If you've never heard the name SallyAnn Salsano, you most certainly know the shows she's produced. She's been a showrunner on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” and she's also the brains behind MTV's highest-rated series, “Jersey Shore.” The Long Island native now has a very different kind of success in “Party Down South,” which has its season finale tonight (Thurs. March 20 at 10:00 p.m. ET on CMT).
The highest-rated show in the network's history, “Party Down South” follows a group of young, wild Southerners as they get drunk and get busy. I talked to Salsano, who is just as uncensored and fun as you'd expect someone willing to deal with pre-baby Snooki to be, about the show, her secrets to success, and what she's watching now (set your DVRs!).
There's a lot of reality TV on right now that just isn't clicking, despite seeming to fulfill all the requirements (wacky characters, big drama). What's the secret to creating a hit like “Jersey Shore” or “Party Down South” instead of a “Courney Loves Dallas”?
Everyone has a bit of a different style. The thing I enjoy in this is [is that] I love stories, and I look for them everywhere. I will think, oh dude, I'd love to see those two people together! I want to see what happens! Even when I go out to dinner with my boyfriend, I'll say, we gotta sit there, behind those people, because this is going down tonight. I make up stories all the time about what certain people are doing. The most unlikely of pairings I kind of enjoy. I don't pick my cast list in advance, I do it the night before or the morning of filming. I tell networks, I want to see what these people are like up until the last second, and see if people are who they say they are. There are extra paces we put people through a lot. We go to their houses, meet their families. Just because you get cast does not mean you're making it onto the show.
Is this how you weed out people who are acting as opposed to being themselves?
As they get more nervous, people's psyches change. It's most important to have people who are comfortable in their own skin. It's not that people are lying to you, it's just hard for them to know how they'll be in that situation.
With the whole Juan Pablo fiasco on “The Bachelor” this season and the brouhaha stemming from comments made by “Duck Dynasty”'s Phil Robertson, is that another reason to be more careful with casting?
Were you shocked by that ['Duck Dynasty']? I'm not shocked, either. It doesn't make them bad people. You're a product of [your] environment. But that's what makes a reality star a reality star. [These aren't my views], please, let's be clear on that. Knowing you have a great cast member on a show, they're not censoring themselves.
Since you've worked on the show, do you watch “The Bachelor”?
I didn't miss a fucking second. I was so in [this season]! But [Juan Pablo] had a certain look in his eye. Some people in interviews before the show, you can tell they don't get it. You were one of 20 bachelors, you know?
It seems that Juan Pablo wasn't prepared for the media backlash of the invasion of his privacy. I'm guessing that's a problem for most reality TV stars.
I think it's a really hard thing. If someone started acting lessons at age 6 and wanted to be an actor their whole life… that's a life choice and you work at that, so by the time they land that first gig, that's someone who worked at it to get it. You take someone like Pauly D, and these are people I love, the ['Jersey Shore' cast] was approached in a bar and told 'you should be on a show.' That is a major transition for people to go through. For these guys, it burns so bright and it burns so fast. You can tell them it's going to go away, but they don't believe you until it's too late.
Do they get any kind of media training at all? I would think someone might have told Phil Robertson and Juan Pablo to duck certain questions.
Every network handles it differently. Every producer handles it differently. I might butt my head in where it doesn't belong, because you want to protect your people, but that's me. If there was a camera on me 24/7, I can't imagine what would go on. You have to be conscious of that and concerned about that. You do have to understand [these people] aren't born to understand the press machine. You can't throw them to the wolves.
Someone who been able to handle reality TV success very well is Snooki. Or I should say, Nicole.
I love that girl. The first time when I yanked out the casting video, I fell in love with her because she was so wide eyed and innocent. I knew she was a partier, but she just wanted to go to the Jersey Shore. She said, 'I want to go to the Jersey Shore, I want to meet a gorilla juicehead and fall in love and have three babies by the time I'm 25.” And that's what she's done, mostly. She's someone who jumped in 100 percent and she loved hard, got her heart broken hard and she's had friendships fall apart. There's a little bit of Snooki in every girl in America. She's just true to being who she is. If she had had that baby and still run around town with a funnel, people would have turned on her, though.
Now that everyone knows that reality TV shows need villains and drama and “character,” is it harder to cast now?
I think it's harder than it used to be. I think you have to be a lot more careful, and part of it is not casting to archetypes. I always say, this isn't Garanimals. I'm not building Noah's Arc, one [male] giraffe, one this, one that. I feel like it's about being more open minded and accepting that not knowing what you're looking for is okay.
On a lot of shows right now, it seems that people will do anything or fight about anything in a ploy to get airtime.
The biggest mistake you can ever make is say to say you're going to pay these people based on the amount of minutes they make it on air. You have to have people who want to do it but not live for it.
You're not just working on “Party Down South,” of course. You also have “Tattoos After Dark” coming back on Oxygen…
And we have 'Jerks with Cameras' on MTV, it's kind of crazy. I'm a little all over the place, but I'm as bipolar as they come. We did the original 'Design Star,' we did 'A Shot At Love,' we do a lot of different things. We do what we are interested in. WIth 'Party Down South,' people say it's so similar to 'Jersey Shore,' but what went down could not be more different. All different in a good way, but just different.
As someone who loves reality TV, what do you watch when you're not working?
I am obsessed with the Kardashians. I love their family dynamic and I really like their hair. Why are they always so perfect? I love Scott and Kourtney, I'm obsessed with them. I'm completely watching 'Wahlburgers' in a way that's not healthy. There's something refreshing about watching Mark being in that show. He is not phoning it in. I think he's completely playing along and I think it's awesome. I think he's starting a family business, and when he says my brother's the star of the family, that's so funny. He's using his celebrity to help build an empire that could go on for generations. And my favorite new show is 'To Catch A Contractor' on Spike. It's so good. Set your DVR. I'm a home makeover TV nerd. I watch a shit ton of home makeover TV.
“Real Housewives of New Jersey” star Teresa Giudice is going on trial soon, and much has been made about how her on-screen wealth led to some of the charged against her. Is that something that might make it harder to cast certain shows?
You can't be on TV saying 'I'm broke' while you're living in a mansion. At some point I don't know how to help you. I'm a huge fan, and yes, that's probably something you don't think about when you're in the middle of it, but I would be surprised if anyone didn't think that would happen.
Would you ever appear on a reality TV show?
I tried out for 'The Real World'! I did not get picked, by the way. I am not mad at reality TV.
What can you tell us about tonight's “Party Down South” season finale?
Oh my God, I can't believe how much they're laughing and crying. It's a roller coaster. They're crying so much it's kind of funny, really.
And I'm sure the show will be back.
Season twos are always kind of my favorite, personally. I know what I'm getting, and the personalities are fleshed out. The people involved, they tend to know how to push each other's buttons. This year, I've never seen people so emotional about leaving a show. I was sitting in the control room crying, but then laughing because if someone had walked into the control room they would have thought we were all nuts.