Craig Piligian: Reality Pioneer Chases the Next Innovation

Craig Piligian: Reality Pioneer Chases the Next Innovation
Read the full article on Broadcasting & Cable here.

It was going to be a split-second decision. The chase was over, the man being sought was captured and cameras had been everywhere. Now, do you go live with this, and show the world how it all went down, showing a man stopped in his tracks?
For Craig Piligian, a longtime pioneer in unscripted television, whose producing career spans Survivor, American Chopper, The Ultimate Fighter and Dirty Jobs among many others, the question still amazes and amuses. This wasn’t a story for CNN or Fox News Channel; it was a pivotal moment on The Runner, a vastly complicated competition show and a digital experiment in reality TV that aired live three times daily throughout July on Verizon’s go90 app.
Teams of chasers solved clues and pursued a single individual in stops throughout the U.S., competing for prizes that ran into six-figure amounts. Meanwhile, in a bright home studio, YouTube star-turned-host MatPat (aka Matthew Patrick) scanned screens filled with GPS positioning maps, updated viewers and talked strategy and social media with a team of experts. And at home, fans of the show stuck to Twitter and Instagram, commenting on the tense action and helping lead chasers to the runner — and making money of their own.
But in a real sense, the most successful search came courtesy of Piligian, because The Runner found the content industry’s Holy Grail in the form of engaged young viewers, embracing a brand new content platform. And that platform earned Pilgrim Media Group’s CEO recognition as the first Next TV NY Innovator of the Year.
Piligian will accept that honor and take part in a “case study” panel on The Runner at the closing panel of the Next TV Summit & Expo on Wednesday, Oct. 19, in New York.
Go live they did, when the first runner was captured, breaking into regular programming and turning an episode into an event with a split-second decision.
“We did the same [kind of] thing on Survivor,” Piligian said, comparing The Runner with that legendary reality success for which he won an Emmy. “No one had done a show like that. [Fellow Survivor executive producer Mark] Burnett and I would make the same kind of choices and decisions. You don’t know if you’re right or wrong but the wrong thing would be to not make a decision. So there was no wrong because no one had done it before. In that regard, we were blessed. Because we were first.”
“First,” after all, is the mark of the innovator, and Piligian has been exactly that, with 25 years in the business of staying intuitively ahead of the curve in both content and technology. He cut his teeth in production in the early 1990s on Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, after transitioning from the news business as an assignment editor at a local Las Vegas TV affiliate. With Highway Patrol, he’d begun to find his calling.
“It was a lot of fun, these real stories — I went to 48 states, and it was the first syndicated reality show of its kind on television,” he recalled. “It was a grind, but it served me in good stead for the rest of my career. It taught me deadlines and quick thinking.”
It also taught him how best to be on the lookout for the next great content.
“Great ideas come from all over the place,” he said, considering his many hits. “Ghost Hunters, I saw an article in The New York Times and thought, this sounds interesting, and they’re good characters. Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s — it was a place we knew in St. Louis and, like American Chopper, it was a family story, a father or mother and son. American Chopper, we were asked by Discovery, ‘Hey, we got Jesse James on the West Coast can you find an East Coast builder?’ I found these guys. The Ultimate Fighter, Fast and Loud, Wicked Tuna, Street Outlaw — all these shows became iconic because they had great characters and great storytelling and that’s the basic element of a show.
“You have an idea you try and think sure, we’ll hit some foul balls and we’ve struck out, but we’ve also hit a lot of f—ing home runs,” Piligian added.
One can make the argument that it all led up to The Runner, which was conceived 16 years ago by co-executive producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and finally realized when, in a sense, the technology caught up to the concept, and Verizon came calling to Piligian’s Pilgrim Media Group in search of the company that could make it happen and help put go90 on the content map.
“We were looking for something brand-defining,” said Brian Angiolet, Verizon’s head of consumer products, who oversees the go90 platform. “We were trying to establish a small bit of momentum toward what it is we’re looking to build, taking risks in terms of the content we’re shooting for — not just a linear TV product, but something that also drives customer engagement.
“Throughout the show, Craig would call with a ton of ideas,” Angiolet said. “He was real-time tweaking the show based on what he was seeing, which is cool from the creative standing and cool for us in terms of what we could do. I want to work with him again.”
It’s a typical refrain, especially given Piligian’s knowledge base and willingness to follow the industry’s best sense wherever it leads.
“In so much of media today, the social component is tangential or supplemental to the main viewing experience, but it’s integral to The Runner as Craig conceived it,” MatPat said. “The community element was front and center.”
Affleck and Damon, in a statement, also praised the final product, adding, “We know that’s largely due to its finding the right home on go90, which worked in partnership with a great producing team.”
Piligian is simply grateful that for him, it’s all just another happy day at the office.
“It’s always different,” he says. “If you’re in the TV business you can do shows about motorcycles, cars, fighting, ghost hunting, weddings, restaurants, anything you want. For my personality, wanting to ping pong back and forth through my day, it’s a lot of fun.”