Above the Line: Myeshia Mizuno
The showrunner for two Emmy-nominated programs talks about the evolution of her career and her love for Georgia’s production community.
The day I interviewed Myeshia Mizuno, she was in the process of buying a house. “I actually have my home inspection later this afternoon,” she told me as we discussed her relocation to Atlanta. Mizuno is one of the many film and television transplants who are either settling in or purchasing a second residence in Georgia due to the growth of production and job opportunities in the area. “I will always be a Cali girl at heart,” she admits, “but I enjoy it here.”
In her case, Mizuno has constant gigs in Atlanta working as an executive producer on two hit series. Both are arbitration-based court shows. Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court is the one that brought her to Georgia. Since being here, she also helped launch Couples Court with the Cutlers. During our late-November conversation, we discussed the two Emmy-nominated programs, the evolution of her career, and her love of the local industry.
Oz: How did you get started in television production?
MM: I grew up in Los Angeles, Ventura County, and went to Cal State Northridge initially as an engineering major. When I realized I was going to be in study hall for the entire four-year duration, I figured quickly I had to change my major. So, I ended up going speech and communications, and at the time I didn't realize what I was going to do with that, but I enjoyed the courses.
From there, I got a job at a boutique ad agency in Santa Monica called Donat/Wald. I worked my way up from being a part-time kind of office assistant to being their account executive and did everything from print to radio and television commercials. That's where I kind of got the bug and the thought of, ooh, maybe I want to be in TV. I left there and got my first gig at MTV.
Can you explain more about the “bug”?
The excitement of it. Starting off at an ad agency working on commercials, it was the feeling of being on a set, the feeling of so many different elements having to be pulled together to make something happen. There's nothing like that feeling, especially what I do, starting with nothing at the top of a week, with an idea perhaps, and then by the end of the week, you’ve shot it and are cutting and putting it together. There's something about that process that appealed to me and excited me.
What are some of the early jobs you did at MTV and for other shows, and what kind of experience did they provide?
My first foray into television production, I went in as a rights and clearance person, which is very interesting, learning and understanding that everything you see can't necessarily go on television. That was a good education. And I worked on a show called Fanatic, which was a big show for MTV back in the '90s. I did that for a few seasons.
From there, I got my entry into court. I was with Judge Judy's season five, six, and part of seven. She's now in what, season 23? So, it was the early days. That was an education, to say the least. Working with real people and starting to appreciate how to book real people and talk to real people and get people to trust you with their stories just via telephone. I always tell people it's a great skill to be able to get people to divulge and tell their stories and trust you from a cold call. That's kind of where I would say I cut my teeth in learning how to produce.
From there, it's just been a trajectory and you know, that's when you start to learn the freelance hustle, going from gig to gig, show to show, building relationships, which is huge in this business. And I've been very blessed to be in television well over 20 years now.
"That's kind of where I would say I cut my teeth in learning to produce."
Does the job still excite you as it did then?
Everyone isn't blessed to build a career in television. And to be a woman . . . to be an African American woman . . . to have done as much as I have has been a blessing, and I have to remind myself of that at times. But I think the excitement of putting something together and seeing it come alive and then watching it play back for you on television, I still get a kick out of that.
I've been blessed to do everything from talk shows to game shows to reality shows to being involved in scripted programming, and having been a development executive. The ultimate is still the process and the final product being aired on television, because it's all the same in that regard. Seeing that finished product air; not just that it comes to life for you, but it comes alive for the general public; that’s very unique about what I do. Having the opportunity to have done a number of different things has been exciting and a pleasure. And yet there's still a lot more I haven't done that I want to do.
You have primarily worked on unscripted content. Is that your preference?
You know, I've done a lot of daytime, and I think within television you can get kind of pigeon-holed, or you find your niche. Daytime television has been very good to me, from the talk to the game to the court. I’ve built a reputation of being able to do that. And I think a big part of that is because I'm able to work with real people and get them to tell their stories or express themselves, and from that, to be able to make a compelling piece of entertainment. So, it's been my niche, and it's kind of the way I've gone.
But there's a lot more I’d like to do. I’m not opposed to one day going more scripted or primetime or something very different, and I think having the skill set of being able to be a multi-faceted producer, which is what I consider myself, I'm excited about what could happen later on down the line in my career.
What is so appealing about the court show format?
What I like about the format, and why I think people relate to it, is you get an immediate resolution. Generally within your 30-minute court case, you get some sort of resolution, be it a small claims or be it the type of two shows that I do. Paternity Court and Couples Court with the Cutlers has a resolution to a personal issue, to a relationship type issue. People see themselves in these litigants. “I've been in that situation…,” or “I remember some time when somebody ran over my fence….” People can relate very easily.
This is why you've got devotees who are avid court watchers. It's funny for us, we produce so many episodes a year and then if we have an episode repeat, immediately our fans will tell us, "I saw that one already!" or "I already know what happened to that!" They're addicted. With Judge Judy, people tune in for her every day. I have a girlfriend who is an executive in New York in television and she DVRs Judge Judy. There's something about the court format as well as the personality, the judges themselves, that people tune in for.
What makes your shows distinct from the rest?
The difference from a Judge Judy or a Judge Mathis or a People's Court, those deal with small claims issues, generally. We deal with a relationship issue. For Paternity Court, we're dealing with a paternity issue. Couples Court, we're dealing with a relationship issue between a couple. Those stories are so prevalent throughout the world.
Paternity Court is so unique in that it's handled differently than any other show that does paternity. I think we handle it in a very careful manner, because it's set in a courtroom and Lauren [Lake], being who she is, gives such wise words of wisdom, and it's very compassionate and sympathetic and empathetic to the litigant.
Paternity Court is a much more emotional show because you're actually dealing with a result that can and does affect someone's life, their paternity. Having that question answered for someone is pivotal. It's huge. Whether they're a little baby and don't even realize the situation is going on right now or they’re a 30-, 40-, 50-year-old person, which happens all the time, entering our courtroom and saying, "I don't know who my father is," or, "this secret just came out at a family function two years ago that the man I thought was my dad isn't."
Those stories are just so compelling. I tell people all the time, reality is stranger than fiction. Some of the stories that we've heard . . . and we've now shot, in our six years, over 750 episodes . . . you can't make them up, and you can't believe what people go through and the strength of the human spirit of these people. So, we take great care to allow our litigants to tell their story. We know that we're doing them a service by helping them get an answer. Sometimes it goes the way they want. Sometimes it doesn't. But ultimately they leave here with the knowledge that they didn't have beforehand.
"Reality is stranger than fiction."
And what about Couple’s Court?SXLLM
Couples Court with Cutlers is slightly different. It's a relationship show. People are coming because they believe one partner is cheating on the other. The Cutlers are fantastic and there's nothing like them out there. They have been together almost 35 years. They're practicing attorneys together and they're married and they've raised three adult sons. So they really come from a place of love and compassion and wanting people to succeed in their relationships. We just finished season two for Couples Court, and this time we saw so many people coming specifically to hear from The Cutlers: "I want to know what you think." "I want to know how to fix my relationship." "How do we become people like you?"
So Couples Court can be a little lighter at times, a little funnier, as people are expressing their relationships and their intimate issues and problems. But ultimately, I think the majority of our couples leave with a sense of, you know, "I got to express myself. I was heard, and I got some words of wisdom from the Cutlers, whether or not my mate was cheating or isn't cheating. I've gotten some more information that I needed, and I can now make a decision going forward either to stay or to let this relationship go.”
With both of our shows, I feel we do a service for people, and I feel that we honor and respect people where they are and the questions that they're seeking to have answered.
Both of your shows do have a certain sincerity and respect as opposed to the exploitative tabloid tone you might expect.
I think a big part of that is because it's set in a courtroom. There are other shows that have done paternity, and there are other shows that talk about relationships, but they generally, some of them, poke fun, and then it turns into a bit of a circus. The court format garners a respect for the process because it's set in a court and you're in front of people in robes, so we can handle some salacious, outlandish, wild situations, but they're done tastefully and with care and a bit of decorum.
You were promoted to the role of executive producer for Paternity Court with the latest season of Paternity Court after having been executive producer of Couples Court. What does that mean for you?
The job title of being an executive producer on both is a lot of responsibility. Between the two shows, we produce 240 episodes. We have a tight turnaround schedule for both. We're seeing hundreds of people come through our doors. For me, it's working with a production staff, up to about seven different producing teams: social media staff, graphics, post. We do it all here in house.
My objective and a big part of my job is working with my producing team, finding the right stories, laying the stories out. You know, people have a great story, but then how do we make it compelling for a viewer? How do we put that twist and turn in based on what they're telling us, not adding anything to it? How do we come up with a graphic? How do we explain the story? How do we add some movement to the courtroom? So that's a big part of my job is managing this entire staff, helping to develop the stories, day-of-show briefing of our judge on how this show should lay out, giving them a bit of a road map. Their biggest job is to listen and to ask the right questions and to elicit answers that help explain the case.
So day-to-day, I've got a ton of stuff to do. When I'm with Paternity Court, I'm dealing with DNA and dealing with the DNA diagnostics. Couples Court, we use a lot of different experts, from polygraph examiners to an FBI interrogator, working with them in regards to how we lay out the show. So each and every day can be something different. But my biggest job is managing all that we do in order to get quality programming on the screen.
Can you talk more about your experience that has gotten you to this position in your career?
All that I've done has gotten me to this point. I've always managed people, I've always been creative. For instance, I worked with Paul Buccieri, who is now CEO of A&E Entertainment. I go way back with Paul. We did a bunch of different reality shows, competition shows and so forth. Then he went to 20th Television and became president there and I became a development executive with him. One of the biggest things we did was we took Spanish novelas and turned them into English novelas for primetime.
At the same time we launched MyNetworkTV. I was an active part of that as well as overseeing, at the time, the digital component for each of those novelas. We had one called Table for Three, which dealt with cooking and a love triangle, so I would produce cooking segments in conjunction with that online. And then we had Fashion House, which starred Bo Derek, and I would produce fashion segments online to coincide.
It was one of the most exciting experiences I ever had. It was a lot of work. We worked around the clock. I remember we pretty much turned our offices in Culver City into a post house because we were outputting so much. It was short-lived. I think we did six telenovelas, but the experience was phenomenal and it was another opportunity to stretch my muscles in a producing executive-capacity type of way.
Doing things like The Bachelor. I did The Bachelor in Paris, and this was in the beginning when they were reconfiguring the whole Bachelor franchise to where it has become now. At that time, Lisa Levinson, who is now executive vice president of Wilshire Studios, was the driving force of The Bachelor, and learning from her how to produce and talk to people and how to get people to open up was tremendous. One of my longest production days was insane. It was a multitude of hours in Paris going from one location to the next, setting things up. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I learned so much.
I think all of my experiences of creating, of working, of producing, being everything from associate producer to a producer to a segment producer to a supervising producer to a co-EP has brought me to this point to be able to be an executive producer wearing multiple hats during the day for two very successful, multi-Emmy-nominated syndicated television shows.
Why did Paternity Court relocate production to Atlanta? Did you make the move with the show when it came to Georgia?
Initially, Paternity Court was started in Los Angeles for season one. I didn't join the show until season three, and they were already in Atlanta. It came for season two. I know the move initially was for the wonderful incentives that Georgia does provide. Looking for a place that you can actually grow and develop and do other things was the initial attraction, I believe.
What brought you down here?
David Armour and I had known each other. He is the creator of both Paternity Court and Couple's Court. David was already here and was looking for a number two to come in. He had hired people who had worked with me previously at other shows. I had just wrapped a project for NBC/Universal up in Stamford, Connecticut, and I told him sure, yeah, I'll come down. I didn't know that I would love it as much as I do. I thought maybe I'd come down for a season or two. But I've been here now four years and looking to continue. It is my new second home.
What do you love about Atlanta?
I enjoy the seasons without it getting too cold and having to shovel snow like I did back in New York and Connecticut. I enjoy the people and the lifestyle. And I see opportunity in Atlanta. There's a multitude of opportunities to be had for people, especially a woman of color and being in this industry excited about the additional things we can create and produce here.
Have you found there’s greater diversity in the people working in production in Georgia compared to Hollywood?
I would say yes. This is probably the first time I've ever had a production staff that is probably almost 75 percent African American, and I'm very proud of that. My years being in Hollywood and other places, it wasn't odd for me to be either the one or one of three African Americans on a staff on a show. So to be able to have more diversity and to have more people of color on two nationally syndicated television shows is huge.
I'm very proud that something I set out to do is hire people of color, women, everything, you know. My ultimate, when I'm looking to hire somebody, is can they do the job. Are they hungry? Are they ready? Do they want to come in? Do they see this as a life path and a career for themselves? And if they say yes, then that's the type of team player I'm looking for.
This should be something that we are cultivating more and more because there are very talented people here in the city. And now that this is considered the Hollywood of the South, it would make sense to be able to have great people -- crew, producers, lighting, camera, sound, everything -- here in Atlanta.
"My ultimate, when I'm looking to hire somebody, is can they do the job."
What have you seen changed since setting up shop in Atlanta?
Since being here, for me, with Paternity Court almost four years and in the two years I've been with Couples Court, the growth and acceptance of what we do here in Atlanta has been phenomenal. Atlanta is known for movies and a lot of reality television, but what I see as the next chapter are the studio shows. We're a studio-based show. So, like other studio-based shows, be it a talk, be it a court, be it some type of game show, I think that's the next wave that can be happening here. And I know more and more studio shows are coming down here. One of our competitor court shows is now here in Atlanta.
And just the amenities that are here, you know. I've been able to develop a wonderful producing staff. When the show first came, there wasn't a large pool of people who had produced court or talk shows. It's very different than producing a reality show and extremely different from working on a movie set. Initially, we had to bring in a lot of people who knew the format and the genre, but I'm happy to say now that a majority of my staff is living here in Atlanta. They are Atlanta residents.
That's something I'm proud of, that we’re not bringing in everybody anymore. People are here. I'm training up new staff that are Atlanta residents, Georgia residents, and I think that's something big moving forward. It's not just projects coming in with their full staff, their full crew, doing a project here and maybe only hiring a few locals and then leaving. We intend to be here, and we're growing local talent.