As a self-described idea man, Jeff Bennett didn’t want to stop after creating one business.
He co-founded Grand Rapids-based national IT and engineering staffing firm OtterBase with his brother, Bill, from Bill’s spare bedroom at a time when Jeff Bennett and his now-wife, Meg, were living in low-income housing and surviving on credit cards.
From one local office launched in 1998, the firm expanded to seven more locations in Boston; Chicago; Detroit; Lansing; Los Angeles; Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis; and Nashville, Tennessee. OtterBase now has 100 employees and several hundred more contract workers across its eight locations.
After around seven years at OtterBase, Bennett started to feel what he calls “the entrepreneurial itch” all over again.
“I wasn’t interested in starting another business, per se, that would replace OtterBase. I was interested in something that would be audacious,” he said. “I’ve always been a very creative person, and I’ve always loved storytelling and coming up with ideas. (Television) is the kind of space that allows me to do that.”
Having an OtterBase office in Los Angeles and needing to travel there anyway, Bennett kicked off a chain reaction of networking and meeting television executives, including president of Showtime Networks, David Nevins.
“David is a friend and a mentor, and David introduced me to Andrew Glassman eight years ago,” Bennett said, referring to the founder of Glassman Media, a former television investigative journalist.
“Right away, Andrew and I realized there was creative chemistry and a lot of synergies between our respective goals in television and, so, a partnership ensued.”
Bennett said their work turned heads almost immediately.
“When I connected with Andrew Glassman and we struck up a partnership, right away, we started to have success,” he said. “A year later, we sold our first show to AMC, where I served as executive producer and host. It was a reality business series. It was called ‘The Bonus.’
“We sold that show to AMC and shot the pilot, but they did not order the series.”
For Glassman and Bennett, it was a setback, not a roadblock.
“It was an enormous learning experience. I went from stepping into Hollywood to being on set as an executive producer and host,” Bennett said.
Nearly four years later, after continuous work as chair of OtterBase and executive consultant to Glassman Media, working on 10-20 television concepts at any given time, Bennett had a moment of clarity.
“The idea for ‘The Wall’ started on a cocktail napkin about four years ago,” he said. “These things take a long time to mature.”
Starting with a “high-level concept” and an overview of the story, Bennett and Glassman produced a pilot, or presentation for the network, and NBC was intrigued. Over the next few years, the duo dove into every little detail, fleshing out the show’s design and game play.
After its December premiere, the show’s first 10 episodes aired weekly until Feb. 21, with ratings of between 4.5 million and 7 million viewers per episode.
“The Wall” is hosted and executive produced by TV personality Chris Hardwick; other executive producers include NBA player LeBron James, media personality Maverick Carter and Glassman. Bennett is co-owner of the format with James and others.
According to NBC, “‘The Wall’ offers a pair of teammates life-altering cash prizes. The rules are simple: Get a question correct and a green ball falls down the wall and adds the value of the slot to the players’ winning total. Miss a question and an ominous red ball falls and deducts the value from the team’s total. Teammates have to work together to build a huge cash prize.”
The Wall is a four-story pegboard with the bottom divided into 15 slots marked with different dollar amounts, some of which increase in each of the show’s three rounds. Balls descend the board and land in the slots, determining the dollar amounts earned.
The potential top prize is $12,374,994. After the third question in Round 3, the host issues one of the teammates a contract they can sign or destroy, with that teammate in an isolation chamber backstage. If the teammate in isolation signs the contract, the pair takes a guaranteed payout. If the teammate destroys it, they take the payout they have accumulated throughout the game. The catch is the player in isolation does not know what that final payout amount is.
As owner of the format, Bennett said the long-term goal is to sell it around the world, and they have already started doing so.
“(TV channel) TF1 in France bought 49 episodes, and they just finished their first season,” he said. “They have their own host, producers and contestants.”
NBC also has ordered an additional 20 episodes.
“The real money is in international distribution,” Bennett said. “We’re hoping within a year or two, ‘The Wall’ will be simultaneously broadcast in 150 countries around the world.”
Ever the creative spirit, Bennett won’t stop with one TV show concept.
“Secrecy is important, so while I can’t provide specific details, I can tell you I’m working on shows in the game show arena, competition shows, reality shows, dating shows, shows in the wild like ‘Naked and Afraid,’ and business-based reality shows like ‘Undercover Boss.’”
Bennett is firm about his plans to stay in leadership at OtterBase while still working in the TV world.
“I’m really enjoying the excitement of the television business and having success there, but I enjoy experiencing that excitement from Grand Rapids,” he said.
“I joke that Grand Rapids is as close to L.A. as my wife will get in terms of living. For us, Grand Rapids is a suburb of L.A.; it’s a close as we’re going to get.”