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Evaluating the reality game plan

Rumours of the demise of reality tv have been greatly exaggerated. Just when it seemed it was losing steam - last July, abc Entertainment Television Group chairman Lloyd Braun sounded the death knell for reality shows - the genre had another banner year. A rejuvenated Survivor drew its largest audience yet in the U.S. (25 million), and unlikely hits such as Bunim/Murray's The Simple Life (which beat out a post-Saddam-capture interview with President Bush in the ratings) along with London-based rdf Media's Wife Swap format - now sold in 20 territories - have proven the genre is unstoppable.
February 1, 2004

Rumours of the demise of reality TV have been greatly exaggerated. Just when it seemed it was losing steam – last July, ABC Entertainment Television Group chairman Lloyd Braun sounded the death knell for reality shows – the genre had another banner year. A rejuvenated Survivor drew its largest audience yet in the U.S. (25 million), and unlikely hits such as Bunim/Murray’s The Simple Life (which beat out a post-Saddam-capture interview with President Bush in the ratings) along with London-based rdf Media’s Wife Swap format – now sold in 20 territories – have proven the genre is unstoppable.

‘The industry is experiencing reality wave number two,’ says Joey Carson, COO of Van Nuys-based Bunim/Murray. ‘Studios have embraced [reality] for competitive reasons because all the studios and the cable channels are doing it. It’s now part of the overall landscape.’

As a result, new players are entering the fray. In December, la-based New Line Television signalled an aggressive push into the genre with the hire of Big Brother producer Jon Kroll and the unveiling of unscripted shows, including Antarctica-based elimination reality show The Ice, and the human-hunting adventure The Most Dangerous Game.

Even typically earnest Toronto-based pubcaster CBC is stepping into the genre. (However, executive director of network programming, Slawko Klymkiw, prefers to call the in-development The Great Canadians – a Biography-meets-Pop Idol format from BBC Worldwide, where viewers rank their favourite historical figures – ‘observational documentary’). London-based Five, meanwhile, is offering up Back to Reality, a show which pits contestants from reality shows against each other, to air in the next quarter.

So, at this point in the game, what strategies make the venture into reality most lucrative and relevant? RealScreen spoke to some major players – both new and old – to get their take.

Stephen Lambert, director of programmes
RDF Media, London, U.K.

We wanted to grow as a production company and America is the biggest TV market. We weren’t sure of the best way of doing that until TLC was interested in making a U.S. version of our Channel 4 show, Scrapheap Challenge. They made a sufficiently large order, called Junkyard Wars, and we were able set up an office in L.A. to produce it. Since then, we’ve been growing into the American market – initially making shows for cable networks and now starting to make stuff for broadcast networks [including a version of Wife Swap for ABC in the U.S.].
We consider it a big deal to be doing Wife Swap for ABC, because it will probably be one of the first reality shows on a broadcast network that is set in the real world. If it works, I’m sure there will be more shows like it.

One of our core philosophies at Bunim/Murray is to come up with new ways of doing things, or making existing things different. All of the studios, with the success of the reality genre, wanted to find a way to move it into new territories, as did we. One thing that hadn’t been tried is the daytime reality drama. With Starting Over, [Mary Ellis-Bunim] took the idea of a soap opera, but used real people, following them while they’re trying to achieve a certain goal. With The Simple Life, we approached it not so much as a reality show, but took the reality genre idea and melded it with a traditional comedy or sitcom.
From a business standpoint, one of the key things we’re doing is diversification. All of our competitors have moved into the scripted landscape and we’re doing the same. We have scripted deals at Fox and at MTV right now. First and foremost, we have to own what we do and then break new ground, for us to grow as a company.

Q: As newcomers to reality, what have you learned?

Slawko Klymkiw, executive director,
network programming, CBC, Toronto, Canada

We’ve been trying to make our programming more engaging, and yet hold on to the quality, distinctiveness and intelligence you need as a pubcaster. Obviously, reality TV is out there so we’re looking at what’s successful and what isn’t.
[Reality programming] provides some lessons: one is that the audience isn’t as interested in having a didactic broadcaster as in the past; they don’t want someone telling them what to think. Secondly, there’s an attempt at making the content significantly relevant to people’s lives. The Great Britons, for instance, by the BBC, became this interactive contest about who is the most dominant historic figure in Britain. It had a Web component, it created documentary, it got people arguing passionately – celebrities, for the most part – and they built a series around it.
We’re looking at some observational docs and current affairs programs. We’re planning to do The Great Canadians, purchased from BBC Worldwide, which is much like The Great Britons. We want to be into the big-event, high-impact world. So we’re doing more things where we cross disciplines, where we really build momentum through fewer, but more impactful projects.

Jeff Ford, director of acquisitions, Five, London, U.K.

We’ve been a bit late in getting into the reality market. We commissioned the reality show Jailbreak [a few years ago] to see if we could realize our own format. It was probably too complicated. Although it did very well in terms of the demos we were looking at – 16 to 34′s – it didn’t really work as a format. So, we sort of moved away from it.
You have to make sure the format is strong, but not too complicated. If you have too many things, too many curves, it makes no sense and it becomes too much of a game show. That’s what we’ve learned, and it’s just taken us a long time to get to the right piece. [Back to Reality] is fun, it’s simple, straightforward and includes all the people audiences already relate to in a situation they understand.
We’re doing it over three or four weeks, which is much shorter and sharper, and you can buy into it. We believe this is a format we can use again and again. If it works, then I think we will continue to do [more reality] over the next five years. KV

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