Factual Faux Pas

If you want some candid insights on the factual entertainment business, look no further than David Lyle, coo and general manager of Fox Reality; Jonathan Murray, chairman and president of Bunim/Murray Productions; and Robert Sharenow, vp of non-fiction and alternative programming at A&E Television Networks. Their spirited discussion reveals the dangers of resting on your laurels once you've had a hit reality show, versus the risk of trying to duplicate it; the balance of familiarity and surprises that viewers crave; and why some spin-offs die and others flourish. It's a fine line, but somebody's bound to cross it
April 1, 2006

If you want some candid insights on the factual entertainment business, look no further than David Lyle, COO and general manager of Fox Reality; Jonathan Murray, chairman and president of Bunim/Murray Productions; and Robert Sharenow, VP of non-fiction and alternative programming at A&E Television Networks. Their spirited discussion reveals the dangers of resting on your laurels once you’ve had a hit reality show, versus the risk of trying to duplicate it; the balance of familiarity and surprises that viewers crave; and why some spin-offs die and others flourish. It’s a fine line, but somebody’s bound to cross it

David Lyle
COO and general manager,
Fox Reality

Jonathan Murray
Chairman and president, Bunim/Murray Productions

Robert Sharenow
vp, non-fiction and alternative programming A&E Television Networks

Can you adapt a previously popular factual format, or is that just a sign of desperation?
Jonathan Murray: I think with reality, you have to be able to adapt, because often the situation under which you’re making the show can evolve. It’s not like you have characters or situations that were created by a writer. You’re dealing with something that’s real, and real things don’t stand in place often. In the case of Simple Life, we didn’t make changes each season because there was some dip in the ratings. It was because we felt from a creative standpoint that the best thing for the show was if we evolved our concept.
Robert Sharenow: Creatively, I don’t think you ever improve your show. I think you can have success, but it’s very difficult to take an idea and creatively improve it once you have a success.
David Lyle: I can take either point of view. Audiences like being both comforted by what they know and surprised by new twists. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water; keep the core values.
Sharenow: I can be even more firm in my conviction that docusoaps should never be spun off, or should be spun off incredibly cautiously. The Osbournes wouldn’t have worked with a Jack spin-off because what made Jack an intriguing character was the context of the family. And Nick without Jessica wouldn’t work. I don’t think you can recapture the genie in the bottle of an original success in the docusoap format. Docusoaps conform to the sitcom model. Look at Joey and After Mash and Joanie Loves Chachi – I think that’s what you get when you spin off a sitcom and a group of core characters, and I think the same applies to docusoaps like Growing up Gotti or Dog The Bounty Hunter when you’re messing with characters that people really know and like in a specific context.

If there were to be a spin-off of one of your shows, should you be involved?
Murray: I would answer an unqualified ‘yes’ to that because I turned down two opportunities: one was Big Brother way back when Endemol was looking for a partner to do it in the US, and the other was Surreal Life. I [turned them down] because of loyalty to MTV and to protect The Real World. But ultimately, when VH1 – which is a corporate sister to MTV – ended up picking up Surreal Life off of The WB and didn’t call me to ask if I was concerned, I realized: ‘You know, I’ve got to look out for myself here.’
Lyle: Loyalty tends to be a fairly one-way street: loyalty is what the person who’s got the power demands of the person without the power.
Sharenow: Often times when you try and spin-off, or grow, or cross-pollinate your characters, it feels like you’re jumping the shark. (See sidebar.) You’re sort of poisoning a world that the audience has bought into as being real. If you try to inject one into the other, you can feel the producer’s hands too strongly.
Lyle: I think there’s any number of ways to jump the shark. Certainly when reality shows collide it’s strange, especially in the docusoaps area because those don’t have a game structure. The trick with a docusoap is knowing when it’s over. I know when we’ve either pitched them ourselves or been pitched them, the first question is: ‘How does it finish? When do you know it’s done?’
There are other ways to jump the shark, though. The proper use of celebrities is just starting in the US. Dancing with the Stars and Skating with the Stars seem to have gotten away with it, but I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here! was a bit gruesome. It could be argued that there were two things wrong with it: one, they weren’t celebrities. Second, there was also a tragic inability to understand that when you shoot in a rainforest, it may rain.

Do you ever know when you’re about to jump the shark?
Murray: The sad thing is, no.
Lyle: Until you see the blood in the water.
Murray: What sounded like a great idea yesterday may be seen as jumping the shark tomorrow… We’ve often talked about making a documentary of The Real World behind the scenes – a reality show about the people who make The Real World. The crew pick up their lives and they move to these locations, and there are often relationships that form among the crew. This year in Key West, they had multiple hurricanes – I think 15 people lost their cars. We’ve asked ourselves ‘Would that be jumping the shark or revealing too much of the mystery of the show if we made it?’ We know it would be a great show, but it wouldn’t be right for MTV. It might be for another network.
Lyle: We’d be interested. We’re doing that more and more. When we pick up reruns, we go back and talk to the producers and reality stars and ask ‘What were you thinking at the time, if anything, and why?’ And, since most of them have studied each episode in grueling detail, most of them can tell you exactly why they raised their eyebrow the fourth minute in. So for our originals where the auditions are shot, we’re going to make that part of the process, probably as an early episode.
Sharenow: That feels like a safer, smarter bet. We’re doing Dog The Bounty Hunter specials in which he does different things, and I think sticking to the core program and blowing it out a little bit is definitely something everyone likes to do. I think it’s a good thing, and can work creatively. Once you get into trying to take half of the show and make it into a whole something else, it becomes dangerous.
Lyle: The one that seems to be walking on water at the moment is the Biggest Loser franchise. They’ve sliced it and diced it different ways – they’ve had couples, they’ve had specials, sooner or later they’re going to do The Biggest Loser with family pets, or the family edition. God knows the family edition of Amazing Race almost brought it down, and if it doesn’t come back strongly in the coming weeks, that will be the jump the shark moment for that one – which I fear to say, because Bertram [van Munster] will come after me. I think the industry all felt ‘Gee, this family edition one looks stodgy and sort of bloated.’ The thing about Amazing Race that’s always made it so wonderful is that it moves just under the speed of light. You don’t ever stop for long enough to draw breath.
Murray: With Amazing Race, I don’t think those changes were made because the ratings have declined. I think it’s because sometimes, as producers, we get tired of our own formats and want to reinvent, when maybe what we need to do is just create a new, separate show, like we did with Road Rules, rather than tinkering with the original. Now, of course, I’m arguing the other point of view.
Sharenow: I think you’re arguing the same point of view, but it’s a semantic conversation. Road Rules is a different show. I never thought of that as a Real World spin-off, I thought of it as its own entity. I think The Apprentice with Martha Stewart – that’s a spin-off.
Lyle: I’d call it a clone, but a clone where bits of the dna just weren’t quite right. Like Dolly the sheep with her head in the wrong position.
Murray: As a producer, sometimes we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is the audience tired of our original content, or are we just tired of it?’ Because I think in the case of The Amazing Race, the audience was very happy with the show, and there was no real reason to do the family edition. And with The Biggest Loser, I’m not sure there’s a reason to switch that up. It seemed to be working well – I’m not sure why they’d tinker with it.
When the network comes to you and sometimes tries to have you do something, as a producer you have to have the guts to look beyond the financial compensation and say: ‘No, that’s for our franchise, we need to protect it.’
Lyle: Sometimes broadcasters and networks have short-term problems they are desperate to solve, and maybe they don’t always take the long-term point of view.
Murray: With Survivor, we were all waiting for them to do that season where they would bring back a bunch of previous competitors, which they did once. But then they went back to the show the way it is.
Lyle: And that worked pretty well, didn’t it? I wondered whether it bwould hold the audience, but it did well.
Murray: It did fine, but ultimately they realized the basic show they have works pretty well. At the beginning of each season they give you a fresh hook – something for the media to grab on to, because that’s also part of it as producers. You’re constantly fighting to get ink because most networks don’t spend much on print or off-air promotions. They only do it with their on-air, so the only way you’re going to reach potential new viewers is having a new hook.
Lyle: Certainly with the explosion of modern reality in the cable universe, getting noticed is increasingly difficult, and that does speak to Jon’s point.

Is there a temptation to use spin-offs to drive ratings?
Sharenow: From the network perspective, you do try to build on your own successes, but if you’re directly copying or mimicking yourself, that’s dangerous. From my own experience, we get pitched every single Dog The Bounty Hunter show now. There has been many a meeting where someone suggests ‘Why don’t we do another one, and make it a big night, and have a female bounty hunter?’ It does take a lot of fortitude to know when to say no.
Murray: But you know that that producer, with a great base of talent, may walk to another network and be able to sell it there.
Sharenow: Exactly.
Lyle: In hindsight, TLC may possibly feel that they overdid it on Trading Spaces. They did the shows that were very close in genre, as well as running it back-to-back, as well as backwards and sideways. The whole brand became captive to one hit.
Sharenow: From the network side, it’s incumbent upon the executives to always be looking forward at different things. That’s the great challenge that no one should lose sight of, and often people do because they get drunk off their own success.
Murray: People come in and pitch networks based on who the networks are and what they’re seeing on air, and the network has actually already moved on figuring out who they want to be.
Sharenow: Exactly.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.