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Producer Steve Rotfeld Takes Reality To The New Frontier

After over thirty years in producing non-fiction content for television and syndication, Steve Rotfeld is shifting gears.  Having produced series and specials for well know channels including ESPN, The History Channel and The Golf Channel, his current series, “Independence U.S.A.” an episodic that follows the adventures of the Belcastro family as dad Frank prepares his wife and children to live completely “off the grid” in an end of days scenario, can only be seen on the internet.  411 Publishing recently spoke with Rotfeld about shifting gears and working on an internet program, as well as maintaining a presence on TV with the fourth season of the Golf Channel’s upcoming “The Haney Project.”

411:  I wanted to talk about your series “Independence U.S.A”.  Can you talk about the choice to have this type of series on the internet?

Steve Rotfeld:  As far as it being on the web, we are exceedingly happy about it.  It’s really a great situation for us because we’ve just got a lot of creative freedom to do the show that we set out to make.  We’re very happy about that.

411:  You’ve done a lot of work on televised and syndicated TV before.  How is it different doing a web-based non-fiction program versus television?

SR:  It’s much different than commissioning a show for a cable network.   In commissioning a show they’ll take ownership of it.  You’ve got development people and production people that you are working with, and the show has to conform to a lot of standards that they set – branding standards and so on – along with creative input that they will have.  It’s actually pretty similar to syndication; we come up with the ideas, we produce the show, we own the show, and we license the show to various stations throughout the country and create our own user syndicated lineup. When we own and license it, we have the creative freedom to do what we want to do.  This case is similar in that we own the program, and we are licensing it to GBTV.  I like it better as a business too, because we do retain ownership, but it is a slower business model in terms of recouping costs.

411:  In thinking about branding and having affiliation with a particular network, do you have a little more freedom regarding brands and licensing within the episodes?

SR:  We still have specific products appear in the show, but we are the ones who are making those deals, not the network.  We haven’t done it yet but we could make those deals.  Basically we are partners with GBTV, but it is just a different kind of relationship than it is dealing with a cable network.

411:  How did GBTV become your partner?  Were you looking at a number of venues to feature “Independence U.S.A?”

SR:  Originally we had made two shows that appeared on The History Channel with the Belcastro family.  (GBTV) saw these shows, and I can say pretty confidently this show falls squarely in the sort of philosophical direction that Glenn Beck wants to take his network.  It was almost immediate; as soon as they saw it they said “we have to have this show.”   They launched their network I believe in September, and we began airing this in January.

411: Is the series airing at a specific time, or is it something people can watch on their handheld devises where ever they are?

SR:  It does, it is Wednesday evenings.  It is a subscription based network, you have to subscribe to watch it, and then it airs at a certain time but you can catch up on it anytime, it lives on their network.

411:  After it airs, is there a possibility of putting the series on DVDs so non-subscribers have the opportunity to watch these shows?

SR:  I would say that is a distinct possibility, and that is their decision as to whether or not they would want to do that, but that is possible.  Absolutely.

411:  Frank Belcastro is a vibrant personality – how do you go about finding people like him?  Are you involved in the casting or do you use a casting agent that you’ve used frequently?

SR: Well, actually, this one is kind of an unique circumstance.  Franck Belcastro used to be the (set) carpenter on “Trading Spaces.”  Tom Farrell, my partner in the WorkShop, our production company behind “Independence U.S.A,” was the show runner on “Trading Spaces.”  Tom knew Frank from “Trading Spaces,” and in the course of that relationship, Tom discovered Frank’s concerns about the environment and preparing his family for a “worst case scenario,” and the idea for this series evolved form there.

411:  Do you think some entities or individuals do not recognize internet series as viable forms of entertainment?

SR:  I don’t think so.  I think that it’s in its infancy right now, it’s just the seed of a business concept, and it is going to have to grow, but I think that most of us feel that this is going to be very integral to the future of TV.  It’s all going to be one thing, it’s all going to stream through your box and you’re just going to watch whether it is from a website or a TV network or what ever it is.  It might take five years to where it actually is part of people’s full viewing habits, but I think it will get there.

411:  While you are working on this internet series, you are continuing to maintain a presence with a non-scripted series on broadcast: “The Haney Project” on the Golf Channel.

SR:  Yes, that’s correct.  The show features a golf coach named Hank Haney, who happens to be the former coach of Tiger Woods.  The concept is that he takes celebrities and works with them over a six month period, trying to improve their game.  It’s a very tough, frustrating game, and it feels like a compelling docu-drama in a way, because there are a lot of struggles.  The first year we had Charles Barkley as his project.  Charles Barkely is re-known throughout the sports world as having the worst golf swing that’s ever been invented.  We’ve also had Ray Romano and Rush Limbaugh.  This year we are actually doing four projects in one series:  Adam Levine, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mario Batali and Angie Everhart who will not only be improving their game but competing for one hundred thousand dollars for their favorite charity.

411:  Have you noticed any changes in the non-fiction world, or the blossoming of more and more competitors, that has caused you to redefine your format of this show, or do you find you have something that works well and you stick with that formula?

SR:  The show has kind of evolved, the first year it was about one coach trying to make one player better, and that sort of defined season two and three; it was just one on one.  The beauty was that both the player and the coach cared a lot about the game, but it is hard to have an objective measure of improvement.  In the fourth season there will be a winner, so it will be easier to define.  The fourth season also hightlights the drama of the competition.  In the first three installments the drama would come from the interaction between the coach and the students.   The drama might be there one day and might not be there the next.  So in a way we are putting ourselves in a better place with this installment, and all indications are that we are, but we’ll see how it all ends up.

411:  Steve, I see you have been involved in doing a lot of shows in the sports world.  Are there any sports you haven’t tackled that you would love to, or any that have a potential for doing a non-scripted series around?

SR:  Hmm, that’s a good question.  Not really, to me you know a good story is a good story, and I just like making shows.  I grew up a sports fan my entire life so I gravitate towards sports.  But “Independence U.S.A.” has nothing to do with sports.  So, the bottom line, to me is that it’s really about making shows.  I don’t care who I’m making them for.  I don’t care what the subject matter, is, if they are good stories that is what I’m looking for, and if they are good stores that’s what gets me going.

411:  I know you have these two shows going on right now, but what is coming up next, or what is down the line?

SR:  Well, we have several shows that are in development.  Some of them are in sensitive stages so we don’t want to jump the gun on that.  I would say in a few months we will definitely have some good news on that.  So we’ll see!