Parts Unknown takes an honest and holistic look at the world and at travel, considering the impact politics, history, and location have on a destination. It takes strong personality, vision, and team work to pull off the feat in today's media environment and ZPZ continues to raise the standards of production, travel focused or not.
Zero Point Zero produces Anthony Bourdain’s Emmy-nominated series Parts Unknown, one of the most successful travel shows on U.S. television. But ask the co-founder and managing director and they’ll say ZPZ doesn’t create travel content.
ZPZ founders and Executive Producers Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins have worked with Anthony Bourdain since his first show, A Cook’s Tour, aired on the Food Network. Partner and Managing Director Joe Caterini joined the group in 2009. Last year the team took the leap from the Travel Channel to CNN to launch the new series.
In addition to work with Bourdain, ZPZ has shows on the Sportsman Channel, The Weather Channel, Speed, the Travel Channel, Food Network, and PBS. On September 25, The Getaway premieres on the new Esquire Network. Anthony Bourdain comes on as executive producer for the show, which is similar to his Layover program but with celebs like Aisha Tyler, Joel McHale, and Aziz Ansari in his place.
The second season of Parts Unknown airs Sunday, September 15. And after closely following the first season, we were excited for the chance to sit down with Lydia, Joe, and Director of Digital Content Helen Cho earlier this summer.
We talked about the the vision and strategies behind Parts Unknown, the show’s impact on the travel industry, the production company’s internal travel agency, and a hint of what to expect from ZPZ in the future.
Skift: How does ZPZ and Anthony Bourdain turn a traditionally “soft” topic like travel into something that’s more in-depth and challenging?
Lydia Tenaglia: The food is the entry point into the journey. We often have meals with people at tables but that’s not the point. I think that from the very early days of Cook’s Tour to present day we went from just a meal — which I think we shot gorgeously and beautifully and mouthwateringly — to quickly move off that plate to use a bad pun, into a broader thing.
We’re having a meal in the middle of a field in Cambodia with a rice farmer who’s making us this incredible Cambodian spread with all these dishes. But he’s missing a leg, and he has a family, and he’s in the middle of a Southeast Asian country that the United States X number of years ago bombed to smithereens. And it becomes a launching point. And then you start to unfold the real story in the situation. I think that’s how you take a soft subject like that and give it an edge.
Joe Caterini: I think the soft subjects are attractive because they’re sort of Trojan horses. You can get in and talk about the Congo or Libya more easily because there’s some idea that you’re also telling a food and travel story. I think if you go right out like “I’m a hard-trudging reporter” that immediately sets people off in a certain way.
I think we’ve felt, hopefully, that we’ve tricked a lot of people into watching. We get people to watch MeatEater because the food angle fascinates them. [Steve Rinella] does really great cooking, including on the side of a mountain. He’ll pull stuff together and cook right there after killing and butchering an animal. But those subject matters let you talk to people in a different way. It’s almost like their guard is down.
Skift: There is something really artistic and beautiful in Parts Unknown that we don’t see in other places on TV. The camera will stop during a scene, slow down the speed, and focus on a certain object. How did that style evolve or where does it come from?
Lydia Tenaglia: It came with more expensive camera equipment. (Laughs) I think there’s always been a push to evolve, certainly in Tony’s show and any of the other series we’re working on, to up the ante and make it look gorgeous with amazing production value. Again, we always push to take it out of the realm of just a basic travelogue into a sort of artistic endeavor, to really be able to portray these things and food and people and places in a way that’s not just informational, but evocative. And gives you a sense of the real ambience in the place. So, no joke, we did get these new cameras that allowed us to shoot this incredible sort of slow-mo photography and watch something get ladled out in slow-mo speed. I think it just enhances the whole experience.
Helen Cho: I think a lot of it also comes from the production team’s taste. I think Tony would be the first one to say that he shamelessly rips off a lot of his favorite films. So I think a lot of us will watch these films and look to that style depending on location and depending on the look we’re trying to achieve use that as a reference to decide on what type of gear we need.
Editor’s Note: An example of this filming style is found at the :52 second mark on the above clip from the Congo episode in season one of Parts Unknown.
Joe Caterini: Lydia was mentioning it not always about being informational but being more evocative, and I think that’s across the board what we do. It’s something that’s different from a lot of travel content out there. So much is focused on “We gotta get the information out.” We’re not trying to simply accomplish an information objective, what we’re trying to tell people is what we’re experiencing and have them feel that at home.
You have to be willing to leave information out, which is scary for people when they think of travel.
Skift: Coming into season two of Parts Unknown, what will change in the evolution of the series? Is there anything that you learned that you want to do differently moving forward?
Lydia Tenaglia: I think what was interesting to see was that CNN was strongly behind and supportive of shows like Congo, Libya, Tangier. While all eight episodes aren’t necessarily going to be those hard-hitting challenging locations, it’s really refreshing and encouraging to be working with a partner that is embracing those kinds of episodes. So I think we’ll continue to do more of that. A healthy mix of these kind of fun, maybe film-driven, story-driven concepts and then some more of these more challenging locations.
Skift: How do you feel Parts Unknown fits into the travel industry?
Helen Cho: In the Los Angeles episode, Myung in Dumplings was completely empty before the show. After it aired we got reports that there were lines and it was sold out of all the dumplings, because as soon as the show aired, everyone wanted to go there. In a way, I would definitely consider ourselves part of the travel industry.
Lydia Tenaglia: I think people are living viscerally, vicariously through the show.
Helen Cho: I think the cool thing is that it’s not just them. Within the company, there’s only a few people that travel with Tony. I watched [the L.A. episode] and had it basically as my guidebook in Los Angeles.
Editor’s Note: This is not the dumpling shop that Helen refers to, but another restaurant featured in the Los Angeles episode in season one.
Joe Caterini: When I was saying we’re in the travel industry, it’s not because we make content related to it, but because of a lot of what we have to do operationally. It’s a lot of the nuts and bolts of traveling. We’re constantly scheduling people’s departures, arrivals, visas, booking hotels, canceling hotels, booking airlines, dealing with on-fly changes. Almost how a travel agency would have to do and then research ahead of time. We truly are integrated with the travel industry whether we want to or not.
Skift: Have destinations reached out to ZPZ asking Anthony Bourdain to visit?
Lydia Tenaglia: Yes, on a daily basis. Official tourism boards will try to lure you to come. I think people know that it does make a difference and I think more people are becoming aware of that. We’re often not allowed to based on”pay for play” or something like that.
There have been shows that have been made by tourism boards and they look like bad travelogues. It’s driven by their agenda. We couldn’t do that for the show. The invitations that have been accepted have really been more about access.
“Can you please come to Qatar because there’s a guy here who has inside access to a secret compound that you’d never be able to film otherwise?” That’s the kind of invitation that makes you perk up more so than “Come to Puerto Rico!” from the tourism board because they want you cover all the usual tropes.
Joe Caterini: I think in the end these shows come on and absolutely drive people to want to go visit any place, even when people see it might be slightly challenging. Because there’s always a positive as well. I think it just feels more honest and realistic.
Skift: As a company, are you very focused on doing more travel shows?
Lydia Tenaglia: I don’t even know if we necessarily look at projects with that perspective. I think it always comes with a fantastic character. I think a lot of people certainly come to us because we’ve been doing travel food shows. We get pitched all the time.
I think our criteria first and foremost is always: Does that character have something to say? Are they interesting to follow? Are they charismatic enough to carry a travel show or a food show from their point of view? That has to be the criteria.
It’s what made the show last this long: Tony had a POV, he had a perspective, and we were interested in following the world through his eyes. And I think if you just do a travel show for the sake of a travel show and you don’t have a strong perspective to anchor it in then it just becomes a travelogue.
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Photo credit: From left, Anthony Bourdain on "Parts Unknown," Aisha Tyler and Joel McHale on "The Getaway, and Steven Rinella on "The MeatEater." ZPZ Productions