A&E’s 60 Days In was created and produced by indie outfit Lucky 8 TV, co-founded by executive producer Greg Henry, who gives TV Real an inside look at the logistics of making the series.
A&E’s 60 Days In was the biggest and buzziest new series in the U.S. factual landscape last year. The boundary-pushing show placed seven volunteers as undercover prisoners in Indiana’s Clark County Jail for 60 days to help the local sheriff discover failings in the system. Before the first episode had aired A&E had signed on for a second season, a decision for which the cable network was soon rewarded—60 Days In was cable’s number one new unscripted series in 2016 among adults 25 to 54 in Live+3 and A&E’s number one series among adults 18 to 49 in same-day viewing. This year, A&E greenlit another two seasons, taking the show to Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail. Broadcast on A+E Networks outlets in more than 100 markets, 60 Days In is also being distributed as a format, with a U.K. production company already on board.
TV REAL: How did 60 Days In come about?
HENRY: Our company and our principals have done hundreds of hours of programming on prisons and jails across the country. We always [asked ourselves], How would we survive here? How would we fare in this world? These are important stories about the challenges of doing time, but for viewers, it’s sometimes easy to dismiss those voices because you could say, Well, they did something to deserve being there. So seeing the world through the eyes of people who haven’t committed a crime, who don’t have a background where they’ve gotten caught up in anything, who have not experienced jail before, felt like an entry point we hadn’t seen.
TV REAL: What was the initial response from A&E to that pitch? And how did you find your first facility?
HENRY: We brought this in as part of an A&E PitchFest. We had two ideas. One was Behind Bars: Rookie Year, which just finished its second season. They went straight to series on that. They loved the second idea [for 60 Days In], but in that moment it was such a big swing, such a huge, epic challenge. After working together on Behind Bars and realizing that we were good partners, they said let’s go ahead and try it. The process of finding the location took a little over a year. We approached hundreds of facilities across the country. We knew we wanted to be in a smaller county jail, with a sheriff who had a reason for doing a program like this. We also wanted to be in a place that was representational of America, so it didn’t feel too coastal, too rural, too anything. It was a challenge to put that Venn diagram together and figure out a place. But when I met Sheriff Jamey Noel, he was the one who said, “One of the ways I want to reform my jail is by putting undercovers in”—for him that meant undercover law enforcement. I said, what if we bring in [regular] people with a bunch of different perspectives?
TV REAL: How did you go about finding your participants?
HENRY: The casting process was both traditional and nontraditional. We started by talking to the sheriff about different archetypes and types of perspectives that would matter to him. Through that, we began reaching out to law enforcement groups, victims groups, offenders groups, social work groups. And we looked at some of the more tried-and-tested sources of folks who want to be on television. But it wasn’t that we were necessarily asking them to respond to us. We [were looking for] profiles—a retired police officer, a social worker who worked with at-risk youth; it was about finding people whose perspectives, opinions and experiences would be valuable information for the sheriff, and who would be representative of what we believe the audience would want to see. We knew this could not be a survival show, and it is not a game show, there is no prize. Therefore, the participants need to have a reason for wanting to do this and care deeply about affecting change in the system they’re entering.
TV REAL: Tell us about all the preproduction work that was needed to get the facility ready.
HENRY: We had a solid six months of legal research and insurance research. We have a bible that no other company has because we’re doing something that’s never been done before. We had three housing units that we were working in primarily. We hung nine cameras in each housing unit, and we had roughly 64 microphones in each housing unit. We set up a control room. We had a team in there 24/7. Here’s the nerdy statistic: if you came to the office to look at the dailies [for seasons one and two in Clark County], you would walk in today and two years from now you would walk out. That’s how much tape we recorded. It’s a massive undertaking. And that’s just handling the data. Then obviously story is happening in real time, right in front of you. Often the thing that you would put into your log and note as a story point, the underpinnings of it happened two days ago. Once that material hits post, we have a whole team of what we call “watchers” who will take a story point and then go back two days and watch all the lead-up. It is as hard as it looks.
TV REAL: Give us some insight into that editing process. How do you go about telling the stories of these individuals as well as of the institution and the challenges it’s facing?
HENRY: We lean heavily on the sheriff and the chief jailer we’re working with. Why do they want to do this? On the storytelling in the edits, we start with each of our participants as they go through the process. Our storyboards are really day one to day X of any participant. What was that person’s experience? What is so interesting is that what we see versus what [they talk about in] an interview versus what they think happened don’t all line up. The experience is so intense. “What was in your head when you did that?” “It was loud, I was being screamed at, I can’t tell you why I behaved that way.” Sixty days was chosen for a very specific reason. It’s long enough for them to experience all the different variations of what it means to be an inmate, from intake to getting money on your books to the first time you’re challenged to the first time you’re questioned about your crime. But as they get a month or so in they start to institutionalize ever so slightly. They start to get used to the rhythm, the day in and day out. Those are the hallmarks that we look for across the entirety of the series as we put it together.
TV REAL: What advice would you give international producers who license the format of 60 Days In?
HENRY: Without becoming collaborators, you need to get the buy-in from the facility you’re working with. That facility needs to see the value of what they can get out of this experience. When we set out on the first season of 60 Days In, I brought the whole crew together, some 50 people on the ground in Louisville, Kentucky, and told them, “This is something that has never been done before, and we may not get a second chance at doing it. Take this seriously. Our main job is making sure that all these participants get in and out safely. If we do that job, we will make great television.” We take very seriously the program that we have created, and we do believe that there can be additive value to the facilities. We also know it will be entertaining programming. It’s that mix that has certainly resonated and allowed us to do it a second time. And then, of course, it also comes down to the makeup of the incarceration system in that country.
TV REAL: How did Lucky 8 first get into making criminal justice content?
HENRY: Kim Woodard, one of the other partners, used to work at National Geographic Channel. For years they had Lockdown as a strand. I helped create a series called Hard Time that also ran on National Geographic. We both fell into it at first because prisons were just starting to grant access [to producers] for longer-term projects. We became fascinated by the world. It’s a very important story to tell. There have been massive changes over the last decade, and the system continues to evolve. It’s a world where, for a storyteller, it’s all right there within the fence line. Both of us started in journalism. I worked in public television with Bill Moyers, and she used to work for Frontline. I believe the way you can affect change the best is to entertain and then hide the broccoli. In the first season of Behind Bars: Rookie Year, which did quite well for A&E, the central premise is that being a corrections officer is one of the last career jobs in America and your starting salary might well land you on food stamps. That’s not the headline of the series. The headline is that 18-year-olds are walking in to work side by side with convicted felons, but these are the underpinnings of what you come to learn as a viewer.
TV REAL: For Lucky 8, as an indie—a rare breed these days—what are your greatest opportunities in the factual landscape right now?
HENRY: As an indie—and yes, there are precious few of us left—there’s more opportunity than ever. It is very important for us to be the best partners with the networks that we can be. That’s at the core of our company. We’re all fighting the same fight, which is dwindling resources: viewers. The only way we all solve it is by trying to solve it together. As an indie, we have the luxury of being able to operate the way we want to, make the things we want to make, and embrace the fact that partnerships with these networks are fundamental to our continued success and future health. We are doing our best not to be known as a company that does one thing. We have Vinny and Ma Eat America on the Cooking Channel. We have Secrets of the Underground on Science Channel, using LIDAR [ground-penetrating] technology to look at mysteries that lie right beneath the surface. And we have The Real Story with María Elena Salinas for ID. María Elena is a Univision anchor, and we’re retelling crime stories through her lens. We’re not just the guys who go to jail. We like to dig in and engage with each of our clients.