Emmy Watch: Nonfiction/reality

Already cheap, unscripted productions are being forced to cut costs. How low is too low?

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Producer Sally Ann Salsano has no illusions about why her reality shows have become such a big hit with cable programmers.

Besides delivering dramatic moments and relatable characters, Salsano productions like MTV's "A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila" and Oxygen's upcoming "Dance Your Ass Off" boast big ratings at a small price -- typically only $450,000 to slightly more than $1 million per hour. Scripted programming can cost as much as $5 million per hour.

"I can shoot an entire season for what it costs them to shoot one episode," Salsano says. "You don't pay anyone on reality TV anything. Your talent is free, there are no writers. You just have your producers and that's it."

Still, in the wake of the economic downturn and the corresponding drop in ad sales, networks now are demanding that so-called "cheap reality" be made even more cheaply. As a result, Salsano and other top producers are scrambling to trim fat from budgets that in many cases were already little more than skin and bone.

"Everybody is trying to get more for their buck, whether it be by working people to the bone seven days a week or using shortened production schedules," says John Langley, producer of Fox's long-running "Cops."

While networks are mostly leaving alone the budgets of established shows -- especially such broadcast megahits as Fox's "American Idol" and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars"-- producers say the price nets are willing to pay to renew fledgling successes and buy new shows has dropped off precipitously.

"Good luck trying to sell a show with a budget of more than $1 million," says Dan Cutforth, co-founder of the production company Magical Elves ("Top Chef"). "A couple of years ago, we were producing 'Treasure Hunters' for NBC and the budget was heavily supported by product integration, but the actual cost was around $2 million an episode. You never see budgets like that anymore."

The result, Cutforth says, is a corresponding filter that the Elves apply to their development slate.

"If there's an idea that's too expensive, you just don't bother going forward with it," he says. "It can sit on the back burner until the economy recovers."

For instance, shows that are shot in multiple locations or require a lot of travel are getting more scrutiny. Big-name talent is also being squeezed.

Last month, "America's Next Top Model" producers Tyra Banks and Ken Mok announced that judge Paulina Porizkova was being fired because of recession-related budget constraints.

"We've had to make significant cuts in every area of the production and, unfortunately, Paulina was a casualty of these cuts," the producers said.

On Cutworth's "Top Chef" (Bravo), one of the more expensive elements is having chefs prepare meals for diners in a different location every week. To reduce costs on the upcoming spinoff "Top Chef Masters," Cutforth and partner Jane Lipsitz instead constructed a dining room set. "That was able to take the place of three or four locations," he says.

Salsano says she used to send crews out of town to tape segments with the families of contestants on "A Shot at Love." Now, she brings the families to her.

"First, it's three production days shorter because I don't need a day in between to travel to each location," she says. "And I'm also flying in eight family members as opposed to traveling with a crew of 16."

To increase efficiency, Mike Fleiss, producer of ABC's "The Bachelor" and TV Land's "High School Reunion," has been demanding that his field producers plan shoots more carefully so they don't accumulate too much documentary-style footage.

"Let's say a couple is going to sit and talk about an important issue," Fleiss explains. "You don't need to serve them a seven-course meal and wait for a topic to come up in conversation. You can just say, 'Alright. Sit down. Here's your Diet Cokes. Let's talk about this issue. And ... go!' The benefits are twofold: you save money in production and you save even more money in postproduction, because you're not having to sift through all kinds of useless, meaningless footage."

Conrad Green, executive producer of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," says one of the biggest costs for reality programs is staff, so he tries to be as efficient with their time as possible.

"We only have the orchestra on our show for a certain amount of hours, so we use them all the time they're there," Green says. "If we want to do a shoot that requires makeup, we'll try to finagle it so it's on a studio day when we already have makeup there, rather than having to hire an individual makeup person on a different day."

Producer John Irwin was able to amortize costs by scheduling two of his VH1 shows -- the new "Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew" and the third cycle of "Celebrity Rehab" -- to shoot back-to-back.

"We basically had the same production staff and the same camera and equipment rental," Irwin says. "I think we're able to make better deals with the crew and, obviously, the longer you have the equipment, you get a better break."

Indeed, most elements in the reality production chain are being forced to lower costs, from crew members to equipment rental houses to soundstage facilities. And locations in Los Angeles that once thumbed their noses at unscripted productions are reconsidering after being hit hard by the loss of scripted shows to such incentives-rich states as New York, Michigan and New Mexico.

"Places that we weren't able to go before or weren't interested in having us because they were waiting for the bigger, better deal, are now all of a sudden ready to party," Salsano says. "We shot four shows this year at KTLA and now we're shooting 'Design Star' for HGTV on a stage on the Paramount lot."

Similarly, the collapse of the housing market has made available more opulent mansions favored by romance reality shows like ABC's "The Bachelor" and Salsano's VH1 series "Tool Academy."

"I was starting to feel like I had seen every single mansion in the city up for rent," Salsano says. "Now I'm seeing places I've never seen before in a price bracket where the people who were living there would never think about renting because they wouldn't want riff-raff like us in there."

One show the housing crunch hasn't helped is ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

"Builders who were once willing to provide services at a very low price point or even free just don't have the flexibility to do that anymore," says David Goldberg, chairman of Endemol North America, which produces the show.

"Advertisers that would've spent more generously in the show have not been able to participate that way and companies that would've provided product services are tightening their belts. The fortunate thing is that ABC, who is our partner in the show, understands that," he says.

According to 3Ball Prods. co-founder J.D. Roth (NBC's "Biggest Loser," Spike's "Fourth and Long"), production costs have increased on unscripted shows because the niche is maturing.

"Only a few years ago there weren't that many people who knew how to do this genre," he says.

Now, "you get a dollar on one show, three months later on the next show you want $1.25 or $1.50. You can't keep growing at that rate and still keep these budgets at a reasonable level."

To deal with this problem, Roth has outsourced the picture and sound editorial on some of his shows to New Zealand, where 3Ball's parent Eyeworks has another large production company.

"The biggest factor is just the exchange rate," Roth explains. "The New Zealand dollar to the U.S. dollar is double, and the cost of living is less there, editors get paid less there, so it's a savings. If you're a good storyteller, it doesn't matter where you're from. But not every network we talk to wants to do it. We say, 'Hey, it's up to you. We can bring the budget down X amount per episode.' It's really their call."

With all the cost-cutting going on, budget slashers must be mindful that they don't go too far.

"There definitely comes a point where you're cutting off your nose to spite your face," Green says. "Whether we've reached that point is difficult to tell. The next season will be the first post-economic crash season. It'll be interesting to see if anyone can pull a great show off for not that much."