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Transcript: Hello Sunshine's Sarah Harden

The full episode transcript for Byers Market, Hello Sunshine’s Sarah Harden.
Sarah Harden
Sarah Harden, CEO of Hello Sunshine, arrives for a premiere in New York on Oct. 28, 2019.Evan Agostini / Invision / AP file


Byers Market

Hello Sunshine’s Sarah Harden

Dylan Byers: Hey, it's Dylan Byers, senior media reporter for NBC News. You're listening to Byers Market. (MUSIC) Do you ever get the feeling that Reese Witherspoon is everywhere? HBO's Big Little Lies, Apple's The Morning Show, Hulu's Little Fires Everywhere, which just dropped today. If there's a thread that runs through all of these shows, it's that they're stories about women told from a female perspective. And up until recently that was not exactly ubiquitous in Hollywood.

Female representation and empowerment is Witherspoon's whole business now. A few years back she launched Hello Sunshine, a media company focused on promoting and developing storytelling by women and centered around women. It's fast become a success. The company's book club has become Oprah-level influential. It's also got its own TV channel on AT&T, and has been the source for many of Witherspoon's films and television shows.

Witherspoon is the face of Hello Sunshine, and by all accounts intimately involved in much of what they do. But the woman who is making things happen behind the scenes is its CEO, Sarah Harden, a veteran of Otter Media, NewsCorps, and Fox Networks. Today, Sarah's business is female authorship, female-driven stories made for a diverse audience.

That gives her a profoundly unique perspective, not just on the business of Hollywood, but on the politics of Hollywood as well. The entertainment industry is at an inflection point in terms of female representation, both on and off camera, and Sarah is in the middle of it all. So without further ado, my conversation with Sarah Harden. So Sarah, thank you for doing this.

Sarah Harden: It's a pleasure.

Byers: So let's start here. Whenever people talk about Hello Sunshine, the quickest way to pitch it to someone is its creative content for women and by women. Is that the right, is that the philosophy?

Harden: Well, I think what we express is as we put women at the center of every narrative that we champion. And I think that's very deliberate. I certainly think, you know, women are part of the authorship process of everything we do, whether it's a particular show or in our employee base or in our board. And we think of our authorship process very fully.

But we aren't just making content for women. They are certainly, a lot of this content serves a female audience, but I think we're about premium storytelling that puts women at the center. And the best premium storytelling invites audiences of all types.

And, you know, it's one of the things I think about, we've had a, you know, if you look over the last number of decades, a lot of the motivations that led Reese to start the company were about the lack of strong roles, a lot of male-centered storytelling. And we never thought about that, as that for men. But I certainly think in a lot of the direct-to-consumer parts of our company we think about a female audience first, but not exclusively.

Byers: So if you go home, if you have all of the streaming apps like I do, because it's my job, Reese is everywhere, right? I mean, she's, there's Big Little Lies on HBO, Little Fires Everywhere is about to start on Hulu. She and Jennifer Aniston were the sort of flagship program for Apple TV Plus, The Morning Show.

It seems to me that she has been, more than perhaps any other actor/actress/producer I can think of, has taken her philosophy, her business philosophy, and really sort of maximized on the streaming wars. I mean, she's everywhere. And it sorta seems to me, you talk about female representation, shows like that have done a remarkable job, I think, of putting women at the center of stories.

I will also say, you know, I was watching The Oscars recently, and I was sort of, on the one hand, you know, and my wife and I talk about this. I think there's never been a better time for female representation in television and film, and then on the other hand I look at The Oscars and it's like, you've got The Irishman, you've got Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you've got 1917. These films are getting more nominations than all of the other films.

And the amount of time that women are onscreen, let alone talking, seems to me to be, like, incredibly small. And sometimes I feel like there's this terrible juxtaposition between so much progress being made, and then you look at something like The Oscars and it feels like, god, we're still stuck in, like, five decades ago.

Harden: I mean, I'll start with the first part of your question. And I think there's a lot of, like, "Yes, and" to that. And I do think, when we started the company a few years ago, you know, it was prior to the #MeToo and sort of Time's Up movements, but I think really driven by this white space and this opportunity that Reese certainly saw, and also, like many great companies, born of frustration.

And that was about putting the women at the center of these roles. And I think we, there's some luck I think as we started the company too, the streaming wars that people talked about were starting. And I do think one of the intentions behind building the company is, you know, we're very thoughtful and deliberate.

We try and do a few things well. And I think there's such a thing as the right show for the right platform with the right talent at the right time. And I think how we've set up, you know, the slate of both our scripted shows, and then also moving into unscripted, and kids and animation coming, reflects that. And so look, we're proud to be in business with Apple around The Morning Show and Truth Be Told as well, with Octavia Spencer.

And, you know, we have From Scratch coming to Netflix, Daisy Jones and the Six, we're about to go into production. And obviously, you know, Big Little Lies. And then we're really excited about Little Fires Everywhere, which is coming out on Hulu on March 18th. And so our focus, when we started the company, was to try and be part of the solution to this incredible, we talk about it as this authorship gap.

It starts with representation, but if you really look at the power structures of Hollywood, there's been a structural silencing of both women and people of color and other marginalized voices. And whether you look at the structure of green light committees, or studio heads, or in our writers' rooms, or as producers, and you have seen that shift happening in the last three to four years.

You know, I think The Oscars, and I think certainly also with initiatives like Critical, spearheaded by Time's Up and Brie Larson, which was to sort of address the imbalance of critics on movies. And, you know, critical reception and awards, they're important in this business. And I think both of those reflect what happens when you also, it reflects a power in the industry.

And whether it's Academy voters or whether it's critics, if the makeup of those bases don't more fully reflect the sort of full diversity and represent both our audiences, then it's problematic. And, you know, I'm not, many of The Oscar films are incredible films. And I'm not gonna comment on any of them, except to say I think there's obvious omissions when you have an Academy voting makeup that doesn't reflect audience composition.

Byers: Right. So how do you change the makeup of Hollywood? You know, it seems to me like putting these stories forward is a great start, but what comes next in terms of changing the makeup of the Academy?

Harden: We feel the weight of responsibility, I will say, to do our small part. And we are, you know, I think that change is happening and has to happen everywhere. And I do think, you know, there are many I think vocal voices demanding change. And I think what we're starting to see is people in power requiring that change.

And I do think that's what it takes. I think in our part we are saying, "We have to be part of this solution." And I do think to the extent that we can make and launch a great television series, or whether that's scripted or unscripted, or movies, and do it in a way that, through the process of how we do that. So, which, and you know, we do a lot that centers around books, so which books we choose to option and how we choose to involve in that process. Who's in our writers' rooms? Who's on our sets?

We try and spend as much time thinking about not just what we're gonna do, but how we're gonna do that. And I think it takes a lot of, I think it takes visible successes in the industry. Because nothing talks like success, (LAUGH) is one part. And I think the rest of it is very intentionally using whatever power we can garner.

We're still an early stage company. But it was honestly, the real motivation for Reese to start this company, I think when we first met, she said, "This is not about me. And this company, I want to use," you know, effectively her convening power to pull a team together. And she had already, you know, been utilizing her own capital to fund her work as a, you know, as a producer for many, many years. But to create an infrastructure that we could author projects and get them out in the world and involve as many voices as possible in that, whether that's writers, our employees, and others.

And so we're trying to do our part. And I think in addition to that, I think, you know, really allied and working in partnership wherever we can with other great, distinctive creators as well. I mean, I think we're really proud, and I know certainly Reese is, with, you know, with producing The Morning Show with Jennifer Anniston, and with Kerry Washington and Simpson Street Productions, and ABC Studios (MUSIC) on Little Fires Everywhere. And we're trying to assemble those partnerships to create change wherever we can.

Byers: We'll be back right after this with Sarah Harden.

Byers: (MUSIC) So walk me, like, the process by which any given show comes to fruition, in many cases like Little Fires Everywhere, you guys actually are doing that from start to finish because of what seems to me to be one of the most powerful aspects of Hello Sunshine, which is the book club.

Harden: Yup.

Byers: So talk to me about the book club. Because my understanding is that if you are an author who wrote a book that maybe sold 20,000 copies, and Hello Sunshine comes along or Reese comes along and picks that book out and puts it on the book club list, that overnight all of a sudden you can rocket to sort of bestseller or success, and next thing you know you're selling millions of copies. And then, lo and behold, your book might turn into a TV show or a movie. It seems to me like the influence there with this book club is radical. What is the sort of origin story of the book club?

Harden: You know, it's one of that Reese is very, I mean, she just, she really picks the books. People ask me all the time. She's an incredible reader. And I do think if you look at her career as a producer, it started off saying, "How do I leverage my natural," how much she reads. I mean, she reads more than anyone else I know.

And when we first started the company, she was posting photos of books that she was reading to Instagram. So her followers were already seeing that. And I think one of the first things we said when we started the company too, look, starting a media company, it wasn't from scratch, but certainly, you know, was both creating content, but also important to have a curatorial voice for our brand.

And that really was Reese's Book Club. So one of the first things we talked about was just tent-poling book club. Picking a book in the first week of every month, just to signal to the audience that this was going to come. And no, not two books a week, not two books a month, but really one book a month. And I think in the three years that we've been doing that, we've seen the influence grow incredibly.

And I do think the last 17 or 18 picks have all made it to the New York Times Best Seller lists. And what I'm really proud of is, you know, we often pick debut authors. And we actually manage the book club very editorially separately to our film and TV company.

If we love a book Reese reads with her book club hat on, thinking, "What is this book club community gonna love? And what book do I love to read? And why do I love this book?" She also thinks a lot about what time of year it is. I mean, she really thinks differently. She's in December thinking, "No one wants to read. We're all trying to do our holiday shopping, and it's a nightmare, trying to get in kids' school concerts." And, you know, she really, she thinks a lot at the time of the year that a woman is in too, and what we love reading.

And, but if we love it enough for book club, we'll certainly look at it for film and television, but we never link those two. And so it's a happy, you know, I say probably two to three books a year we would end up optioning the rights to, either for film or television, and so Little Fires is a great example of that.

You know, we picked that on its debut, in September 2017. I still remember the day, because Reese interviewed Celeste Ng, the amazing author, in our new offices. And we didn't have really good, our Wi-Fi (LAUGH) wasn't working and we had problems with sound. But from September '17, if you've been following our book club handles, you've seen that conversation. You've seen us celebrate when the book got to a million copies, announce that we were gonna make the TV show and that we were doing that with Kerry Washington. And all the way through to the premier in March.

You know, we have been, in fact, I spent the morning looking at, we're running a competition for our book club. We're gonna fly a book club, and I've been looking at the submissions all morning, to the premier to meet with Celeste and come to the premier in mid-March. And so that's been a two and a half year journey if you followed our handles with that.

But we do look at them editorially separately. There's different things about a book that make a good film and TV show, and there's slightly different considerations for book club. And we never, we don't link the two. I mean, we don't link it in our deal making either, and I think that's important. We do get asked, sometimes, if there's a competitive process for, you know, it's a really competitive marketplace if we're looking to option a book, which happens really early in the process. Like, early galleys. And we'll sometimes have people say, "Well, we'll give you this option, but you have to guarantee it's a book pick." And we won't do that.

Byers: There's obviously no algorithm or code for what makes, you know, a great book, right?

Harden: Yeah.

Byers: That's unique each time. But in this process, and with the books that you guys have selected so far, is there something you have learned about your audience and what your audience wants, or what your audience is looking for in terms of the sort of, the kinds of stories?

Harden: You know what, I do think, I think the fact that, like, Reese is a trusted curatorial voice. And I do think the fact, I think even when she announces her book picks, it's so clear why she's connected to the story, and she's very upfront about what drew her to a book.

And even sometimes we have books that, you know, you look at it, we talk about it and say, "I don't know if the community's gonna love this." And we're like, "Well, let's see." And so I think we always go back to Reese, "If you love this book, you should pick it." And I think we try and look at a balance over the year as well.

Like, we know our audience loves, they love historical fiction. You know, right now we're like, "You know what? We're due for a thriller in the next six months." But you know, we're picked out till, I mean, I spent my weekend reading a lot of books, as did Reese. You know, we're sort of picked out till June/July right now, so we're sort of looking at our fall books. But whenever in doubt, we go back to, "Reese, what do you love and why do you love it?" And then explaining that to the community, and then engaging the conversation around it.

Byers: And the community gravitates towards what Reese, and you know, obviously the precursor to the Reese Witherspoon Hello Sunshine Book Club is the Oprah Book Club.

Harden: Yup.

Byers: Do people gravitate just because they love, because she's famous? Because they love her? Because they, over time, that a certain amount of trust has been built up?

Harden: I think it's the trust. And look, I read all of Oprah's picks. I think she, and I have for years and years and years. And look, in a sea, we're in such a crowded media marketplace. And, you know, you walk in a bookstore, and I do think it is that trust, and an expectation of when Oprah picks a book. What am I, you know, what am I gonna get when Reese picks a book? What am I gonna get?

And I do think in, you know, in this crowded marketplace, trusted curatorial voices are increasingly important. And I think then engaging that audience in a conversation, and you know, they have got no qualms telling us when they don't love (LAUGH) a selection that we've made, or, "I didn't enjoy it as much as something else."

What I really love is, and we get this all the time, is a couple of things that we hear, how grateful audiences are when we introduce them to someone they would never have heard of on their own. Not only debut authors, but Balli Kaur Jaswal, and she's a Singaporean-based writer. But she, you know, a number of people said, "I haven't read her previous books." And they go back to read those. But it was just such a delightful book too.

Same with Kiley Reid's book we just picked in January, Such a Fun Age, again, a debut author. They were like, "Thank you for putting her on our radar," 'cause they're authors that weren't on someone's radar. They loved that. And also when Reese suggests something that they might not have read on their own. I think of The Library Book by Susan Orlean. And that's just, that's a book that when people, when we announced it it was like, "Oh, it sounds like it's got history (LAUGH) in it." And really, and the delight, it's honestly one of our biggest. I think that we added 65,000 followers to our book club in that month, in January, last January--

Byers: How big is that community now?

Harden: We just hit one and a half million followers. And that's, I mean--

Byers: That's insane.

Harden: --it's all organic too. So I think what we said for the first two or three years of the company, let's just build that followership and influence. And we're not tryin' to crack an algorithm or get people to follow us who, you know, who don't wanna be there. I think we've really tried to build that rand love, I guess, and engage that audience in conversation and a big focus for the (MUSIC) next 12 months is deepening that relationship with our book club followers.

Byers: We'll be back, right after this.

Byers: Just because the Oprah Book Club does exist as well, do you think about, is there a sort of philosophy about how you differentiate yourself in terms of, or are you fine to have a sort of big Venn diagram overlap of those two communities?

Harden: Look, I think we don't think too hard about differentiating our self. We're always aware of what other people, we think it serves the audience to have, I mean, there's lots of great curatorial voices in the book club space, and I think they all bring a lot of value to consumers. And I think Jenna Bush Hager's picks, I'm always curious to see what other people have picked and why they've picked them.

We obviously read across all of it. Reese has always read, you know, she's always read everything (LAUGH) before I have. I'm trying to still recommend a book to her she hasn't read. And I think they serve a really important function.

And we, you know, for us I think we're just, we're really focused on, Reese is really focused on what she loves. And we're really focused on our community and continuing to serve them and hear from them and do more in real life with them. That's definitely one of the things we're focusing on in the next year--

Byers: So, yeah, okay, so tell me about that. Because if you're giving, if you put out a book a month, there's a lot. You've got a very, it sounds to me like you have a very engaged audience.

Harden: Yeah.

Byers: And it sounds to me like there's a lot of potential to sort of keep that community.

Harden: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Byers: And my guess is they want more than just to follow the Instagram feed or the Twitter feed, that they want more. What else can you give this community, and how can you sort of, not to sound callous, but sort of capitalize on this incredible audience?

Harden: Yeah, I think we're very, look, that's a big focus for us in the next 12 months, I would say. And, you know, a lot of our, it's funny. A lot of them ask us, "I'm already a member," because following us on Instagram feels like a member, "How do I get the books? Where can I come to a physical book club?"

And I think that of all the things that we're thinking about in the next 12 months, one is to just, we've done a lot of research actually with our book club over the last year, and understanding what they value. And, you know, they value talking about the books. They also value the connection with each other.

I mean, if you think of the history of book clubs, you know, it is the number of women, I mean, the number of people I know who have been in and out of book clubs, it's about connecting with other women. And women who might be in different phases of their lives, might have a different life situation. The one thing you come together and talk about is this book. And I think for us that putting books at the center of building this community, and I think there's lots of ways we're looking to do that and deepen that conversation online, certainly in real life.

And I think we've got a number of events that we'll be announcing in the next few months. And, you know, even things like bringing this book club to Little Fires Everywhere. I think a lot of things, we wanna sort of serve and give back to book club followers everywhere, but do it in a way that's consistent with our brand, which is it's very, it's kind of no VIP ropes.

It's an invitation. And what you have to do to be a member of book club is love books and wanna talk about books with us. And, you know, we're not about exclusivity and all of that. But I think providing more opportunities for our members to get together in real life, and certainly I think, you know, looking at making it easier for people to access our books in whatever format they like as well.

Byers: Right. Is there a point at which you look at this community that you've built up and you say, you know, like, for instance right now, we're in the middle of an election year. You say, "Oh, we have a group of people who we could actually mobilize to do something beyond even what's going on in the book club. We could mobilize these people to vote for a certain candidate, or go out and support a certain issue." Does that ever enter into the thinking or the equation? Or is this whole project apolitical?

Harden: Look, I think we talk a lot about mobilizing our book club around things that they love to do. We did that on Giving Tuesday. Our book club made a huge amount of donations, and because of that, because of our book club, we're installing book nooks in sort of book deserts, starting with in a women's shelter in Los Angeles.

And so for us it's about mobilizing that community, about what they care about, and what they're looking for us and they wanna be a part of. So I think for us it's about literacy, getting books more readily in the hands of people who don't have access to them. And I think it's a stretch too far to mobilize, you know, that group around other reasons for them joining the book club.

But we're, it's, like, a deeply generous book community. And so I think that's something we're thinking about a lot. How do we help facilitate them both connecting with each other, and also, you know, books are one of the best things to share and pass on. So how do we encourage that, you know, that sharing? And, you know, very much putting libraries at the center of that too, which I just think are one of the greatest American or global institutions is the library. And, you know, a lot of our--

Byers: Really?

Harden: Yeah. And a lot of our members borrow from the library--

Byers: You mean, like, a physical--

Harden: Physical libraries, and now enabled by, I mean, the Libby app is amazing, the public library app. But, you know, I think a lot of our members are regular borrowers. You know, it's a lot for people to spend $25 a month, or in a hardcover for a book every month. And so, you know, we think a lot about that. But I don't see us leveraging that community into political action. What I do see is convening that community around, you know, and using books to talk about issues that are important in their everyday lives. That is, it's a very safe space to connect with people. And I think that's gonna be our focus.

Byers: At the risk of asking what might be a dumb question, it seems to me like book clubs have historically been a primarily female territory. Why is that? What's the sort of?

Harden: You know, I think there's some interesting history around book clubs, and women gathered around the suffragette movement, around, like, there's an activist history around book clubs which I think is super interesting. But I do, look, I think there is this, I think they reflect this, like, desire for local community. You know, often book clubs are in, whether they're in libraries or in people's homes.

And, you know, I think more than ever, like, there's sort of a disconnection and loneliness in people, and a lot of the other ways we used to convene as a community in real life. You know, I think we do it over the soccer field with our kids. You know, I think they are one of those bastions. I mean, we certainly engage men and male book clubs, and you know, I know of a lot of, like, cross-gender book clubs. But I do think it's been a very common thing for women.

And if you see some of our book club submissions, oh my god, they're so funny. In fact, I think Reese is gonna do an Insta story about how great some of the names are, and (LAUGH) why they've come together, virtual book clubs. People who come together on a Tuesday night over Skype who live in remote areas, but they found their book club online and they do it online.

But I do think it is that desire for local connection. And I do think a lot of women in those early childrearing years, it can be, like, really lonely.(LAUGH) Really lonely. And I think it's a way that, you know, you can do it in people's homes. And, you know, I think it's an interesting thought about why more women than men. But I do think it reflects that--

Byers: I think one of the--

Harden: --that desire.

Byers: --what's so interesting to me is that, you know, I've been having these conversations for this podcast about all manner of technology and media and entertainment, and so many of the conversations at the end of the day are really about things that people, nominally they're about connecting, social media and posting and entertain, you know, movies that people might see in theaters together, I guess.

But really so much of what we're talking about are things that people are often doing alone, and that sort of, I think what people have a harder and harder time dealing with, which is the amount of time that, you know, 30 strangers are sitting in a cafe, all staring at their phones. And here, what you are talking about is actually something that is, first of all, very analog. It's the actual physical copy of the book. You're talking about getting it from a library, which is, like, physical space.

And then you're talking about people coming together and connecting over something very specific. And it's an audience that is just extremely impressive in terms of its scope, in terms of the trust and loyalty it has for the company and for Reese. And it just strikes me almost a sort of, I don't know, antidote to so much of the way that people spend their time when they are alone or sort of, you know, feeling disconnected from society.

Harden: Yeah, and I do think what we try and do is serve. You know, some people like to listen to their books on Audible. Some like an eBook. Some will borrow from the library. Some like to go to their local, independent bookstore. Others are ready to ship it on Amazon. And we're like, we serve all of you. But we're trying to provide opportunities, if you wanna convene in real life, here's how to do it. And if you wanna follow us on Instagram and tag your friends, if you wanna take some of our book picks but not all of them back into your book club, like, what we're trying to do is just be very open about that and very specific.

But what I do think is underneath all of it, and I think it's important, because we talk about this a lot. We're not trying to build the world's biggest book club. It's one of the reasons we're trying to build a book club of kind of influence, and where you trust us. And I sort of don't mind if it doesn't grow any further from here. That's not the mandate.

What we do talk a lot about is kind of connection, joy, magic. You know, they're the things like, how do we encourage more meaning? And so when we talk about what we're trying, we're trying to build the most meaningful book club for women, and however that's interpreted for any one of our followers.

And I think that is about being reliable in what you signal, providing lots of opportunities and onramps for people to connect with us, and you know, we're just getting started on that, listening to them. But it is about real life, and why do you show up in a friend's home? Sometimes you haven't even read the book. You're looking for joy. You're looking for connection. You're looking to laugh. And then you can have really (MUSIC) heated conversation sometimes, a passionate conversation about why you did or didn't like this character. And I think that's what we're focusing on.

Byers: We'll be right back with Sarah Harden.

Byers: (MUSIC) Okay, so let's switch over to the sort of film and TV side of this all. Again, you know, these incredible shows, you've got Little Fires Everywhere coming out. You also started a sort of a DirecTV channel, which seems to me like it hasn't been sort of as much of a breakout success as the book club has been.

Harden: Well, I think, so AT&T were a really early supporter on our first unscripted series, Shine On with Reese. And then we launched that on an on demand channel across DirecTV. I think now since the Warner Media acquisition and the announcements there, and we are partnering with HBO Max. So I think we did two unscripted shows, actually, Shine On with Reese and then a show with The Home Edit, and I think which really helped us get our unscripted business off the ground.

And that's a really growing part of our company now. So we've just finished production on a show for Netflix with The Home Edit women, title TBD, not yet announced. And we've got a really exciting unscripted slate that we're building. And then we've also announced, I think we sort of prioritized our relationship with AT&T and HBO and Warner Max, focusing on this rom-com slate deal that we've done with HBO Max.

So, you know, I think Reese has talked about it a lot. You know, when the writer's strike happened in 2008 and 2009, the midmarket of the movies just dropped off. These $20 million to $50 million movies. And I think romantic comedies was one of the casualties of that.

Byers: Yeah, absolutely--

Harden: And so I think we are focused on reimaging a modern rom-com. I think others have, I mean, there's some other wonderful movies that mostly the streamers, I think, are releasing. And so I think again, from us, books at the center. And so I hope we'll be announcing one of our first rom-coms shortly. But that's sort of been the focus for our ongoing relationship.

Byers: So what is the, is there a difference for you in terms of the scripted and unscripted space in terms of how you approach stories or how you think about the kinda content that you're creating?

Harden: Well, yes and no. I mean, I think the same convening mission, putting women at the center, obviously. And the unscripted space we can, I think we tend to work with narrative and putting books at the center on the scripted side. We certainly always look to books, even on the unscripted side.

But I'm excited. A lot of what we're developing in our slate is with just really distinctive, real-life women and voices that we think have something important to say. And then our goal is to go try and shape a show around that. And then go, like everything, go out and try and set it up in the marketplace and get someone to buy it, to enable us to make it.

I also think, you know, we have a YouTube channel, we have, you know, we've got an in-house short form team. So that allows us to also experiment with talent sometimes and test formats and other things. But, you know, I think on the unscripted side, we're working, you know, that the unscripted form allows you to work with more real-life protagonists. And we've just gotta go make entertaining TV shows. (LAUGHTER)

Byers: Right, right.

Harden: As well. As well. And I do think, look, I look at we've got a looming writers' strike. We have a looming writers' strike in May. And I look at the dynamics of what's happening with the broadcast nets as well. I mean, the scripted content is so expensive. And I think if you look at it, there is an arms race with the streaming buyers having come in.

And I think we're gonna, it's gonna be a really good unscripted marketplace. Because I do think some of the broadcast and premium cable nets are gonna be taking some of those scripted, the slots that they had for scripted content and looking at unscripted, which is typically, you know, a lower, certainly much lower cost per hour.

Byers: Right. Is there any difference in terms of working with the different, is there a difference between doing a project with Apple TV Plus versus a project with Hulu versus a project with HBO or AT&T or Netflix?

Harden: Well, I think they're all different. I think if you ask Lauren Neustadter, who runs film and television, you know, or we have key executives who drive each of these businesses. And they author that very directly. And Reese is across everything we do. I think they're all their own. I think all these shows have their own dynamics. Different, amazing showrunners, different talent.

I do think, you know, there is, I think what all the shows share in common is, you know, it's hard to make great television. It's really. And it is so crowded out there. And even on these big, streaming platforms, you still have to get audiences to show up.

Byers: Right.

Harden: And so--

Byers: Which seems to me to be, in a way, there's more content than ever, but that just makes getting audiences to show up harder than ever.

Harden: It really is. And so I think we talk about this excellence and passion bar for everything we do. Like, there's no cynicism in our company at all. And, you know, we talk about if we don't love it, if Reese doesn't love it, if Lauren doesn't love it, they've got to work on it for the next two years.

And then I think with each of our shows, we have executives at those platforms who've championed the show. And, you know, these are big bets. They put themselves on the line, and then we assemble, you know, incredible teams, and trying to get talent, like, first-choice talent to come and partner with us.

They all have choices about where to spend their time, whether it's writers or actors. And so I think all of our shows, you know, we do spend a lotta time putting together, like, that magic fairy circle. That's what it takes to make anything great. I mean, it really is hard. And I mean, all credit to Reese and Lauren, and you know, equivalent executives, Cynthia Stockhammer on our unscripted business and Claire Curley, who, you know, we hired about six months ago to build our kids and animation slate as well.

Byers: Oh right, so that's a whole 'nother, right--

Harden: Yeah. Yeah--

Byers: This seems to me to be sort of an integral thing for any media company now.

Harden: Well, I think so. We started off saying if we're talking about, you know, at the end of the day our stories are about, you know, they're about women's identity and agency. And we're, like, if we're gonna serve the women of tomorrow, we have to start with serving girls. And look, I do think there's been, there's a lot of great preschool and big kids content with really wonderful female characters.

But I think we've got something to add to that. And I also think, you know, Reese is a mom of three. You know, she's also, she's, you know, she's reading books to her kids, to her son all the time. So she's really in it as a parent. And she's equally engaged as a producer. And I think this has been fun for her too.

I mean, we actually spent, we're right in the middle of our first show, which we haven't announced yet. But, you know, Reese is, it's a show that's come from her. I mean, it's an internally developed idea. And I think she's really having fun with it. (LAUGH)

Byers: I have got a two year old, and I will say I'm actually struck by how, I don't know, sort of gender normative and heteronormative and how sort of archaic, you know, some of the, like, male and female roles in children's books can still be, even now, somehow.

Harden: I think so. And then there's some great creators too. So we, you know, and again, our hope is can we get to a couple of great animated series a year? And we're really, I mean, it's so fun.

Byers: Yeah. So you've been CEO of the company now for two, three years--

Harden: Well, yeah. I mean--

Byers: Full-time CEO for two years.

Harden: Yeah, I think. And the sort of seven or eight months before that I was doing it, but not publicly.

Byers: So is there something in those sort of two years, thinking about the future of what you guys are working on, which is greater female representation, female authorship, do you feel bullish about the sort of, that future? Do you feel like progress is slower than you would like, given what we were talking about earlier in terms of sort of--

Harden: Yes. And I mean, I think it's really interesting. I do feel hopeful. And I feel hopeful, I mean, in large part because I think of those, you know, I think the conversation that started with #MeToo and Time's Up, I don't think we're going back. And I feel hopeful, because I believe what many, many people, and we're one of many, many creators, I think, you know, if you architect stories authentically, and that starts with, and we talk about this authentic authorship.

So if you have a story that has female voices, people of color, LGBTQ voices, they reflect the world that we live in. And do think there's a white space. I really do. When you look at, and I think any company, whether they're making a consumer product or whether they're making television, that doesn't ladder themselves more authentically to serve their audience, I think is in trouble.

And so I believe in, I mean, I think real change can only happen when power really starts to shift. This is all a conversation about power. And power follows money. And so I think when you start to see successes on the board, and you think of, you know, and I think back, I think of Black Panther, I think of these movies and television shows, and I think of great companies that are being built that address blind spots. And that's when power starts to shift.

In addition to that, I do think there is a level of conversation and accountability now that, you know, people are being demanded to show up differently, both by consumers, by their workforces. And but it's not just because it's the right thing to do, it's good business. And I think that's ultimately, I mean, I hate to be cynical about it. I'm not a cynical person. But I do think that is what it takes for real shifts to happen. And I think it's starting to happen. (MUSIC)

Byers: Well, I wish you and Reese many more successes.

Harden: Thank you so much--

Byers: Thank you for taking the time to do this.

Harden: Thank you.

Byers: Yeah. My guest was Sarah Harden, CEO of Hello Sunshine. Byers Market is a production of NBC News and is produced by Jonaki Mehta of Neon Hum Media. We have production help from Tanner Robbins of Neon Hum and Allison Bailey of NBC News. The show is engineered by Scott Somerville. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of podcasts for NBC News. And I'm Dylan Byers.