Realscreen presents another candid roundtable conversation between three top guns in the factual entertainment business. This time around, we called upon the collected wisdom of Pilgrim Films and Television president/CEO/exec producer Craig Piligian and Robert Sharenow, SVP of non-fiction and alternative programming at A&E Network who both hopped on a call to discuss assorted hot-button topics. John Saade, SVP of alternative series, specials and late-night for ABC Entertainment, contributed in a later call.
Let’s start the discussion by talking about the ongoing blurring of the lines between cable and broadcast, in terms of perception of audiences and the approach to programming.
Rob Sharenow: There’s certainly a blurring of the lines right now and the cable model befits the times. We don’t ever produce anything at a loss at A&E; we assume everything’s going to air, and it does. We design everything to be profitable for everyone, and it’s a model that’s worked for 20 years and we expect it will continue to do so. But right now all bets are off in terms of who’s programming what and how.
John Saade: For the consumer I think there’s a big blurring of the lines between what’s broadcast and what’s cable. When you look at my kids’ generation, Disney Channel is channel 276 and ABC’s channel 407. The one thing we’re trying to do that’s really hard is to live up to the ‘broad’ in ‘broadcast’ and appeal to a mass audience. In terms of the volume of people that we have to have watching the shows for our survival, it puts a lot of pressure on the things that we do. But it also means we have to try to find those kinds of shows that can tap a nerve, because we don’t have the relative luxury of having a one-on-one kind of dialog with our audience the way that some of the smaller cable channels do, playing towards a specific demographic.
There have been examples of reality franchises with incredibly loyal audiences on both the cable and the broadcast side. Looking at a Survivor or The Real World, or a show such as The Bachelor that had its highest numbers in five years with this season’s finale, how much can you revamp or retool without altering a show’s DNA and still keep it working?
Craig Piligian: That’s the trick, because you don’t want to alter the DNA. I think one reason that some of these shows are having rebirths is that people are turning to their TVs more now. Viewers are coming back to television; it’s still the cheapest form of entertainment. If we start seeing color bars at 8p.m. on the networks, it’s going to be a lawless society out there. But it is difficult to keep a series fresh. You sit down with your creative team, look at each season independently and make sure you don’t screw it up from season to season and come up with a creative plan that hopefully keeps it fresh and new and doesn’t affect what your core audience came there for.
Saade: When reality storms the gates of a reality show, sometimes you end up with stuff that you were never anticipating. With The Bachelor, I think it’s one of the more enduring and imitated formats out there, but it has been going through a fairly substantial transformation, and it started with the Brad Womack series [season 11]. Instead of trying to force the situation into the format, the format was altered by the reality. In that cycle he didn’t pick anyone… That sort of changed the show, and it’s never been quite the same since then. Obviously, with Jason this time, you couldn’t have had a more topsy-turvy ending [bachelor Jason Mesnick originally proposed to one contestant, Melissa, only to change his mind and pursue a relationship with the runner-up, Molly]. In that case, I don’t think we broke the fabric of what the show was.
The thing you’re always fighting with is that the really enduring formats have become really comfortable wool blankets and you don’t want to try to turn them into something else. Shows that do radically transform tend to not stick around that long.
Sharenow: I think freshness is actually overrated. [Reality TV is] comfort food to a degree, and audiences like what they know and know what they like. With Dirty Jobs [produced by Pilgrim], part of the magic of that show is that it hasn’t changed radically since season one. Same with Intervention or The Real World – even on the scripted side. Law and Order – my God, that show’s been the same for 20 years. But is it possible to completely reinvent a show? Craig, I think you’ve had success in that with Ghost Hunters International – you’ve given it a new spin that works, because you’re staying true to the basic tenets of the show… It seems like desperate measures when you make those radical changes. I try to be as conservative as I can with our franchises and not insert the ‘cute kid’ in season five to get the younger demo.
Piligian: Audiences can sense desperation right away if you’re changing [the program] up too drastically.
What are you looking for, and what are you being pitched lately? In the wake of the success of recent male-oriented factual programming, there seems to be a lot of that out there now.
Sharenow: Well, I’ll tell you, I do think Craig has ruined television, but I mean that as a high compliment. (Laughs) People like Craig, Thom Beers, Mark Burnett, Bunim/Murray – these are guys who changed television. All of you guys brought in these unbelievable reality and non-fiction franchises 10 or 15 years ago and remade the landscape. But now, there are people growing up who want to be Craig or Thom or Mark or Jon. I think that’s my biggest complaint. I don’t have a lot of people coming into my office with the new crazy, exciting idea that’s going to shake the tree the way we saw it back then… What we need most are new ideas.
Saade: It’s really obvious when people come in to pitch something that they think is going to sell as opposed to something they have a genuine passion for. As soon as you start to over-anticipate the audience or think of it too much as a commodity that you think will sell, then you run into trouble. Matt Kunitz’s [exec producer of ABC's Wipeout] passion is big physical stunts, and it worked. [Mike] Fleiss was all about The Bachelor when he pitched it. It was a little bit shocking, a little bit tabloid but in the middle of it is a love story with a lot of complications. You’re always looking for someone with a vision for a unique show, and you trust that they can execute it.
What about tapping into general moods or social trends – for instance, there seems to be a movement towards ‘aspirational’ programming. Is that something you can see yourselves tapping into more?
Sharenow: When you try to follow a trend you’re always going to be too late. By the time you get something into production and hit the air, you’ll have missed the moment.
Saade: One of the real strengths about reality television is that usually [what works] is pretty unexpected. Dancing with the Stars was a completely unexpected format, and a lot of people who like the show probably originally thought they wouldn’t, based on the premise. That’s what people want out of reality shows, a new and unique experience, and when you play with trends you wind up delivering something that’s already out there in a slightly different way… The trend [for us] is trying to avoid a trend, which isn’t necessarily always the case in cable, where one show can feed off of another so well. Jon & Kate Plus 8 can feed into 18 Kids and Counting, and they co-exist quite well.
Wrapping up, in terms of reality more than holding its own in the ratings in several cases, do you think there’s still the perception out there that reality is an inferior form of entertainment, compared to scripted?
Saade: I think there are some shows that people don’t really think of as ‘reality’ anymore – Idol or Dancing or even The Amazing Race. There are still the echoes of reality being a shocking or weird form of programming. But I think we’ve moved way beyond that. Reality as a genre is so wide, moving from studio-based shows to location-based, and I don’t think you can really lump them together. In terms of ABC… there’s reality, dramas and comedies, and I think they co-exist naturally and work well together.
Sharenow: I look at a show like Intervention, which is really as serious and socially-minded as a show can be, and when I hold that up against a half-hour sitcom and weigh the social value of each, it becomes a strange argument. I think part of the problem is that everything gets lumped under the reality umbrella, and reality represents as big an array of genres as anything else. I think, Craig, we were nominated in the same category last year [at the Emmys, for outstanding reality program]: it was Dirty Jobs, Intervention, Antiques Roadshow and Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List. That, to me, amplifies how ridiculous the term is. It’s like putting The Sopranos up against Two and a Half Men.
Piligian: Yeah, you’re talking apples and oranges at that point. It’s something they should give a little more thought to.
Sharenow: There’s a different category for competition reality, thankfully. But we’ve got a way to go.