As its third season began unfolding last weekend, Fox Reality's "The Academy" changed focus from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Academy to the Orange County Fire Academy with even more action as a team of 28 newbies go through intense training that will see some succeed and some fail. Like many reality shows, the show is only as good as the variety of compelling and entertaining personalities that populate each episode and this season of the series is filled with a wide array of people for viewers to become attached to. In order to find out more about what goes into producing the series, why these guys would want to risk their lives on a daily basis and what will happen to the franchise when Fox Reality closes its doors in 2010, our Jim Halterman rang up Executive Producer Scott Sternberg for some answers.
Jim Halterman: Why the change to the fire academy in the third season?
Scott Sternberg: We did two seasons with the LASD [Los Angeles Sheriff's Department] and we got together with Fox Reality, our network, and said 'Should we go back to the LASD?' The drill instructors really became our stars in a lot of different ways. Deputy Miley - who is now Sgt Miley - Deputy Sherrod, Sgt. Lopez... and what happened after that particular class is that they were all reassigned and we thought as much as we would love to be in the sheriff's department... and Miley and Sherrod were not coming back for the next round... so we all got together and said should we try for a different feeling. Everyone said 'What do you have?' and we said 'we have a couple of fire agencies that are very interested in doing this with us and they're really good academies." We then went to visit the Orange County area and they have a phenomenal facility. It's like 'Backdraft' at Universal City. We said 'What do you think?' to Fox Reality and they said 'Let's do it! Keep 'The Academy' franchise and we'll just move it to a Fire Academy.' We liked that, too, because now we have fresh, new different stories and a different set of training wheels. We did the same thing � an 18-week program just to watch these men become fire fighters.
JH: Before you decided that Orange County was 'The Academy' for this season, did you have to make sure you had some good personalities between the instructors and what they call 'The Cadre?'
SS: Yes, we definitely look at those personalities and I think we learned that through our drill instructors on the Sheriff's department. We saw a couple of agencies but we really loved what we saw in Orange County and we chose them because the personalities were good.
JH: There's such a sense of family that seems develop in the past seasons of the show. Did you see that develop in the new season, too?
SS: Absolutely. I think what's so fun about the storytelling is that the recruits become family and support one another and The Cadre becomes a mini family trying to get these guys through so they can graduate. It's almost like two camaraderies.
JH: How much during the 18-week training are you actually shooting the action at the OCFA?
SS: A lot! We shoot five days a week for the full eighteen weeks and then on the weekends we would go home with the recruits that would allow us to follow them; not all of them did but it was an option that some of them did and that worked out pretty well. Once in awhile in the evening we might go on a ride-along or something else that might come up. I don't know how many hours we shot but it's probably thousands of hours.
JH: All the guys in the new season come from different walks of life and seem to have a variety of reasons to be there so why do they work so hard for a life-threatening job? Is there a common thread that you've seen?
SS: I think it's because it's a career choice and it's something they know if they can get through that it's something that they'll do for the rest of their life. They're well protected and they are paid a pension and it's one of these life-long careers that gets in your blood. You may want a little bit of action whether it's a gun or fire hose but you're protecting people and protecting homes, buildings and lives.
JH: There is a little personal side we see in the premiere episode but will we see more of the guys outside of the academy?
SS: Yes, you'll be seeing that more and you'll see the trials and tribulations that they go through and all of them don't make it through. It's like the sheriff's department with 10-15% not graduating. It's really a challenge to get through the academy and they had to go through the test, physical and mental, even before they were accepted in the academy.
JH: As intense as everything is in "The Academy," are there also some light moments coming to balance out the drama?
SS: Yes, there are some fun things that happen during the training, absolutely, but the action is really in the buildings and the ladders and the fires and how they actually earn their stripes, so to speak. They'll take away those uniforms as quickly as they gave them to them if they don't do the right thing. And then they have to support one another. It's kind of like the boy scouts; you have to stand up for your fellow scout. It's all about teamwork and when you're in the line of fire, no pun intended, you better be watching out for your fellow firefighters as much as you're trying to save lives.
JH: Do you and your fellow producers and crew get attached to the people in the show since you're spending so much time with them?
SS: Yeah, we get to know them and they become our family, too, and that's hard. We can't really say anything as they go through their training. We watch them as you're watching them now and they can't do anything again. There's no recreating. We can't go back to say 'Can you hook the ladder again?' That is not allowed so we're getting stuff as it's happening.
JH: The show has a strong testosterone feel to it but do women get into the show?
SS: Actually, more women, according to Fox Reality Channel, are watching these shows. When we brought up the firefighter idea there was a big fan cheer that came up from the female crowd because they are firefighters [this season].
JH: And with the changes coming up next year with the Fox Reality Channel, what does the future hold for "The Academy?"
SS: Well, that's a good question and we have discussed that. As FRC now becomes the National Geographic Wild in April, as far as we're concerned, we'd like to try to find a new home for "The Academy." I think we've proven with the last two seasons and this season that we have a real nice franchise. We hope that someone else will pick it up.
"The Academy" airs Saturdays at 9:00/8:00c on the Fox Reality Channel.