As a dozen or so Colgate students gathered in his Los Angeles office last January, brimming with eagerness, Eugene Young ’81 recognized a certain irony in the moment. His visitors had come to California to immerse themselves in the entertainment industry.
Young is a friend of Ryan Seacrest (the terrifically coiffed and alarmingly ubiquitous TV host and cultural colossus) and the former president of Ryan Seacrest Productions, a major player in the world of scripted and unscripted — aka “reality” — TV. As the undergraduates picked his brain, Young was happy to hold forth, despite regarding himself as an unlikely career counselor.
“When I was their age,” he recalled recently over brunch at Pasadena’s Urth Caffé, “I was the king of having no idea what I was going to do after graduation.”
Full disclosure: I’ve known Young since college; he is a friend and former fraternity brother of mine. We were both football-playing, aspiring lawyers from large families. I veered into journalism; Young’s ambitions for a career in jurisprudence were euthanized after he learned the results of his law boards, which were, he gamely recalls, “worse than my SATs.”
The self-deprecation goes on. Asked to name his favorite professor, he mentions the late Harry Behler, whose students sometimes referred to him as “Harry the Hook.” If you deserved a C, the man gave you a C. “I helped him earn that nickname,” said Young, who may have been a better tight end — he captained the football team in ’80 — than bookworm. Yet, in the end, his chronic absences from the dean’s list failed to obscure his gleaming, overt gift: As one of seven children of Audrey and Bill Young, he became a connoisseur of narrative and anecdote. He could always spin a yarn — and never failed to appreciate a good one.
In the development of your story, you need to be prepared for every objection. Who is the audience you want to speak to? How does it speak to that audience? You want to make sure that you can describe what it is, in one sentence. You need to be able to put it on a billboard.”
Following a brief period of post-college drift, Young found his true calling: telling stories. That’s been a constant for him, even as the companies have changed: on January 4 of this year, following Ryan Seacrest Productions’ merger with the Endemol Shine Group, Young announced his plans to join the Levity Entertainment Group (LEG) as its chief content officer. His job for LEG, producers of Iron Chef on Food Network and Black Jesus on Comedy Central, will be similar to what it was for RSP: cultivating and creating ideas for TV shows, then selling those series to networks.
“It’s a high-risk business,” he said, “and there’s massive fear. Hollywood is ruled by fear.” The network gatekeepers, he added, “are going to point out every reason why they’re not going to buy. In the development of your story, you need to be prepared for every objection. Who is the audience you want to speak to? How does it speak to that audience? You want to make sure that you can describe what it is, in one sentence. You need to be able to put it on a billboard.”
As a Colgate Raider, Young played tight end
Young with former President Jimmy Carter
Young family, 1968
In one sentence, then, where did Young acquire his instincts for knowing what makes a good story? “I learned from the master,” he said, between sips of decaf cappuccino served in a large, handleless bowl that I am confident the 20-year-old Gene Young would have found ridiculous. His father, Bill, was a legendary sales executive at Kimberly-Clark, the paper products behemoth, for 46 years. Bill passed away in 1987; to this day, sales awards at the company are named after him. “My dad was a terrific storyteller — because he had to be,” Gene explained. “You’re at the A&P, you want the floor manager to move the Kotex from the bottom shelf to the middle shelf, you’d better be pretty damned entertaining.”
That would serve as a fair motto for RSP, which took reality TV by storm in 2006 with Keeping Up with the Kardashians and has since demonstrated a keen eye for the zeitgeist. Shortly after Caitlyn Jenner’s groundbreaking interview with Diane Sawyer, the ABC Family network unveiled the critically acclaimed RSP series Becoming Us, about a pair of Midwestern teens who are dating and whose fathers are both transgender.
Upon bringing Young on as president of his company in early 2014, Seacrest praised him as “an extremely talented and accomplished television executive with a keen understanding of the business — not just where it’s been, or even where we are, but most important, where it’s all going.” Elaborating to me, Seacrest added, “Television isn’t an easy business. You need creativity, stamina, and resilience. Eugene has great intelligence and energy, which has fueled his career and success.”
You also need a thick skin, it would appear. Although Young has been deeply involved with some of reality TV’s biggest hits, it has also happened, on occasion, that he’s dug into the batter’s box, swung from his heels, and whiffed completely.
“I produced I Want To Be a Hilton,” he allowed. “As it turned out, Americans had no desire to be a Hilton.”
The road to Hollywood
Before drawing Young out on “where it’s all going,” it was fun learning where he’d been, and how he arrived at this juncture in the History of Television. His three-decade journey in the biz has provided, in addition to a rich lode of stories, a front-row seat on the evolution of the medium.
A year after graduation, Young enrolled at Boston University’s school of film and television, after which he was recruited by ESPN and CNN. “Sports had always been a part of my life. I wanted to get into news,” he said. CNN it was. Not long after Young signed on, the space shuttle Challenger broke up 73 seconds into its flight, followed a few months later by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “It was an extraordinary time,” recalled Young, who worked the night shift for two years. The gig was memorable for other reasons, too: “Ted Turner had an office upstairs,” he said. “Once in a while he’d come down and just walk around in his bathrobe.”
Young was plucked from CNN by Atlanta’s NBC affiliate, which had recently hired a talented news anchor named Kelly Mack from a station in Jackson, Miss. “She’d jumped from the ninetieth market to the eighth. I was her producer on the five o’clock news.” Before very long, he was more than that. They began dating in 1986 and eloped in ’91.
In 1994, the couple busted a move to Los Angeles. Kelly anchored the news at KNBC. Gene, hardboiled by almost a decade of producing news in major markets, joined KCBS, of which time in his career he says, offhandedly, “We broke the OJ story.”
Wait — what? Elaborate, please.
“Our consumer reporter, David Horowitz, lived in Brentwood. He was out with his dog at five in the morning and walked, literally, into the crime scene,” Young recalled. “Horowitz called the news desk. We actually got a reporter inside, with a truck, before they cordoned off the area.”
For hours, KCBS was ahead of the competition in covering the grisly double murder. When Simpson took to the highway in his white Ford Bronco for the infamous low-speed chase, it was the KCBS helicopter pilot who spotted him first and provided treetop-level footage seen ’round the world. Everything was pointing toward an Emmy, until the chopper pilot radioed the news that he was low on gas.
“He peeled off,” Young recalled. “A competing station called and said, ‘Hey, do you want our signal?’ I had to put their signal on my air. It was the most humiliating moment in my journalism career. That was reality television before reality television.”
Even then, the TV business was in flux. This was the Dawn of the Newsmagazine show — ushering in exposé vehicles and 60 Minutes wannabes such as 48 Hours, Dateline, 20/20, Hard Copy, Current Affair, and Extra!, a show replete with so much buzz it required its own exclamation point.
Hired by Extra! to be its showrunner, the dynamic, enterprising Young positively embodied that exclamation point, thriving in the fast-paced, competitive newsmagazine environment. He was not above engaging in “gotcha” journalism, if it advanced the public interest … and Extra!’s ratings.
Specifically, he recalls an incident involving an enormously popular Fox special hosted by a “Masked Magician.” Sensing an opportunity during “sweeps” month, Young sent a reporter and crew to Hollywood’s Magic Castle, a renowned gathering place for illusionists, prestidigitators, and magicians of all stripes. Many of them, it turned out, resented the Masked Magician for giving away trade secrets. So, within minutes, Young’s crew had the man’s name and address. “We showed up at his house unannounced — ambush TV! — and knocked on the door. I had to get a shot of him without the mask,” Young recalled. When the fellow answered the door, Young asked, “Are you the masked magician?” Startled, the unmasked magician did not deny it.
The night that Fox aired the special, Extra! blew the magician’s cover in a show that began two hours earlier — but only after warning the audience of its intent. “Spoiler alerts before anyone knew what a spoiler alert was,” said Young, still exultant nearly two decades later. Of course it was unkind, stealing a rival network’s thunder. Then again, the people had a right to know. Also, as Young recalled with a grin, the segment pulled a big number.
From Extra!, it was not a giant leap to full-on reality TV, which was then in its infancy. Young got in on the ground floor through his friendship with a Dutch entrepreneur named John de Mol, a trailblazer of unscripted programming and a cofounder of Endemol, which created Big Brother, Deal or No Deal, and Fear Factor. Young was hired as creative director of Endemol USA. He served as the intellectual property czar, “generating, developing, marketing, and executing all of our shows, scripted, nonscripted, and digital,” he recounted. “I was the company’s pitchman to the networks, and then had to produce the shows.”
After five years at Endemol, he was hired away to do the same job for Fremantle Media, where he worked on American Idol, America’s Got Talent, Family Feud, and The Price is Right.
The alchemy of reality TV
Harry the Hook would’ve revised his opinion of Young, had he known that his former, mediocre pupil would go on to earn two advanced degrees. (Five years ago, Young added an MBA from Claremont Graduate University.) While all that education helps, his chosen field remains mysterious and fickle. Reality TV is part art, part science, divining which shows will fly and which will fall to earth with a resounding splat, like Who Wants To Be a Hilton? “You think someone’s a natural,” said Young, “then the camera starts rolling, and they freeze up. Or you’re lukewarm on someone, and they end up being unbelievable.
“About 90 percent of our pitches are rejected,” he reported. And that’s just the start of the winnowing. Of every six pilots filmed, one makes it to a series. One in five series makes it to a second season.
One show that did make it to the pilot stage was a wince-intensive close-up on a California urologist who specializes in repairing damaged or malformed male genitalia. At brunch, Young causes a mild stir by recounting — with his characteristic, animated enthusiasm — a procedure RSP had captured on video: “On this banana,” he suggested, “think of the brown spot as the scar tissue. The doctor cuts out the banana’s bruise, and replaces it with cadaver cartilage.”
As eavesdropping diners turned in our direction, Young plowed ahead, providing backstory on the hapless patient’s injury, incurred, it turns out, during lovemaking. Cruel as it sounds, the couple’s future may depend on the success or failure of the procedure. “Is this relationship going to last? Are they going to make it?” Young becomes serious — solemn, even — as he intones: “It’s not a show about penises. It’s a show about people.”
So, Members Only (yes, that’s the working title) isn’t exactly Brideshead Revisited on the BBC. But, the mid- and lowbrow fare Young brings to market is far more popular, and profitable.
It’s easy — and, frankly, appropriate — to heap scorn on many of the genre’s offerings. (See: Born In The Wild, Outback Jack, My Fair Brady, Dating Naked, and scores of others.) There can also be something noble and redeeming about meeting people, learning their troubles, and recognizing ourselves in them.
“What’s really cool about the job,” he said, “is that we meet people from all over America, rich and poor, and we get them to tell us their stories.” Tolstoy observed that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In a sense, Young has devoted his career to capturing as many strains of that unhappiness as possible. Sometimes, there’s a happy ending.
One of Young’s gifts is the ability to get people to trust him with their stories. As one of seven children, he’s empathetic and a good listener. And as social chairman of Kappa Delta Rho, he presided over a record haul of pledges, including me. Although people are generally reluctant to share deeply, to make themselves vulnerable, “they tell me,” he said. “I don’t know what it is.”
So, what kind of legs does reality TV have? Young gets some insight from his and Kelly’s daughters, Quinn (23) and Willa (21), who consume media differently than their parents. “Their generation doesn’t stick to a planned network calendar,” he noted. (The day before, Willa had insisted that he watch a video of the comedian John Oliver’s takedown of the poultry industry.) “Kids want what they want, when they want it.”
This trend has discombobulated the old model for measuring how many people are watching a show, which has led to declining ratings and hurt the bottom lines of production companies. “So,” he concluded, “there’s some chaos right now.”
How and when stories are seen and on what smart, shiny device: all that is changing, in flux, and will keep changing. What remains constant is our biological imperative to tell stories, and our desire to hear them. In the end, Young believes, there’s less of a gulf than you might think between Members and Brideshead. “Every movie and TV show, every great novel does the same thing: ordinary person finds himself or herself in an extraordinary situation, under pressure to make an excruciating decision. That decision determines true character.”
Toward the end of brunch, Young shared that “Our big new show this season is Shades of Blue on NBC, starring J. Lo and Ray Liotta and directed by Barry Levinson.” Like his old man, Gene Young is always selling. But before I have the chance to ask him for more details, he’s already embarked on another story.