By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
“Knoxville punches way above its weight,” Mark Hickman of NorthSouth Productions says in describing his hometown.
The Co-Founder, Partner and Executive Producer of one ofthe nation’s largest independent television production company has a great vantage point from which to make this observation. As the name implies, NorthSouth literally operates from two main locations – New York City and Knoxville.
“Knoxville is really unusual for the amount of TV production done here,” Hickman says. And, like so many individuals in the profession locally, he is quick to give credit to Ross Bagwell, Knoxville’s television production pioneer.
“Ross started producing television shows in Knoxville at a time when equipment was so expensive,” he says, noting that Bagwell was able to cover some of the investment costs with his advertising business.
Bagwell was also known as a visionary, and he saw a future where innovation would drive down the cost of equipment while also allowing shows to be produced in locations far beyond Los Angeles and New York.
“Everyone (in the business here) owes Ross a great deal of gratitude,” Hickman says, adding, “Because of Ross, we got an early head start.
Charlie DeBevoise, the other NorthSouth Co-Founder, and Hickman met when they both worked for Bagwell. DeBevoise had been recruited to the region initially by Whittle Communications.
When they decided to found NorthSouth Productions in 2000, DeBevoise had relocated to New York City, while Hickman was still in Knoxville. The latter initially operated out of his living room. Today, the Knoxville operation is located in a nicely restored building on Emory Place that is in the heart of one of the city’s merging entrepreneurial and creative hot spots.
The two locations also connote what Hickman describes as the company’s dual personalities.
“We come at the nature of programs differently,” he says. The Knoxville emphasis is more on what he calls “Middle America programs,” while the New York operation is influenced by the two coasts.
Twelve years after its was founded, NorthSouth Productions sold a 50 percent stake to the Hearst Corporation, one of the largest privately-held media companies in the country. Ironically, this was the second Knoxville-based acquisition for Hearst. It had earlier bought Esquire magazine.
While NorthSouth Productions might not be a household name in this region, the cable networks for which it produces shows and the names of those shows are. The networks include HISTORY, TLC, Discovery, A&E, TruTV, Food Network, Sundance, Speed and Travel Channel. The shows include “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta,” now in its ninth season on TLC; a pin-off named “Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids”; and “(Impractical) Jokers,” now in its fourth season and shot both in New York and on the road.
Hickman said NorthSouth Productions has four pilots in production as well as four active development deals.
“Our New York footprint is much larger,” he explained. That’s where the most of the production staffs are based. We also have a production office in Atlanta for our Georgia-based series.
“There are 100 to 150 employees in the New York office depending on the season,” Hickman said.
Knoxville employs from 20 to 40 individuals, again depending on needs. The local office also handles operational functions like online editing and mastering,accounting, human resources and bookkeeping in addition to developing many of the ideas that are pitched to networks.
NEXT: Many talk about Knoxville as a video production; Hickman shares his thoughts on the reasons.