TRAVERSE CITY — Creating a successful television show requires business smarts and hard work.
Rodney Miller is co-host of “Small Town Big Deal,” which each year airs 13 episodes on RFD-TV starting in September. He’s also the show’s creator, president and CEO. He used to be CEO of tractor manufacturer McCormick International USA.
“Nobody just starts a TV show, but Rodney did,” said co-host Jann Carl.
Carl is best known for her 14 years at “Entertainment Tonight,” but she started her television career as a news reporter at a Chicago station. She won three Emmy’s for her work in the Los Angeles news market before moving to “Entertainment Tonight.” Carl has interviewed Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Dan Rather, and the Obamas. She acquired an equal ownership share of “Small Town Big Deal” after Miller launched the show in 2012.
Carl and Miller worked at the Open Space on Wednesday, immersing themselves in the National Cherry Festival. They interviewed vendors. They talked about the festival’s history. They explored the event’s character.
They and their three-member production crew filmed clips at the festival that later will be edited into a segment for the show. While in Traverse City, the crew also filmed a segment about Shoreline Fruit and another about the Great Lakes Potato Chip Company.
Each of the show’s half-hour episodes includes three 6.5-minutes segments.
Shoreline Fruit Director of Marketing Tom Berg said the company contacted Miller and convinced him to visit the area. The show so far has aired 70 episodes that were filmed in 33 states. Episodes typically feature a small town, as the show’s title suggests.
“A lot of what we end up covering is celebrating things that bring people to (those towns),” Carl said. “We’ve done more stories in Michigan than any other state. There’s just so much going on.”
Miller conceived “Small Town Big Deal” as a way to shine a spotlight on rural America, to offer an alternative to the typical fare on the major networks.
“There are thousands of edgy shows out there,” Miller said.
He framed his show instead as a way to display — in an entertaining way — real Americans doing real things.
“We want people to smile,” he said.
Success was not instant. The two hosts worked for two and a half years without paychecks. They spend 18 to 20 days of every month traveling — to plan, film and meet with existing and potential sponsors. The show’s income comes from sponsors that Miller and Carl bring to the table. The two own the controlling interest in the show, so they direct all production and marketing efforts.
Miller said that now, four years into the project, things are just turning the business corner toward show maturity. The pair just signed My Pillow Inc. as a new sponsor, he said. Chick-Fil-A has been a major sponsor.
When acquaintances ask Carl if she’s now rich because of the show’s success, she laughs and replies, “No. It’s a passion project.”
She said her long television career accustomed her to people telling her she did a good job, that the shows she was involved with were good. But “Small Town Big Deal” brought a new kind of praise she was not used to.
“I’ve never been involved in something where people just say ‘thank you,’” Carl said.
Viewers appreciate small-town stories, she said. They like learning about out-of-the-way places, people and events.
“It’s like water-cooler talk,” she said, snippets of information viewers can share with friends and co-workers. “We get to see the best of people.”
Previous segments featured a tug-of-war with a rope stretched across the Mississippi River; a gathering of twins in Twinsburg, Ohio; a cranberry harvest; the production facility of the iconic toy Lincoln Logs; and an oyster festival.
“We both had our first oysters on camera,” Miller said. “We didn’t gag.”
Neither host is particularly fond of oysters, they admitted as they munched on hot dogs at the Open Space.
The show has aired segments on Frankenmuth, the Henry Ford Museum and Mackinac Island. They will return to Michigan in late July for the Yale Bologna Festival in the state’s thumb area and in September for the Mackinac Bridge Tractor Crossing.
Miller, a tractor enthusiast, will lead the procession across the bridge atop his vintage International Harvester 544 tractor. That will be a particularly fun segment to produce, he said.
But creating the show is hard work. Miller and Carl employ a trio of three-person production teams that take turns filming the on-screen talent. Each team films on location for a few days, then toils over editing chores in the office while another production team travels with Carl and Miller to the next small town.
“It takes a lot of work, and a lot of sacrifice,” Carl said.
But the grind is worthwhile. Carl said she was fascinated as a child by the CBS segment “On the Road” that featured newsman Charles Kuralt crisscrossing the nation in a motorhome to report on activities in small-town America.
“I grew up wanting to be Charles Kuralt,” she said.
Carl and Miller echo Kuralt’s formula of reporting with an entertaining flair far from the beaten path. The formula has brought them success. “Small Town Big Deal” performed well in a recent round of New York City ratings.
“We beat Access Hollywood,” Miller said. “We beat a rerun of ‘Scandal’ in prime time.”
The communities featured on “Small Town Big Deal” also benefit from the exposure.
“People tell us all the time that they plan their vacations around our shows,” Miller said.