Talking TV With 'Fly Girls' Executive Producer Jeff Collins

By Lacey Rose - Forbes Mag

The producer talks about reality TV's struggles, his arrangement with Virgin and the phenomenon that is ''Jersey Shore.'

Jeff Collins' latest TV project, Fly Girls, has been dubbed "The Hills at 35,000 feet."

The reality show, which will have its premiere on March 24 on the CW, offers a window into the world of five predictably attractive Virgin America flight attendants. The cameras have captured their every day, both on the planes and off.

Collins, who also counts WE'sBridezillas and VH1's I Know My Kid's a Star among his credits, spoke to Forbes about the necessity of financial partners, the pressures of reality television and why his show isn't another Jersey Shore.

Forbes: What's the biggest change to the reality business since you launched your career?

Collins: The old-fashioned way of just having a creative idea and being a great storyteller is not enough to survive anymore. You have to bring something to the table that's more than just a great show--you have to bring a complete business deal. It's really difficult to sell a show any other way because the networks are in a position where they're suffering. So if you can bring in a financial partner who's going to offset the cost of promoting the show or an advertiser that's willing to buy ad time and deficit-finance the production cost, you're much better off.

How did this show come about?

My attorney invited me to go to Denver one weekend about a year ago because there was going to be a group of influential businessmen that he represented getting together. He said, "Just come, you could learn something." So I get dragged off to Denver thinking, "What do I have in common with guys who are builders and commodity traders? I'm a TV producer." But I go and meet this guy named Larry Bond, who owns a big construction outfit called The Bond Companies and we hit it off. We're sitting at dinner after many glasses of wine and my attorney suggests I tell Larry about my Fly Girls idea.

What was the idea at that stage?

There were a couple of producers who had brought the idea to me, and we had transformed it into this docu-series concept about flight attendants who work for a real airline. There were two big-name airlines that had already turned me down--we'd gone high up the ranks and spent lots of money, and once we got to the VP of marketing level and started to negotiate, they got scared.

Scared of what?

Because they couldn't have 100% creative control--and no network is every going to give a brand 100% editorial control. It's like, why would I put you in the pilot seat of an airplane and let you fly?

Which airlines were they?

Couldn't I get in trouble for telling you that? Let's just say one of them is a hip airline that's a competitor to Virgin and the other was a legacy airline that's been around forever. Both of them should have understood that this would be a great marketing tool.

But Virgin did?

Well, I tell Larry this idea and he says, "If I could get Virgin to be your airline, would you make me a producing partner?" I'm thinking this guy is full of it, but I say "of course," and we shake on it. My attorney witnesses it before saying to me, "You know he's one of Richard Branson's really good friends, right?" Larry whips out a cellphone and starts dialing a number and then hands it to me to hear Branson's voicemail. After Larry and I retooled the presentation to fit the Virgin brand, he hand-walked it to Richard who said, "I want to do it, make it happen." And two weeks later, I got a call from the head of marketing.

Was money exchanged between Virgin and the CW or your company?

There was no money exchanged, so this isn't a paid-for advertisement at all. And to Virgin's credit, one of the first things they said was, "We don't want you to make something that looks like an infomercial." In the first meeting with Richard Branson, he said to me, "I built my entire business on taking risks, and I want you to push the envelope and take some risks here. Don't be safe in terms of what you're trying to do artistically." So Virgin allowed us to use its airplanes and access to all of its events. And what they brought to the table was marketing. You'll notice Fly Girls promotions in some of the Virgin campaigns.

Was there any resistance or caveats?

No. Doing a reality show is risky--it's not like incorporating Virgin into an episode of Entourage where there's a script. The other part that's always tricky is the creative control because it's not in a brand's nature to relinquish control--they're used to making commercials, which are very controlled and highly manipulated 30-second spots that paint a pretty picture of their brand. But they understood that we were making a show about women who happen to work at Virgin, and they had input into who we cast from the airline.

The only thing that was very important to them--and that we agreed to--was that anything we shot on the airplanes or at their events had to follow their guidelines. So when we were on the planes, we were just there to observe. We weren't allowed to--nor did we want to--manipulate the story so that they were doing anything that didn't adhere 100% to FAA regulations and Virgin's employee manuals because that becomes brand damaging. But once we were off of the airlines, they gave us a really long leash and didn't ask for any sort of editorial control.

What makes this show different from all of the other docu-series out there?

When you watch some of these shows like the Housewives formula, they're taking a group of people and shoving them together. The producers say, "Get to know each other and have instant chemistry." Well there's no history there so there's nothing more than surface drama. If I see one more show where someone's pissed off because someone didn't get invited to someone's party ... it's like who cares? It's like surfacy bulls***. Our women arrived with history--they've spent years together and have deep-rooted relationships, some good, some not-so-good.

It's been dubbed "The Hills at 35,000 feet." Is that an accurate descriptor?

It's a legitimate comparison. But by virtue of the fact that we're dealing with a broadcast network the bar was set higher. Because the CW isn't cable, they said, "Please don't bring us a product that looks like it belongs on a low-end cable network." So we used technology that was never used before and we shot in true high-def. The look of our show raises the bar tremendously in terms of what you can accomplish if you're willing to spend the money and take the time to shoot these things so that you're not just taking cameras and chasing people. Our pace is a little more thoughtful.

Why should viewers tune in?

I think it's a window into a world they've never seen before. We've seen lots of shows about rich and fabulous people who live that way because they're rich and fabulous. I don't think we've ever seen a show about working people whose lives mirror those of the rich and fabulous because of the jobs they have. I think that makes it accessible. Think about it: If you're 25-years-old, you're saying, "I could never be one of those girls on The Hills because I wasn't born into one of those families."

There's always talk in the media about how much of reality TV is scripted or rehearsed. Do viewers care?

No, it's something the press is fascinated by and obsesses about, and the viewer doesn't care at all. People are interested in good stories. Some of the best, highest-rated reality shows out there are produced, they're not real. But if the characters are captivating and the storytelling is germane to who these people are, I don't think the audience is really interested in how much of the producer's hand was in the show. I'm not about to pull back the curtain and show you exactly how we make our show, but what I can tell you is every single story that you see on Fly Girls is real. There's no script--if we wrote a script, these girls would have trouble because they're not actresses.

Are these girls getting paid?

Yes.

I recently did a Q&A with the creator of Cops, who argued as soon as you start paying these folks, they become actors ...

But he's doing a show where you're chasing someone with a camera for 30 minutes. We didn't remove these girls from their lives and ask them to do things they weren't already doing--they're still flying and living in crash pads. When you take a show likeJersey Shore and you remove those people from their real lives to create a fake environment and now you're paying them, in that respect people become caricatures of themselves. But with Fly Girls, we didn't do anything but add cameras to the equation.

What's the biggest challenge facing the unscripted genre?

For me, the challenges are always trying to figure out how we create situations where people are unencumbered by the cameras and thus trust us enough to really reveal themselves. The more that we can get real people to reveal who they really are, the more the audience will respond.

As the genre becomes more extreme or sensational with shows like Jersey Shore, what sort of pressure does that put on you?

In a competition show, we're always trying to throw challenges or curveballs or put really oddball people in the mix who are really going to stir the pot. We have a bunch of people in a house, and we're trying to create a pressure cooker and watch it boil over. To a certain extent, that's whatJersey Shore is without the competition. There's a desire for that kind of show, but you can't eat McDonald's every day. There's also an appetite for many other kinds of shows, and my show isn't Jersey Shore. We're going after a completely different demographic--ours is more about the fantasy life of living an upscale life on a working girl's salary.

What's the one show that you wish was yours?

The Carrier on PBS, and I think the Army may have funded part of it. It's a big, expensive, incredible docu-series about five people who work on an aircraft carrier, and it's very similar toFly Girls. You get to see that world through their eyes. These are the shows that I love because I've never been on an aircraft carrier, and I've never been in the service. The five of them all come from different backgrounds, and you hear their stories. When else would I get a chance to hear their stories in an honest fashion that isn't propaganda that the military puts out? Deadliest Catch is another great one because it also gives you a window into a world.

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