Updated: Oct 23
Executive producers Kari McFarland and Pam LaLima both have more than 25 years of experience in the entertainment industry, developing and show-running iconic reality show hits like Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, and Black Ink Crew. Together, they have produced almost every type of reality, celebrity, dating, and design show.
They first met in 2005 while working on the pilot of A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. McFarland worked on the network side at VH1 before the show moved to MTV, while LaLima worked as a Supervising Producer at 495 Productions. It would be the beginning of more reality show collaborations.
Most recently, the two worked on “Super-Sized Salon,” a reality show on WeTV about a salon catering to the plus-sized community in Las Vegas. They recently sat with FUTURE NOW Founder & CEO Peggy Kim for a Leadership Talk to share about their intertwined journeys.
“We both were huge Real World fans,” McFarland explained. That love drew her and LaLima into the reality TV industry. When A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila peaked, it might have seemed like “the height of the really wild and crazy stuff.” However, reality TV has existed since the introduction of live television in the 1950s. “[Unscripted television] has really kind of always been there," said LaLima.
But how does one actually create a reality television show? “From the production side… there are two different ways that we get to the start of a show,” LaLima explained.
The production team constantly develops and workshops ideas, and then, pitches them to a network. If the network likes an idea, “we do a pilot to test it, then we get greenlit to series.”
Sometimes “the networks bring the show to us… and approach us as a production company,” which is what happened with “Jersey Shore.” But before getting greenlit, there is an all-important step: casting.
“Casting is one of the most important parts of making a show,” LaLima emphasized. Though reality television naturally comes with a layer of artifice, “the audience is going to immediately sniff out someone who is [too] fake.” Openness and honesty in casting are critical to the process.
“The best things that actually happen… and the ones that really do break through, they’re real,” McFarland added. “How do we create an environment where we can allow for this great stuff to happen?”
LaLima shared, “If you watch with the volume off and you’re still watching, you have someone who’s very entertaining.” Casting needs to look for someone outgoing and animated, whose charisma shows through even when silent, but that might look different for each show. “You can tell right away when someone is playing [a] part… [or] trying to get cast on TV,” and LaLima wants to avoid that.
Though McFarland has worked most of her career on the network side, she started out in production, giving her valuable insight into how shows get made. “Having that experience from the production side was very, very helpful for me,” McFarland said.
She described the process needed both during production and post-production to catch little moments or go back and see where the seeds were for the big finale. “It’s a collaborative symphony,” she explained.
On the network side, there is internal collaboration as well, which includes: executive producers; producers; writers; programming and development teams who look at titles to acquire, commission, co-produce, and schedule; legal teams who work on contracts and rights and clearances; sales and distribution teams; marketing, creative services, and public relations groups; and more.
For those who might be interested in a career in programming or development, McFarland proffered, “I think it’s much easier to get started… if you start on the production side.” She also disabused the audience of the notion that a job at a network is somehow more stable, noting the cycles of layoffs and belt-tightening in recent years.
But, McFarland also encouraged the audience not to wait for opportunities to present themselves. Whether you want to work at a production company or a network, don’t just wait for job listings.
“Yes, apply on LinkedIn… but also go look at the shows and the production companies that you like… and write to them, and follow up with them,” she advised. “Write from your heart, and make it short, memorable, and succinct… You [only]need one person to want you.”
LaLima also shared words of wisdom from her own experience as an intern. Even though it was low-level, she advised everyone to “take it seriously.” Even a coffee run should be treated with importance because those jobs “are teaching you things you will need in the future. Care about it. You are making a difference.”
“There is nothing like hard work, enthusiasm, [and] showing that you’re a responsible person,” McFarland added. “It goes by so fast if you keep working and plugging at it. So, please have fun along the way… It will come if you continue to have the right attitude and do the work.”