Maria Armstrong, executive producer at Toronto-based Big Coat Productions, knows how to deal with TV networks; she is a former director of original production at the W Network, and has worked for a significant amount of time at Canada’s CBC. Her experience has worked to her advantage, especially when pitching. Armstrong explained, “Having worked at a network, I know how many pitches they get. They hear a million good ideas. You have to go in there with the confidence in yourself and in your project. You have to convince them that you have got to make this work. And you need to know both what you’re pitching and whom you’re pitching to. You have to pitch apples to people looking for apples.”
Big Coat Productions has a very focused pitching strategy. For one, initial production almost always happens in Canada. “We have lots of great subsidies here,” Armstrong stated. Big Coat only approaches a distributor once a show gets on the air in Canada. Distributors are never approached for financing, mainly because Big Coat likes to pitch exclusively to networks first. As Armstrong put it, “For financing, you try to negotiate based on what the network has at its disposal. Sometimes the networks will find a new producer for you to work with, and other times they want to go all the way with it. For a good project, there’s always a way to work something out.”
Apropos international distribution, Armstrong cannot confirm or deny plans for international expansion for her hit show Love It or List It. What speaks for itself, however, is the universal theme of Love It or List It, a show based in Toronto in which a home-owning couple or family decides to either keep their newly renovated home (Love It), or sell it (List It). Two hosts — realtor David Visentin and home designer Hilary Farr — handle the two different aspects of the show.
Thus far, Love It or List It has begotten a Vancouver-based spin-off. In Canada, the show is broadcast by the W Network and OWN Canada, while in the U.S., the show was broadcast on OWN before moving to HGTV, where it has found significant success. Nominated for a Gemini Award, Love It or List It is HGTV’s highest-rated reality show.
VideoAge had a chat with Armstrong to ask her a few questions about Love It or List It and producing in general.
Asked why real estate shows like Love It or List It are becoming successful, Armstrong explained, “It gives you the ability to look into people’s homes. People love that.”
But what makes Love It or List It so successful in North America? Why is it so appealing to such a disparate audience base, as exemplified by the famous personalities who have admitted that it is their favorite show — they range from Larry the Cable Guy to Hillary Clinton. For Armstrong, it’s “The concept. There’s that element of suspense and competition: Will they love it or will they list it? There’s great dynamism between the two hosts, and there’s a whole competitiveness to it. The concept is universal; I got the idea when I was going through a similar situation myself. And we were able to replicate that dynamism with our franchise in Vancouver, which is rare for a Canadian show, even if it’s common in the United States; look at Real Housewives.”
But Armstrong revealed that it wasn’t easy going from the start. “The show had been successful in Canada. But when the show was on OWN in the United States it wasn’t doing too well. When we pitched to networks, they kept telling us that they didn’t want a show on real estate in this housing market. And we went back a few times and they kept saying the same thing, even if we said, ‘It’s not a real estate show. This is just entertainment.’ Eventually we convinced them. And here we are,” she said.