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How to break into the unscripted/hosting biz with Agent Tony Burton
Written by: Kelly Calabrese
“Who would have thought that Jersey Shore would be the biggest show,” says Tony Burton, talent agent for the Host/Broadcast department at Don Buchwald and Associates (DBA) in New York. Yet, Jersey Shore does pull in viewers because “it resonates with an audience.”
Succeeding in the unscripted/hosting biz takes “that something, that indescribable,” which Tony specializes in finding.
Tony Burton began his career in the prestigious NBC Page program and went on to Produce at the “Today Show', “Dateline” (winning an Emmy Award, 1999), “HBO”, and “ESPN” before joining Don Buchwald and Associates in 2007.
Hosting “is really broken down into two buckets,” Tony explains. “There is the Ryan Seacrest host and then there is the expert host.” Besides for those two main sectors, it also covers shows like “Jersey Shore”, “The Osbournes”, and “VH1” interstitials.
To help NYCastings members learn more about breaking into the unscripted biz, Tony shared with us the three qualities he looks for – which we will call the GTL. (No, not gym, tanning and laundry).
An ideal host is a genuine, talented, and luminous person...
“What makes someone a great scripted person doesn't necessarily mean they are going to be a great host. When you do scripted work you come in and they say ‘here is your line, your premise, here is how we want you to feel and look. Go out and be great in 30sec or a half hour.' In hosting, it's just the opposite. We are saying ‘I want you to be you 100% of the time. Be authentic and go out and host this show.'”
When Tony meets someone interested in unscripted work he asks himself “are they authentic? Are the believable?”
“I don't want my hosts to act because I need that person who is so genuinely excited,” Tony says
“I could go to a restaurant and find a waiter with enormous personality and if they start looking for a show about waiters I am going to think ‘boom.' There are people in your life who have enormous personalities and those are the people on TV now.”
If you are not currently, comfortable without a script, Tony suggests “taking an improv class. Hosting is about the unexpected and the more you can be excited about things that are unexpected, the more unflappable you will be on-camera.”
Because authenticity plays such a big factor with unscripted material, Tony looks at an actor's special skills before any other credit on their resume.
“Can you jump out of airplanes? Play the harp? Are you athletic?” That could be your way into hosting. “You never know, I even got a request for nuns,” Tony says.
“We work at a pretty high level here (at DBA). We are getting people with really long resumes and great credentials in Broadway, commercial and the scripted world and that works for me because they know how to be prepared, how to show up on time and work on a set with all these lights and people working in the background. I know for that part they are unflappable.”
But the main question Tony asks of these credited actors is “who are they? Do they have an area of expertise? That is what I'm looking at,” he says. “To be a host you have to be exceptional at that area you are hosting.”
If you have a specialized area of expertise but aren't a natural at hosting, “it doesn't mean you will never be good, it may just mean you have to find yourself. Really tap into the authenticity of who you are and you will make a better host,” Tony says.
Once Tony finds a genuine, talented prospect, he makes sure they have tons of passion for the project so that they really shine on-camera.
“The more excited and passionate they are, the more it will translate to the audience,” Tony says.
“If you are hosting something that is not you through and through, it will come across. The audience will feel disconnected from the show and they don't know why but it's because the host doesn't resonate for them.”
“If you look at Ryan Seacrest on American Idol, there is probably no one who can host that show like he can. He can be compassionate, he can be snarky, he can be all these things and he's on his feet. You put him on the red carpet for “E” and he doesn't have the same passion, nothing that really pops about him, because he doesn't care who you are wearing. But you put him on the biggest television show on TV – no one better. And that's one of the reasons why the show is such a hit.”
For those GTL people out there, Tony has good news to share about the growing industry of host work.
“You see more and more people doing it,” partly because “its cheaper television,” he says.
“All the Law and Orders are typically $2.5 to $3.5 million dollars per episode for an hour. But if you have a show like "Wipeout", or anything unscripted, that falls under the category of $250 to $500,000 for the hour. So it makes sense for networks to have just as much scripted as unscripted.”
“When reality television started, and Survivor really pushed that to the forefront, people thought it was a fad but it's not going anywhere. What they did find out by putting too much “Leno”, too much “Biggest Loser,” on was that we want our scripted programs too. Unscripted shows are here to stay” as are dramas and comedies.
Playing on the unscripted nature of Tony's expertise, NYCastings asked him to create an impromptu “How to Break into Hosting” TV segment, as a snapshot example of how a success story would play out…
“It would film in New York,” Tony says because “There is something special about being in New York. It's not dictated by the entertainment industry it's really Wall Street. It's a melting pot so the characters you get are amazing.”
The segment would begin with an amazing character creating original content. Like a “chef on camera boiling an egg.” The talent would “know how to work hard, to make a storyline, and know what is it that they are trying to say.” They would be “passionate, exciting, and have that special personality that makes them memorable.”
“Collectively the person and premise would pop,” and that's how you make a great show, Tony says.
“Television is cluttered,” so you have to make your situation, your segment, stand out. To succeed in the unscripted biz, you need to “cut through the noise.”
Fun Fact – in addition to being an agent at DBA, Tony Burton is also the author of These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things (Simon & Schuster, 1999) a book that benefited the Make-A-Wish foundation.
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