can be reached via email at ray@rayrichco.com and Twitter at @MeGoodWriter

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°