Behind the Scenes of a Reality TV Production Company
Inside the Bethesda-based production company behind "Say Yes to the Dress," "The Real Housewives of D.C." and "Junkyard Empire"
Sean Gallagher, left, and Abby Greensfelder in their offices at Half Yard Productions. Photos by Deborah Jaffe
It was an inauspicious beginning. “Our first reality show together was about a Chinese nature preserve where a panda bit the penis off an Australian journalist,” says Sean Gallagher. Gallagher, now 49, was a vice president of development at Discovery Channel at the time, and was asked to oversee the show on Abby Greensfelder’s first day as an intern there. “He asked if I could write,” says Greensfelder, now 43. She ended up rewriting the Australian script for American audiences, and after her internship ended, she was hired on full time.
Ten years later, in 2006, both left Discovery to start Half Yard Productions, a Bethesda-based production company where they now create more than 100 hours of nonfiction programming annually for such networks as TLC, Animal Planet and the National Geographic Channel. Their shows have included Say Yes to the Dress, The Real Housewives of D.C., Hillbilly Handfishin’ and Junkyard Empire.
Gallagher and Greensfelder both attended college in New Haven, Connecticut—Gallagher at Southern Connecticut State University and Greensfelder at Yale—but didn’t meet until they worked together at Discovery. “We went to the same bar there, just not at the same time,” Gallagher says. Their regular drink was a “half yard,” a beer served in a special tall, thin glass.
Today, they sit across from each other at a shared desk in their Fairmont Avenue headquarters, which houses about half of the company’s 100 employees; the others work in New York. As producers, programmers and casting directors came and went in the office hallways, we talked about casting snafus, where show ideas come from, and why The Real Housewives of D.C. sparked their only fight.
The casting process has to be challenging. Can you share any that went awry?
Abby: We cast a bunch of brides in Say Yes to the Dress. One of them had this medical issue, and she was finally marrying this man and she was going to get surgery and couldn’t have children. It was a very moving story. We helped them have their wedding, and Kleinfeld [the wedding dress shop] gives her this dress and there’s all this surprise. The show airs and it’s a great story. Then we get an email saying, ‘This woman is a fraud…she’s still married to my dad.’ It turned out the woman was actually [still] married in another state. We called in a private investigator and found out she’d actually been married more than twice.
Let’s talk about Michaele and Tareq Salahi on The Real Housewives of D.C. In 2009, they crashed a White House state dinner that they said they had been invited to and shook hands with President Obama. The breach resulted in Secret Service investigations and inspired an opening skit on Saturday Night Live. When did you find out the scandal was exploding?
Abby: I was headed on a vacation the day before Thanksgiving, and The Washington Post always prints the names of people who were at a state dinner. I’m going down the list and I don’t see them. I thought maybe they just printed it wrong. The next day I get a call from someone inside the White House. I called Sean and said, ‘This is blowing up.’ I had the head of [Bravo] on a conference call with me on Thanksgiving Day.
Sean: I said, ‘Relax, Abby, relax.’
Abby: Never tell a woman to relax. I said to Sean, ‘I need you to engage.’ We lawyered up. We got a crisis communication person. The media was frothing at the mouth. We had to release a statement to the press on Thanksgiving Day. [Bravo ultimately canceled the show because of the incident.]
How do you come up with show ideas?
Sean: I was a big cyclist back in the day. Riding with my buddies, we would come across these nasty [portable toilets]. We’d ask each other, ‘Who has to clean those?’ Then we thought about who cleans up roadkill and these other crazy jobs. That was the beginning of Dirty Jobs.
I met a guy named Andy Cohen on a camping trip with my daughter. The girls go to bed, and the guys stay up all night. Talking to Andy, who’s telling me what he does, like overseeing scrapping ships, I thought, ‘Wow, that ought to be a show.’ That one became Junkyard Empire.
Is it ever a disadvantage having your headquarters in Bethesda?
Sean: I think sometimes it might be a barrier that we’re here. I love going to LA, but I just like coming home. I don’t like New York. Every time I go, I feel like, ‘Oh my god, get me out of here.’ I love it here. My wife and I moved here 25 years ago, and we kept saying we’d stay three years and then move back to Boston. I live in Rockville, and I think [this area] is a good place to raise a family.
How has the reality TV market changed?
Abby: Back when we started, there was a small set of cable channels. Now there’s 500. They’re all doing 500 hours a year of programming. It’s hard to cut through. Not everybody’s watching live TV. To have a hit show now is a total outlier. [The networks] are cutting costs, they’re cutting staff, and margins are getting smaller. There’s not the kind of creative autonomy that we had. [They’d] never let an intern go off and come up with ideas to make shows.
Abby: A show called Sacred Steel on Discovery. It’s about a [motorcycle] shop in Los Angeles. The place where you build bikes is where you want to hang out. It’s kind of like a dude space…we’re making a Cheers for bike shops.