It was the place where things were fixed, tasks were completed, and a bond was built between father and son. If a bike chain needed to be replaced, it happened here. A broken hockey stick? Same spot.
Tom Farrell and his siblings could always rely on their father—and the workshop. “Every project was special, and we knew my dad was going to get it done,” he says.
So when it came time for Farrell to name his production company, there was only one that fit. It’s a nod to his father, Frank, and “to the hard work needed to be successful.” When he founded the Workshop in Bryn Mawr, Farrell had no projects on the books—only a dream of owning his own business. More than 10 years later, he and his full-time crew of 10 and several part-timers—now based in Radnor—have seen success with a variety of TV shows airing on networks and streaming services. “‘Authentic’ is the one word I like to use all the time,” says Farrell of his work. “I like to stay true to … stories that make a difference in people’s lives. That may not be some people’s favorite programming, but I love doing that.”
By the time Farrell started the Workshop with Steve Rotfeld (who’s since formed his own production company), he’d spent eight years at the Philadelphia-based Banyan Productions, which created Trading Spaces, the TLC show that introduced the country to Ty Pennington. A Villanova University graduate, Farrell had begun his career in the sports department at 6abc as a producer working with legendary sportscaster Gary Papa, who died of cancer in 2009. “He was an awesome dude,” Farrell says. “He taught me so much about this business.”
It was Papa who told Farrell to “make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, because that’s what they’re going to remember.” He applies that adage to his work today, and it’s evident in projects like 2019’s Basketball or Nothing, which documented the exploits of a high school basketball team on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. To get this one rolling, Matt Howley, a director at the Workshop, had to convince the tribal elders that it wasn’t an attempt to exploit the Navajo people’s struggles. “In the past, when white people came to the reservation, they’d come to report some bad things and then leave,” says the former Comcast SportsNet producer. “We told them we wanted to stay for the whole season and show the players’ and community’s resiliency.”
The Chinle High School team didn’t win the state title, losing in the semifinals. Nonetheless, four million people viewed the show—and it shows how players can thrive on the court despite daunting personal obstacles like poverty and splintered families. Basketball or Nothing culminates in senior guard Josiah Tsoie receiving the Obama Scholarship to Arizona State University. The full-ride grant began coming his way after Howley wound up sitting on a plane next to ASU’s president. “It was definitely a life-changing experience,” says Howley of the project.
Then there’s the 2008 story behind The Haney Project. Farrell was having drinks with Charles Barkley and long-time Philadelphia sportscaster Neil Hartman in 2008 when the former NBA star’s cell phone rang. It was Tiger Woods, who wanted to know if Barkley might be interested in working with his coach to tweak his unique golf swing. Farrell saw an opportunity. “I asked Charles, ‘Would you be OK if we do a show about that?’” recalls Farrell, who’s been friends with Barkley since his 6abc days.
Barkley agreed, so Farrell called Tom Stathakes, former Comcast SportsNet executive producer and the main man at the Golf Channel. Suddenly, a fledgling production outlet had The Haney Project, which followed Hank Haney as he tried to fix the swings of Barkley and others, including Ray Romano, Rush Limbaugh, Adam Levine and Michael Phelps.
“[Barkley] launched our company,” says Farrell. “We had a national show on our hands. It became the highest-rated Golf Channel show that wasn’t a tournament.” Barkley’s work with Farrell encouraged the NBA Hall of Famer to start his own company, Round Mound Media, which produced last year’s American Race, a TNT series that addressed race issues in this country. “Tom inspired me,” says Barkley. “He made me want to start my own company. I saw how hard he worked, and I learned what I could put on a canvas.”
As The Haney Project was rolling along, the Workshop produced Donald Trump’s Fabulous World of Golf, which aired on the Golf Channel in 2010 and 2011. It featured celebrities and athletes playing rounds on Trump properties around the world. “It was a circus every time we were with [Trump],” says Farrell.
The Workshop has produced other golf content, along with series like Modern Stone Age Family, which follows professor, archeologist and chef Bill Schindler around the world as he looks for nutritional solutions to disease and illness. True North: The Sean Swarner Story tracks a two-time cancer survivor’s quest to summit the tallest peaks on the seven continents and reach the North Pole.
Currently, the Workshop is finalizing plans for a network “for the deaf, by the deaf.” It will feature programming entirely in sign language (with subtitles). Farrell is also producing a documentary on Father Bill Atkinson, the renowned Augustinian. Paralyzed from the neck down while studying for the priesthood, Atkinson has led a life so remarkable that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is supporting his canonization. It’s the perfect story for a Monsignor Bonner High School alum looking to stay close to his roots. “It was a conscious decision my wife (Denise) and I made,” says Farrell. “We could’ve headed to Hollywood, but we’re Delco people—and we love it here.”