If Mark Burnett is the king of reality TV, then SallyAnn Salsano is certainly its queen. Salsano, a former Howard Stern Show intern, has produced dozens of reality shows for her company, 495 Productions, including MTV’s mega-hit Jersey Shore and its various offshoots. She’s worked on series for HGTV (Design Star), Oxygen (Dance Your Ass Off), TLC (Wedding Island), VH1 (Tool Academy), TV Guide (Nail Files), Spike (Repo Games) and Syfy (Fangasm), and she’s spent the last year as showrunner of the syndicated daytime talk show The Real.
Salsano’s latest reality creation is Blue Collar Millionaires, which premiered Wednesday night on CNBC. Blue Collar Millionaires, which Salsano described as “Dirty Jobs meets MTV Cribs,” spotlights entrepreneurs who made money by getting their hands dirty in professions like pest control, hazmat services and waste management. It’s only one of the reality shows on her plate this summer; she’s also overseeing Tattoo Nightmares on Spike, Party Down South 2 on CMT and It Takes a Sister, which debuts Aug. 4 on Oxygen.
Salsano spoke with Adweek about her path from Jersey Shore to CNBC, why Lifetime’s UnReal hits so close to home and her plans to reboot Jersey Shore.
Adweek: What prompted Blue Collar Millionaires?
SallyAnn Salsano: A lot of the people that work for me and my company, I think we all come from pretty blue-collar families. My dad was a sanitation worker and was always so proud of what he did. We talk so much about what’s not right with this country, and I think we need to focus on what is right with this country. Sure, education is available if you want it, but you don’t need it to make it big. Everyone forgets that sometimes the will to succeed and the will to want it is enough. I always say, I don’t care what your job is—be good at it, be proud of it, and be the best you can be. And that’s what this show is.
How did the show end up on CNBC?
It’s not a network I’ve worked for before, but I watch it like crazy. I watch The Profit, I’m a huge Shark Tank fan—I know it’s really on ABC, but I watch it on CNBC—and my early morning Squawk. I have a relationship with Jim Ackerman [svp, primetime alternative programming, CNBC], who used to work over at VH1. We were out socially, and he was like, “What do you got for me?” I pitched two things, and we went off to the races.
It’s hard to fathom that the same person could be behind shows like Jersey Shore and Party Down South, as well as quieter shows like Blue Collar Millionaires. How do you juggle both ends of the reality spectrum?
I think that the worst thing you can do as a producer is just do one kind of programming. Creating new stuff keeps you on our toes. You don’t have a second to rest on your laurels. And I also feel like each show, you learn something. So it keeps every format fresh. The last two years, I cast and launched a new daytime talk show, The Real. And I hadn’t done a daytime talk show in 16 years [since Sally Jessy Raphael]. So, going back and doing that, it sharpens your skills in a different way. And now you take it back to your reality world, and it completely helps. There’s always different ways to do it.
What has the past year been like since FremantleMedia acquired a majority stake in your company?
I’m proud to say not different, and I mean that as an absolute compliment. They’ve been so respectful and have not tried to change my business. If anything, what I’m trying to do is utilize some of the systems that they’ve set up that maybe I didn’t have as a mom-and-pop shop, like their international division.
Why did you step down as showrunner of The Real in May?
Last year, we shot 170 shows, and I didn’t miss one of them. I was there every day, and I loved it. I would never leave something that I didn’t feel like was in good shape. But in order for 495 to grow, this was a big move for me to come back. We have five new series launching over the summer, and it’s about broadening my portfolio. I really wanted to get back into syndication, and now, I think I’ve proven that we can do it. And it’s a prime time for 495 to go out there and take a swing at it. And Freemantle is huge in syndication, so I’m also now in a position with them where it’s like, look, I just did it, let’s rock!
So you’re actively looking to launch another syndicated show?
I would say that I was bitten by the bug.
As a former Bachelor and Bachelorette showrunner, are you watching UnReal on Lifetime this summer?
I have not missed a single second. I can’t stop watching. I would say that we are way better producers than that. It’s a little bush-league how they show reality TV, and that hurts my feelings, because I think it’s way more sophisticated than they portray. But the person they have on the inside [UnReal co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro] did work for me for many years, and she was at such a lower level that, to her, that’s maybe how it appeared. But I think from the top down, it definitely was a bit more sophisticated. I was 310 pounds at the time; I’m just glad they chose not to put in such a direct representative.
I think there’s a little bit of truth to everything, but there’s also things like, “Come on, there’s no way that’s going on, and we all know it.” People are not jumping off a roof and yelling, “Cut!” and “Action!”‘ That’s not how reality TV is actually made. But I have not missed an episode, and I thoroughly enjoy it.
MTV seems to reinvent itself every few years with a new hit show, but there hasn’t been a big breakout series since Jersey Shore. Why not?
I think we’re overthinking what the viewers want. Who really knows what they want? We didn’t know that they wanted Jersey Shore—that’s for sure. It had the worst testing in the history of the network, but it was the highest numbers ever. I think that for MTV, I think it’s just make programming, make it fast, and put it on TV. We just have to keep churning and burning, and I know they will get there. When you’re a network that skews young in that demographic, it’s much harder to stay slow and steady. There’s way more peaks and valleys, because the technology and what kids are doing is changing at such a rapid pace. They have one of the hardest networks to schedule, but I will die trying.
Is it too soon for a Jersey Shore reunion?
I don’t think it’s over. During the last season, they had this big party. They were like, “You need to say something,” and I was like, “I can’t wait to come back!” Because that’s legitimately how I feel. I grew up in Long Island going to “Dirty Jerz” in the summer. It was exactly the same from when I left until now—same shit, different hairspray. And I just feel like a guido is born every day. If you take a show that was a hit show like that, that is a brand, and we’ll never replace the ones we had. But if you put eight new cast members in a house, people are going to tune in. So if we got half the number of people that came to Jersey Shore at the height of it to check it out, and then 25 percent of them stayed, we’d still be the highest rated show on the network.
So you’re still trying to persuade MTV to let you continue the franchise with a new cast?
It’s different, because it’s a changing of the guard, and the people there didn’t have anything to do with the original. So there’s not that emotional connection. But everyone has my number.
This story, by Jason Lynch, first appeared in Adweek.