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How To Keep TV Real The Anthony Bourdain Way

Anthony Bourdain didn’t start out developing TV shows. But seven seasons later, his No Reservations is going strong and, together with production partners Zero Point Zero, he’s launched a second show, The Layover and is working on a range of new projects. Here, the author/chef/restaurateur/TV show creator and star and Zero Point Zero principals talk about keeping TV real.

Seven seasons deep, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations is doing something right. The show, which revolves around the brash chef/author/all-round personality indulging in transformative stints of eating, drinking, and traveling, airs on the Travel Channel and is a product of Bourdain and Zero Point Zero Productions, the same company that just helmed a successful first season of a Bourdain offshoot, The Layover. Co.Create sat down with Bourdain, Zero Point Zero executive producers Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia, and managing director Joe Caterini to dig into why Bourdain’s shows stay afloat in a sea of programming, how multi-hyphenate creative types are working to adapt to new content paradigms, and why comedian Louis C.K. should be emulated in all things.

Co.Create: You’re filming No Reservations’ eighth season. What’s the first trick to keeping the show fresh?
Tenaglia: We understood very early on that if you’re really going to get to know a location well, it’s got to be through the characters that live there. Many scenes live or die by a good sidekick.
Bourdain: Fixer selection is huge. Do they know the area as well as they say? Are they capable of doing all the logistical shit a fixer’s gotta do? But also, do they have a sense of humor? Are they fun? Do they drink? We’re not looking for the best of a place or everything you need to know about a place; we’re looking to have as close to a local experience as we can get, and have a good time and do something interesting that hasn’t been done before.

With Anthony’s writing background, are you doing much scripting ahead of time?
Bourdain: We don’t script. We never do any writing beforehand. The Queens of the Stone Age show, it was like, let’s go to the desert and see what Josh Homme wants to do. All we really know for sure is he’s going to provide music for the show and we’re gonna be in the desert. If you think you’ve already figured out what the show’s going to be about or what you expect out of the scene, that’s a lethal impulse.

Does it get tricky to stay away from a fixed template?
Tenaglia: Each year the show keeps evolving. Tony has an inimitable style and strong point of view that informs the creative, and we have an incredible creative team, very multi-platform, from animation to incredible graphics to unbelievable shooting and cinematography that informs the show. It truly evolves out of this process of intense collaboration, and then having these incredible creative tools to basically tell a story in any way, shape, or form.
Bourdain: Let’s face it, ordinarily this is a very restrictive format. The story is always the same: Guy goes somewhere, eats a bunch of stuff, and goes home, presumably having learned something. The core of whatever we do is to fuck with the format as much as we can. Let’s find a way to tell what is basically the same story, different setting, in as disturbing-to-the-network fashion as possible.

Why?
Bourdain: Because television, if it’s a success, if it works, they wanna replicate it. That’s the death of creativity. Then we’ve settled into a groove, then I become bored, the people I work with become bored…it’s a mortifying process. If this isn’t fun and interesting to us, there’s no point doing it.
Collins: We continually want to push further in the storytelling. We understand that with television you’ve got to work within certain parameters, but within those 42 minutes and 30 seconds, how can we play with this thing?

One way you did that was with an entirely different show, The Layover.
Bourdain: That’s an even more restrictive concept—this is a format that’s been done a million times. Everybody loves the damn thing, but it took me a few episodes to figure out how to do it. No Reservations is about me, me, me—they’re basically essays. The idea of going to major cities and doing a "useful" show really goes against the grain.

What are the driving principles behind Zero Point Zero as a content production company?
Caterini: The heart comes from a true vérité documentary filmmaking tradition.
Bourdain: You don’t want people saying, "Could you say that again?" We’d rather miss the scene than fuck up the scene you have. That dynamic is absolutely essential to why our show is different from all the other travel shows. The show looks slick, it’s beautifully photographed, beautifully edited, but you’re never going to get those transforming human moments out of a character reenacting them for you. You’re never going to get real generosity, any kind of chemistry or any kind of fun, for that matter, if you’re muscling and you keep hammering home the theme.
Caterini: Our primary goal is to be able to work on projects in the way we want to. We are looking to learn about digital technology and distribution and other ways of making content that don’t have to fit into the TV business formula. TV, being advertiser-driven, is all based on predictability and consistency. Predictability means you can’t take risks and consistency means it’s dreadfully boring. We’re fortunate we can bust those two barriers down, but it’s really hard to sell new TV shows when that’s your launch pitch.

Why does it work with No Reservations?
Caterini: The creative process is executed very well. We create situations that optimize that. We feel lucky we got greenlit and got on the air. Now we’ve proven that it works.

How do you take it forward?
Caterini: We had a big eye-opening moment when we launched into social media, and looking at it as simply another medium in content and storytelling; truthful storytelling in different size bites with a different arc of time. We’re connecting directly with who really matters, which is the audience, the people who want to enjoy what we’re creating. That really did open up the doors for us to think about ways to go straight to them. For a lot of content creators that’s extremely exciting, and the revolution really hasn’t even happened yet.

You must be familiar with how Louis C.K. sold his latest stand-up special directly to fans for $5 via PayPal.
Bourdain: A heroic pioneer. It was a huge, tectonic moment.
Tenaglia: What’s really fantastic about him, and I think it mirrors a lot of what we do here, is he’s the producer of the piece, the writer, the editor, behind the scenes, in front of the camera—he’s extremely multifaceted and nimble and flexible and self-contained. I think we have a lot of those same qualities. We don’t go out with big, bloated crews of 25 people. We can create something pretty extraordinary with a team of one or two.

What’s the key to getting content made, and seen, with these new paradigms?
Bourdain: People in the television business have a vested interested in keeping it as close to the way it was as possible. You don’t want to cut the ground out from under your own feet. We’re in a more luxurious position to adapt to the situation on the ground. I like making television. But I definitely have both eyes on what’s next.
Caterini: The creative people have to shift the content paradigm. We look at social media as a big medium in and of itself, and we’ve successfully developed and in fact exploded growth in an audience. So it’s working. Then unfortunately we have to say, "Is that a business or not?" But that has to come second. I think we’d ideally like someone to build the perfect platform for creators to work off of. There are bits of it. No one’s actually figured out how to turn it into money right for the creator, though. I think either the platform will come along or we’ll have to do some of the business a network does—market our own stuff, sell our own stuff.
Bourdain: A person with a television show generally lives or dies by the Nielsen numbers. I don’t really understand why anyone would care. I care how many people over time see and like the show and are interested in seeing more stuff. That’s the only number that counts.

What about your personality as a brand, Tony? How does it factor into all this?
Bourdain: I’m happy to use the word "brand," but listen, I’m doing a lot of things: I’m doing a comic book, I’m writing for Treme, I’m making two television shows, publishing books. I do these things because they’re fun, and interesting, and because 12 years ago I had no opportunities to do anything. It bothers me when people say I’m "expanding the brand." You expand the brand so you can land a Pepsi-Cola commercial. You haven’t seen me endorsing any products yet, though I am asked. I’m doing it ’cause it’s fun. What happens when things become not interesting? Then it’s a job. I had a job for years, I know what it’s like to show up every day and do the same thing the same way. I don’t know how Howie Mandel gets up in the morning. I don’t ever want to be that.

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