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This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When six top reality hosts and producers gathered this spring to talk shop, it was inevitable that the conversation would touch on the genre’s biggest stories of the year. From an upcoming series featuring transgender icon (and reality TV vet) Caitlyn Jenner to the ugly molestation charges that rocked TLC’s controversial Duggar family, nothing was off-limits among these superstars and masterminds of the unscripted genre: Mark Burnett, 54 (NBC’s The Voice, CBS’ Survivor, ABC’s Shark Tank); Julie Chen, 45 (CBS’ Big Brother); Cat Deeley, 38 (Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance); Nigel Lythgoe, 65 (Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance); Bertram van Munster, 74 (CBS’ The Amazing Race); and Craig Piligian, 57 (Fox Sports 1’s The Ultimate Fighter). Here, they recount their most stressful show moments (and share their tricks for managing out-of-control talent), dissect why reality’s in such a slump (or is it?) and reveal their dream docuseries personalities. Paging Putin!
What’s the craziest moment on one of your shows that didn’t make it to air?
JULIE CHEN On Big Brother, there was a huge orgy apparently. All I know is someone said, “Did you watch Big Brother: After Dark last night? You need to watch.” It started in the Jacuzzi with two people and then …
CRAIG PILIGIAN I don’t know if we can top an orgy!
BERTRAM VAN MUNSTER Our contestants are so obsessed with racing that this kind of stuff almost doesn’t occur. But we have run into bizarre situations. Once I went to Papua, New Guinea, and met the Mudmen of Goroka. They’re dressed in mud, looking very fierce, wearing penis cords. I said, “You guys are famous with a bow and arrow.” There are about 100 of them standing there, and the leader says, through four translators, “You want me to shoot a bow and arrow? That’s 25 Australian dollars.” I negotiated 20. I give him the money. I said, “Now line up and shoot!” and they all miss the target. I said, “Come on, we just made a deal.” And the leader says, “The target is 25 bucks.”
CAT DEELEY Where did he put the cash?
VAN MUNSTER In his penis cord.
DEELEY Oh, good to know.
Have you ever been worried that a contestant has been pushed too far?
MARK BURNETT On Survivor — a lot. Last season, we had three evacuations, the most ever in a season. It was the humidity, cuts, people getting infected and then trying so hard on the challenges. But we tend to show most things. As a producer you get worried, but [host] Jeff Probst runs the show, and I know if my phone’s ringing at 3 or 4 a.m., it’s Jeff and it’s not a good phone call.
NIGEL LYTHGOE On our show, the kids get there at 6 a.m. They sit there all day until it’s their audition time. I’m not sure about pushed the limit, but we had a guy a few years ago who’d built up a lot of gas as he was waiting. The poor kid went onstage, and every time he did a grand battement, he farted. A big kick — he farted. The splits — he farted. We couldn’t show it. Your heart went out to him, but we couldn’t stop laughing.
DEELEY Dancers are a specific breed. I’ve seen kids dance on broken ankles and split toes. They just do it … and fall apart afterwards.
All of you have worked with colorful, and at times controversial, personalities: Donald Trump, Lindsay Lohan, some questionable Big Brother houseguests. When were you most frustrated in trying to manage your talent?
CHEN We can’t manage the houseguests because we can’t infect the game. The thing that was hardest for me to watch was overt racism in the house [in 2013]. This girl, Aaryn, when she was first cast, we thought was going to be America’s sweetheart, the gorgeous blonde from Texas. She knew how to give those beauty-queen answers in her interviews. But after a few weeks, that beauty faded and the inside came out, and the inside was ugly to the bone. She said homophobic and racist things. She made fun of women at the local nail salon. (In a stereotypical Asian accent) “Oh, you pick color, you pick color.” And that was the least offensive thing she said. It was ugly, but you have to sit back and let these things happen. But there’s a human part of all of us behind the scenes; we think we can’t let any of these houseguests get in harm’s way. Often these people are their own worst enemies.
PILIGIAN The good news on shows like Survivor or So You Think You Can Dance is the cast changes each season. I have to live with my f—ing lunatics for as long as the f—ing show lasts. Ghost Hunters, 11 years. Fast N’ Loud, five years. I’m happy they last, but the talent goes through a metamorphosis of being good people, then not so good, then absolutely the worst humans on the planet. Then by season seven, they’re good people again.
When they get to the point when they’re “the worst people,” do you step in? What does that look like?
PILIGIAN Absolutely. It looks really ugly, especially when agents want to interject their thoughts on what the show should be or what talent should be doing.
VAN MUNSTER We’ve had situations where the contestant will confront our camera teams in a really aggressive way. “I’m going to kick your ass, you’re an asshole.” I have to sit down with those guys.
CHEN I want names! (Laughter.)
VAN MUNSTER There were two brothers who were pretty nasty. I tell contestants up-front: “These [camera] guys are your friends; they’ll run with you, but they’re not going to help you.” They’re hard-working guys and don’t get the million bucks. They run around the globe with a 50-pound camera.
DEELEY It tends to happen when contestants have a little bit of knowledge. They think they know how the game works, and that’s actually very dangerous. They portray what they think you want. You’re always better to go into a reality show just being you because at some stage or another, you’ll get found out.
CHEN Being on Big Brother is like holding up a mirror. When you come out and see who you really are, it’s up to you to say, “I don’t want to be that person,” or “I’m that person. I own it, and I deserve all this hate mail I’m getting.”
The Duggar family controversy has been reality TV’s ugliest moment of the year. What would you have done if you were producers on their show?
BURNETT TLC did the right thing by pulling the show. There’s no way to deal with something like that. Advertising dollars are running the enterprise for TLC. And neither cable partners nor advertisers are going to put up with that. A decisive move is critical in these situations.
CHEN I kind of feel you have to ask the victims: What do you think we should do? Do you think you would be comfortable if we continue to let these cameras roll to see how this has affected you, and how you are seeking help, and if that could be educational or beneficial to anyone watching? If you’re not comfortable with any of this, we’re pulling our cameras out. Maybe it becomes something like Caitlyn Jenner’s upcoming show: Let’s learn, grow and turn it into something that can help others.
If you were helping Caitlyn Jenner, what advice would you give her about sustaining that message of equality?
PILIGIAN Caitlyn has really owned it. It’s really cool, honestly.
LYTHGOE It’s amazing that she’s lived in the Kardashian media fishbowl and the biggest secret was the one she was holding inside herself.
PILIGIAN L.A. is very accepting and liberal; New York, too. It’s going to be really interesting to see how the middle of the country judges Caitlyn. Bruce [Jenner] was one of the greatest athletes who ever lived.
CHEN I think the bottom line with Caitlyn Jenner is that she has to tell the E! producers: “I have creative control. Don’t exploit me.” If she feels like what America’s seeing is her true voice, then you’ve just created an incredible situation that’s going to enlighten so many on a topic that we still know little about.
Reality is a genre that has struggled in recent years. Why has it become so challenging to launch new hits?
VAN MUNSTER I don’t think it was any easier in the beginning. Nobody had ever heard of reality TV until Mark and I showed up on the scene 15, 16 years ago. The only show on at that point was Cops, which I produced for nine years.
BURNETT I did OK with The Voice. I remember The Hollywood Reporter asking, “How’s this going to work? There’s already Idol and X Factor.” You were wrong. Now there is no Idol or X Factor. And we launched Shark Tank, which is a hit show.
LYTHGOE There have been a couple of large shows that have failed. [Fox’s] Utopia was major. Rising Star was another.
BURNETT But what about scripted? Look at how many pilots get made. How many scripted shows work every year?
LYTHGOE Good shows always survive.
BURNETT We’re all in the “network TV” business. Any network has to have great news, sports, scripted comedies and dramas, unscripted competition and unscripted noncompetition. All of the above have to coexist. I’m often asked: Is reality going to go away? Never. Some great shows don’t make it, but you can guarantee that crappy shows won’t make it.
DEELEY The biggest thing is connecting the human sitting in their living room to the human on the TV screen.
PILIGIAN And as long as it’s relatable, the content will shine.
DEELEY On our show, dance is the narrative, but people really connect with the kids. At the end of season two, there were two guys — Travis Wall and Benji Schwimmer. Benji won, but Travis was actually the better dancer, though he was quieter. But he took the platform he was given and elevated himself and became a choreographer. Since then, he’s been nominated for Emmys for his work.
PILIGIAN We found a gal online who had 6 million YouTube hits, so we created a show [around her] on TLC called My Big Fat Fabulous Life. She’d been really thin but in college got a disease that made her bigger and bigger. We contacted her, did a tape and sold it to TLC. But we did it in the right way. She got to explain what happened, you saw her history and her accepting her disease. TLC doesn’t do a lot of promotion. But social media is building shows more than TV promotion is. I work with little networks. They don’t promote.
BURNETT You have to come up with a good core-show idea. If it’s noisy and it will permeate beyond the TV screen, then you have something. You should not, as Craig says, rely on the broadcaster to do the work for you.
LYTHGOE For years, if you didn’t know who’d won American Idol the night before, you were out of the conversation.
CHEN And you also have to have a quality show. Not shows that exploit … like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. A lot happened behind the scenes that led to [that show’s] demise. But sometimes there are exploitative shows that have a lot of “noise” and fizzle out. At the end of the day, it has to have very good content.
BURNETT What Julie has hit on is: Be really, really careful with anything around kids. There’s no leeway with kids. The Duggars, Honey Boo Boo both have had problems, and both involve kids.
Another trend in the business is consolidation, with hundreds of millions of dollars being paid for reality companies.
BURNETT I’m leaving now. [MGM acquired a stake in Burnett’s company in September 2014.]
How has it impacted the industry at large?
VAN MUNSTER I haven’t seen much coming out of it.
PILIGIAN Are you still independent?
VAN MUNSTER Yeah.
LYTHGOE If they leave you alone to do what you do, I don’t see a problem. But if they want to make it corporate …
BURNETT No one spends hundreds of millions of dollars to buy a content company and change it. Our situation with MGM is the best thing to have happened. I’ve learned so much, and I just wrapped on Ben Hur. What’s the chance that I would have produced Ben Hur 10 years ago?
What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make on the job?
VAN MUNSTER I’ve pulled out of a country [Qatar] literally hours before filming.
CHEN 9/11 happened during season two of Big Brother. It was near the finale, and only three houseguests were left. They were the last three people on the planet to not know what was going on. CBS had to deal with, “OK, how do we not infect the game, but what is our social responsibility [in telling them]?” It was interesting observing the contestants because one of them said, “Have you noticed there are no planes flying around?” So the decision was made that they’d be brought one by one into the diary room. Some people wanted to know everything. One had a cousin who worked in the twin towers. Another didn’t really want to know anything. He wanted to stay focused on the game, and he won.
Julie, what kind of notes did you exchange with your husband, CBS CEO Les Moonves, during that period?
CHEN I was so emotional because I was still covering news back then, too. I lived 11 blocks from the World Trade Center. I told Les, “If you don’t tell those people, I’m not going on the air.” And he was like, “Everyone just calm down, we’re not saying we’re not going to tell them; we will do what’s responsible.”
VAN MUNSTER We had a lot of people in Arab countries when 9/11 happened. My [wife and] partner, Elise [Doganieri], was in Morocco. They were all yelling, “Yankee, go home.” We got her to Portugal, and I told her to go to a remote place and wait it out.
BURNETT We were prepping Survivor: Arabia. I had all my guys in Jordan, all my containers, equipment, tools in the Port of Aqaba. I was reached at my gym in Malibu by King Abdullah, who can find anybody, anytime. He said, “We know what’s happened, but please don’t pull out [of the country]. This is important for the nation,” and I said, “Your Majesty, this is way above me.” Then I got on the phone with Leslie Moonves, and I said: “We’ve got a big problem here. I have to get my crew out. There won’t be a Survivor.” And Leslie said, “Actually, there will be a Survivor because you’re going to get a skeleton crew on a plane and find a new location. America is expecting Survivor to be on the air. The country moves forward in these situations, and I know you’ll solve the problem. I have confidence in you.” That’s Leslie. Completely solution-oriented.
LYTHGOE I got to produce and direct the British version of Survivor on the island of Pulau Tiga. It’s a mud volcanic island. We had the worst storm I’ve ever seen, the trees were falling on the contestants. What were we going to do? We were told there was going to be a storm the next night. We decided in the end to leave them there, but that decision was made with a lot of chats with meteorologists and islanders. I don’t think people realize how true a program like Survivor is and what it puts the contestants through.
VAN MUNSTER We were in the Sahara, and a sandstorm wiped everything out. We had to rescue everybody out of the desert.
PILIGIAN It’s different for me because I do a show called The Ultimate Fighter. It’s the most violent show on TV. We’re in a gym, and when these guys fight, you see some of the most horrific injuries. This one kid’s bone came right through his skin. You’re a foot away. We have medical attention; the doctor has to enter the octagon and wrap the kid.
How do you decide that that’s worth airing?
PILIGIAN You have to. We’ve had ankles that have snapped in half.
LYTHGOE If a dancer falls down and smacks their head on our show, we will replay it three or four times.
BURNETT Craig’s a good producer. That’s a lot of pressure. When Ultimate Fighter is shooting, he’s really on edge.
PILIGIAN I go to every single fight. It’s a serious business. We have to MRI everybody. … I was thinking, Survivor has had 30 seasons, yeah?
PILIGIAN Amazing Race, how many?
VAN MUNSTER 27.
CHEN We’re starting our 17th year.
PILIGIAN We’re twice a year; it’s our 22nd season.
LYTHGOE We’re in our 15th season.
PILIGIAN Not to digress, but those are amazing statistics. We work hard for our shows. You don’t get through 22 seasons of Ultimate Fighter or 30 seasons of Survivor [without it].
VAN MUNSTER I like it that way.
LYTHGOE But shooting has gotten tougher. And everyone keeps saying reality shows are cheap to make.
PILIGIAN They’re not. Can we go to the networks and tell them they’re not f—ing cheap to make?
The key to being a good host is to make it look easy. Cat, what don’t people realize about this job?
DEELEY The prep that goes into it. I’m really quite nerdy, so I know absolutely everything when it actually comes to being in the moment.
CHEN You’re talking about live TV?
CHEN You have many plates spinning.
DEELEY Your producer has to trust you, otherwise they’re two seconds behind.
BURNETT You can’t underestimate the value of great on-air talent. It’s like a three-ring circus, these live shows. And the audience knows the minute a host has an inauthentic moment.
DEELEY I won’t lie on camera. I’ll find something else to say, if I need to. The audience will know that something’s not quite right.
CHEN They’ll feel it.
LYTHGOE That is what happens with the soft scripted shows, where people go, There’s something not quite right about this.
BURNETT But there’s a comedy element. I think the audience understands it’s soft scripted and accepts it as such.
Do they care?
VAN MUNSTER I really think they don’t care.
DEELEY They suspend disbelief.
BURNETT I don’t think anyone here really makes those kind of shows, but they [bring in a] lot of ratings.
Do those shows, like Duck Dynasty, hurt the genre?
LYTHGOE Not so much the Duck Dynastys, but the …
CHEN Real Housewives?
PILIGIAN I like the Housewives; they’re fun to watch because they’re a little nutty.
BURNETT And they make great contestants on Apprentice.
CHEN Whoever it was popped off her leg [Real Housewives of New York‘s Aviva Drescher] — that was not in the moment!
LYTHGOE I was always accused of manipulating figures on American Idol. Why on earth would we want to do that?
BURNETT It’s also a criminal offense.
LYTHGOE The minute you start looking at reality shows and saying, “Is this real? Is this really happening?” I think it affects us.
Often, the bigger the ratings, the bigger the media glare. How do you manage the criticism?
BURNETT If you’re a boxer, you don’t cry because you got hit in the face. It’s part of the job. Everyone here gets paid well to get up in the morning, look at ratings and see what the critics have said. If you can’t take it, don’t play the game.
CHEN But doesn’t it drive you wild when they aren’t accurate? When we had the racism in the Big Brother house, they were like, “Oh, CBS planned it this way to create the controversy.” Really? If you saw how many 3 a.m. phone calls were happening at my house, disrupting people’s vacations and weekends … trust me, it wasn’t planned. It drives me crazy when criticism is so far off-base.
BURNETT That’s right. By the way, I have personally been yelled at by Leslie Moonves, and it’s not a great experience.
LYTHGOE He’s yelled at me, too, and I don’t work for him. (Laughter.)
CHEN By the way, when my husband yells, he doesn’t realize he’s yelling. I remember the first time I saw him do one of those: “It’s off the table!” (Mimics slamming a phone down) Boom. I was, like, hiding and he goes (In a cheerful voice) “Where are we going to dinner?”
VAN MUNSTER I’ll never forget when I sold Amazing Race to Leslie, and he got into an argument with one of the agents. He got really furious and then he turned to me and said, “That was nothing to do with you, bud, don’t worry about it.” Then he yelled again.
CHEN He compartmentalizes.
LYTHGOE It was frustrating on Idol. In season seven, Idol went from 35 million to 30 million. It was like, “It’s the end of the show!” We had 30 million viewers, for heaven’s sake.
BURNETT All of us want the next big hit. The media wants to write about the next big hit. We don’t know when it’s coming. When you hear a good idea, recognize it. Producers have the toughest job. They’re first in and last out.
CHEN But Mark is a perfect example. Survivor was pitched and pitched, rejected and rejected by my husband. Finally, Mark knew how to sell it, and CBS put it on in the summer instead of reruns, not expecting it to become a juggernaut. It was all about execution.
Looking back, what were your favorite or proudest moments on your shows?
CHEN When I first started on Big Brother, I was also anchoring news in the morning at CBS. I got sent to cover the war. Every time those sirens went off, you had to say, “Gas, gas, gas,” put on your mask on and run to the bomb shelter. I remember thinking, “Forget Big Brother, that silly little reality show; this is life or death.” But many members of the military were like, “Can we talk to you about Big Brother?”
VAN MUNSTER Amazing Race is almost like a business card to show the world that we’re actually good people. It brings people closer together. As a result, there are a lot of franchises. We’re doing one in China, and it has between 80 and 100 million viewers. It’s phenomenal.
LYTHGOE I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve [helped] a lot of fathers accept that their sons want to be dancers.
DEELEY There are kids who come from economically challenged families. One girl had never been on an airplane before until we flew her to Vegas. She cared for her handicapped mother, her father was an alcoholic. We’re looking for “America’s favorite dancer,” but in actuality that girl’s life could be changed beyond her wildest dreams if she wants it.
PILIGIAN On Street Outlaws, these guys have nothing, then become something from being on TV. Make money, get married, have a family. You see them evolve. That’s give-back, right?
BURNETT On Shark Tank, $66 million has been invested and 10,000 new jobs created. And it’s hard to not love Survivor, in its 29th and 30th seasons going up against American Idol and doubling Idol‘s demos and viewers, head-to-head.
LYTHGOE Wow, hit me with that, why don’t you? (Laughter.)
PILIGIAN That was a nice stab.
If you had your pick, whose life would you like to turn into a docuseries?
PILIGIAN Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. I think he’d be a spectacular reality TV artist.
BURNETT I did Sarah Palin’s Alaska and I loved that show. No. 1 show ever on TLC. Now I’d like to do Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have reached out to him. I want to see Russia through his eyes.
VAN MUNSTER A few people have tried Putin. I’ve tried too.
LYTHGOE I was speaking to Putin yesterday, he said he was going to give Mark a call. (Laughter.)
If you could reboot a classic reality series or game show, which would you choose?
LYTHGOE American Idol.
CHEN Battle of the Network Stars. I’ve pitched my husband multiple times.
LYTHGOE The Gong Show was fun.
BURNETT I want to reboot American Gladiators. MGM, I’m just saying …
LYTHGOE I made that in the U.K. It was just enormous.
DEELEY It was humongous.
PILIGIAN I’d do The Newlywed Game.
We’d all love to see a Piligian version of The Newlywed Game.
PILIGIAN It’d be fun, right?
LYTHGOE A lot of swearing.
BURNETT Craig’s a lot more demure around his wife, trust me.
The full Reality Roundtable can be seen on Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter when it premieres Sunday, Sept. 13, at 11 a.m. ET/PT on Sundance TV.
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