Arthur Smith doesn't fit the mould of a Hollywood producer. For starters, he's isn't cutthroat. “Arthur is not ruthless,” says former CBC co-worker Brian Williams. “He's a people person.” What's more, he hardly seems shallow. “If Arthur has the choice between going to a flashy party or watching his daughter play volleyball,” says friend and colleague Sean Atkins, “he'll hang out with his daughter.” Smith's only addiction appears to be the gym. Maybe it's the Canadian in him.
Despite not playing to type, the 46-year-old has been successful in his role. In less than six years, his Los Angeles-based company, A. Smith & Co., has become a player in the TV industry, producing shows for 18 networks and cable channels. You might think a nice guy like Smith would produce wholesome shows, like, say, 7th Heaven. Not quite. In fact, Smith has made a name for himself by making some of Hollywood's trashiest TV.
In 2003, A. Smith & Co. produced Paradise Hotel, in which scantily clad young men and women had to serially shack up with members of the opposite sex to extend their stay at a luxurious resort. One TV critic dubbed the series “Sleazy Motel.” A year later, Smith and his team–which includes Atkins, his company's executive vice-president–plunged reality TV to what many critics saw as unplumbed depths with The Swan. The show followed the lives of women undergoing a three-month transformation process that included everything from plastic surgery to psychotherapy. At the end of the ordeal, the former “ugly ducklings” competed in a beauty pageant. Smith can also take credit for digging up long-, perhaps best-forgotten stars like Todd Bridges (Willis from Diff'rent Strokes) and singer Debbie Gibson for another show, Skating with Celebrities. And last year, he introduced North America to Gordon Ramsay, the English star of the cooking-themed reality show Hell's Kitchen and arguably the nastiest personality on TV (Ann Coulter excepted). In the first episode of the second season, which premièred on June 12, Ramsay examined one contestant's signature dishes and remarked: “I'd rather eat poodle [bleep] than put this in my mouth.”
Despite the seeming lack of taste in those shows, audiences ate them up. Paradise Hotel was the most watched show among teens and 18-to-34-year-olds. Skating with Celebrities was always in the top 15 or 20 shows each week. In its first season, Hell's Kitchen led its time slot. So why should the alleged king of trash repent his televisual sins? “I'm proud of all of them, for different reasons,” Smith insists. “They are like my children.”
Smith grew up in Montreal. His father was a fur manufacturer, while his mother raised Arthur and his two older sisters. “I come from the most non-showbiz family there is,” says Smith. But he was fascinated with the entertainment industry at an early age. At 12, he would make time to watch TV shows and try to predict their ratings. “By the time I was 14,” he says, “I was reading Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.” He also acted. In the summer before college, he landed a minor role in the Canadian-produced teen movie Pinball Summer. He played John, king of disco. Smith considered studying theatre, but chose a communications degree at Ryerson. He continued acting while in college, but “every time I was on set,” he recalls, “I was watching what was going on behind the scenes.”
In his final year at Ryerson, Smith talked his way into a junior producer job with CBC Sports. “CBC covered the Olympics and hockey better than anybody else,” he explains. “It was important for me to work somewhere that wasn't just respected in Canada, but internationally.” Smith's first assignment was a profile of Milt Ottey, Canada's best high jumper. Smith shot on high-speed film, so he could show slow-motion footage of Ottey gliding over the bar. He borrowed music from the movie Rocky. In the editing room, he used a lot of fast cuts and arranged montage sequences. “It was really out there for the CBC,” says Smith.
But the spot was a hit, and he began working on bigger projects. “He turned whatever show you gave him, whether it was collegiate wrestling, the NHL draft or some other event, into the greatest thing since sliced bread,” recalls Doug Sellars, who went to Ryerson with Smith and later worked with him at the CBC and Fox Sports Net. Smith was the lead producer for the 1998 Seoul Olympics. Canadians, of course, have a choice between NBC's and CBC's coverage of the Games. And when a reporter asked Smith how CBC–with 135 employees covering the Games to NBC's 1,500–planned to compete, Smith said: “We're going to win by being better storytellers.” In the end, viewers chose CBC over NBC 15 to 1. “It was one of the biggest dominations of a Canadian network over an American one covering the same event,” he recalls.
Smith became the president of CBC Sports at the age of 28. But he wanted new challenges. He had gotten a taste for L.A. when he worked on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. “When I was in L.A., it felt like the right place for me,” he recalls. In fact, he was so comfortable at the L.A. Olympics that his co-workers began calling him “the Coast.”
In 1990, a friend helped arrange a meeting with Dick Clark. “I flew down to L.A. and talked about 10 ideas,” Smith says. Shortly after, he was offered a job as senior vice-president at Dick Clark Productions. Smith took it, on the condition he could produce his own shows. (Clark, he recalls, said, “Fine, just make money for the company.”) Smith went on to produce shows like Battle of the Bands for ABC and When Stars Were Kids for NBC. He then did a stint at MCA Universal, as senior vice-president of the television group, and quickly landed TV show commitments from all of the Big Four networks. Next he went to Fox Sports Net as executive vice-president of programming, production and news, and built a national network out of regional sports broadcasters and developed programming–including one of the network's marquee show, Fox Sports News. Still, his disaffection with working for somebody else had been growing since he joined MCA: “I felt that every time I started to develop a show, I had to hand it over to someone else. And it drove me crazy.” Smith finally got to do everything he always wanted to when he formed his own production company, A. Smith & Co., in 2000.
The break into reality TV heaven came with a call from his contacts at Fox, who wanted him to consult on a development project budgeted for a paltry $50,000. Smith hesitated, but in the end his company took over the project, pitched it to Fox–and sold 15 episodes, almost unheard of in television. Paradise Hotel debuted in the summer of 2003. After Episode 7, Fox doubled the buy–30-plus hours of sun-soaked soap opera.
His ideas for reality TV shows come from all kinds of places, in various stages of development. In the case of The Swan, Smith and his team started with very little. “Fox said, 'We have this project called The Swan, and it's about plastic surgery.' I said, 'What else?' They said, 'There's a pageant at the end.' I said, 'What else?' They said, 'That's pretty much it.' ” Together with producer Nely Galan, Smith and his team created the “format”–what actually happens on the show. They decided contestants wouldn't be able to see themselves during the three-month-long transformation. Then, at the end of the process, they would look at their new bodies in a full-length mirror–while on camera. “It was scary,” admits Smith, “because we didn't know how people would react. Thank God they were happy with what they saw.” Managing the logistics of the show was also a challenge. Atkins recalls it was like running a hotel and several health-care operations all at the same time. “Extreme Makeover [ABC's plastic surgery show] was just one person going into surgery,” says Atkins. “Ours was 24 people simultaneously going into surgery, therapy, life coaching, nutrition counselling, physical fitness–but we pulled it off.”
The bad press around The Swan didn't bother Smith. “I never lost a night's sleep because of the show,” he insists. Smith says the “Swans” are all doing well in their new lives. “One is now on the marketing side of her company, when before she was behind the scenes,” he adds. “One is a cleaning lady who went back to school. Another became a reporter.”
Smith and his team had to overcome a different set of challenges to produce Skating with Celebrities. The show featured six pairs, each comprising a professional figure skater and a somewhat famous personality. Gibson and four-time world figure skating champion Kurt Browning were a duo. Olympic figure skater Lloyd Eisler and actress Kristy Swanson were another on-ice couple–and later became an off-ice one, no doubt to the dismay of Eisler's wife.
Like most reality shows, Skating with Celebrities had a competitive component: a weekly figure-skating contest. That required training the cast; Smith hired three of skating's top instructors to do it. The pairs had to learn a routine a week–as Smith points out, “most professionals don't do that.” He and his team couldn't find any arenas in L.A. with enough free ice time, “so we put down two ice surfaces on the biggest sound stage we could find in Hollywood.” The cast made good use of the facility. In fact, they were contracted to practise a minimum of 15 hours per week, but ended up doing about twice as much. “They were so competitive,” says Smith. But all of that ice time increased the chances of injury. And people did get hurt. “A number of times we had people in the emergency room,” Smith recalls. “Bruce Jenner cracked his head up, and Jillian [Barberie] pulled her groin, and Kristy knocked her ribs out of joint.”
Smith also served as the voice of Skating with Celebrities, and did much of the writing. “If there was ever a job I was suited for–the combination of sports, skating, music and a little bit of reality–that was it,” he says. “I had a blast.” (As for the romance between Eisner and Swanson, he says, “all of the partners formed unbelievable friendships and Lloyd and Kristy fell in love.”)
How do you make a cooking show entertaining to non-foodies? Smith and his team tackled that question to produce one of its biggest hits so far. Fox came to Smith with the idea for a cooking-themed reality show based on a British show called Hell's Kitchen. Smith was impressed most by one aspect of the program: its star, renowned chef Gordon Ramsay. “He was intense, hysterical and entertaining,” Smith says of the temper-tantrum-throwing Ramsay. “But even when he was yelling,” Smith points out, “he really knew his stuff.”
Smith agreed to take on the project, if he could have flexibility on the format. In the first season, his team focused on the human drama of the contestants competing for the prize: their own restaurant. “We built a dorm where the people were going to live,” Smith says. “We wanted to make a soap opera out of this thing.” But the show also capitalized on the drama of running a business. Under Ramsay's watch, the contestants toiled away in a kitchen inside an actual restaurant. “We had people coming to eat at it every couple of nights,” Smith says. The series finale tied CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as the week's most popular show.
Even Smith can't make hits like that without enjoying at least some of the trappings of Hollywood-producer-style success. He lives in a house in Beverly Hills and drives a convertible–a black Cadillac XLR. But he still works hard to maintain the common touch. “I love talking to kids and people who are coming up,” he says. Smith recently spoke to students in the Producers Program at UCLA, and the 60-minute class went on for three hours. Smith stayed after the session to answer question. “Some kids came up to me–kids like 22, 23–and they said, 'We're not even in this class,'” Smith recalls. “I go, 'What do you mean?' They say, 'We snuck in. We're fans of Paradise Hotel.'”