Reality roundtable

Five producers get real about the state of the genre, the role of the WGA and how to get some gosh-darned respect, already.

There are those who say that the reality TV boom is on the decline. But in looking at the flood of so-called "unscripted programming" that continues to wash over the airwaves, many would say it has years of life -- real life -- left in it yet. Such shows are positively ubiquitous this summer, and don't forget that Fox's "American Idol" remained a top-rated phenomenon this spring, four years after its launch.

There is a growing consensus that reality can no longer be dismissed as a mere fad, and based on its sheer longevity, it qualifies as a legitimate primetime genre, alongside comedy, drama and news -- but respect has been tougher to come by. The genre has been invited to the Emmy party since 2001, but only one of its current categories (outstanding reality competition program) will be featured with the biggest players during this year's primetime telecast, set to air Aug. 27 on NBC.

So, it was high time for The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond to sit down with five of the most prominent and successful producers and executives working in unscripted television, as he did in May to discuss the current fortunes and future prospects of the ever-evolving business. His guests included: David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, the company that produces shows such as ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," CBS' "Big Brother," NBC's canceled "Fear Factor" and that same network's surprise midseason game show hit, "Deal or No Deal"; David Broome, executive producer of NBC's "The Biggest Loser"; Jonathan Murray, a principal in Bunim-Murray Prods. and creator/executive producer of MTV's "The Real World" and "Road Rules," as well as "The Simple Life" (which has moved from Fox to E! Entertainment Television for its just-premiered fourth season); R.J. Cutler, executive producer of the acclaimed 2000 documentary series "American High," as well as the controversial docu-reality series "Black. White" and the Morgan Spurlock effort "30 Days" (both on FX) -- and producer of the documentary feature "The War Room," which received an Oscar nomination in 1994; and Chris Cowan, partner at production company Rocket Science Laboratories and executive producer of Fox's canceled "Joe Millionaire," "Temptation Island" and "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," as well as that same network's current "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy."

The Hollywood Reporter: Word has it that reality has crested as a genre and will slowly disappear from here on out. Do any of you detect a downturn?
David Goldberg: None. From where I'm sitting, reality is alive and well and as strong as it's ever been. There's no erosion. Our company is making more money every year, and the appetite at the networks has not lessened. Maybe there was a little down-tick after 9/11, but reality rebounded big. And we just had a major success this spring with "Deal or No Deal," which puts game shows back in play again.
Chris Cowan: We've reconciled our position in the industry -- for our company, anyway -- as an alternative for the networks. We're not going to get all of the publicity and marketing resources and promotion that the network franchises get. The money there is still in comedy and drama. And for sure, the audience no longer is sampling reality just on novelty. It should never be at the same point of saturation it was a year and a half ago. But we're starting to see guys like Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg launching reality shows, which helps give us all validation.
R.J. Cutler: Reality has evolved since it really began to hit six years ago. It's now a genre with a lot of healthy subgenres, like social issues, docu-soap, game show, extreme game show, celebrity-driven. For the broadcast networks, we make a product that's inexpensive and fills a need. We help cable networks to form and reform their identities. But in both cases, this genre is still extremely viable.

THR: What kind of shows are working now? Are we still in the "feel-good" period that "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" helped to usher in?
David Broome: You know, we like to put reality in this box and ask what's going on with it, as if it's one trend. The fact is, this genre is no different than comedy or drama series. When (ABC's) "Desperate Housewives" hit, everyone started to work on getting a primetime soap. With (NBC's) "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office" hitting, single-camera comedy started getting ordered. It takes a little more vision not to jump on the bandwagon and actually migrate toward something that's unique and trendsetting rather than proven. It's no different in reality.
Goldberg: I don't think anyone has a clue of what's going to work and what isn't. You just take your best guess. We got lucky to sell "Home Edition" and luckier still that it worked. It just happened to connect. That doesn't make us geniuses.

THR: Jonathan, you've had success with "The Real World" since selling it to MTV in the mid-1990s. How have you been able to keep it pulling in viewers when there are so many imitators out there now?
Jonathan Murray: I think we've stood the test of time because the concept was pretty sound to begin with. I got my inspiration from the 1973 series "An American Family" on PBS, which ran when I was in high school and profoundly affected me. All we really did is take the documentary format and commercialize it for a very specific audience of young people. But that's the good news about reality: Because it's a little less expensive to make, you can take more risks.
Cutler: Because of the success of "The Real World," I was able to sell "American High."

THR: It seems that the rap on reality is that the term itself is a misnomer -- that it's not real, that it's essentially a postproduction enterprise pasted together by editors, and that a lot of what we see is manufactured and/or manipulated. Is that valid?
Murray: Well, it just so happens that our form of storytelling involves editing. On "Real World," I've got hundreds of hours of raw tape from four or five cameras. I'm trying to tell stories that are relatable to my 12- to 24-year-old audience, but I'm not manipulating. If it isn't working, there is obviously pressure from the network to get in there and manipulate. My job as a producer is to preach patience.
Broome: The audience can see through something manufactured; you can't fool them. But why would you want to? We absolutely don't on "The Biggest Loser." The real human drama is what makes it exciting. If you're truly doing reality, it's like a great rat maze. You build the maze and let 'em run through it.
Cutler: We have a goal and a responsibility to tell the truth. Of course, you're making choices. Somebody who's writing a script for a movie makes choices, too.
Cowan: It's a complex dance you do with your characters because they aren't always open to exposing themselves. There's a lot of performance involved. Your job is to set up the obstacle course that allows them to reveal themselves. A lot of people like to get up after the fact and complain they were edited to look like villains. Usually, it's the perception they have of themselves that's off. But I work very hard to honor the essence of what happened. There is no such thing as a literal translation of events in a reality show.

THR: Why is that?
Cowan: Because you're dealing with real human beings and not scripted characters. You can expect them to react a certain way, and then they'll go 180 degrees opposite of what you want them to do. Good storytelling allows for the unpredictability to work in your favor instead of against you.

THR: Do you think you succeeded in that with "Joe Millionaire" and "Temptation Island?"
Cowan: Well, that's all a matter of opinion, I guess. When "Joe Millionaire" premiered, I was accused of putting Western civilization in jeopardy. I was called a purveyor of prostitution. But there is a built-in bias that works against honoring the craftsmanship you bring to a show.

THR: But even a lot of shows that have been hammered in the press have been audience successes. Is there still a tendency for what you do to be dismissed as fluff? And might part of that be your own fault?
Goldberg: I actually do think that critics are beginning to grudgingly accept us. I remember the first (Television Critics Assn.) gathering when we were promoting "Fear Factor"; (New York Times TV reporter) Bill Carter told me, "I really don't think the show is so bad, and my son loves it, but I'm still gonna kill you." I think shows like "American Idol," "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," (NBC's) "The Apprentice" and (CBS') "Survivor" have built us more acceptance and recognition.
Broome: Before we ever premiered, people were dismissing "The Biggest Loser" as just another junk reality show on the title alone. We got put in that box. We've overcome that, but the initial instinct certain people have is still to label us as somehow inferior even though reality is able to more than hold its own with drama and comedy in the ratings.
Cutler: I think that's just the price we pay for being on the cutting edge of a genre that essentially didn't exist before the turn of the millennium. By and large, I think the press is unaccepting of our existence despite our obviously being a very real genre.
Murray: There exists a lot of the same snobbism that caused a disdain for "The Love Boat" and "Dynasty" in their time. There is a lot of biased criticism in the media because broad entertainment like what we do is dismissed as automatically substandard.

THR: Why is "American Idol" such a consistently massive hit year after year?
Cutler: The most important reason that "Idol" works is its characters are experiencing the most important moment of their lives every time you see them. Every week, they move closer to the dream, and the stakes grow. That's just fundamental good storytelling.
Broome: All that matters is having compelling characters, and great storytelling and a great format. That's "Idol" in a nutshell.

THR: There's a lot of talk at this table about characters and storytelling. And yet, we're talking about programming that's referred to as "unscripted." As you know, there is class-action litigation still pending against several companies to provide wage minimums and benefits and change the designation of certain reality producers to "writers" while allowing for representation through the Writers Guild of America. What's the table's take on this?
Goldberg: The truth is that in most cases, we're paying people above what, in general, would be the union wages. We pay above the industry standard on many of our shows, including "Home Edition."
Murray: We've been providing health benefits for our employees for six or seven years already. Our company also takes kids out of college and teaches them the business. On my scripted stuff, I use WGA writers, and it's warranted. So, I understand their concern, but it isn't an issue at every company.
Broome: If you're doing a reality series where you're watching events unfold -- and you aren't scripting any of it -- then technically, you aren't writing dialogue. These shows are put together by editors and producers. That's simply the truth.
Cowan: I understand there is a legitimate need for protection in the reality industry. I don't think anyone would argue that everyone should have a quality working wage and pension. There are also fantastic, creative storytellers and producers behind the scenes who design these shows. But are they writing? That's different from communicating an idea.

THR: How do you expect this particular situation to turn out?
Cowan: It's just impossible to tell, but I really do empathize with what's being asked for. My only issue is the practical means by which it's being sought.

THR: Moving on, are you guys pleased with the way unscripted programming -- the two reality categories in particular -- is represented in the Primetime Emmys? How might you change it?
Cutler: I applaud the TV Academy for responding as quickly as it did four or five years ago in making sure reality was reflected in the categories, but I think the configurations are still a mess. I mean, in the best reality series category, you've got (Bravo's) "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" running against "Black. White." No question they could do better.
Goldberg: My take is that if you have as many reality shows drawing large audiences as you do, it only makes sense you would have a higher percentage of reality categories to represent that.

THR: Could part of the issue surrounding reality with the TV Academy -- and perhaps with critics as well -- involve the fact that so many shows are derivations of what has come before?
Cowan: Yes, but much of that isn't our fault. We would love network and cable programrs to be a lot more adventurous in their buys. I still think there is far too huge a reliance on tape from Europe and formats that are preproduced. Being first in the marketplace -- and in the world -- with a good idea will always win, as long as it's matched with good craftsmanship. But it does behoove us to be bold and not follow.
Goldberg: The reason why it makes sense to buy from Europe is reduced risk. If you can buy an existing show that has a track record and a tape you can look at, it's going to increase interest. It's always better to look at something, and taste it, and feel it and touch it than try to visualize it in your head.

THR: But doesn't that almost guarantee a reduction in your originality?
Murray: Actually, not necessarily at all. You can't look at reality in terms of reeling in the next blockbuster. It's about supplying programming to fit various needs. For a cable network that's happy with a 1 rating, reality makes a lot of sense because that kind of reality isn't done at a deficit.
Cowan: On the other hand, we personally don't want to be seen as the big marquee but simply as part of a balanced network schedule. Our goal is not to be relied on too much because then, the whole genre gets devalued. We're great a role player, but that's all.