Emmy Watch: Reality roundtable
"Hell's Kitchen's" Arthur Smith, "Project Runway's" Jane Lipsitz and more talk reality
This year, the WGA strike removed any doubt about reality programming's durability: The genre outwitted and outlasted scripted shows to become the biggest survivor for belt-tightening networks.
The most effective counter-programming against blocks of Fox's "American Idol" were blocks of NBC's "The Biggest Loser."
With the strike over, new questions emerge, so The Hollywood Reporter's James Hibberd went to the source for answers: Howard Owens, whose "American Gladiators" and "Loser" took off for NBC during the strike; Arthur Smith, whose "Hell's Kitchen" for Fox received a post-"Idol" slot and broke its own viewership records; Jane Lipsitz, whose Bravo hit "Project Runway" got caught in an ongoing tug-of-war between NBC Universal and the Weinstein Co.; Mark Cronin, whose unique brand of docu-comic reality shows like "Rock of Love" and "I Love New York" dominate VH1 year-round; and Nick Emerson, whose "Supernanny" has been a ratings workhorse for ABC. Time to get real.
The Hollywood Reporter: What's been the impact of the strike?
Howard Owens: It's been good for business. But part of the strike is studios wanting to do things differently and not keep raising the ante. That's difficult.
Jane Lipsitz: Ultimately, I think the strike isn't good for anybody. I stopped going to television to see if anything new was going on. And if I'm doing that, I can't imagine what viewers at home are doing. And if you're promoting a reality show out of a big scripted hit, you want that show to have as many viewers as possible.
Arthur Smith: People fall out of a pattern.
Mark Cronin: People should stop going outside and playing and interacting and should sit home and watch TV. (Laughter.) I used some striking writers to break episodes for us. It was awesome. (Laughter.)
THR: Increasingly, new reality shows are either pretested overseas formats, presold brands like "Gladiators" or have a celebrity component attached. Is it getting tougher to sell something that doesn't already have a built-in guarantee?
Owens: Every network passed on "Gladiators," so its not like you go in there with a presold notion that it automatically works. People continue to buy out of fear.
Smith: Buyers are all looking for the edge or the guarantee. And the guarantee comes down to yes, it worked in another country, yes, there's a celebrity attached. There are a few buyers who will take a chance on a new concept, but it's hard to sell.
Nick Emerson: There's a seismic difference between just going in with a tape (as opposed to) statistics for a show that's already aired someplace else.
Smith: Sometimes you're better off selling the show to Belgium instead of here, because networks are so used to seeing tape.
THR: There have a been several stories this year that looked at how real a reality show is. Such stories always divide readers between two camps -- the "Of course reality isn't real" camp and the "Oh my God, I've lost my faith in the show" camp.
Emerson: The way we make shows has been scrutinized much more. My prediction is we're going to go through a public autopsy over the next couple of years about the way we make our shows. It's happened in the U.K.
Cronin: Oh dear. (Laughter.)
Emerson: Because the public is really clever about television now. We've got to be journalistically strong, and we've got to be creative as well.
Smith: It depends on the show. My daughter watches (MTV's) "The Hills" and accepts it for what it is. Then there are other shows -- we do "Kitchen Nightmares" (for Fox) and what happens, happens. (Audiences will) accept a more scripted reality for certain shows, but not others.
THR: Should the term "reality" be retired altogether? Especially since it sets the expectation of it being strictly "real"?
Smith: I've learned to almost hate the word "reality" because they lump everything in there. "American Idol" is not a reality show, it's a variety show. (Fox's) "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" is not a reality show, it's a game show.
Owens: It sounds sexier than "factual entertainment."
Lipsitz: For me, it's the umbrella term, but there should be acknowledgment of all the subgenres.
Cronin: The future is clearly moving toward event entertainment, especially in broadcast and places that are ad-supported. If you're not something everybody has to talk about the next day, there's no reason not to time-shift it. So the pressure is to become event television.
Owens: Or apply cost constraints to scripted shows -- produce comedies for $900,000. Shoot them like you shoot "The Hills." Have a script for $50,000 and figure it out. Arthur Smith, Mark Burnett and Reveille would argue we could shoot an hour of drama and apply great reality/docu-style techniques and not lose anything. (CBS soap) "Guiding Light" shifted from old-school production values to using "Hills"-style production values, with handheld cameras and function lighting, and they didn't lose a viewer.
THR: So if networks really want big-event scripted programming, should they be looking to reality producers?
Lipsitz: What we all need is good television, and I would hardly discount the plethora of talented comedy and drama writers. We all need each other or otherwise there's a glut in the market of too much reality. We are doing scripted programming, too. There was a real barricade to reality producers crossing over into scripted, and that's going away.
THR: Two shows that generated controversy this season were CBS' "Kid Nation" and Fox's "Moment of Truth." One wasn't renewed; the other was the highest-rated new show. Are there any lessons here in terms of what types of controversy works?
Cronin: The show needs to be life-changing for its participants. In the case of "Moment of Truth," it's life changing in maybe a negative way. But that show is popular because people's lives are on the line.
Emerson: There has to be jeopardy. There has to be a believable transformation, whether it's a weight-loss show, cooking show or game show -- it doesn't make any difference.
Smith: If you put in a challenge that doesn't make sense, or that isn't keeping with what the show is searching for, it smells bad. The audience wants everything to have a purpose.
Owens: A kid wins a bucket of gold or $20,000 at the end of the week, and for what? "Kid Nation" got press for all the wrong reasons. "Moment of Truth" got attention because it was a clever idea: to have people confess their lives.
THR: What's your take on "Idol" dropping off a bit in the ratings. Is it the show or the marketplace?
Smith: I'll take that problem.
Cronin: I'll take the amount they're down.
Owens: The big hits are aging. "Idol" is no different than the other huge reality hits, but it's such a phenomenon it's shocking from a numbers perspective that it's down at all.
Smith: Cable budgets are going up, network budgets are going down. Ratings expectations on cable are going up, and networks will be happy when (ratings are) flat. Everything is kind of bleeding together right now.
Lipsitz: But cable viewers are more attached to the brand of the network itself.
THR: If there is a brand affinity with cable networks, how will "Runway" fare going to Lifetime?
Lipsitz: "Project Runway" is a huge brand in and of itself, and I'm sure it will work on Lifetime.
Owens: I'm surprised shows don't switch networks more often. When it's so hard to launch a show, when someone does 10 episodes or two seasons and fades, I'm surprised more networks aren't taking advantage of the inbred marketing of a $500,000 or million-dollar launch.
Cronin: It's a gutsy move to pick up a canceled show. When you run for cover, you want to know it worked overseas. It's like, "Here's a show that was canceled -- you want to pay a lot for it?"
Emerson: You can take something from a network version to a cable version and not change it that much now.
Owens: Pilots now feel like if it's not incredible, they decide not to make it. But for us it's more trial and error. You learn so much by producing a pilot that even if you only get it 50% right --
Smith: Every show we've had go into a second season has become so much better.
THR: Is there any reality format that's hot right now or completely dead?
Lipsitz: It's all cyclical and always is.
Owens: Quiz shows to me feel like they're played. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is such a hard way to beat a trivia show. Everything seems to pale in comparison. "5th Grader" is cool, but it's not "Millionaire."
Emerson: There's some pretty ambitious, very physical kind of game shows.
Cronin: Somebody blew out a knee on the first episode of "Gladiators," and I was like, "Wow."
Owens: Those are real injuries. We pushed that to the front of the show. It's a real physical competition. We also give the people great medical attention.
Lipsitz: We did "Step It Up and Dance" for Bravo and took four trips to the hospital.
Emerson: On "Fat March" (for ABC), everybody was in the hospital at one point.
Smith: "Hell's Kitchen" -- we burn, we cut, we have ambulances.
THR: There's also an emotional toll for contestants that goes with being on a reality show, yet you need to have that emotion on display. Have you ever pulled a punch where something happens that would make for great TV, but because of how the person will feel about it, you didn't show it?
Cronin: I think we've all been there.
Smith: Every show.
Owens: You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror.
Emerson: We have kids and families on "Supernanny" and have to be responsible. We've had parents put soap in the mouths of their kids -- we have to make a decision. But it's important not to flinch, either. The audience wants to see real stuff.
Cronin: There's almost no excuse now for not knowing what a reality show is. Sometimes these people are seeking fame trading on their personal attributes. They wear their emotions on their sleeves or we wouldn't cast them. We want people who are outwardly verbal about how they feel. Anybody who is a private person shouldn't really come out. It's just things like illegal behavior, or self destructive.
Lipsitz: We always say, "Don't do anything on television you wouldn't want to see on television."
THR: There's a new Emmy category this year -- outstanding host. Who deserves it?
(Chorus of responses as each producer names hosts on their own shows.)
THR: OK, not on your shows.
Owens: Ryan Seacrest is the best presenter in the world. He's so a part of the integral success of 35 million people watching "Idol." He's the gold standard of presenters.
THR: CBS' "The Amazing Race" has won the competition series Emmy every year its been awarded. Is there another show that should be taking it home?
Owens: "The Amazing Race" is a great format; it keeps working and (execproducer/co-creator) Bertram Van Munster should be commended. It does feel like Emmy viewers only watch one show, because it's surprising there's not more variety.
Lipsitz: We've lost to them three years in a row. At least in the reality categories we've made strides because they're actually saying our names.
Cronin: Reality is such an important part of television now, it should be robustly represented in the categories.
THR: What's the next category the academy should add? Best docu-soap?
Owens: Definitely. And they shouldn't put live vs. studio vs. game show.
Smith: "American Idol" should not be in the same category as "Amazing Race." They're completely different genres.
THR: So what's the silliest idea you'll admit to pitching?
Lipsitz: We had a show, which we turned into a feature documentary, on air-guitar competition. We actually went in to pitch it to (NBC Universal executive) Jeff Gaspin and he was all, "Oh yeah, I can see that right after 'The West Wing.'"
Emerson: We made a show about spontaneous human combustion fronted by Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden.
Owens: I really wanted to do "Phat Dogs." It's about weight loss for people and their dogs. I believe that people who have really fit dogs are chasing Frisbees and people whose dogs are lethargic generally stay on the couch too much. I thought it was funny, but nobody else at my company did.
THR: Mark, "The Surreal Life" begat "Strange Love," which then begat "Flavor of Love," which then begat "I Love New York," which then begat "New York Goes to Hollywood." How many spinoffs can you do before it all seems repetitive?
Cronin: In some instances we're doing the same show and just giving it a different name. But it's the same audience profile, the same time slot in a lot of instances. So we've just tumbled the same audience through these different titles.
Emmy voters now get to chose the reality host with the most
By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh and Randee Dawn
Jeff Probst, host of cbs' "survivor," says that for the last five years, his Emmy night experience has been a study in deja vu.
"Here's how it goes. ("American Idol's") Ryan (Seacrest), Simon (Cowell), Paula (Abdul) and Randy (Jackson) sit behind me. Then to my left is Phil (Keoghan, host of CBS's "The Amazing Race"). Our category gets announced, we all stand up and shake Phil's hand, and then we leave. I've gotten so used to going to the Emmys and standing up to let Phil go by me, it's ridiculous."
But this year, Probst may have the opportunity to walk past his nemesis. That's because for the first time, the Emmy Awards now include an outstanding host category for reality or reality-competition programs. (For the record, while Seacrest is eligible, Cowell, Abdul and Jackson are not -- nor are any judges.) Here's a quick trip behind the mike to see who might have the juice to take away the inaugural award:
As a pioneer in the genre, Probst is genial and supportive without being wincingly saccharine -- but the bloom could be off the gardenia after 16 seasons.
"American Idol" (Fox)
It's hard to swing an open microphone without hitting Seacrest at any one of his dozens of jobs, but his ubiquity -- and "Idol's" softening ratings this season -- could play against him.
"America's Next Top Model" (The CW)
It's all about one person on "Model" -- and it ain't the winner. In a sense, Banks is both host and subject of her own program, which could boost her with voters or sink her completely.
"The Amazing Race" (CBS)
One of the few reality show hosts you'd trust to watch your kids, Keoghan is stolid and warm on Emmy's favorite unscripted show, but something of a cipher to those who don't watch it regularly.
"Project Runway" (Bravo)
Klum's insider knowledge of fashion never trumps her personality. She's not an ideal guide to her contestants (maybe she should share a nomination with Tim Gunn?), but she presides with grace and beauty.
"Dog Whisperer With Cesar Milan" (National Geographic Channel)
Another insider, Milan is top dog in his category, but may suffer from not enough pet owners in the TV academy and a somewhat obscure cable network.