How Colleen Needles Built A TV Powerhouse
Colleen Needles Steward knew it was a clichÃ©, but she kept reminding her tablemates that it was, in fact, an honor to be nominated.
In April, Needles, 57, sat with her family and her team from Tremendous! Entertainment Inc. (TEI), at the Daytime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. Rock the Park, produced by the Eden Prairie company she founded, was up for Outstanding Travel Program. Syndicated on the CW network and newly picked up by ABC, the show features the extreme adventures of a pair of outdoorsy millennials exploring the national parks.
There was more at stake for Steward than earning her company’s first gold statue. She created Rock the Park with her 26-year-old son Jack, co-host of the series. Her son Tommy, 28, is on its field crew.
“There were 66 categories and ours was 63rd,” she recalls. “We started with a raucous table, but by the end we were quiet. We wanted to win. When it was announced, we went crazy. We embarrassed ourselves but we didn’t care.”
Rock the Park’s award and positive buzz got attention. In June, ABC-TV picked up the show, giving TEI its first program to air on a broadcast network. When it begins airing in October, Rock the Park will immediately become the highest-rated show TEI has ever produced. “It means more viewers, and certainly cachet,” says Steward. “Everybody makes more money when there’s more visibility, so it will have impact on the show’s revenue.”
As Tremendous! prepares to mark its 20th year, the wins keep adding up, above and beyond Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, the company’s first big hit. In the cutthroat world of cable production, TEI has eight unscripted series airing on networks that include the Travel Channel, Lifetime and TLC. Ten others are in earlier stages of production. A deal announced in May puts Tremendous! in partnership with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network to produce For Peete’s Sake, a docu-series following Holly Robinson Peete and Rodney Peete as they manage careers and family.
The company’s revenues have grown steadily for the past five years. By mid-2015, TEI had booked more than $24 million in revenue for the entire year, setting a new annual record. The company’s debt is low, with a mere $311,000 in equipment leases.
“Colleen is a pioneer. When she started, this is not something that was being done. Their longevity is not due to luck,” says Lucinda Winter, executive director of MN Film and TV, which promotes Minnesota’s movie and production business. “They are a quiet little juggernaut. They utilize our freelance pool, and that provides people with long-term opportunities to build careers here.”
Winter’s office does not track the total economic value of TV production in the region, but, she says, “Tremendous is the major player. They got the ball rolling.”
Steward sees a commonality in programs that carry the Tremendous! credit, whether they feature exotic cuisine (Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern), paranormal detectives (Ghost Asylum), a college marching band (Bama State Style) or child prodigies (Young Marvels).
“Our stories all have a positive message,” she says. “They aren’t preachy, but maybe viewers feel better at the end than they did when they went into it.”
You’ll never see a Tremendous! show about hoarders, haters or housewives. Steward actively avoids programs about dysfunction. “I would never want to benefit from problems other people are going through. For me, that just feels wrong.”
TV news to nonfiction TV
Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern location shot in the Faroe Islands.
Steward’s first career was in television news. Viewers might remember the brown-eyed brunette from her 14 years behind the anchor desk at WCCO.
As she watched children’s shows while her own kids were small and cable was in a different era, she dreamed up an idea in 1996 for a puppet series and sold Once Upon a Tree, which she produced without an office or much of a staff.
“We were looking for a company name with ‘tree’ in it, and without giving it much thought, we decided on Tremendous,” Steward recalls. “We put an exclamation point at the end because we were going to do great things.” Once ensconced on the other side of the camera, she never looked back.
“I saw that unscripted shows used the same skill set as news. Those shows were just taking off when we started.”
The fledgling company’s first bona fide hit came a few years later. Bizarre Foods began as a 13-episode series commissioned by the Travel Channel that debuted in 2006. Steward says she and Andrew Zimmern concepted a show around eating the world’s strangest food, and the two produced pilots and sizzle reels (short highlight videos showcasing their concept). While the video combo platter of food-and-travel seems obvious today, the pair took repeated runs at the network before an executive finally bit.
“The TV production world is strange; it’s almost impossible to crack,” explains Zimmern, “Networks don’t trust production companies to deliver a show unless they’ve already done it. If you haven’t proven you can do it, they won’t let you do it.”
Bizarre Foods got noticed, and drew ratings. Soon, the once-wary network wanted more Zimmern. The show turned into Travel Channel’s longest-running series and TEI’s calling card—it generated spinoffs, specials and additional programs, and gave the production house credibility.
Zimmern believes his long relationship with Steward works because of their temperamental differences.
“One of the best thing that happened to me was to find a partner who’s my exact opposite. I really am a complete and total asshole, a loudmouth New Yorker trapped in a Lutheran church basement,” he notes. “Where I am volatile, she is the most even-keeled person I know. She is able to match calamity with serenity. She’s consistent, a fantastic trait in a manager.”
But Zimmern insists that beneath Steward’s calm demeanor lies a keen strategist: “She’s not laid-back. On the inside, she plays the game 75 moves ahead. People underestimate her. She’s an extremely crafty thinker.”
Planning for a post-TV future
Jane Durkee, TEI’s COO, has long kept a service bell on her desk. Over the years, Durkee developed the tradition of dashing between cubicles and edit suites and smacking it madly when the company got good news—a pilot commissioned, a series extended, a contract signed.
Steward recently presented Durkee with a supersized version of the bell. Bronze and the size of a hatbox, it sits on a purple cushion and chimes a rich, dignified tone. “The deals got better, so the bell did, too,” says Durkee, 49, who supervises TEI’s HR, operations and employment.
In addition to its Eden Prairie headquarters, the company operates a New York development office and a production house in Los Angeles. TEI currently employs 35, with 165 freelancers on the books. Finding and keeping writers and editors who can create unscripted docu-series represents an ongoing challenge. That’s especially true for programs shot on the ground in the developing world; not every producer knows how to find fermented Mongolian mare milk for a Zimmern scene.
“That’s been my biggest source of stress,” Steward says. “If we don’t keep the wheels on, our employees don’t work.”
Budgeting also demands a nimble approach. Once TEI signs a contract to produce a series, Steward and Durkee set the budget. It starts with what Durkee terms a “collaborative conversation” with the network that will carry their program. The contract must anticipate TEI’s costs, which calculate travel, post-production and salaries. Financing the costly productions is complex.
“The networks essentially advance us the funds for the series,” says Steward. “Within the budget, there are milestones. They pay some up front, they pay another chunk after we finish shooting and they pay the last amount when we deliver everything. A production fee is built into the budget, usually about 10 percent that goes back to the company as profit.”
TEI’s Current Roster
Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern | Travel Channel
Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations | Travel Channel
Rock the Park | ABC
Ghost Asylum | Destination America
For Peete’s Sake | OWN
Exorcism Live! | Destination America
Bama State Style | A&E and Lifetime
* In production on nine pilots and other projects for five networks, which have not been announced yet for competitive reasons.
“The longer a show runs, the more efficient you become in producing it,” Steward continues. “They become more profitable as you go. The more of those you have, the less heavy lifting you have to do.”
Negotiating compensation for talent is an awkward piece of the puzzle. “Some networks pay the talent directly, sometimes we do it,” Steward explains. “It makes for an easier relationship when you don’t negotiate over pay. That’s the least fun part of the process; neither side likes these discussions.” Luckily for TEI, “[Travel Channel] pays Andrew. It’s their policy, it didn’t have anything to do with Andrew or us. Some networks want to deal with talent and some do not.”
Delivering on time and on budget has solidified the company’s reputation within the cable industry. “What you get from them is high production value at a reasonable cost. In my experience, the money we give them to produce the shows is put into the right place, they hit all the important levers,” says Matt Butler, vice president, programming and strategy, for Discovery Networks’ Destination America channel. “Production companies can be difficult, but they want us to be happy. We trust them.”
TEI has figured out the volatile industry. “A lot of production companies might have short-term success with one show, but it’s hard to sustain beyond that,” explains MN Film and TV’s Winter. “Colleen has to produce successful programs and grow relationships with networks, but she also has to keep looking in the crystal ball to know what they’ll want down the road.”
While Steward’s antenna for what programs to pursue is keenly calibrated, cable TV always seems to be in transition, making a long-term plan particularly challenging. Viewers have an ever-expanding number of channels to choose from and they increasingly watch on-demand or stream content, untethered from traditional TV. Right now the future of television is uncertain.
“The biggest challenge of being in television today is television. That’s the topic of conversation everywhere,” says Maria Awes, who owns Committee Films with her husband, Andy. The couple’s Minnesota production company currently has five programs on the air, on the History Channel and ABC.
Like TEI, Committee found its niche producing nonfiction television. But Awes thinks the future for all on-the-air producers is decidedly up in the air. “Our interns get their content on their devices and watch in snippets. We have to think about what kind of digital content we can create and sell to fit into that slot,” says Awes. “You have to be ready to evolve to be a player in that game.”
All in the family
Filming Rock the Park with hosts Colton Smith (left) and Jack Steward at Sequoia National Park.
When son Jack brought her a short video he shot in Zion National Park, Steward thought it “popped,” but the seasoned developer worried her maternal instinct might be coloring her positive response.
“I showed it to our agent in L.A. with the disclaimer that I needed someone else to take a look,” she recalls. “They were pretty insistent it should be a show.”
Now her sons are on the road creating the second season of Rock the Park. Jack continues as co-host, while Tommy is camera assistant and operator on a crew that will hit Yosemite, the Grand Tetons and Denali.
Although they’re young, the Steward boys have years of seeing their names in the credits of TEI programs. Each went on the payroll during college and worked their way up from entry-level assignments like driving gear and lugging equipment.
“A lot of people who we know can’t wait to get away from their parents, but we work collaboratively, and that brought our family closer,” says Jack. “I talk out creative questions with my mom. That turns into technical questions, like how do I get a camera straight up a mountain. That’s where Tommy comes in.”
Both Steward sons express long-term interest in careers creating content for their mother’s company.
“Right now we’re learning, we need experience,” says Jack. “But I found my thing.”
For Steward, watching Tremendous! transition into a family business has been a sweet surprise, with the Emmy they earned together an unexpected dividend.
“Seeing your kids successful is a bigger thrill than being successful yourself,” Steward notes. “We want to make shows we can all be proud of. I’m incredibly optimistic about where we’re going.”
Colleen Needles Steward’s Guiding Rules of Business
Focus your ambitions.
“I wish I would have narrowed my focus sooner. At first we ran after everything—industrials, commercials. [Now] we’re not afraid to turn business away if it’s not the right thing.”
Know your customer.
“We have to know the networks inside and out. You don’t want to waste time pitching something that won’t suit the demographics of their audience; you might not get a second chance. Don’t pitch what they’ll never want to buy, no matter how much you might like it.”
Desperation is not profitable.
“We’ve made mistakes when we were so anxious to make a sale that we didn’t think it through. That’s expensive.”
Think about your customer’s boss.
“The networks are our clients, but we work with a production executive who works for the head of the network. We think about what makes them look smart to the people they report to. That makes them want to work with you again.”
Take a chance.
“Sometimes the only way to find out if something will work is to do it. We’ve done pilots and then found out that a story is harder to tell than we anticipated or the talent doesn’t connect like you thought they would. You don’t see it in planning, only in the field.”
“Find good people and support them. I can’t manage all of these shows; I have to rely on others. I dream ’em up and then I say, now it’s your turn. I sold it, you figure out how to produce it.”
Surround yourself with people smarter than you.
“And it’s fine if they’re younger. A lot younger. In all my work life, I’ve never been the oldest, but I’m becoming that. Working around these young people keeps me young.”
You don’t have to do it all now.
“I’m a late bloomer. This is my second career, and I could never have done this with kids still at home. Now I’m free to pursue this without the same time pressures.”
Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer and newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.