How to Produce a #1-Rated TV Show

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It would be good to be Shonda Rhimes, wouldn’t it? She’s the creator and producer of not one, not two, but three hit TV shows: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder. Along the way she’s made the careers of numerous actors, entertained millions of viewers, and, by the way, amassed a net worth of some $60 million. Not too bad! So how can you achieve results like this in your world, and with your people?


I never played at Shonda’s level, but I do have some experience producing a hit TV show. For 15 years, I was the Executive Producer of the #1-rated local comedy TV show in the country—Seattle’s legendary Almost Live! (which was also syndicated on Comedy Central for a few years). Collectively, my team won more than 100 Emmy Awards, and we were #1 in our time slot for 10 straight years. That’s some pretty outrageous success!

You may be surprised to find that many of the things we did to achieve that success apply to your world as well. For example…

1. Build a Great Team. Of all the success we had, maybe 10% was due to anything that I did. The other 90% was the result of having a great team. In fact, building that team probably accounted for the bulk of my 10%. I very intentionally looked for people who were better and smarter than I was. If I had insisted on being the best writer, the best performer, and the smartest person in the room, we would have had a very mediocre team, and no doubt would have been canceled in just a few short years.

Build a great team! Intentionally look for people who are better and smarter than you are. Share on X

2. Change it Up. As a sketch comedy show (much like Saturday Night Live), we of course changed it up each week. The shows were different because the material was different. But more than that, we continually tried new things to make the show fresh for ourselves and for our viewers. We changed the format of the show, going from an hour to a half-hour. We changed our time slot. We did the show live on occasion. We changed our host. We added new cast members. We dropped recurring bits before they got stale (although some viewers might debate that), and we added new ones from time to time.

Change it up! Continually try new things to make your show fresh for yourself and your customers. Share on X

3. Fight Among Ourselves. We disagreed. Often. Many times with vigor. And there’s nothing quite as compelling or invigorating as when smart, creative people disagree! But what really excited me, as the leader, was that these disagreements among team members were virtually always because they cared about the product. So rather than curbing these disagreements, I encouraged them (to a point, of course).

There’s nothing quite as compelling or invigorating as when smart, creative people disagree! Share on X

4. Measure Our Success. I’ve met a few business owners who wouldn’t know a Profit & Loss report if it were printed on their shower curtain. Generally, these business owners are not nearly as successful as they could be, because, at the most basic level, a business owner needs to know:

  • What are the important numbers to track?
  • How will you track them?

The important numbers will vary from business to business. An online business will have different numbers than a brick and mortar operation (although some, like Net Profit, will be the same). With my TV show, the big number was the ratings. Each week, I got a copy of the previous week’s ratings, and each week, I made sure the staff knew what our ratings were. It was one way of making sure we were keeping pace with our goals. And, by making sure the entire staff was aware of our important numbers, it built a sense of team, a sense of “We’re all in this together.”

5. Climb to 30,000 Feet. At the end of each season, we would schedule an offsite all-staff retreat. During this retreat, we reflected on the past season: what went well, what didn’t quite work, what we could do better. Then we planned for the following season. The important thing here is that, even though I was the Executive Producer and had ultimate veto power, we decided the shape and direction of the show as a team. The entire team had ownership of the project, on a macro level.

Do any of these resonate with you and your teams? Can you incorporate any (or all) of these five ideas into your own leadership style?

In other words, can you produce a #1-rated show in your own field?


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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