Summit ’14: U.S. reality television ‘needs an intervention’

Factual television in the United States is suffering from a "horrible creative crisis," a panel of top cable execs and TV producers heard during Tuesday's 'View From the Top' session at the Realscreen Summit. (Pictured: Lifetime's Robert Sharenow)
January 28, 2014

Factual television in the United States is suffering from a “horrible creative crisis,” a panel of top cable execs and TV producers heard during the opening session on day three of the Realscreen Summit.

Moderated by NHNZ development and production EVP Phil Fairclough, the panel – featuring FremantleMedia North America CEO Thom Beers; Animal Planet, Science Channel and Velocity group president Marjorie Kaplan; Leftfield Entertainment CEO Brent Montgomery; Bunim/Murray Productions chairman Jonathan Murray; and National Geographic Channels president Howard T. Owens – mulled over an assertion from Lifetime EVP and general manager Robert Sharenow (pictured above) that the reality TV renaissance is long over.

“That sense of real creative energy is not there right now,” explained Sharenow. “Whereas 10 years ago the scripted world was as boring as it could get and non-fiction was in there with all these innovative formats, now it’s completely reversed.

“It’s a creative crisis,” he continued. “There is a high motivation on the buyer and seller’s parts to keep doing the same thing.”

During the hour-long chat, Fairclough asked each panelist to select a favorite moment from one of their own shows; a competitor show they like to watch; and a pet peeve.

But it did not take long for the panelists to call upon assembled producers and television executives to take more risks rather than produce imitations of hits such as Storage Wars. Many of the shows the execs said they personally enjoying watching are scripted: House of Cards, Downton Abbey and FX’s upcoming Guillermo Del Toro-created vampire show The Strain.

“The characters in scripted feel more real than the people on reality TV,” offered Kaplan.

“I agree with Rob,” said Murray, who is the midst of producing the 29th season of his trend-setting reality hit The Real World for MTV. He added that execs should watch dailies and nix a show as early as two days into production if producers are not delivering on the concept pitched. “Networks should pull the plug on shows earlier.”

His pet peeve is when reality shows try to seem like scripted shows and come off as completely fake. “When you script reality it becomes a lot more mediocre,” he said, after playing a clip from the A&E series Southie Rules.

With that in mind, Fairclough challenged Murray to justify The Real World‘s continued run, to which he responded by showing a moment from a recent episode when the cast arrives home to their shared accommodation and – much to their horror – discover their exes have moved in.

This season’s format shake-up, he argued, is offering MTV’s young viewers a new yet relatable emotional angle.

“Our quaint little idea of seven diverse people living together is not that great anymore. This generation lives in diversity,” he said. “Every year for us is a like going to war to keep our show on the air.”

Not every reality program received a thumbs down. The panel singled out factual series such as Naked and Afraid, Chopped, Iron Chef Japan and Undercover Boss as programs that offered something fresh. In particular, Montgomery lauded Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid as a survival series with strong female characters and appeal.

“It’s the only reality show that I watch with my wife,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kaplan used the opportunity to publicly rebuff widely reported allegations published in Mother Jones magazine that producers of the Animal Planet reality series Call of the Wildman broke the law and abused and killed animals.

“No animals have been harmed in the production of that show. No animals have died,” she stated, adding the article contained several inaccuracies. “I’m a fan of Mother Jones so this is very painful.”

She explained that the magazine’s allegation that the three emaciated raccoons that required treatment at a Kentucky Wildlife Center in April 2012 after appearing on the show had already been turned over to an animal sanctuary and were no longer in the care of producers.

“It had nothing to do with what happened in the production,” she said.

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