Emmy Roundtable: Reality

Reality Emmy contenders are telling the stories of our time

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What does it take to escape elimination from the reality television business? The Hollywood Reporter's James Hibberd found out by gathering five A-listers -- Tom Bergeron (host of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars"), Matt Kunitz (Endemol executive producer and creator of ABC's "Wipeout"), Jane Lipsitz (Magical Elves co-founder and producer of Bravo's "Top Chef"), Jeff Probst (host of CBS' "Survivor") and J.D. Roth (3Ball co-founder and producer of NBC's "The Biggest Loser") -- to discuss what makes a compelling show, how to topple the "American Idol" Death Star and the perils of dating a contestant.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why has it been so hard to launch new shows the past few years?

Jeff Probst: I asked (producer Mike) Fleiss what ratio of hits to misses it takes to be considered great. Fleiss said, basically, one out of 10. And I talked to a few execs who all said the same thing: one great hit and you're golden because you could have another one. There's a fear of taking that chance. But all the (successful) shows were crazy. Who would have thought that watching a bunch of idiots ballroom dancing -- (Laughter)

Tom Bergeron: I thought you were going to say a bunch of idiots on an island.

J.D. Roth: Or a bunch of fat idiots.

Probst: Same with "Biggest Loser." If you'd have said 10 years ago there's going to be a show with enormously overweight people and you're going to be crying every hour as people go from 400 pounds to 220. ... All these guys took chances. Like (Fox alternative president Mike) Darnell. Say what you want about Mike, but he's open to taking a chance on an idea.

Roth: He also has more at-bats than almost anybody. And that's what makes him so great. He's like a mad scientist, the smartest mad scientist you've ever met.

Jane Lipsitz: The way people are watching their entertainment is splintering. "Gossip Girl," a large percentage of the audience doesn't even watch it on television. The networks are getting numbers that are cable numbers, so the economics are making it harder to take risks.

Probst: I just did a pilot with CBS, an inspirational show about how to get the most out of your life, told through the eyes of somebody who's been told they're dying. The only reason CBS said yes was that I partnered with Mark (Burnett). The entire time we were doing the show, they were petrified by the idea of this subject matter. We just tested it and it tested extremely well and now everybody's like, "OK, maybe this'll work."

Bergeron: It's so easy to naysay. I remember when I read that you were doing that show. I went, "Oh, that's going to be a tough one to pull off." There are so many (people) lined up to say it's a stupid idea, or it's sick, and you have to be able to walk through that with a concept you believe in.

Probst: Look at "American Idol." It broke its own rule. You have certain rules on your show -- you can't do this, you can do that. On "Survivor," it would be the contestants vote each other out. On "Idol," the No. 1 rule is the audience decides who wins. And what does "Idol" do? They break the rule. They decide: "Unless we decide to save someone." They do it and not only does it work, they get a standing ovation.

J.D. Roth: "Idol" is like the Death Star of television. It approaches over television and just hovers there and we all stand in the darkness trying to hold on.

Bergeron: When they "accidentally" ran over into our results show, you can see our minute-by-minute (ratings) and the moment they go off the air, whoosh!

THR: Simon Cowell recently said that audience erosion is B.S. How long do you think "Idol" dominance can last?

Bergeron: All you need is Luke Skywalker and your Death Star is gone. There's audience fragmentation, and that's only going to increase as other avenues like the Internet gain more prominence. But then there's the inevitable: gravity always wins. Shows always age and atrophy and lose their audience. If that were not true, we'd still be watching "Your Show of Shows."

Matt Kunitz: But meanwhile, Jeff's show is going into, what, its 20th season now? Your show is still getting 20 million viewers. Reality's still strong.

Bergeron: I'm not saying the genre's not strong, but there'll be a point where our numbers aren't what they used to be and we settle into a different plateau, and then it'll finally, ultimately, go away. As a genre, hey, we could've been having this conversation 30 years ago, talking about the invincibility of Westerns. Everything changes.

Probst: And then there's the DVRs. I don't know when "Mad Men" is on, and it's my favorite show. I don't even know what network it's on. It's just on my TiVo.

Kunitz: One of the things that makes reality strong is that, in a sense, we're a little bit DVR-proof because you don't want to go to work and have someone tell you who got kicked off.

Lipsitz: That's also why the networks right now are gravitating toward "live." Our kids don't experience the collective experience that we all grew up with watching television, where you feel like you're watching with the rest of the country. "Live" is the one thing networks can do still that maybe cable can't do, that defines itself with something. That was a trend I felt this year. "Let's do something live."

THR: Fox recently made headlines by ordering the overweight dating show "More to Love" and "Somebody's Gotta Go," where people get laid off. But none of Fox's most popular shows are controversial. Is there an advantage to making those kind of shows?

Roth: They're only controversial once. "Biggest Loser" was very controversial when it came out. I had to defend myself on "Entertainment Tonight" to the Fat Women's Association of America. They hadn't even seen the show yet and they were mad.

Bergeron: You don't want to get chewed out by that organization.

Lipsitz: We have it with "Arranged Marriage," which is a show we're doing right now with CBS. When it was announced, the reaction was crazy. People think it's forced marriage. What people imagine it's going to be is always 10 times worse than the reality.

Probst: There's controversy and then there's controversy that has a chance for legs. When I heard of that show I was instantly intrigued. I thought, "I don't know if I'd ever get tired of seeing another new arranged situation." "Biggest Loser," there's always a new story. When I hear "Getting laid off," I think, "Well, it might be funny once."

Lipsitz: If you back up even the most outrageous concept with a great show that people connect with, then you've got success.

THR: Coming soon there's the entrepreneur contest "Shark Tank," there's a Tony Robbins show, there's "Dating in the Dark," where you go on dates in a completely dark room, and there's a couple car obstacle-course series. Will these shows work?

Bergeron: "Dating in the Dark." Is that on radio?

Kunitz: All these shows are about characters. What it comes down to is, will the audience live vicariously through these people? I've seen the pilot for "Dating in the Dark." It's interesting. They're trying to relate to each other without seeing each other.

Probst: I also want to know who's running the show. Because if I hear J.D.'s doing a show, my first thought is, "That's a guy who seems to always know what the show is and gives the audience what they're expecting to see." I always think about "Survivor" in the hands of another executive producer. It could have been "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!" It could have been a disaster.

THR: What are networks looking for this year?

Roth: The one systemic problem seems to be that things are derivative. It would be great to be able to change the language of reality. There wouldn't be challenges, immunities, eliminations. It's difficult.

Lipsitz: But if you try to do that, in preproduction they'll be like, "But where's the elimination?" And you'll be like, "I thought we weren't doing that." There's that habit of wanting to go back there because that's what works.

THR: How do you make the transition from hosting to host/producer?

Probst: That's an easy one for me. Good hosts in reality are producers. You can't just host a show. Moments happen. You have a reveal on "Biggest Loser," your host, if they're any good, has to be able to turn that into a moment. Bergeron, that's how he's made his living -- taking a tiny little thing and making it into a moment. Not too much, just a little button.

Kunitz: Absolutely. And I've worked with hosts who didn't understand the producing side of it. It's tough.

Roth: There's also robo-hosts. They have an earpiece in their ear, and we tell them what to say. Finding guys who actually know how to do it is hard. Needle in a haystack. I remember the first season of "Survivor," we (Roth and Probst) met for breakfast and he said, "Man, I don't know how long I'm gonna do this." And I remember leaning into the breakfast table and almost grabbing him by the shirt and saying, "If they have to wheel you out in your wheelchair 25 years from now, you stay with it."

Probst: I said a few regrettable things.

THR: Aside from your own show, what should win the reality Emmys this year?

Probst: It's tough to have "Dancing With the Stars" and "American Idol" in the same category as "Project Runway." Completely different. The hosting that Tom and Ryan do is very different from the hosting I do. But what I'm amazed at is that "American Idol" gets zero love. It's the biggest show in the world, it's so well-tuned, those guys and their interactions, the scope of the show. It's phenomenal, but they get nothing.

THR: How much contact do you maintain with contestants?

Probst: (Laughs) In the beginning, I became friends with a few people because there was this sense of family because "Survivor" initially was such a big deal. You were all in it together. Yeah, I definitely became friends with at least one. But for me, I don't know when it really changed -- maybe after dating somebody on the show -- I don't really make friends any more at all.

Kunitz: When I did "Real World," there was a line. That line was important. Ten or 15 years later, I'm now good friends with several of the "Real Worlders."

Lipsitz: The line is very, very important. We have a sit-down with our whole crew, because if a contestant sees that one contestant is getting along better with another -- we definitely had a problem the first season of "Runway" because we have young, male, attractive producers and there were these models, and I'm like,"What part of the line did you guys not understand?"

Bergeron: The panty line.

Kunitz: Especially with "Real World," I've always said that as a producer, my job is 50% producer, 50% psychologist. You want them to trust you, you want them to be able to really pour out their soul to you, but then you also want them to not really cry on your shoulder but to cry on another contestant's shoulder.

Probst: Nobody talks to the contestants other than the producers or me. And no cameramen talk to them; they don't know their names, and we're pretty good about watches and you don't see anything. We're still trying to keep it going. I can see what you said about the line. The minute you let that slide, all of a sudden it's just a disaster.