It’s a lot of work (my golf handicap can attest). No matter how hard you think it will be multiplied it by 1000. All the odds are against you, but the one thing people did tell me was you must totally believe that even with those odds, there is no one better than you to beat them.
I had the pleasure of gaining some fascinating insight from Michael Yudin, head of MY Entertainment, which produces some of cable’s most intriguing unscripted shows, including Travel Channel’s GHOST ADVENTURES, which just wrapped up 16 seasons and is the network’s most-watched series in its history. Brian Eley is a media communications expert, known for a collaborative spirit, innovative edge and being a global thinker. He has worked with a wide range of executives and talent from around the globe through his positions at Discovery Communications, NBCUniversal, PBS, and NPR. Eley is a graduate of The University of Virginia, where he received a degree in English literature. He’s an avid sports fan, world traveler, follower of all things geek and a fierce advocate for social justice. He currently resides in New York City.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I originally went toEmerson College in Boston to major in speech pathology. That major lasted one day, and I switched to communications. With my hair was down to the middle of my back and ready to go Europe after graduation. I had one job interview set up; as a Page at NBC. I cut my hair and moved to my girlfriend’s house in NJ. After giving hundreds of tours, pulling cable for golf tournaments, and best of all, holding on to a couple of tickets every week to “Saturday Night Live,” I ultimately, became secretary to head of Network Ad Sales. That connected me with all the major ad agencies, ending up running media for Coca Cola and the Miller Beer business at McCann Erikson. I then shifted to more branded entertainment (the creative nexus of marketing via the creation of content that is funded or outright produced by an advertiser), started working with production companies on their behalf, and was eventually hired by Alan Landsburg (from “That’s Incredible,” ”Kate and Allie,” etc.) to set up their cable production business. I then founded MY Entertainment 15 years ago and the rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
Two stories in fact. The first was during my advertising days. ABC was launching a mini-series “Roots” which was very controversial at the time. It took me/us a while but was ultimately able to convince The Coca Cola Company not only to be the first advertiser to buy time in it but also the biggest. As I was still young at the time and my values were still in place, as I hope they still are, I was very proud of that moment. It was off-the-charts, risk-taking but based on doing what I felt was right for not only business but in general.
(Meanwhile, “Roots” went on to be the most successful television event to date and Coke was lauded for their position.). Another story I will add is related to GHOST ADVENTURES, which is produced by MY Entertainment. When we started production on the series 10 years ago, I was not the biggest believer in ghosts, but I did and do very much believe in the unexplained. After going on the first couple of shots, it was clear to Zak Bagans and the crew that I was a bit of a skeptic. The next week we went to PennHurst Haunted Asylum in Pennsylvania. Originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the mentally and physically disabled with 3,350 beds. It opened in 1908 and closed its doors among much controversy in 1987. It’s on 112 acres, with 18 buildings. During shooting, suddenly, a couple of the crew come over and say they want to show me something. We go downstairs in one of the buildings, and the next thing I know they slip out, lock the door behind them and leave me there where I begin to freak out. It was cold, dark, damp, and very scary. I was alone with my thoughts, dreams, fears. No question when you are in a place like that and you know the history of what went on there, and you are all alone, strange things happen. From that moment on I became a believer, and after 10 years and 300 episodes, I believe more than ever.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Yes. Obviously while in college, all anyone wore was bell bottom jeans, blue jeans or flannel shirts, tee’s and sweats, and of course Buffalo Sandals. Classic 60s/70s. So, I start at McCann Erikson, a top 3 advertising agency, owned by Interpublic. No, this is much later than “Mad Men.” So, I get some Khaki pants, and a few shirts and figure that all is cool. Meanwhile, everyone was dressed to the nines. In the following weeks, I spent my limit on every credit card at Bloomingdales, which I didn’t even know what it was, and bought bow ties, Bright yellow and different color shirts, Velvet sport coats, and it only went downhill from there. Within 3 days my boss told me to go put the Khakis back on. He knew it wasn’t my personality and I needed to stay true to my personality and ethos yet still be effective and creative in my industry. I guess it just wasn’t me.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
In addition to finishing up a record 16th season of GHOST ADVENTURES on Travel Channel, I’ve never been so bullish on how well-positioned MY Entertainment is right now. We’ve just signed a robust slate of development deals with some of the key experts in their fields. We have television development deals for Edd China in the motor/gearheads space (from Velocity’s WHEELER DEALERS), Matt Paxton in home (from A&E’s HOARDERS), Yolanda McClary in true crime (from TNT’s COLD JUSTICE), Matt Moneymaker in cryptozoology (Animal Planet’s FINDING BIGFOOT) and Ami James in tattoo (TLC’s MIAMI INK and NY INK). MY Entertainment has also closed a behind-the-camera executive producer and development deal with superstar producer Nigel Lythgoe (Fox’s AMERICAN IDOL and SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE). These are some of the best in the business and are recognizable, successful personalities.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
While running MY Entertainment, I have found the most interesting people are real and genuine. But, on a more intimate level, a few of the folks that have intrigued me the most were Carl Spielvogel, who worked at McCann Erickson and started Backer and Spielvogel. I admire him because he led with smart, cerebral, low-key yet effective leadership in the advertising field. I watched him from afar and up close and hope that I’ve emulated that style. Also, another mentor has been Herb Pearlman, co-founder of Telepictures. He was at the top of his game during the heyday of syndication. He and his wife Sheryl have been steadfast supporters of me and my vision and when I decided to go into business of my own, he stepped in to back me financially and philosophically. I will always be grateful. Always.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s easier said than done especially if you are an entrepreneur! For the most part, for me, it is family. They keep me on track the best they can, but it isn’t easy. I also think it’s critical, for my success (and sanity), is to surround myself with smart people who think differently than me and that I can trust. I want, no need, them to speak their minds, challenge me, push me. It gives me the ability to sleep at night.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I think so incredibly important and powerful to bring people of adversarial positions — not government officials, and not politicians — but the everyday person to sit over a meal and talk. We did a series BREAKING BORDERS, which brought Palestinians and Jews together over a meal in a Jewish settlement home in the West Bank; a Catholic and a Protestant, who for 10 years lived next to each other in an Irish jail, and brought them back to that jail 20 years later for a meal. It was an original format from Norway but I knew first-hand what can come over a meal and a conversation, in person. Forget all the “tech” stuff.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
- You can be both a tough and nice boss: I do think sometimes that I could have been more successful if I changed some of my thinking and morals. But at the end of the day, it would not have worked for me. I believe in surrounding myself with colleagues that I actually enjoy and won’t compromise my scruples or ask others to do so.All of the employees in a small company can (and should) come up with ideas that can help the business move forward and, as a tough and nice boss, should encourage and expect those ideas.
- Get a good accountant. Running a business is more than just about the numbers but the advice means much much more. You need to be smart about all aspects of the business and, at the very least, have an intellectual curiosity about a wide range of topics. So yes, running a successful television production company clearly means I need to know the content and the television business, but I need to know marketing, promotion, talent, finance, distribution, research and more.
- Put the Show in “Show Business:” I think I learned this from television mastermind (and Investigation Discovery chief) Henry Schleiff. Everything we do should showcase our skills at putting on a show — we should be entertaining while not being over the top. If we’re bored so are our clients and partners.
- You Can’t Rely on One Hit: While a hit might put you on the map and puts some funds in the coffer,you can’t rely on it or your mortgaging your future. The content business is fickle so you must constantly think about the future and take some swings. But having a signature series and franchise gives you the flexibility to take risks you might not normally.
- It’s Going to be Hard and its More than a Full-Time Job: It’s a lot of work (my golf handicap can attest). No matter how hard you think it will be multiplied it by 1000. All the odds are against you, but the one thing people did tell me was you must totally believe that even with those odds, there is no one better than you to beat them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Jim Valavano, coach, N.C. State 1983, NCAA Basketball Champions at the 1993 Espy Awards said “There are three things you should do every day. Number one, is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two, think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears-could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something very special.” The speech was given on March 4, 1993, he died of Cancer on April 28th.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
This may not be the cool thing to say but I would have to say, my wife of 43 years, Robin. One meets a lot of people on the journey, many great people, and I have been extremely fortunate to meet some of the best. But when all is said and done, it’s who can you trust to give you unapologetically honest feedback. As the owner of my business, with the daily challenges, financial rigors, etc. you need that one person.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Henry “Hank” Aaron, is one of greatest baseball player of all time, in my opinion. But more importantly, he is a great person and a man of principal. When I was around 10 years old, I read his biography. He was in his early days of playing — at a very racist time — on his way to super stardom, I will never forget, as it was recalled in the book, that he was taking a taxi to the ballpark, and the taxi driver started to make anti-sematic remarks. Aaron told him to pull the car over and he got out. Not that I was or am a particularly religious person, but for some reason at that point in time, it had a tremendous impact on me, that a man that was not allowed to use a “whites only” bathroom, would take a stand like that for others. From then on, he became my guy and I follow him to this day and have always tried to live to those standards. The most ironic part of this was that while I was working on the Coca Cola account, I ended up being in Atlanta-Fulton Stadium, April 8, 1974, when he broke Babe Ruth’s Home run record! Maybe there is something to “fate.” I would like to have a meal with him to thank him.