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October 6, 2015
'Fish Tank Kings' brings new reality to Living Color Aquariums

Photo: Nat Geo Wild

Logo for the reality TV show on Nat Geo Wild.

Film & Entertainment

'Fish Tank Kings' brings new reality to Living Color Aquariums

Mike Vogel | 3/31/2014

A Fort Lauderdale aquarium company tries to parlay global exposure on a reality TV show into new business and new markets. The clock is ticking.

Over the years, Living Color Aquariums won a measure of attention, as Discovery, CNBC and other channels covered its work designing and building large, custom aquariums — costing tens of thousands of dollars — for homeowners, theme parks, museums and others. The Fort Lauderdale company remained small. Annual revenue from the aquarium business stood at under $5 million, and there wasn't much in the way of profit.

Then, three years ago, a call came to Living Color executive Mat Roy from Sharp Entertainment, a New York com-Pany well known in the TV industry for producing reality shows. The call promised something more than a short TV spot: A series — with a potential payoff like that garnered by "Duck Dynasty" or "Orange County Choppers" — focused just on Living Color.

Sharp came to town and produced a 10-minute "sizzle reel" feature on the business that it pitched to cable channels.Nat Geo Wild took the bait, finding the inside look at fish tanks a good match for its brand. For one, the show had a potential audience in anyone who had ever owned a goldfish or toured a Public aquarium. On screen, Roy proved articulate and likeable, with the common man's touch. Sustainability in "unscripted" TV, as it's also called, depends on whether middle America can relate to the reality stars.

Living Color also fit well into a "project-based" reality show format that follows a project from conception, culminating in the all-important "reveal" of the finished product at the episode end. TV production costs would be predictable.

The channel commissioned Sharp — independent production companies usually get 10% of the show budget — to produce six episodes of what came to be called "Fish Tank Kings." Living Color was on its way to being seen across the United States and in 35 countries.

The cast came to include Roy, aquarium production manager Jose Blanco and marketing and business development director Francis Yupangco. Reality shows need well-defined on-camera personas that may or may not correspond precisely with reality. Yupangco, a marine biologist, became "Francis the Fish Geek," for example. On camera, he wore glasses. Off camera, he didn't. (He left the company last year.)

Roy found his own image reshaped by the show's producers. The first season in 2012, the cameras caught him swearing. Not seeing himself as foulmouthed, he subsequently controlled his language. The show preserved his salty edge, however, even bleeping over several comments in later episodes when he didn't swear. "That was a very interesting conversation I had, screaming at our producer the morning after that episode," Roy says.

Roy also had to mesh Living Color's actual work product with the needs Of the video series. "Fish Tank Kings" spends an average of $165,000 per episode and follows only a few of the aquariums that the company is building at a given time. Producers want to maximize their crew's time on site, and Roy had to see to it that the company was working on one of the projects the show was following when a crew was in town.

The crews also never numbered more than a couple of cameras, which meant re-enacting work multiple times to facilitate more camera angles. Time also had to be set aside for on-camera interviews. "I had no idea the demand it would take on a daily basis when they're filming. It can be very, very disruptive.A lot of guys on the show end up working 60-, 70-hour weeks. It's a real struggle. A lot of dynamics. A lot of emotions involved," says Roy, on a tour of Living Color's 43,000-sq.-ft. building in an industrial district in northwest Fort Lauderdale.

A rival show, "Tanked" on Animal Planet, got to the market first, focusing on Las Vegas-based Acrylic Tank Manufacturing, which calls itself the world's largest custom aquarium maker."Tanked" in December finished showing its fifth season and 44th episode.

But "Fish Tank Kings" found its own audience, becoming one of Nat Geo Wild's most watched shows, and drew demographics broadcasters covet.Each episode averages 200,000 viewers on its initial appearance and an average of 186,000 in reruns. "It really does open a window on marine ecology," says Nat Geo executive producer Jenny Apostle.

Nat Geo Wild commissioned a second season that appeared in 2013, and then a third, eight-episode season.

As a dollars-and-cents proposition, "Fish Tank Kings" is straightforward.Nat Geo Wild lives off advertising and subscriber revenue. It has its production costs and doesn't subsidize Living Color.

The only perk for Living Color customers is free airtime, which is important to business customers, and perhaps some free fish for residential customers whose projects appear on the show.Living Color employees who appear as "talent" get a few perks — luggagemaker TravelPro and diver equipment company Mares provided products, for example.

"Talent" also gets paid by "Fish Tank Kings." Roy says it works out to less than minimum wage. (Industry sources say it's likely not more than a couple thousand dollars.) No Living Color employee has become sufficiently famous to earn outside endorsement income.Neither employees nor Living Color reap royalties.

The payoff for Living Color is the exposure. But finding a way to capitalize on that while handling the stress of both the business and the show began to take a toll on Roy. After Roy had a "heart-to-heart" with Living Color owner Dana Parham, Parham hired Michael Feder, a veteran corporate manager, as CEO.

Feder says the show already has increased Living Color's business 20%.He says the first task is to grow its core high-end custom business "as aggressively as we can" with a focus on restaurants, hotels and public aquariums.(Some 90% of Living Color's revenue comes from custom aquariums and 10% from retail sales of synthetic coral and reef, marine salt and other products.)

The ultimate goal with "Fish Tank Kings" and Living Color is "to make the two names interchangeable and to build out the Living Color entertainment brand, all the opportunities around that," Feder says.

Both men know they must seize the moment while ratings are high enough to keep the show — and exposure — going.Feder and Roy want to grow e-commerce of its synthetic corals and other items, and launch more mass-market products, which could mean millions of dollars.

Ironically, many of the hobbyists among "Fish Tank Kings" loyal audience can't afford Living Color aquariums.Living Color is looking at sponsorships, merchandizing, franchising, licensing, branded games and educational market products and otherwise putting "Fish Tank Kings by Living Color Aquariums" on more affordable products, such as a 50-gallon home aquarium sold by retailers or direct from Living Color online."It's limitless," Feder says. He projects revenue growth of at least 50% a year if e-commerce takes off.

"We know that 'Fish Tank Kings' has a shelf life. What we have to do is take advantage of every opportunity with the publicity we get from 'Fish Tank Kings' to exploit Living Color Aquariums as much as possible," says Roy. "I'll be ecstatic if it goes seven seasons, eight seasons.I just think it would be incredible."

Apostle, the executive producer, says Nat Geo Wild is discussing internally whether to have more seasons.

Betting Man

Living Color owner Dana Parham: "Most people go into business and they make money and lose it gambling.I'm the opposite. I make money gambling then I lose it" on business.

Dana Parham wants to show off something and heads for a closed door in the Cypress Creek Road building he purchased not long ago for his headquarters.Behind the door lies a room with a fully stocked bar, table tennis and billiard tables, a pinball machine, other games and a 10-cent soda machine."And I provide the dimes," he says. It will be a good place for employees to gather, he says.

An Ohio native who came to Broward in 1977, Parham leads an enterprise that uses computers to help decide which horses to wager $300 million a year on. "In the United States, I am the biggest — bar none," he says of computerassisted wagering, before quickly correcting himself. "I shouldn't say that. There is another guy out there who's close."

Parham can rattle off the track handles at Churchill Downs compared to those in Hong Kong. He can offer a detailed critique of what ails pari-mutuels.A career gambler, he also can tell you which casinos show you the door, and not very nicely, when they see you'll take their money at blackjack. Parham talks of the "unbelievably good math" behind gambling and is that rare individual who can say, with credibility, of gambling that "you can't help but make money."

He once told a horse industry publication, "Most people go into business and they make money and lose it gambling. I'm the opposite. I make money gambling then I lose it" on business.

The reason he invests in businesses, he says, is that while "money won is twice as sweet as money earned," the excitement and aura wear off. He wanted the satisfaction of employing people and offering good products and services. His stable of interests includes stocks and real estate holdings but also a cabinetry maker and pet-related enterprises — three south Florida retail stores, fish quarantine and sales, aquarium maintenance and the star of Nat Geo Wild's "Fish Tank Kings" Living Color Aquariums. "Making aquariums — it just kind of feels good and is good," says Parham, 63.

Parham at first was a minority owner of Living Color and became sole owner in March 2001. "If I knew what I knew six months later, it never would have happened," he says, talking at length about the financial mess he found. He brought back Mat Roy, who had left, to run the company. Roy became the face of Living Color; Parham is its bankroll. Parham says he has pumped $20 million into the enterprise. His first return came only last year, just $25,000, though more is projected this year. "Living Color is self sustaining but it doesn't throw off any free cash flow," Parham says. "I'm very proud of all the men and women there and the great work they do and continue to do. We're Florida. We're good. We're good people to do business with."

Tags: Media & Marketing, Travel & Tourism

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