Ken Fuchs modestly attributes a portion of his long career directing unscripted television, which includes the industry’s biggest franchises – Shark Tank, Family Feud, The Bachelor, and The Bachelorette – to being “a pretty nice guy who people seem to like working with.” But this three-time Primetime Emmy nominee, five-time Daytime Emmy nominee (and a Daytime Emmy winner for Family Feud), and two-time Directors Guild of America nominee breathes rarefied air in the unscripted world. His skills cut across many different genres – reality “house” shows, game shows, and hybrids that don’t quite fall into any category (like Shark Tank). Having worked his way up through a variety of different production roles, Fuchs is a favorite among Local 600 camera teams, as much for the creative respect he garners as his ability to safely adapt to any changing situation. (See his thoughts about Shark Tank’s Season 12 COVID-19 protocols below.)
Fuchs called me from an “undisclosed location” while shooting Season 25 of The Bachelor, a show he describes as “well suited for a bubble” due to all the time spent traveling and housed together in a typical (non-COVID) season. Fuchs displayed obvious pride about having safely returned to three different unscripted franchises amid an ongoing pandemic, a “reality” he credits to an industry that is built on accountability and to production teams that are more families than colleagues.
ICG Magazine: Can you give our readers some background about your path into unscripted television? Ken Fuchs: I was born and raised in New York through high school, and then my family moved to Palo Alto, California. I went back east for college, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where I did a lot of critical film studies, which the school is famous for thanks to renowned film academic Jeanine Basinger. My senior year I interned at Connecticut Public Television in Hartford, and that’s where I first got the TV bug. The great thing about working at the TV station in Hartford is how much I got to see so fast – they’d let me sit at the switcher and the mixing board, and be near the lights and camera. I got a good overview of what it took to make a TV show.
ICG Magazine: What do you remember about that first P.A. job? [Laughs.] It was one of my brother’s shows called Faerie Tale Theatre, for Showtime. I remember very clearly that they said, “Here’s a walkie. Walk down to the end of that block, and stop the cars when we yell we’re rolling. When we yell, ‘Cut,’ let them through.” I was in heaven because I understood those instructions very clearly – and I was good at it! I came in at the end of the day and they said: “Great job. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
ICG Magazine: So production suited you? It did. I had a reasonable gift for problem solving and organization and became a production coordinator soon after. I hooked on with Marty Pasetta’s company, Dick Clark Productions, and Don Mischer, who were all the heavy hitters in the variety world. I moved my way up to be a line producer because I was very good with budgets – my actual degree was in economics. I was working on a game show where I realized that I wanted to be more involved with the creative team, and I asked if I could stage-manage and get into the Directors Guild. They were able to make that happen because I had been with the company for several years. Shortly after that first opportunity, I started AD’ing and stage managing. And when the calls kept coming in for line producing, I turned them down. I was happier in the AD/stage-managing world and knew enough that if you’re happy doing something, you’ll probably be much better at it.
ICG Magazine: What was your first directing job? A show called Later with Greg Kinnear, which was a NBC late-night half-hour talk show on at 1:30 a.m. I had started on the show as an A.D., and one day I filled in for the director – and, honestly, I never looked back. The fact that I was able to get in early directing these long-running franchises like The Bachelor, Family Feud and Shark Tank is beyond lucky. I can’t even describe how thankful I still am, nearly twenty years later. I owe a debt of gratitude to the executive producers, production companies, studios and networks of those shows for their collaboration, friendship and loyalty.
ICG Magazine: Good lead-in to my next question: Those two shows you mentioned, along with Family Feud, are all different formats within unscripted. Can you describe your approach to each? This business tends to pigeonhole you, so I’ve been very lucky to do these different types of shows, which, by the way, all inform each other – I’m able to transpose things I’ve learned from one to the other, even though they are very different. Multi-camera live is sort of the holy grail for unscripted directors, because if it’s truly live, you’re making a lot of the creative decisions on the air. That’s still my favorite. A game show like Feud is live-to-tape, so you overshoot to provide more choices in editing, and there’s a live studio audience. Bachelor came about in an odd way. I heard about it through a friend whose kid played soccer with my kid. He was doing Trista’s year, Bachelorette One, the third season of the franchise – and now we’re in the 41st season of the franchise, of which I’ve done 37 or so. Crazy! They told me about these rose ceremonies they do, with multiple cameras. Reality was still new at that time, so directors were coming from all areas – editing, DP’s, documentaries, producers. But for a multi-cam live studio director like me, the format was frustrating because there are no traditional marks, or actors, or control that we were used to on stage. That genre works best when it’s spontaneous. So, I embraced that lack of control early on, thinking this was a different form of storytelling. Those are the two extremes of shooting ratio – minutes shot to minutes aired – a live show, or live-to-tape, is close to one-to-one, whereas on a show like The Bachelor, the ratio is much greater. In the middle of those two is Shark Tank – no host or audience, but it is multi-cam, and I get to do a line cut. That line cut is basically a road map for the editors, but it’s not nearly as post-intensive as The Bachelor, where the story and episodes are largely crafted in the editing room.
ICG Magazine: You mentioned [director/producer] Don Mischer, who was the subject of our February Exposure (ICG Magazine February/March 2020). He grew up wanting to be a camera operator in TV news and retains a special relationship with the operators on all of his projects, often hand-picking them. Is that your approach? It’s the same for me. I want to create a family atmosphere with my crew, with love and respect that only happens when you break down the boundaries that are set up by titles and salaries. That’s easier on a show like The Bachelor because we travel and live together. With Feud and Shark Tank, we’re on a stage and all go home at the end of the day. But as we always say with Feud, the key word is “family.” And the very successful shows do create a family atmosphere; the loyalty, trust, and respect for every single member of the crew must be there. The key is to make sure that everyone on a project is valued and knows their work is valued. As the director, I may get to take the credit or the blame, but we’re all in this together, 100 percent. And that’s why I tend to have good continuity with my crews from show to show. My motto is: “There’s a chain of command, but there’s no chain of respect.”
ICG Magazine: Shark Tank’s Lighting Designer is Oscar Dominguez, with whom you’ve worked consistently on different shows. What is that working relationship like? Usually it’s a close partnership between myself, the lighting designer and the production designer. Often that process starts with the producer’s vision. And then I’ll come in with camera positions and blocking, and we go over what the audience will see and won’t see. Once we are on camera, I’m working side-by-side with the designers – every shot needs to be painted in a beautiful light, and Oscar and Anton Goss are two of the best. Because I come from the AD world, I tend not to micromanage the LD – I’m much tougher on AD’s and stage managers [laughs].
ICG Magazine: Is the goal to reach for a more cinematic look? Or is there a TV look that audiences have come to expect? Some of that is technology-based. When the medium went from SD to HD, there were so many more options with lenses, filters and lighting. It sounds simplistic, but the goal is to service the story. If that’s a wide-open, straight-ahead look, then that’s what we’ll do. In The Bachelor, we go for that cinematic, hyper-real feeling. In Shark Tank, it’s easy to envision people sitting around a boardroom, which is inherently static. So with the jib, the Steadicam, the dolly, I try to keep things moving for visual interest – even if that’s on a subconscious level for the viewer. The content itself is great. But adding motion, lighting and design all helps to keep people coming back.
ICG Magazine: How much did the new COVID safety protocols change what you do on set? It changed things a lot, especially from a storytelling perspective. The Bachelorette was done at a single resort, in a true bubble. We’re used to traveling and being together for extended periods, so it was a good fit in that respect. Feud was more difficult because it’s essentially a comedy show that relies on a give-and-take from a live studio audience. So we had to figure out a work-around with COVID, and we were quite successful. Another big issue is on-set talent and needing to be six feet apart and having to redesign sets. There were COVID accommodations we made on Shark Tank and Feud – and they certainly affect how the show is shot.
ICG Magazine: And on a practical level for cast and crew safety? I’m so impressed how well Production responded in that area, as all of these shows are completely safe: everyone gets tested, everyone wears masks, everyone follows the protocols with meals, crafty, travel, et cetera. It’s been a feather in the cap to prove production crews are sort of built for this – problem-solving, following protocols, looking out for each other’s safety on set. The proof is that we’ve managed to come back more successfully than other industries. And unscripted was one of the first TV formats to successfully return to work – so we’re all very proud of that.
ICG Magazine: No one has a crystal ball, but if COVID protocols continue throughout 2021, how will that change unscripted production? As you said, no one knows for sure. But I would assume the big audience shows will have challenges – live-event spectacle that needs that huge scope. And then the comedy/variety shows as well. The Bachelor is currently in a bubble, and may well be for the next season. What I can say for sure is that no one loves working 10 to 12 hours with a mask on, or operators carrying cameras with PPE, and we’ll all be relieved when we can shoot safely without them. But the unions are doing a great job, working closely with producers to get people back to work and to ensure everyone on set is safe. This business has a very high standard of accountability…and this goes back to your family question. These crews are hand-picked, and we do feel a responsibility to each other – not just because we don’t want to screw up our paychecks. When you genuinely care about the people you work with, you’re going to be more careful.
ICG Magazine: Filmmakers in the unscripted world often cite that adrenaline factor as the main driver. One chance to get it right? Are you in that camp? 100 percent! [Laughs.] I never knew that my ADHD would be a career path. People ask how I can look at 50 monitors and 100 people at once, and I tell them that it’s the only time in my life I’m not bored, [Laughs again.] It’s not for everyone. I did AD a little bit in the narrative world, and that has its advantages, but that pace was just not for me.
ICG Magazine: What about the reality that you have to live with things going wrong – sometimes on camera? You need to be comfortable with imperfection. You have to embrace that reality, as you say. Some of the most memorable moments on The Bachelor, for example, are when it went off the rails. We’ve designed and lit this beautiful set, and a cast member will get upset, run off in tears, and go sit outside by a dumpster – and that’s what people talk about the next day! Of course, those moments should make it clear in the audience’s mind that we don’t control what’s going on. But as a perfectionist myself, who wants everything to look beautiful and right, those events are like a toxic spill where you are just trying to keep it all together. They’re actually fun [laughs]. Or at least you tell yourself that to make sure they don’t erode your confidence.
ICG Magazine: You’ve won and been nominated for some key peer-judged awards – Primetime and Daytime Emmys, and the DGA Award. What are they honoring from the perspective of your craft? I’m not sure. I think they’re a little bit of a popularity contest, and I do okay in those nominations because, maybe, on some level, I get along with people, and they like me. Or maybe it’s longevity, and if they just keep seeing my name enough times, they think I must be pretty good. [Laughs.] Ultimately, I hope all the crews and departments know that it’s really a reflection on all of their hard work. I am glad that the Emmys now have a reality-directing category, because for a long time, they did not. But, ultimately, like the year I won with Family Feud, the show also won, so maybe the director’s fate rises and falls with the show itself. It’s hard to say. Maybe someday The Bachelor will get some Emmy love…
ICG Magazine: Unscripted is a very mature format by now, but there still seems to be a perception that the “reality” part of reality television is anything but. How do you answer that? That’s more the realm of the producers, content-wise. But I can say that the shows that are successful and around for 20-plus seasons offer the exact opposite of manipulated storytelling. “Authentic” is a word that’s tossed around a lot, but that’s what resonates with viewers – the shows that do not spoon-feed viewers with overproduction, over-editing, forced storytelling. In 18 years on The Bachelor and Family Feud, I can tell you – it’s real! We don’t do things twice or always know what’s going to happen next. Shark Tank is a perfect example. The Sharks have no access to the companies that are pitching to them beforehand, and that’s a critical aspect of its success. That discovery process from the moment they hear the pitch to the time they make a deal – or not – is the “reality” of the show.
Interview by David Geffner