Nancy Glass slid open a door at her TV production company in Bala Cynwyd to a soothingly darkened room. There, video editor Travis Greene was tweaking the first episode of a Discovery ID special based on the book Let's Kill Mom.
In another room on the same floor, three staff members were editing video shot earlier this year in Cuba for an episode of the Travel Channel coffee series Dangerous Grounds.
"We do great incredible television in Philadelphia," Glass gushed to her employees as she watched the cinematic Cuba segment - some of the first scenes shot there by a U.S. company since the travel ban was lifted.
More than a decade after she quit her last on-air media gig (as a pop-music radio morning host), a string of cable programs has made Glass one of the top reality-TV producers in the nation.
Her company's Tanked is now in its fifth year on Animal Planet - distributed to 100 million U.S. homes on cable and satellite - and the cable network has ordered 15 additional shows from her Nancy Glass Productions for 2016. But she is more than a one-hit wonder. Her portfolio includes 50 cable specials, 24 series, and three documentaries.
Glass has defied the odds by basing her business in the Philadelphia area and has survived the industry's cutthroat competition for personality-based, low-cost reality shows.
"Very few companies outside of New York and Los Angeles have found real success, and Nancy is one who has," said Brent Montgomery, chief executive officer of Leftfield Entertainment in New York, which calls itself one of the largest TV production companies on the East Coast.
(Locally, Alkemy X, on Independence Mall, produces Restaurant: Impossible for the Food Network. Stage 3 Productions, a subsidiary of Center City Film & Video, produced four seasons of Farm Kings for GAC and Curvy Girls on NuvoTV, and says it is producing a new series for LMN. Banyan Productions in King of Prussia, whose website describes it as "one of the nation's leading producers of non-scripted, reality television," did not respond to an e-mail or phone calls last week but says it has worked with cable networks including Lifetime, Oxygen, and Food Network.)
Rick Holzman, executive vice president and general manager at Animal Planet, said Glass brought the idea for Tanked to the network in 2010 as it was looking at content with fewer wild animals and more human personalities.
Tanked is based on two brothers-in-law, Brett Raymer and Wayde King, who run a high-end custom fish-tank business in Las Vegas. The show also stars Heather King, Brett's sister and Wayde's wife.
Animal Planet ordered six shows for the first season. They were so successful that the cable network ordered 20 for Season Two.
Glass does not disclose her company's revenues. Industry observers say a reality-TV production company typically earns as profit a percentage of an episode's budget - say, about 10 percent. An unscripted or reality show could cost $250,000 to $800,000 an episode. So a $250,000 episode could return a profit of $25,000.
Such shows have boomed as networks have looked to control programming costs. Traditional scripted TV shows such as Big Bang Theory or The Blacklist cost $2 million to $10 million per original episode, according to industry estimates.
Glass said she also earns revenue through phone apps (there's one for a game related to Tanked), selling documentaries through distributors to movie theaters, and making commercials. Her company has a staff of 50 to 85 employees, depending on the time of year and the filming schedule.
Earlier this year, Glass brought two partners into her business, Rearrange Media and Argle Bargle Films, enabling her to diversify content and leverage facilities.
Argle Bargle's owners, Jairus Cobb and Shannon Biggs, helped produce more than 300 episodes of History Channel's hit Pawn Stars, then decided to launch their own TV production company. But they lacked the financial resources required for a TV start-up and signed a deal in which they can use Nancy Glass Productions' facilities.
If Argle Bargle sells a show, Glass owns 50 percent of it, Cobb said.
Glass launched her business in 2002 after a long on-air TV career - among her jobs was co-hosting KYW-TV's Evening Magazine in Philadelphia during the 1980s. She lives in Bryn Mawr and is married to Charles Lachman, executive producer of the entertainment-news magazine Inside Edition.
Philadelphia has its downsides for a TV production company, Glass said. The networks are located mostly in New York or Los Angeles, so she has to travel to sell her "sizzle reels" - three- or four-minute clips of ideas for cable series that cost $10,000 each.
Two weeks ago, Glass pitched 11 sizzles to a dozen cable-TV networks in New York over two days. In Los Angeles, she might pitch 10 sizzles in a day. If she were based in New York or L.A., she could space out the pitches because she'd be a car or subway ride away.
"We go to everybody," she said. "We talk to online platforms; we talk with cable; we talk with broadcast networks."
Philadelphia's upsides, she said, are low overhead costs in real estate and taxes and a stable workforce - with minimal turnover of staff.
"You take a risk on things you like," Glass said. "That's what you do. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't."