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SWIMMING WITH SHARKS: Good Guy Clay Newbill Runs The Show At The Top Of The Reality TV Food Chain

Posted By Michael Ventre, Tuesday, March 08, 2016

In the tortoise-hare dynamic, Clay Newbill’s career has been mostly tortoise. His slow and steady trek toward the peak of the alternate-programming hill has come about through hard work, perseverance, patience, skill, smarts, and good old human decency.

But there were a couple quicksilver moments of clarity more attuned to the hare that had a tremendous impact on the Shark Tank showrunner. The first came when he was just a lad living in Florida.

"From an early age, the first school play I ever saw, I knew what I wanted to do,” says the son of an Air Force pilot, who moved around a lot before settling outside Daytona Beach. "I wanted to be in the entertainment business. We had just come to Florida, I was the new kid at school, and a few weeks in, there was an assembly in the cafeteria and the curtain pulled back and it was a play of A Christmas Carol. I turned to a kid next to me and said, ‘How do you get to be one of the kids on the stage?’”

The second came in 2008, at CBS Radford studios, as the pilot for Shark Tank was being shot. "Our control room was upstairs,” Newbill recalls. "So I’d come down between pitches to chat with the "sharks” and I’d have to walk through our crew. And all of our crew, everyone who was there—agents and whatnot—were all gathered around a monitor, and all talking about what just happened.

"They were fascinated,” he continues. "Now these are people who are very critical, because they’ve seen everything. And they were just completely [riveted]. There was something hypnotic about it. Something magical was happening.”

L from B: Robert Herjavec, Clay Newbill,
Mark Cuban,Kevin O'Leary, Daymond John,
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, Lori Greiner.
That kind of magic doesn’t happen overnight; generally, Newbill leans "tortoise.” That side of the analogy better reflects the painstaking rise through the non-fiction television jungle in which he traveled the world, accumulating a wealth of practical experience, making contacts and friends along the way and seizing opportunities when they presented themselves.

Shark Tank, which has been going now for seven seasons, is the culmination of a slow, steady and determined push forward. "People at his level … a lot of them are insane,” laughs Shark Tank executive producer, Yun Lingner, a colleague of Newbill’s for more than 10 years. "There are huge egos. Big personalities. Super insane crazy yellers. They have this instability.

"What’s amazing about Clay,” she counters, "is that he’s such a reasonable person. You can get successful through the ranks in so many different ways. He’s really been in the trenches. He has such a strong and incredible work ethic. Other producers really respect him because he knows what he’s doing and works so hard. He’s that combination of being calm and measured and rational—which is sadly rare at his level—but also creative and funny.”

Indeed, if you look around his office—unassumingly tucked away on the second floor of a modest structure on the far fringe of the Sony lot—what you don’t see is evidence of a cult of personality. It’s Newbill’s own heroes that get the attention: a prized football signed by Dallas Cowboys legends Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin; framed album covers—the Beatles and Herb Alpert, as well as the soundtracks from Goldfinger and Thunderball, a nod to his dad, a James Bond buff.

Newbill presides over one of the most popular reality shows on television with all of the swagger of a trusted accountant, yet his reality resume is the stuff of Hollywood big shots: co-executive producer on The Bachelor, executive producer on The Mole, Who Wants To Marry My Dad?, Top Designer, and American Inventor, stints on early, format-defining series like the Los Angeles and San Francisco seasons of The Real World, as well as Making the Band. And before that, lots of grunt production work at what was then known as Disney-MGM Studios while he lived in Florida, working with such television luminaries as Don Ohlmeyer, Screech Washington and Kim Moses.

"When you’re running a company as I am and you’re hiring somebody to run a show, you want to find that person you can just have confidence in and who knows when to bring issues to your attention and when to handle it himself,” says Jon Murray of Bunim-Murray Productions, whom Newbill credits with giving him his start. "Clay is a real adult. He gets it. He knows when to raise a concern or to just send an email and say, ‘This came up. I took care of it.’

"There are people like that,” Murray adds. "But they’re a special breed. When you find someone like that, you want to hold on to him. We were lucky to have him for so many years, but we’re proud of the success he has had with Shark Tank and his other projects.”

Shark Tank is based on another Sony property, Dragons’ Den, a popular hit in many parts of the world. The format is simple: entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to potential investors.

"Our show embodies the American Dream,” notes Newbill. "Though Dragons’ Den has been successful in many territories around the world … there’s only one country that has its own national ‘dream.’ That’s worldwide. People all over the world say, ‘The American Dream.’.”

Even as Newbill observes, "The moment the show becomes predictable, we’re dead,” he also knows that the drama built into the format assures that Shark Tank by its very nature remains unpredictable.

"I like to say that Shark Tank is like a courtroom drama,” he explains. "Somebody comes in, the entrepreneur, and they give testimony, and the sharks are cross-examining. When you’re watching a great courtroom drama like The Verdict, when you watch that cross-examination, you as a viewer, you’re swinging back and forth, you’re on the edge of your seat—‘What’s going to be the answer to this question?,’ ‘How’s it going to impact if they’re guilty or not guilty?’

Clay Newbill on the set of Shark Tank with "sharks" Kevin O'Leary, Robert Herjavec, Daymond John,
and fellow executive producer Yun Lingner

"The difference in Shark Tank,” he continues, "is that you’re thinking, ‘Are they going to get an offer, or are they not going to get an offer?’ With every question asked, it’s something you can sit at home with your family or whoever you’re watching with, and say, ‘Oh they’re going to get a deal’ or ‘This is perfect for (Mark) Cuban or Lori (Greiner), Barbara (Corcoran) or Daymond (John). This is right up their alley.’ Then as they do their search and discovery and they ask their questions and get their answers, that pendulum is swinging back and forth. That’s the excitement of the show.”

But again, it was a tortoise-like approach by Newbill, executive producer Mark Burnett, Sony and ABC that enabled it to become the hit that it is today.

"We realized—and thank goodness ABC realized—if you look at the model from the U.K. and Canada, it took three seasons for it to reach the tipping point where it became a hit,” Newbill reports. "We knew it would take the same here. In all the territories where it was successful, that was the model.

"When you hear the concept, it’s not a big hook,” he adds. "But when you watch the show, you get it. You’re hooked. That’s what I tell everybody: Watch it once and you’ll get hooked. Thank goodness ABC believed in it enough that they stuck with it for those three seasons. Sure enough, when the third Season came: BAM!”

One prominent shark believes he knows why. Says Cuban: "Without Clay, Shark Tank doesn’t work. He makes the magic happen.”

And the magic probably happens because Newbill knows it’s not the result of magic, but rather elbow grease, creativity and human relations—elements in his portfolio that he’s been honing for years.

"There are so many intangibles Clay brings,” confirms Rob Mills, senior vice president of alternate programming for ABC. "His passion is first and foremost. Clay is one of those unsung heroes of reality, because he’s worked on everything. With Clay, it’s really all about doing great work. He has zero ego. His preparation for everything is intense. And he never gets complacent. He’s always thinking about what we’re doing, not just now but a year from now and five years from now.”

Holly Jacobs, executive vice president of reality and syndication for Sony Pictures Entertainment, fills in the picture: "This is an interesting show. There are a lot of moving parts. All of the many, many entrepreneurs to manage, to navigate, to hear their stories. Then you have a lot of very interesting sharks who have incredibly busy lives, who are unique personalities, who are really smart. That takes a lot of navigation. Clay has a very, very calm and centered way of managing it all. He gives you a lot of confidence and he’s very, very good with detail.”

Murray said he knew that Newbill was special when the two worked on The Real World together, when Pedro, a young Cuban-American cast member who was HIV positive, got sick during production and had to fly home to Miami from San Francisco to be checked out by his doctors.

"Clay and me and a camera person and an audio person all went with Pedro and spent a week with him in Miami,” Murray recalls. "Working with Clay for that week showed me a sensitive side of him as a human being, especially in his care for Pedro and his concern for Pedro’s family and friends and our work to try to document this while being sensitive to everybody. It was amazing.”

When Newbill is away from Shark Tank, he’s usually at home in Manhattan Beach with wife Jaesuk, a flight attendant, and 6-year-old son Wyatt, who recently got on skis for the first time during a trip to Mammoth. Newbill loves to surf, an obsession he picked up when he lived in Florida.

Back in 1991, after graduating from the University of Central Florida (he has since set up a scholarship there and offers paid internships for students to work on Shark Tank) and doing some production work at Disney, he packed everything he owned into his car and drove across the country. He rented a room with two other roommates in Manhattan Beach, a town he fell in love with. Later, after traveling a ton and saving up, he bought a house in the town, where he still lives with his wife and son. He worked diligently over a period of many years, taking whatever opportunities that were available, moving forward, learning and striving to improve.

In other words, he pursued and achieved the American Dream. Now he’s running a show that gives others the chance to do the same.

"Shark Tank has definitely resonated with our society,” he says. "You see someone walk down that hall and hit that rug and start their pitch, you can relate to that person because they’re trying to overcome some great obstacle. They’re trying to get success. They believe in something with their entire spirit, and here they are to convince the sharks this is something worth doing and get the investment that takes them to the next level with their business.

"I think Daymond John said it best: It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, race, color, creed, whatever. You hit that rug and you’ve got your shot.” Clay Newbill can relate. He took his shot. He didn’t miss.

- See all of the articles from the February/March 2016 issue of Produced By Magazine.

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