If it seems as though there’s nothing on TV but talk shows and reality shows, you likely have SallyAnn Salsano to thank for that. After getting her start as an intern on the iconic Sally Jessy Raphael Show, Salsano launched her own production company and was responsible for bringing some of the most popular — if not controversial — reality shows to air, including Jersey Shore and spinoffs Snooki & JWoww and The Pauly D Project.
But Salsano’s not all about hard-partying coeds. She’s also behind milder programming like HGTV’s Design Star, CMT’s Nashville Star and, most recently, The Real, a fresh, youthful take on the ensemble daytime talk format. These eclectic interests, along with her crazy work ethic, have cemented Salsano’s rep as one of the most sought-after producers in the industry and are indicative of her own tendency to binge on a good TV show or 10. “This business is all the time, and you have to love it,” she says. “It’s not the kind of thing that you get into just because it’ll be fun to pass the time and pay the bills. It literally takes over your entire life, so you have to really be sure this is what you want to do.”
Name: SallyAnn Salsano
Position: Founder and president, 495 Productions
Resume: Interned at Sally Jessy Raphael and The Howard Stern Show while in college. After graduation, she became an audience coordinator and subsequently a producer at Sally before moving to LA to try her hand at reality TV, first on the ill-fated Richard Simmons’ Dream Maker and later on The Bachelor. Launched 495 Productions in 2006.
Birthday: January 24
Hometown: Farmingdale, NY
Education: BS in accounting with a minor in communications from the University of Missouri
Marital status: Married
Media mentors: Lisa Levinson and Sally Jessy Raphael
Best career advice: “When I interned at Howard Stern, I couldn’t afford to take the train, so my dad dropped me off every morning at 4:45 before he went to work. Everyone thought I wanted to get ahead, but truthfully, I was just broke. But I saw how much you could get done and how you could get ahead in the mornings, and Howard Stern said, ‘Listen, I don’t care why you get here so early, but I probably wouldn’t lose that.'”
Guilty pleasure: Reality and daytime TV
Last book read: “My version of a book is Us Weekly. I read about 80 magazines a month, cover to cover, and I love the weeklies.”
Twitter handle: @SallyAnnSalsano
How’d you get your first big break in TV?
I was an intern at the Sally Jessy Raphael show, and I absolutely loved it. Literally, after my first day there, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’
What parts of the industry most attracted you?
I liked the type of people that worked in the business, as well as how unpredictable it is. I think I kind of thrive on the behind-the-scenes chaos.
After leaving Sally Jessy Raphael, did you have a defined career plan in place or were you just open to whatever opportunities came your way?
Basically, I interned at Sally and then went back to school and got a minor in communications. And then I went back and interned a second time at Sally, and I interned at Howard Stern as well. TV was where my passion lay, so I stayed in touch with the Sally show, and if something happened in the Midwest and they needed me to go and do something, I would do it. And the day after I graduated, I got in my car, I drove to New York, and two days later I was sitting at my desk at the Sally show with my first job. I was the audience coordinator, and I left there about five years later as a producer and moved to Los Angeles.
So what exactly do you do on a daily basis as a producer for your shows?
I think it’s everything from soup to nuts. You have to pick the right staff. On a show like The Real, for instance, first, you have to put the girls together on the show. Then, what are your segments? You have to come up with those ideas, write those ideas, make sure they work. Then you’re checking the lighting on the set, your camera angles. You’re working with your director. Then you’re booking the guests day to day, writing the scripts. What’s the set decoration? And then after the show, you’re editing it. In the morning, you’re prepping your girls. You have to pick out what they’re going to wear every day; they can’t all be in the same color. Who’s in skirts? Who’s in pants? Whose hair’s up? Whose hair’s down? And then you’re balancing the network. And there’s a budget. And then you’re on set shooting this show, and you get an email from another set going, ‘Mayday, mayday.’ It’s a lot, but I gotta tell you, I feel like the busier I am, the more I get done.
Why did you decide to start your own company? Was it for more job security?
No, it’s actually the opposite. It’s probably the least secure thing you can do. Just because you open a business doesn’t mean it’s going to work. I was working on a show for a network, where I was a work-for-hire producer. They had a [production] company on it, and that company and the network had a falling out, so the network said, ‘OK, the show is yours.’ It wasn’t my plan; I didn’t own a company, and I actually was not even incorporated as a person. I was just a regular employee that got 1099s like everyone else. My lawyer/agent got on a plane and got me incorporated, and the next thing I knew I had a production company. That show became No. 1, and then I did a pilot for VH1 called Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. That pilot got picked up; the show got moved to MTV; it became the No. 1 show on MTV; and then, from there, I just got a little bit of steam. We made two shows one year, three shows the next year. And then last year we did 14 shows. So it’s been a crazy little ride.
What was the most challenging aspect of building your business?
The blessing and the curse is that I knew nothing. I think had I known what I was actually getting into, just the knowledge alone probably would have scared the bejesus out of me, and I probably wouldn’t have done it. You are the person on the hook for everything. If the show’s over budget, you pay for it. God forbid something happens to someone on set. There are a million different things that could go up, down and around, and let’s just say all of them went up, down and around. And you just don’t realize how much of the business side there is when you work for other people, how much they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis that you didn’t even have a working knowledge of.
What advice do you have for someone on a similar career path?
I would say intern, become a production assistant — do whatever it is that someone will let you do. There’s literally no job too small because at the end of the day, everyone wants to come in and be the executive producer and say, ‘This is my idea.’ But it’s about one in a million that make it, even with a ton of experience. But on top of that, I think people have such high expectations. What happened with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck [when they collaborated on Good Will Hunting] was a one in a million. It’s not like everyone comes to Hollywood from their town, writes a script and gets an Oscar. That’s why it was such a big story, because it wasn’t the norm. In the end, it doesn’t happen overnight. I think people don’t realize how much even goes into getting your name on the map and getting a phone call back. People take for granted stuff like that and, to be honest, it’s not so easy for me. I’m out there pitching, selling and trying everything every single day. What’s the next big idea? What’s the next thing people are going to want to watch? How do you make it work? How do you keep your cast happy? How do you keep your staff happy?
When you’re hiring, what do you look for in a candidate?
Someone who’s hungry. And it’s not like I think you need a certain kind of training or a certain kind of anything to do the job that we do. I think all you need is a ton of heart and you have to really want it. Those are the only two things that are actually required. The fact that you got an A in science helps me zero. Do you want to do this; how is your work ethic and do you have common sense? It’s not about good grammar or good grades or anything else. It’s about whether you can relate to people, whether you’re a good people person and whether you want to put in the hours. And are you creative? I think sometimes the production people are the most creative because they have to figure out how to stretch a buck in a way that most people would never even think of.
Andrea Williams is a freelance writer based in Nashville. Follow her at @AndreaWillWrite.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.