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  • 01.29.15

Ben Silverman Reveals How “The Office” Inspired His Local News Docu-Soap “Breaking Greenville”

Airing on TruTV, the reality series finds comedy and drama among the real-life anchors, reporters, and producers at two rival television news stations.

Ben Silverman Reveals How “The Office” Inspired His Local News Docu-Soap “Breaking Greenville”
Local News S1 unit coverage [Photo: Jeremy Freeman, courtesy of Turner Media, TruTV]

The show may raise eyebrows and whither-the-news anxiety, but with the line between television news and entertainment becoming increasingly blurred (anchors and reporters eagerly flaunt their flubs via YouTube blooper reels these days, and NBC News anchor Brian Williams has no qualms about appearing on Saturday Night Live), it’s no surprise that two stations in Greenville, Mississippi, agreed to take part in Breaking Greenville.

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Created by Ben Silverman, who has executive produced everything from The Office to The Biggest Loser, the humorous “docu-soap” debuting on TruTV January 29 finds the anchors, reporters and producers of rival television news stations WABG and WXVT going all out to be the top dog in a small market where big news could be anything from trash pickup routes being altered to a cat being stuck up in a tree. WXVT morning anchor Callie Carroll really makes waves when she decides to chronicle her weight-loss journey on television in a bid to raise her station’s ratings.

While they aren’t always covering the most earth-shattering stories in rural Mississippi, everyone takes their jobs—and their rivalry—seriously, and some of the rookies dream of making it to the big leagues of broadcasting. In fact, Lucy Biggers, a cheerful morning anchor who works at WABG and says “awesome!” a lot, boldly declares that she aspires to be the next Kelly Ripa in the first episode of Breaking Greenville.

Co.Create spoke with Silverman—founder and chairman of content studio Electus, which is also behind the Netflix drama series Marco Polo and the CW comedy Jane the Virgin—about how The Office inspired the making of Breaking Greenville as well as his passion for promoting his projects and desire to work in all genres of television.

Co.Create. Were you confident that you would find lots of humor in local television news? I once worked in the newsroom at a station in a small market, and the behind-the-scenes insanity was pretty rich.

Silverman: We were. That’s why we went after this world. It’s an incredibly rich world for comedy partially because, as you know, in a local market, you’re the biggest star, but compared to a real movie or TV star, you’re small potatoes. You may be opening up the local Cadillac dealership with a bunch of balloons and a clown, but the moment that someone actually famous comes to town, you’re so secondary. So I love that kind of aspirational fame, and I also love the competitiveness within the markets because almost all of the people who work in local news are just hoping the phone call from the Today show comes in.

Steve Schill hams it up in the newsroomPhoto: Bry Thomas Sanders, courtesy of Turner Media, TruTV

I actually remember that. Everyone wanted to work at Today

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All of that is so funny, and then the other part that’s just hysterical to me is how much we all stare at our own belly buttons and take our own local community and news so seriously. Suddenly, a town hall council meeting becomes life or death, but compared to what’s happening on a national basis or an international basis, it’s pretty hysterical.

You’ve always worked in entertainment, but did you ever think about getting into the news side of the business when you first started your career?

Once in a while I’ve thought it’d be fun to be the next Charlie Rose or an entertainment/media/technology expert on TV. I have been on Bloomberg a ton and CNBC and all those business platforms, but I prefer the entertainment side. The real parallel for this show is The Office, though, and that was my inspiration. The way we related to Scranton is a lot of the way that I’m relating to Greenville.

Breaking Greenville does feel more like a sitcom than a traditional reality show. The news people could have stepped out of The Office. Is any of the show scripted?

It’s very real, but the people in it are performers. They are presenters, so what’s different from other reality shows is they know how to react when a camera’s up. It’s not like the first time you arrive at a restaurant–like I did for a show I did years ago–and you’re tracking these waiters and waitresses and people in the restaurant, and they’re not aware of the camera, so they’re not performing to the camera, and you have to shoot ten thousand hours to get something interesting. These guys [on Breaking Greenville] see a camera, and they light up. That’s just who they are. They’re inherently filtered for television.

Going back, where did the idea for this show originate? Did a producer bring it to you, or is it something you created in-house at Electus?

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It was my idea. What I initially wanted to do was Weather Girl, following multiple weather girls in a local market, and then it evolved into local news, and we did a huge casting across multiple affiliates and news stations with our production team and ended up choosing Greenville with Tru.

Was TruTV confident from the start that you would be able to make a reality show that felt more like an episode of The Office than a traditional reality show?

I think had it not come from the executive producer of The Office it may have been more of a stretch, but Tru saw what I was trying to do with it. The Office was informed by reality television but was totally scripted, and I said, “What if we went back to reality but used the same storytelling technique we used in The Office to tell a reality story?” It’s so meta–the ultimate kind of post-modern moment. And what’s great about Tru is they’re really becoming this hybrid of comedy/reality, and that’s what I was pushing for.

The people on Breaking Greenville seem well aware that being on this show could lead to bigger and better things.

Yeah. There’s no greater platform than TV to make your platform bigger, and if you’re local, all you want is to be national. So, boom, here’s a way for them to tap into a new audience that never will see them otherwise, unless they’re passing through Greenville. I think that’s an element that these guys were really smart to recognize. It usually happens after the shows air, but because they also work in TV they knew this would be great for their affiliate and for their talent.

Do you think Lucy has a shot at being the next Kelly Ripa? [Spoiler alert: Lucy has left WABG.]

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I think these guys are fantastic. They’re really good talent. And so, you know what? Let’s see how it plays out. How fun would it be if through this, Lucy gets on Kelly Ripa’s show, or she gets called by Good Morning America. I think only time will tell, but that woman can go a long way in this industry. I found Kristen Wiig years ago on a reality comedy pilot, and you just know sometimes when someone’s got it, and that’s how I felt about Steve Carell. That’s how I felt about John Krasinski, Rainn Wilson from The Office. That’s the best thing that television does–it creates stars.

You really miss producing The Office, don’t you?

Oh my God, do I. Imagine going to work every day and seeing that group of people? It was just so great.

Lucy Biggers reacts to the teleprompter going outPhoto: Bry Thomas Sanders, courtesy of Turner Media, TruTV

By the way, you have always played a part in promoting your shows whereas some executives hate dealing with the press. I remember you were doing conference calls with reporters for the NBC reality show Fashion Star that you did with Jessica Simpson. Why do you take part in the promotion as opposed to handing it off to others on your team?

If the vision started with me, I can’t then abandon it. I’ve got to see it through and make sure it’s understood what I was thinking so I can get a show positioned correctly. The other thing is I really believe in reaching one person at a time. If I was a politician, I’d be shaking all the hands and kissing all the babies–one person at a time, one audience member at a time. I’m passionate about the content I make, and I love innovating. That’s the part I like the most, and if you’re going to innovate, you have to proselytize, too.

What was groundbreaking about Fashion Star was how you brought retail into the mix. People could buy the clothes they saw the designers create on the show. Can you talk about the importance weaving advertising and commerce into TV programming?

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Well, I make Marco Polo for Netflix, a commercial-free platform—there’s absolutely no advertising in the conversation. But when I work in a commercial platform like NBC or Tru, I do try and get advertising support inside it. I think it’s very important for our commercially supported partners to have a producer and production partner that can deliver on the promise of advertising in the execution and not just pure creative. That’s what drives it all.

There are creative people in television who have zero understanding of the business side, and business people who are lousy when it comes to creative. You seem to enjoy getting involved in both areas.

What I realized quickly when I first started in television was the only way I was going to enable my creativity was by understanding the business around it, and that came from being the son of an avant-garde chamber music composer who was beholden to everybody else to pay his bills, to enable him to write his music. And I was like, “No, no, no. I have got to be in a position where I understand the business enough that I can enable my creativity and don’t have to just be waiting for people to decide from up above, “Okay, that’s funny or good.”

You also work in all sorts of genres—you do drama, comedy and reality. Why not specialize like other content producers tend to do?

When I started in this business, I said, “I don’t watch TV in some genre-bound, walled garden. I watch the things I like, and some days, I’m watching sports, some days, I’m watching news, some days, I’m watching a comedy, some days, I’m watching a drama. Why do the producers who make these shows only make one kind?” I like to do everything.

About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com.

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