Factual Entertainment Forum kicks off in Santa Monica

Topics for discussion at the second annual Factual Entertainment Forum in Santa Monica included how to make the right deal, spinning off hits and whether or not reality TV can be good for its audience.
June 3, 2010

The opening day of the Factual Entertainment Forum in Santa Monica, CA, saw hundreds of producers, distributors and broadcast and cable executives convene to discuss assorted hot-button topics pertaining to the present and future of fact ent.

The panels kicked off with ‘Making the Deal,’ an examination of the deal-making process that aimed to shed light on the assorted ins and outs of negotiating with cable and broadcast to get a show on the air. Expertly moderated by Spike TV EVP of original series and animation Sharon Levy, the panel included such heavyweights as top lawyer Jeanne Newman, partner at Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman, Warren & Richman, LLP; George Cheeks, executive vice president, business affairs, MTV Networks; A. Smith & Co. CEO Arthur Smith; Lee Straus, senior vice president of business affairs, NBC Universal Entertainment and Todd Weinstein, SVP Business & Legal Affairs, 3 Ball Productions.

The panelists deliberated over two scenarios devised by Levy: in the first, an independent producer without a track record was pitching a docusoap, and in the second a producer with a bit of meat on the resume was delivering a format. All assembled agreed that the first deal won’t be the best one of a producer’s career, and that getting the all-important foot in a network door and fostering important relationships should mean more than attempting to win the day. While aligning one’s company with another, larger production entity could potentially boost the budget of a project to the point where it might price the show out of the running, it was a course of action encouraged by many panelists. And finding the right network partner for your project is key, as, according to Smith, ‘it’s about making hits, not making shows. Who can promote it better? Who is it better suited for? The one thing you as a producer can do is decide where your show gets pitched.’ ‘The onus is on the producer to do the homework,’ summed up Levy.

Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami, Real Housewives of D.C. and One Man Rehab are just some of the examples of spinoff series that were discussed in the ‘Spinoff Doctors’ session.

Half Yard Productions owner Abby Greensfelder, Michael Branton, EVP of creative affairs at GRB Entertainment and Jeff Jenkins, EVP at Bunim/Murray Productions, discussed with moderator Christian Drobnyk of UKTV their experiences working in the spinoff realm, both on shows spun off from their own franchises and spin offs they were commissioned to produce. All agreed that a key concern was to keep your talent close in order to have the opportunity to produce a spinoff.

Greensfelder said that when developing ideas for a show, producers should always think about the spinoff and retaining its rights. Half Yard’s producing Real Housewives of D.C., the latest in the Real Housewives franchise begun by Evolution Media that’s already raised a lot of buzz because of notorious cast member Mikhail Salahi. ‘It’s a great franchise for a production to do because it has a lot of noise around it,’ she said.

Bunim/Murray’s Jenkins spoke about how the producer should think about making the spinoff different enough that it doesn’t take away from the original project. Where Keeping Up with the Kardashians was more of a family show, he says Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami is racier and has sexier stories.

Jenkins also added that building relationships and trust with talent is of paramount importance. ‘You don’t throw them under the bus,’ he advised.

GRB’s Branton had the final word, ‘Just get the deal, get the money and make good stories.’

The final panel of the day was a ‘super panel’ posing the big question: can reality TV be good for you? Examining the rise of inspirational reality programming that also takes on the big social issues of the day, the panelists included Gary Benz, president & CEO of GRB Entertainment (Intervention ); Howard Lapides, CEO Lapides/Lear Entertainment and co-CEO Lapides/Dubrow Media (Celebrity Rehab); Noah Oppenheim, head of development, Reveille (The Biggest Loser) and Troy Searer, founding partner and CEO of Tijuana Entertainment (Obsessed ). As well, Alan Braun, agent with CAA and Robert Sharenow, SVP non-fiction & alternative programming at AETN, weighed in on the subject.

Sharenow firmly believes reality is the most socially valuable programming on television, and that in most cases the stigma that’s been built around it is undeserved. Taking GRB’s Intervention for example, one inspiring statistic that has come from the eight seasons of the show is that of the 161 patients the show has treated, 130 of them have remained sober after their treatment.

Lapides points to that statistic, and series such as Intervention and his own Celebrity Rehab as proof that programming dealing in addictions can have a positive societal impact. ‘[Through these shows] people see how bad it can be and if we stop these people from going over the edge… then we’re doing a good job,’ said Lapides.

Intervention was not an easy show to put on the air, explained Sharenow, as advertisers were not jumping to place ads in the series in its early days. But the execs at A&E believed in it, and it has since grown to be a consistently strong ratings performer for the channel while helping addicts through the show and a variety of outreach programs.

While Oppenheim points out there’s no way around the fact that elements of such programming are voyeuristic, a series like Reveille’s own The Biggest Loser marries entertainment value with social impact by establishing a premise in which the contestants on the show will get healthy if they succeed in playing the game.

The panel maintained that the key to creating reality TV that can be good for its audience is to simply document your subjects’ progressions honestly and authentically. As for how long the inspirational wave will last, while Sharenow believes reality TV will look different five years from now, he doesn’t think audiences will ever tire of watching people transform themselves for the better.

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.