Chris Sloan knew, right from the beginning, that he was not destined for fame and glory. Other little kids who dream of growing up to be in television might cup their hands into pretend microphones and stand in front of a mirror, delivering their imaginary speeches for the Emmys they just won for acting or directing. Not Chris.
“I built TV stations out of Lego blocks and made my own imaginary programming lineups,” he recalls. “I was always into the wonkish side of the business.”
If television gave Emmys for wonkery, Chris and his wife, Carla Kaufman Sloan, would surely have a wall full of them. In an industry where venturing off the standard trade routes in Los Angeles and New York is regarded as sailing off the edge of the world, they’ve turned their upstart North Miami company 2C Media into a national production powerhouse.
Concentrating on a market niche of little glamour but huge industry importance — promos, the ubiquitous little ads that TV networks use to plug their own shows — the Sloans have built 2C into what may be the most prolific production facility in English-language television outside of Los Angeles.
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2C cranks out a staggering 10,000 promos a year for shows ranging from 30 Rock to Grey’s Anatomy. It has also developed into a steady supplier of cheap reality shows, including a new one about daily life inside Miami International Airport that’s scheduled to launch on the Travel Channel this fall.
Privately held, 2C doesn’t disclose figures on revenue or profits. “But I’ll tell you this, our financial impact on Miami-Dade County is in the multi-millions of dollars,” Chris says. When all its reality shows are in production, 2C’s warren of editing bays in a Biscayne Boulevard high-rise swarm with more than 70 employees and contract freelancers.
“When we started out seven years ago, there were just three of us, and our dog was allowed to come in and pee on the rug,” Carla recalls ruefully. “The office was a bunch of card tables and a single editing suite.”
Carla, by the way, does have an Emmy, won for her writing on the Comedy Central game show Win Ben Stein’s Money. It only reinforced her conviction that glamour is overrated. “My home got burgled a few years ago, and they took everything,” she says. “The only thing left behind was my Emmy.”
The Sloans were both working in Hollywood — Carla on a succession of game and reality shows, Chris creating promos for first NBC and then CBS — when they decided to strike out on their own in South Florida. Chris had already worked here, once in the 1980s at a video-production company, and again a decade later during media magnate Barry Diller’s attempt to turn home-shopping TV station WAMI into a hyper-local channel featuring oddball reality shows and announcements read by ordinary people literally pulled in off the street. (Chris’ most memorable contribution: a station promo showing a herd of sheep, each one labeled with the call letters of another Miami station, as an announcer urged: “Don’t watch the same old sheep.”)
“I kept telling Carla, ‘Beaches and sunshine and piña coladas,’ ” Chris says, “and she kept saying, ‘Yeah, but what about jobs?’ There just were no jobs here, so we decided we’d have to make our own hay.”
They mostly dabbled in webisodes and other Internet projects for a year before getting their big break: the 2006 launch of MyNetworkTV, a short-lived network showing nothing but English-language telenovelas. 2C Media was commissioned to put together a two-hour special featuring clips from the various novelas. MyNetworkTV executives were so impressed with the result that they commissioned the company to break the special up into little pieces to use as promos.
Chris was already a promo veteran. He had worked in a much-awarded unit at NBC that pioneered the creation of highly produced promotional spots rather than simply an announcer shouting “Tonight on Cheers!” over a quick, noisy clip from a show.
“We called them ‘promo-tainment,’ ” he says. “We did one for [the sitcom] Mad About You that was a parody of I Dream Of Jeannie. We did one for Seinfeld that was just a montage of spectacular embraces of other people by the Kramer character. We did another one for the annual Christmas Eve showing of It’s A Wonderful Life that had various NBC stars talking about their favorite scenes from the movie as they showed in the background.” (The unit also invented the “credit squeeze,” the now common practice of shrinking the list of credits that crawls by at the end of every TV episode down to a third of the screen while showing a promo in the rest.)
“There’s not a lot of glamour in it,” Chris concedes. “People make fun of it. Everybody wants promotion, but there’s not a lot of respect for the people who do it.”
But, it turns out, there’s money. Though MyNetworkTV was a disaster that quickly folded all its original programming, 2C Media’s promos caught the industry’s eye. Soon, orders were cascading in from both broadcast and cable networks as well as the syndication companies that peddle reruns of hit broadcast shows to individual TV stations.
Promos for the syndicated shows pose some of the most interesting creative problems.
“Some of the obstacles are common to all of the shows,” Chris says. “You need to rely on clips. But you can’t use guest stars. You can’t use extras. You can’t use music unless it’s been cleared, which it usually hasn’t.
“But each show has its own particular challenges. We got the contract to do promos for the syndication of the original Law & Order. Except for what you see on nostalgia networks, that’s one of the oldest shows on television. How do you make it feel modern and not dated? We used new music and new cutting to make it look new. We had an announcer saying, ‘Episodes no one else has!’ ”
Then there was the promo package, when NBC’s Friday Night Lights, a high-tone soap opera built around a high school football team, went into syndication.
“We only did one promo that used a football clip,” Chris says. “They were trying to sell the show to female-skewing cable networks and they said football would be a big turnoff. So we couldn’t use something that’s the whole backbone of that show.”
Among 2C Media’s most difficult assignments was preparing a promo campaign for the syndication of NBC’s subversive workplace comedy 30 Rock, starring Tina Fey as the hapless producer of a television comedy show, Tracy Morgan as her manic star, and Alec Baldwin as her fascist boss.
“It’s a very smart show, and a show that’s very big with critics, but it’s not a very big ratings hit,” Chris says. “If you’re doing Two And A Half Men or The Simpsons, everybody knows about the show, what it is, and a lot of people have seen it at least a few times. Not 30 Rock. It doesn’t have a very big audience; people aren’t familiar with it.
“So how do I broaden it out? It’s a niche-y, cable kind of show, even though it’s on a broadcast network. I’ve got to grab people who’ve never watched it. How do you do that?”
For one series of promos scheduled for large urban markets, 2C created an animated subway map, then added clips of comic 30 Rock mishaps like Fey losing her phone and Morgan getting lost. “In that one, you get people’s attention with a place that they relate to,” Chris says.
“Then we created some spots that revolve around the characters — for instance, a promo made of clips of nothing but Tracy Morgan’s epic bizarreness. It’s made to hook people who aren’t necessarily interested in a show satirizing a TV network but might be interested in this funny, weird character.
“And everyone’s had a hard boss. So we did one with just clips of Alec Baldwin being mean and unreasonable.”
Building promos around themed clips requires so much studying that 2C’s offices sometimes resemble a college library full of students cramming for a final exam.
“Carla and I watched 30 Rock and loved it, so we had a lot of ideas,” Chris says. “But when we got the contracts for Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, I didn’t know anything about them. If a show’s popular enough to get into syndication, there’s generally somebody on the staff with encyclopedic knowledge of it. But when there’s not, we watch DVDs, we look at fan sites and YouTube, we read old issues of Entertainment Weekly. We read entire books about some of these shows.”
With new shows, the problems are different. If the network isn’t far along in production, promos have to be vague and fascinating at the same time. When HBO asked for a promo for the third season of Eastbound & Down, a sitcom about a former baseball player, the network was still months away from getting its first script.
“There was an unusually long period between the second and third season, and they wanted to get some buzz started and remind people the show was coming back,” says Ben Frank, a 2C Media producer. “But how do you do that when you don’t have any footage and don’t know where the show is going?”
About the only thing the 2C Media team handling the project knew was that Kenny Powers, the show’s party-hearty main character, was moving from Mexico to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“One of our first concepts was to get a Confederate flag into the promo somehow,” Frank said. “That suggests the South. Then we started thinking: What is Myrtle Beach about? And what is it about Myrtle Beach that fits Kenny’s character? Somebody mentioned beach boardwalks, and we started thinking about the kind of businesses you find there. Hey: How about tattoos?”
Initially, the team thought about a woman clad in a Confederate-flag bikini getting a tattoo of Kenny Powers’ face on her back. That morphed into something less grisly: a bosomy girl panting suggestively as Kenney’s face is air-brushed onto her T-shirt. Then the shot moves to her back, revealing a tattoo of the show’s logo.
The team carefully mapped each camera shot onto a series of cartooned story boards and found a music-library clip of jangling guitars that sounded like ZZ Top (but happily for the budget, wasn’t) for the soundtrack. No detail was left to chance; once they found a model, they equipped her with carefully selected semi-trashy earrings and nails.
“The spot only lasted 30 seconds, but something like 200 man-hours, maybe more, went into it,” says Adam Cronan, the 2C Media editor who worked on the promo. “It was all pretty exciting. On a lot of these promos, we’re just hunched over a screen, looking at clips and cutting them down. But this was like doing a miniature version of a big studio movie.”
Even more labor-intensive are 2C Media’s reality shows, which require editing hundreds of hours of video footage down into coherent story lines of 30 to 60 minutes. The company has produced or co-produced six of them, including Animal Planet’s Swamp Wars, which follows a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue unit that deals with snake bites, and CMT’s Danger Coast, about South Florida cops who work the waterfront. The most ambitious yet is the new show set at the airport, which required approval from about a dozen government agencies.
“That one was the hardest to set up, but none of them are easy,” Carla says. “You can’t really sell reality shows on paper, so we have to do a ‘sizzle reel,’ kind of a seven-or-eight minute version of an episode. The network looks at it and — if you’re lucky — says, ‘We may want to tweak it, but it’s interesting, it’s lively and it’s our brand.’ Of course, ‘tweaking’ means different things to different people.” 2C Media once proposed a show about single mothers to the WE Network, which “tweaked” it into A Stand Up Mother, a show about comedienne Tammy Pescatelli.
The reality-show component of the Sloans’ business will only grow, Chris says.
“Miami is already the third-biggest market in the country for reality-show production, after Los Angeles and New York,” he notes. “A lot of shows come through here because it’s a great shooting location. Jersey Shore, Top Chef, Hogan Knows Be st and the Kardashians, they’ve all come through here. So a lot of great production crews have developed here.
“You’ve got a lot of people shooting reality shows here. But we’re the only ones writing, shooting and editing here. We’re the only ones keeping it here. And why wouldn’t we? There’s great talent here, great weather, and the place is rife with characters. You read Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry and Edna Buchanan and you can hardly help stumbling over ideas for reality shows.”