Locally Produced Medical TV Show Aims for National Syndication

SET FOR SUCCESS: ‘Ask Dr. Nandi’ has local TV appeal, but its antenna is aimed for national syndication
Dr. Partha Nandi (right) on the set with Michigan native and Biggest Loser Jeremy Britt. // Photographs by Josh Scott

When Dr. Partha Nandi struck up a conversation at a private dinner party, he never dreamed it would lead to a second full-time job. The father of one of the guests was battling pancreatic cancer, and Partha, a metro Detroit-based gastroenterologist, took note. For the next hour, the doctor thoroughly went over the disease, discussing treatment options and insurance issues so the man could better understand the situation his father faced.

Another dinner companion took note, but for very different reasons. This person was an independent television producer from Los Angeles and a guest at the same party thrown by mutual friends.

“[The producer] just said, ‘Partha, have you ever thought of doing TV?’ ” recalls Kali Nandi, Partha’s wife. “ ‘If you could talk like that and have that kind of passion in front of a camera, I think you could have something.’ ”

It was a flattering observation that might have lived and died at the dinner party, as such observations tend to do. But the Nandis took the producer seriously. Right place, right time? It turns out the producer wasn’t just being polite. His production company would go on to invest thousands of dollars in a show concept that, like so many others, has yet to prove its ability to snag a national syndication deal and make a return on the investment. In the meantime, Ask Dr. Nandi has managed to clear at least one major hurdle by securing a weekly time slot on Detroit’s independent television station WADL. The show also airs in several cities in California on Stellar TV, a channel geared toward Spanish-speaking viewers.

“I don’t think anyone ever thought it would get to this point,” Kali says.

Turning dinner conversation into a bona-fide medical talk show over the course of the last year, however, has become a marathon of strange logistics for the couple. Partha and Kali, who are experts in the medical field (Kali is a registered nurse and former sales rep for Johnson & Johnson), knew nothing about the insular world of talk-show production when they began to seriously map out their concept in the summer of 2011. Thirty-second sound bites needed to be treated as scientifically as the medical topics. Guests needed to be “coached” on how to answer questions. There’s usually a major difference, the couple learned, between placing a set prop 2 inches to the right versus 2 inches to the left. “Producing a TV show isn’t exactly brain surgery,” admits Jennifer Granader Sawalha, a veteran television producer who consults for the show from Los Angeles. “But it’s not very easy, either.”

What may have been more complicated was the process of keeping the show in Detroit, and secondarily, meeting the technical demands of producing a show with the kind of sleek quality needed for the national stage. To eliminate that challenge, producers at first lobbied hard to ship production to Hollywood, where there was an entire industry ready and waiting to pump out yet another TV pilot. Going down that road would have guaranteed an easier learning curve for the couple. But Partha and Kali were adamant from the start that the show needed to stay in Detroit.

In that regard, Ask Dr. Nandi, with its goal of airing daily in national syndication, is a first of its kind in Michigan’s ongoing efforts to court a full range of productions aimed at a much larger audience. From the late 1970s to the mid ’90s, there was Kelly & Company, a talk show on WXYZ-TV that had high local ratings, but never aspired to air outside metro Detroit. Numerous feature films and scripted TV shows, such as the now-defunct Detroit 1-8-7, and a new show, Low Winter Sun, which filmed its pilot episode for the AMC cable network in Detroit in early fall, have since become typical recipients of the film incentives program that the Michigan Legislature established in 2008. Talk shows, however, were never included until last January — a stroke of luck that boosted Partha’s and Kali’s efforts to showcase Detroit as a viable place to film. So while the state continues to receive criticism for restructuring the incentives program in 2011 (several productions decided to leave Michigan as a result), the direct refunds that are still available for production expenses ultimately proved strong enough for Ask Dr. Nandi, which is filmed at Detroit Public TV (WTVS) in Wixom, to stay on home turf.

“For us, this was a really great hit, because Ask Dr. Nandi would not have been filmed in Detroit had it not been for these credits,” says Carrie Jones, former director of the Michigan Film Office. “To have a show that ultimately airs every day will be a big deal for Michigan.”

Still, Ask Dr. Nandi remains a grassroots-level production, and it’s an exception in an industry where TV talk shows in particular are rarely produced outside the confines of the country’s bi-coastal entertainment capitals. There’s a reason for that, says producer Granader Sawalha, who just signed on as a producer for the national radio show On Air with Ryan Seacrest and has worked in the past as a producer for Tyra Banks, Dr. Phil, and the Oprah Winfrey Network. “Talk shows are the beasts of TV,” Granader Sawalha explains. “It’s completely unlike scripted TV. You’re dealing with real people, real emotions, and real issues. People back out all the time. There are so many variables that can go wrong.”

Partha and Kali have learned these lessons firsthand, working remotely with Los Angeles-based production designers, art directors, and producers to pull the show off. By early autumn, they had filmed 104 episodes. Partha is tall and every bit the handsome, made-for-TV host. Start a conversation with him, however, and it quickly becomes obvious that he’s more interested in asking questions about other people. That subtle confidence — it’s clearly not all about him — dovetails with what the couple want to do with the show.

Born in Calcutta and brought up in the United States, Partha was a Rhodes scholar and the homecoming king at Ohio State University during his undergraduate years. He chose Wayne State University for medical school and would later become a die-hard Detroit sports fan. The conversation he had with the stranger about pancreatic cancer at the dinner party, Kali says, is typical of Partha’s philosophy — that people shouldn’t be afraid of being accessible, truthful, and empathetic, even with people they don’t know. According to Partha, patients are missing those emotional elements in health care, which is why he always dreamed of making a change in the industry beyond his work in private practice (The couple want to eventually start a medical charity organization). Partha originally thought politics would become that vehicle for communicating his message about medical care in the United States, including his belief that the insurance industry, tangled with red tape, routinely prevents doctors from being able to provide the most appropriate care.

Ask Dr. Nandi is filling this need for now. Although Granader Sawalha has worked with Partha and Kali to create a “sellable” format, the Detroit-based show will stay true to the original vision, the couple says. That means no tabloid-style confrontations, no dramatic “gimmicks,” and no misinformation, elements that Partha says have befallen most talk shows he’s seen with a supposed medical spin.

“The medical community is starving for a real show,” Partha says. “There are still so many inaccuracies in medical shows today. We want to touch on topics that affect everyone, and to inform them about their medical needs without sensationalism.”

Each hourlong episode of Ask Dr. Nandi focuses on a single medical topic — ovarian cancer, traumatic brain injuries, or weight loss, for example — with one expert and one guest who’s willing to talk in-depth about his or her experiences. Guests have included Jeremy Britt, a Michigan native and the most recent winner of NBC’s The Biggest Loser, and Jerry Ball, a former Detroit Lion who suffered numerous head injuries during his NFL career.

Because the show is on a tight budget, though, most of the time-consuming legwork required to find experts and guests, and even write scripts, has fallen to Partha and Kali alone. (A contract writer in California tried writing the first two scripts, but Partha didn’t think it sounded like him and has since written all of them on his own.) By contrast, national talk shows usually have six to eight production teams who might work on a single show for weeks. But during a five-day period in October, Kali spearheaded the filming of 20 shows. The same thing happened in November, a “grueling” schedule, Kali says, during which Partha got about four hours of sleep a night while juggling his full-time job in a private medical practice in Troy. And all this work will remain in Detroit if the team can’t ultimately sell the concept to TV executives, a process that will begin in early January when Partha and Kali start “shopping” the show for a syndication deal.

“I worry that people will just think that we want to be on TV,” says Kali. “But it’s not that fun. It’s not that glamorous.” But is it worthwhile? Yes, say the couple, who are hoping all the work will pay off. Granader Sawalha says there’s a viable, national audience for the format, especially in cable news, where more and more shows are striving to be both entertaining and serious in content.

“People are out here [in California] selling shows on a daily basis,” Granader Sawalha says. “It’s just not that easy to get any show on TV, period. So [Partha’s] already in the cool kids club.”