Exclusive: White Label Productions Chris Wagner on early days of American Idol, The Masked Singer and getting into production work

Chris Wagner
Reality super-producer Chris Wagner is expanding into scripted and has announced his company will help kids break into production work. Pic credit: White Label Productions

Founder and CEO of White Label Productions Chris Wagner had a lucky break in college. After that, his path to becoming one of the rarified breeds of super producers overseeing billion-dollar budgets and deals was a steady series of stepping stone positions behind the camera. 

And today, he calls the shots and conceptualizes huge shows like truTV’s Impractical Jokers Dinner Party, Fox’s The Masked Singer, Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty show, and so many more. 

Wagner’s 20 plus years of production experience cements his place with visionary reality TV producers like Orly Adelson, Holly Jacobs, SallyAnn Salsano, Thom Beers, Mark Burnett, Simon Cowell, John De Mol, Cris Abrego, Mike Darnell, and Craig Piligian. Collectively they have created some of the most lucrative events and series for their respective network partners. 

Wagner’s production banner, White Label Productions, is taking their primary focus on unscripted programming and will be expanding their slate and venturing into the world of scripted this year, he tells Monsters & Critics exclusively in our interview below.

As of late, he produced the iHeart’s International Women’s Day special, A Very Boy Band Holiday for ABC, Season 2 of Unicorn Hunters with Craig Plestis, Can’t Cancel Pride 2021 for iHeart and Hulu, and the 2022 Oscars nomination announcement show. In addition, his work has received Emmy nominations for Season 3 of The Masked Singer and the syndicated edition of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

Earlier in his career, Wagner served as Senior Vice President, Production at All3Media America, where he managed popular reality shows like Chrisley Knows Best, Undercover Boss, and The People’s Couch. Before that, Wagner was a senior VP at ZOO Productions. He shepherded such series as Buckwild, The Joe Schmo Show, World’s Worst Tenants, Twintervention, Are You Normal America?, and Family Game Night. 

And in the earliest days of his career, Wagner served as a Line Producer for FremantleMedia and Mark Burnett Productions on The X Factor, Rockstar: INXS, Rockstar: Supernova, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader, Shark Tank, How’d You Get So Rich? and American Idol.

Exclusive interview with Chris Wagner

Monsters & Critics: There are not a lot of colleges out there that offer majors in executive producing. Many people don’t even realize or don’t understand the path to getting into entertainment. How did you find your way into production work?

Chris Wagner: I got super lucky. I went to UC Santa Barbara to play volleyball and decided to study political science and wanted to go into law or politics. And one summer, I called my dad and told him I wanted to be a fireman and live in Santa Barbara. 

My neighbor growing up was Bob Bain, who created The Teen Choice Awards and did the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Emmy Awards. So he is a significant award show guy. And he said to my dad, have Chris work for me. So I did and loved it. 

I loved the people, the energy. And when I graduated college, again, I got double lucky as my mentor called me and said he was doing a new show. [He said,] “They’re looking for the next Britney Spears coming over from the UK. I think they’re going to call it American Idol to search for a superstar.” And that set my past for production.

M&C: You worked in the early days of American Idol, year one?

Chris Wagner: Day one, yes.

M&C: I call that the Brian Dunkelman year. There are so many rumors about what happened. Why did Brian Dunkelman leave?

Chris Wagner: That is a good question. My gut is I believe that he had a scripted career; certainly [he was] up and coming. And I know he had just been on an episode of Friends. 

But I think Brian wanted to pursue that and may not have taken reality TV to heart. And certainly at that point, when nobody knew what was to come, he seriously wanted to follow acting up and pursue a stand-up comedy career. But Ryan Seacrest is a consummate professional.

M&C: Ryan Seacrest grasped the power of reality television early on and where it could go and where it’s gone.

Chris Wagner: Yes, he is. He is so intelligent. So ahead of his time, very much the current Dick Clark.

M&C: You’ve got so many different kinds of reality projects. You’ve got competitions, fashion shows, music shows. What are some of the challenges for someone like yourself managing such a massive production? What is the easiest? What are some of the more complex types of reality genres that you produced?

Chris Wagner: It goes back to where I started when I was on American Idol as a production coordinator. 

One, there wasn’t the vast amount of unscripted content there is now. I always said that I was so fortunate to have come up when I did because I can do every genre on every platform. 

Whereas now it’s much more segmented, there is the award show person. There is a game show person. This is the reality person. The most efficient [reality shows] ones are game shows because you can bust anywhere out from three to eight a day. So you can shoot an enormous amount of shows in a short period.

The most rewarding effort was The Million Second Quiz we did with NBC. It was a live game show hosted by Ryan Seacrest. And we took over an entire Mercedes-Benz dealership and turned it into a production hub where contestants lived. 

And we did a rooftop live game show where Seacrest hosted 12 days straight that had many inherent challenges, the first being it was hurricane season in New York, and the set was on a 50-foot steel structure on top of a roof. And it was an accomplishment, looking back on it. 

I think the most recent challenging one, but by far the most fun and I feel the proudest of is Savage X Fenty, where we took over a working hotel down in LA and shot this massive variety show with a hundred dancers, a hundred models, big performances by big talent, including Rihanna. That was a challenge because people checked in while we were performing upstairs. It was very hard, but such a fabulous show.

M&C: You work with prominent personalities and family-driven shows like the Chrisleys, and you just mentioned Rihanna. What’s it like working with these personality-driven reality projects? Are there unique challenges that go with that?

Chris Wagner: I was born and raised in LA, and so are my parents, but they always told me like, celebrities are just like us. They put on pants one leg at a time. So I’ve never been in awe or starstruck. 

But I find that people want to be treated like regular people, and my motto is to be kind. It seems to have worked thus far; I treat everyone the same, whether the president of the network or the PA. We’re all humans just trying to get along in this crazy world.

M&C: I bet you get peppered all the time with people pitching you their ideas of what would make a great reality show.

Chris Wagner: Yes. Including my family. My sister runs my company, so my mom will pitch at least once a month.

M&C: Did you shoot one down that you knew wouldn’t work for American audiences?

Chris Wagner: I mean, I’ve heard a super interesting one. It felt interesting, but it was about an extremist living in a house, like with extremist religion, politics. I don’t know how that can end up. So that one did [at the time] not go anywhere. It sounded combustible.

M&C: How do you give someone a leg up in an industry where you’ve been so fortunate?

Chris Wagner:  That’s a good question. And you know, what was running through my head is like, how can I help? What can I change [in this industry]? 

White Label is exploring opportunities with organizations and local high schools to level the playing field. To optimally reflect the diversity of our output, it’s a priority for us to make sure all walks of life have a seat at the table and are represented in this industry.

M&C: What’s next on the docket for you?

Chris Wagner: I hope Rihanna wants to do another Savage X show. We did a Boy Band Christmas show last year, I’m personally dating myself, but I’m a huge boy band fan. So I’m hopeful that that comes back. 

Right now, we are doing this fun show called Unicorn Hunters. We’re trying to shoot that end of May. We’re helping Viacom expand its footprint globally. So we’re doing some shows outside of the United States with them. We did the International Women’s Day special with iHeart [radio] and shot a Bob Ross pilot with ABC, and are waiting to see when that air. Hopefully, that gets picked up as a series. 

M&C: Will you ever get into scripted?

Chris Wagner: Yes. Plan to, and our goal is this year.

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