NEW YORK (AdAge.com) — Under a featureless, cloud-ridden sky in early May, Michael Hirschorn was sitting in an empty room on a fold-out chair, the kind more typically reserved for unexpected dinner guests. He had commandeered a corner den in the new New York offices of his TV production company, Ish Entertainment, and was tugging on the ear cord of his BlackBerry, his head bobbing in tune to the conversation. The blankness of the room belied the urgency of whatever he was discussing. “We need furniture,” Mr. Hirschorn said as he stepped out of the office and surveyed the landscape of boxes and plastic tables. “It’s taking longer than we thought.”
Indeed, Mr. Hirschorn, 46, is moving faster than anyone can keep up. In a way, the recent expansion of his company is a fitting emblem of the growing cadre of independent TV producers that the network leviathans have increasingly come to rely upon to supply low-cost, high-value entertainment — all just in time for the upfronts, of course.
“The economics of the business are changing radically, and not to the benefit of the independent producer,” Mr. Hirschorn explained over lunch at Ace Hotel’s British-style gastro-pub The Breslin, just a few blocks from the office. “The networks are laying off more and more of the risk on producers while demanding more and more of the rights.”
Mr. Hirschorn detailed some maths: Where networks just last year might have been willing to spend $200,000 to $400,000 on a pilot, they now want one for $20,000. But instead of retrenching in light of these austerity measures, Mr. Hirschorn has enlarged Ish’s ambitions by attempting to own more of the content, both by producing more of the shows end-to-end, as well as retaining international rights.
At present, his company is producing several series, one with WE called “Find My Family,” along with unannounced shows set up at MTV, VH1, Bravo and Oxygen. The company’s development slate, meanwhile, grows by the day, including “Whitey 101” for Comedy Central (starring comedian Patrice O’Neal), as well as the “Approval Matrix” for Bravo, a weekly show based on a back-of-the-book element in New York magazine that epitomizes Mr. Hirschorn’s taste and place in the TV world.
As every marketer knows, the Approval Matrix is based on a branding exercise involving a quadrant grid with two axes that define some range. In the case of New York magazine, one axis runs Highbrow to Lowbrow, while the other runs Despicable to Brilliant. The Bravo version will transliterate this concept with a host and a cast of pundits rating the week’s events. The network has provided real resources to create the pilot, which is rare.
“‘Approval Matrix’ is very exciting because all the preconditions are there for us to succeed,” Mr. Hirschorn said. “We just have to not fuck it up.”
Mr. Hirschorn is famous within media circles as “the journalist who made money,” or more specifically as the editor who went from running Spin magazine to launching Inside.com to producing original programming at VH1, where he created one of that channel’s best-watched shows, “I Love the ’80s.”
“He always sees a story in something, and by that scope he’s always developing,” said Lauren Zalaznick, president of women and lifestyle entertainment at NBC Universal. Ms. Zalaznick was at VH1 just before Mr. Hirschorn arrived. “He’s fascinated by a very broad spectrum of subjects, and he’s repelled by almost nothing.”
It is this last assessment that, fairly or not, has become glued to Mr. Hirschorn’s reputation, a status touched off by his hand in shows like “Strange Love,” which chronicled flavour Flav’s affair with Brigitte Nielsen, and “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF,” thus far Mr. Hirschorn’s most-profitable show. Interpreting his TV career crudely, one might call him Mr. Bad Taste, a moniker that was ironically bestowed upon him in a New York Observer profile some years ago. But as he himself is well aware, those who speak of him in this way are essentially underscoring the catholicity of his interests, his ability to suspend judgment or refrain from moralizing.
“What’s interesting in TV right now is you can make a show about parking-meter attendants and you can make a show about a pawn shop,” he said. “All of those are tapped in a very direct way to emotional connections people have — it’s about characters.”
“He’ll probably disagree with me, but he’s a worrier by nature and a kind of pessimist by nature,” said longtime friend and colleague Kurt Andersen, now a novelist and host of WNYC’s Studio 360. “But I think now, in this new configuration, he’s happier than he was.”
Part and parcel of that are Mr. Hirschorn’s passion projects, notably the documentary “U.S. Versus John Lennon,” on which he was executive producer, and the hip-hop documentary “Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme.” But even here, he recognises the gap between what people like and what people should like that is a kind of abiding cultural axiom.
“The stuff I think will change people’s lives — that’s the stuff that usually doesn’t sell,” he said. “I think you’re always trying to work in a little spinach into the cotton candy and a little cotton candy into the spinach. You need to find a way to exist somewhere in between.”
When asked where he and his company fall on the Approval Matrix, he was initially amused by the question’s gimmickry, laughing it off. But then he gave it a moment of serious thought before answering.
“I think we’ve dipped into every quadrant,” he said. “Actually, I think we’re the whole matrix.”
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