On Dec. 3, 2009, the cable channel HGTV announced that the reality design competition Design Star would be produced by famed-Survivor creator Mark Burnett for its fifth season. The unwritten part of the press release was that SallyAnn Salsano, the creator and executive producer of Design Star, had been fired.
That same day, another show she created, Jersey Shore, debuted on MTV. The rest is history: Snooki, The Situation, and Pauly D became household names, and the show set ratings records for MTV. Last Thursday, 8.9 million viewers watched Jersey Shore—more than most of the network shows on that night, and the highest-ever viewership for an MTV series. The network renewed the show, and is sending the cast to Italy to film the fourth season later this spring.
In 1996, Salsano was a finalist for The Real World Miami and nearly became a cast member, which isn't hard to believe given her exuberance and large personality. ( Jersey Shore cast member Paul "Pauly D" DelVecchio told The Daily Beast that she "belongs in the house with us.") Ten years later, she launched 495 Productions and created Design Star on HGTV, and went on to produce series including A Shot of Love With Tila Tequila and the fourth season of Nashville Star. She's about to start production for a docusoap series for TV Guide Network called The Nail Files; and there are two Jersey Shore spinoffs in the works, one starring Pauly D, and one with Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Jenni “JWoww” Farley.
How did she go from nearly being a cast member to becoming one of the genre's most successful producers? Like her Jersey Shore cast members, SallyAnn Salsano has a nickname that everyone calls her, SA. She said she is "a huge fan of reality TV. There's not a show that I don't watch. I don't watch it for research, so I can see what the competitors are doing. You know what? I fucking love every second of it," she said in a recent interview with The Daily Beast in Los Angeles, rattling off series ranging from A&E's Storage Wars to TLC's Sister Wives to MTV's Teen Mom. "Whatever it is, I love reality TV. I'm always drawn to the characters, their reaction, and how they perceive the world. And I think that's what makes life interesting."
For Salsano, reality TV is all about its cast members. "A show could be anywhere at any time; it's just who your characters are," she said, citing Jersey Shore. "I always thought it would have a cult following. But I thought it was going to be that little show that could, kind of like [NBC's] The Office."
She attributes part of its success to her inexperience: Having produced only competitions previously, which have a built-in structure, her first docusoap, Jersey Shore, ignored the increasingly standard practice of mapping out a season and leaving the unscripted moments to whatever happens during planned scenes (today, cast members x and y will have lunch, and discuss a and b).
Salsano said that for the pilot, which she produced for VH1 (it was later moved to MTV), "the network execs at the time wanted to partner me with someone else who had done a docusoap because I couldn't possibly know how to do it. And I was like, 'No way.' I can figure it out. I think part of the thing that works about Jersey Shore is that I was so afraid to miss anything or to screw it up is that I shot everything under the sun. So I'm not going to say, 'Hey, I'll be there at 9, let's shoot today mani-pedis, and then we're going to do this,' because that's not what reality is. Reality is: I'm there and something's going to happen."
Jersey Shore was criticized for ethnic stereotyping before it even aired, but Salsano says that accusations that the show is "racist" or "making fun of Italians" is "horse crap. At the end of the day, I'm an Italian girl from Long Island, my dad worked in sanitation, both of my parents drive Cadillacs, my dad wears a diamond-encrusted Yankee symbol around his neck. It doesn't get more guido than in my house. People are like, 'You're making fun of them.' And I'm like, 'No, I am them.'"
Salsano named her production company 495 Productions after the Long Island Expressway, and said, "I'm not poking fun, this is really what it is. It's not something I'm embarrassed of. I was those kids. I was Snooki. I woke up and was like, 'Oh, that was a crazy night.' That's what you do."
Pauly D, who's working on a spin-off reality series produced by Salsano, said that "she could actually be a cast member for the show. She totally gets it, she gets what we're doing. She's just like us."
From her time as an intern on Howard Stern's show and at The Sally Jesse Raphael Show, where she eventually became a producer of the daytime talk show, she began to see that, despite the public judgment of such shows, real people's stories on television were captivating. "There's millions of people watching every day, and there's a reason why, because people can relate to them," she said.
“I'm an Italian girl from Long Island, my dad worked in sanitation, both of my parents drive Cadillacs, my dad wears a diamond-encrusted Yankee symbol around his neck.”
That leads her to say, in all seriousness, "I believe that everybody deserves the chance to be on TV. Give everybody a chance. You don't know what's going to hit." Salsano added, "Yes, you can be a more skilled producer, and be a better storyteller, but in the end it's really how it hits the fans, how it hits the viewers."
It helps that she's invested in her subject matter. Pauly D said, "24/7 she's there. I see her passion for the show is like my passion for DJing, I can see that in what she does."
Salsano said, "I throw myself into every show," which made her dismissal from HGTV's reality competition even more painful. "I loved Design Star. Design Star was my baby. There is no show that I loved more than Design Star. To say that I was devastated when I was fired—fired!—from having the No. 1 show on a network, never being over budget, and working my ass off, harder than I've ever worked. It's the hardest show I ever produced."
She attributes that to "a case of people thinking it's super-fancy to work with the fanciest producer in town. And my whole thing when any producer—and this is not directed toward anyone in particular—my thing is, you can pay a producer any amount of money to produce a show. What you can't pay a producer to do is care." (HGTV did not respond to a request for comment.)
Pauly D said Salsano is "always, always, always there for us. If we ever have a problem, or whatever the case may be, it doesn't matter what time of day, it could be 2 in the morning, it could be 10 at night. It doesn't matter. I can text her, she'll text me right back. I'll call her, she'll call me right back. Whatever we're going through in our life, if we need any advice, she's always, always, always there for us, and I like that."
Perhaps that's because she was almost where they are. Salsano said, "MTV's always threatening to pull out my interview" from the Real World audition 15 years ago. But for now, she's content behind the scenes, although the attributes that nearly landed her a spot on MTV's original reality series still infuse her work.
"I always say to my producers and to my cast, 'I will never ask you to do something I would not do myself,'" Salsano said. "But therein lies a problem, because there's not much I won't do."