SallyAnn Salsano is the founder of 495 Productions, a Los Angeles-based company that has produced several hit television shows. Its latest, Martha and Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party, is a reality cooking series featuring two celebrity entrepreneurs as hosts: lifestyle expert Martha Stewart and rapper Snoop Dogg. The show's guests have included famous names like Seth Rogen and Robin Thicke.

The unlikely friends aren't afraid to poke fun of each other, which is perhaps what makes the show so appealing. In Episode 2, Snoop makes a quip about Stewart's home state: "Maine is a place where I feel like a raisin in a bowl of cream of wheat," he says.

Already named 2016's highest-rated unscripted show on cable television, Martha and Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party drew more than three million viewers for its premiere. And earlier this month, after just two episodes, it was renewed for a second season.

Even with the show's early acclaim, Salsano isn't resting. The 41-year-old entrepreneur explains that when you run a film production company, success is never a guarantee--nor is it sustainable. "It doesn't matter what you've done in the past. You're only as good as your last show," she says.

Because 495 only receives funding for one project at a time, it's constantly planning dozens of new ones in advance. (Salsano has some game shows and talk shows in mind for 2017 and beyond.) And a show's getting sold doesn't always equal success: After the first four seasons of Design Stars (one of Salsano's favorite projects), HGTV decided to hire a different production company. The show first aired in 2006, and was canceled in 2014.

"Everyone has a choice of whom they want to work with," she says of the industry. "You can never think, 'I've got this.'"

Breaking into showbiz

Salsano launched 495 out of her basement back in 2006, with just $3,000 and a printer. Her first big break was A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila, a bisexual dating game show that aired on MTV in 2007, and drew a record 6.2 million viewers for its Season 1 finale. That paved the way for a two-year development deal with the network, which then led to Jersey Shore, the highest-rated series in MTV history. By 2014, Salsano agreed to sell a majority (75 percent) stake of her company to FremantleMedia for a reported $40 million to $50 million.

The acquisition gave Salsano better access to funding, international reach, and an extensive intellectual-property library to tap, making it easier to attract high-profile celebrities. When it came to landing Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart, Salsano says, the process was relatively painless. "You just ask," she says, adding: "Everything's a negotiation, and of course it depends on the idea."

While Salsano wouldn't disclose company revenue, it's fair to assume that Martha and Snoop is generating serious cash. The TV production market holds considerable promise: While U.S. cable subscriptions have declined over the past years, the average amount of time viewers spend watching the content has remained consistent, according to research firmIBISWorld.This year, revenue reached $30 billion in 2016 (up nearly 6 percent from 2011). Major players like 21st Century Fox and NBCUniversal still dominate the industry, but the smaller, more agile startups like 495 gain a competitive advantage for their versatility.

"It's such a big, strong space, and SallyAnn owns it," says Thom Beers, FremantleMedia's former North American CEO, in a previous interview with Variety. "She understands that younger, edgier urban world."

Meanwhile, Martha and Snoop has tapped into a lucrative niche, with many as 36 percent of grocery store shoppers tuning into cooking shows several times a week, according to research from Supermarket Guru. As of 2010, eight in 10 U.S. adults watch cooking shows at least rarely, and half of them watch them occasionally or more.

Standing out in a crowded market

The biggest challenge for new companies is anticipating what viewers want to watch, given that there's no standard for success. You can use this to your advantage when pitching the cable networks, Salsano says. That's how 495 Productions found its niche: relatable television that also has fun with its subjects.

Take Jersey Shore, for instance: Years ago, an executive approached 495 saying she wanted to produce a show about "guidos" (generally understood to be self-absorbed, Italian American men). Salsano, who hails from Long Island, found a small town in New Jersey to set the series, which she initially envisioned as a competition-elimination program. Thus, Jersey Shore was born, following eight housemates who spent their summers in the state's coastal region for as many as six seasons. Rather than overplaying the drama, however, Salsano chose to err on the side of funny, which kept viewers coming back.

"It was a show that was very salacious, at a time that everyone was trying to make nice TV," Salsano remembers. "Any one of us could be portrayed as a bad person," she adds, "but it's more about telling a true story and finding the humor."

It's unclear what the producers have planned for the upcoming Martha and Snoop holiday special, but as Salsano puts it: "Let's just say you will hear a rendition of '12 Days of Christmas' that is like no other. Pinky swear."

Published on: Dec 2, 2016