The Future of Unscripted TV with Emmy-winning Producer Arthur Smith

Posted on: Jun 01, 2023

Arthur Smith going over notes with Gordon Ramsay in a nice office.Photo courtesy of Arthur Smith

By Tahlia Norrish

You might not know who Arthur Smith is by name, but you certainly know his work. The prolific Canadian producer has pioneered some of the world’s most ubiquitous unscripted television, from American Ninja Warrior to Hell’s Kitchen and Floor Is Lava to The Titan Games. After stints at CBC Sports and FOX Sports Net, Smith launched his own production company, A. Smith & Co., which has produced 200+ shows on 50+ networks.

Smith’s latest project sees him chart new territory in a more personal way—releasing his first book. In his book Reach: Hard Lessons and Learned Truths from a Lifetime in Television, Smith reflects on his career to date, pulling back the curtain on some of unscripted TV’s most pivotal moments. I had the opportunity to speak with Smith, and dig a little deeper into his career, accomplishments and advice.

You’re the mastermind behind some of the world’s most original and compelling nonfiction television. I have to ask, where do you get these wild ideas from?

Not surprisingly, ideas for shows come to us in a variety of ways: a lead from a network, something you saw on the news, something you read about, or just something that’s in the zeitgeist. When you spend your life thinking of show ideas, you tend to say, “What if…” a lot!

What makes these ideas, as you say, “wild,” is my desire to pursue originality and freshness of concept. Many of the biggest hits in the nonfiction space have been breakthrough, first-of-their-kind, pioneering type efforts. Hell’s Kitchen, which is going into its 22nd season, was a wild idea way back in 2005 because there had never been a successful broadcast network food show. American Ninja Warrior, which will air its 15th season this year, was unlike anything else on network television when it debuted.

In Reach, I talk about pushing boundaries, taking risks and not being afraid to put yourself out there. That’s a big part of our philosophy at [A. Smith & Co.], and that philosophy led to the wild formats of Paradise Hotel, I Survived a Japanese Game Show, Mental Samurai, The Titan Games and many others.

At just 28 years old, you were named the youngest-ever head of CBC Sports. When you reflect on your early years, what do you attribute the unprecedented success you had to?

I had this epiphany when I was young and it changed my life: when you reach, you find out what you’re capable of and the more you try, the luckier you get.

I must say, sometimes, ignorance is bliss. That was certainly the case when I broke into CBC Sports. I didn’t know how things worked, but I knew I wanted to break in. I tried some things that I would never have tried if I knew how the industry worked—like camping out in front of the executive’s office for five hours to get five minutes of his time, writing a detailed critical proposal of everything I would change about the very network I was so desperate to have hire me. As it turned out, that somehow landed me a job as a producer. Two years after starting there, I was named the producer of the Los Angeles Olympics at 24 years old, which opened the door to a ton of opportunities.

Of course, you can’t just want something and make it so. My dedication, preparation and sacrifice were all a big part of it as well. In my early years, I wasn’t thinking about “life balance.” I took some calculated risks, and I focused on maximizing every opportunity I was given—enough that I was able to make my bosses notice my talent as a producer.

It’s interesting that you started in sports—most significantly producing three Olympic Games—before transitioning to unscripted TV. Do you feel this equipped you with any unique superpowers?

Moving from sports into [unscripted] TV never felt like a transition. In my two tours of duty in sports at CBC and FOX, I was always an entertainment guy doing sports. Great television always comes back to great storytelling and getting invested in characters.

One of the biggest crossover lessons that sports taught me was to “prepare for the game, react to the moment.” In sports, I approached every assignment with a variety of storylines and key players to focus on. But once the game started, you had to be flexible, present and, dare I say, brave enough to react to each moment as it unfolded—even ripping up the script when necessary. So much of the beauty in sports and storytelling comes from the unexpected. Obviously, when shooting an [unscripted] program, we have a much greater ability to control certain elements, but so often, the best moments are the ones you never saw coming but were still prepared and flexible enough to capture in the right way.

Arthur Smith on the set of the Titan Games with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
Arthur Smith with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, courtesy of Arthur Smith.

Can you walk us through a high-level picture of development in unscripted programming?

This is a tough question because development happens in so many ways. Sometimes, it can literally be a half-hour meeting, one phone call and it’s all there. Other times, it can take years to get into the right shape. But they all have to end up in the same place with four key attributes:

  1. A great concept
  2. An amazing cast
  3. An outstanding behind-the-scenes team
  4. Freshness of concept or point of view.

To have a chance at a sustainable hit, you should have all four.

I read that you grew up making predictions of TV ratings. What do you foresee the future of unscripted television looking like?

Although there are a lot of subgenres that fall under the banner of “nonfiction,” I really believe that we’ll find our biggest successes by pushing boundaries and taking chances. With the vast number of content platforms, there’s a place for every one of those subgenres, so producers should pitch the projects they are most passionate about, even if there’s only one platform that it’s right for.

We’re living in the golden age of nonfiction television and it’s only going to get better—that is, as long as networks are willing to take bigger risks and not be afraid to buy high-concept ideas.

With this in mind, what advice would you give the next generation of producers?

Producers need to make sure their pitches are bulletproof before they step out the door or hop on Zoom. They must have total awareness of similar concepts, a complete understanding of the buyer, what’s working for them and what level of budget they can afford.

The next generation of producers should be thinking of truly original—breakthrough—ideas. The originality can come from the storytelling or the point of view, the style or look, the casting, the subject matter, or the format, but it must be crystal clear why this concept is special.

For emerging producers already on platforms such as Staff Me Up, do you have any tactical, practical suggestions on how they might stand out to people like yourself?

Beyond their resume and their references, which are obviously important, the most important things are that:

  1. They come to the meeting with a full understanding of our company
  2. They offer up tangible ways they will be an asset to the production
  3. They put themselves out there a bit by expressing some ideas for the project.

If they don’t do number 1, it shows me they have a lack of interest. If they don’t do number 2, then they make it harder for us to find the right role for them. Number 1 and number 2 are basically prerequisites. But if they do number 1 and number 2 and number 3? That’s the candidate that stands out because they’ve done the extra work and given us their perspective. Whether we like their ideas or not almost doesn’t matter.

Headshot of Arthur Smith in a black sweater in front of a blue backdrop.
Photo Credit: Zach Lyons Photography, courtesy of Future PLC.

Reach is packed full of anecdotes, but if readers were to only take away one insight, what would you hope that would be?

When you reach, you find out the difference between a pipe dream and what you just haven’t dared to try yet!

Reach will be released as a hardcover, e-book and audiobook on June 6, 2023. All of Arthur’s proceeds will go to the REACH Foundation—a fund that supports a curated collection of charities who in some way help make people’s dreams a reality.

Arthur Smith discusses “Reach” with “American Ninja Warrior” host Matt Iseman on June 9, 2023, at 7 p.m. PT.

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