Rabih Gholam is considered one of Hollywood’s notable tastemakers, having been a major creative force behind some of reality television’s most memorable, provocative and popular programming.
Gholam began working in late night on CBS’s "The Craig Kilborn Show." He went on to help produce landmark series such as MTV’s "The Hills," VH1’s "The Surreal Life" and ABC’s "The Mole." He currently serves as the Executive Vice President of Ryan Seacrest Productions where he oversees development of new series.
But before he was making pop culture history as a television executive, Gholam was studying history at Arizona State University — learning about the past to understand the present.
A proud alum from 1996, Gholam is not shy about crediting ASU for his success, which is why he continues to be a Devils' Advocate sitting in Hollywood.
Q: Where did you grow up and why did you decide on Arizona State University to further your education?
A: I grew up in Tucson and applied to a handful of schools including Northern Arizona University and, I’m scared to even admit it … but I even applied to the University of Arizona (obviously a safety school). I ultimately chose ASU after being selected as a recipient for an ASU Leadership Scholarship, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The truth is, my three older siblings went to U of A, so I grew up bleeding red and blue. Eventually, I came to my senses and realized the state’s best school was in Tempe and I made the difficult decision to switch allegiances. I knew I made the right call when my little sister followed me to become a Sun Devil as well.
Q: Your degree is in history as opposed to business or business law. How did that decision enrich your experience at ASU?
A: There are some college students who know exactly what career path they want to take upon graduation, but I, however, was not one of them. I debated going to law school to become an attorney, but at the end of the day my heart just wasn’t in it. I always loved history and decided to make that my major, and the truth is, that degree has helped me in the creation and production of television shows far more than a business degree would have.
Q: How did your education at ASU groom and prepare you for the entertainment industry?
A: The wealth of knowledge I gleaned from my days at ASU goes far beyond the confines of the classroom. So much of the entertainment industry is about being creative, using interpersonal social skills and cultivating relationships. These are skills I learned and honed not just from my history major, but also through the Greek system, the ASU Leadership Scholarship and my role as a Devils' Advocate. The people I met helped me prepare for my future in both the entertainment industry and other aspects of my life.
Q: What was your first job in the entertainment industry?
A: My first job in the entertainment industry was as a page at NBC in Burbank, California. I gave studio tours in a sport coat and tie (like Kenneth from “30 Rock”) and helped with the seating at “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” I was right in the middle of all the action and it allowed me to observe top talent and the machine around them and to get a close look at how the industry operates. I remember seeing the executive producer of “The Tonight Show” for the first time — she was one of the most powerful executives in all of Hollywood, and she got out of her car in shorts and flip-flops. I immediately thought to myself, “Shorts and flip flops? I want to be an executive producer!”
Q: You got into television just as “unscripted programming” started taking off in the early 2000s. What was the view like from the ground floor as you watched this genre explode?
A: Watching the genre explode was exciting. I was a part of something that was growing exponentially, which no one originally expected. It started with a few shows like “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” and next thing you know there’s unscripted programming on every single broadcast and cable network. The shows were rating well and the buyers wanted more and more content. America wasn’t privy to the inner-workings of reality TV back then, the market wasn’t saturated like it is today. If you watch the first season of “Survivor” you’ll see a rawness that’s tough to find in today’s reality TV. I was lucky enough to be on the ground floor of “The Surreal Life,” which challenged the status quo and started the celeb-reality craze. We were the first to explore the idea that actors were interesting characters as their real selves, not just in scripted projects.
Q: Why do you believe people would rather watch other people in “real” settings as opposed to fictional, scripted sitcoms or dramas? And, along those lines, what makes for good television?
A: I have tremendous respect for people working in scripted television. The major difference between the two is that characters in unscripted shows are often more relatable. People like to watch people like themselves on TV. Good television, whether it is scripted or unscripted is all about the characters. They need to be compelling and make big decisions in their lives giving the show stakes.
Q: In 2014 you were tapped to run Ryan Seacrest Productions’ unscripted programming unit. How does the company stay on top of its game in such a competitive industry?
A: At Ryan Seacrest Productions (RSP) we have great access to top-tier talent and formats. But our competitive advantage goes beyond that. Half of the battle in this industry is gaining the trust of the networks and talent (celebrities, actors, etc.). At RSP we’re fortunate to be led by someone like Ryan, who’s really the gold standard of television — who over the years has gained the trust of some of Hollywood’s most revered celebrities. People trust that Ryan will tell their stories and produce compelling content — and that’s what we set out to do on a daily basis.
Q: Any final thoughts on ASU?
A: I’m proud to be a Sun Devil. I’m proud that I’ve been able to watch the school excel and serve the state of Arizona. My office is covered in ASU memorabilia and I’m sure my coworkers are tired of hearing me talk about all the impressive ranking lists the school is featured on.
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