(Photos: Rahoul Ghose)
The sixth annual Realscreen West conference returned to the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel last week, where delegates attended panel sessions, ‘Meet an Expert’ sessions, speed pitching events, ’30 Minutes With…’ meet-ups and luncheon roundtables, with U.S. network execs and their unscripted production partners.
After registering just under 900 delegates in 2013, the event attracted 1,072 this year – a 22% increase over last year. The proceedings kicked off on June 4 with “Refreshing Reality,” a sequel to a top-level panel at the Realscreen Summit this past January during which Lifetime EVP and GM Robert Sharenow said unscripted television was suffering through a “creative crisis.”
Four months later, Sharenow stood by the remarks although not all the panelists agreed with his assessment. He added that the recent wave of prodco consolidation would probably impact creativity and originality in the genre, joking that fellow panelist Stephen Lambert of All3Media America and Leftfield Entertainment CEO Brent Montgomery would be “teaming up to do a show called Not so Secret Millionaire” now that their respective companies have been acquired.
Meanwhile, CAA agent Alan Braun noted that “right now it’s a great time in reality,” but cautioned that aggressive focus on the bottom line was not encouraging the kind of risk-taking that leads to trendsetting series. “When profits come first and creativity comes second, that hurts,” he said.
The theme of refreshing and reinvention continued throughout the conference, as panelists discussed the techniques and platforms unscripted producers and networks are using to reel in viewers who do not differentiate between linear TV and digital.
Mary Lisio, EVP of non-fiction and branded entertainment for Scott Free Productions, moderated the sizzle reel-focused panel “Tape Talk: Finding the A-Ha! Moment.” Panelists advised attendees to keep reels short, cater content to at least three nets and emphasize their best footage.
“We put our best 10 to 20 seconds at the front, and it doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not,” Duck Dynasty producer Scott Gurney explained. “If someone says, ‘Oh, I’m so glad I stuck around to the fourth minute,’ that’s something you never want to hear.”
During “Digital Dollars and Sense,” panelists discussed the demarcations between TV and digital as platform-agnostic viewers come to expect quality programming on the Internet. Although they agreed that budgets for digital projects remain small, they each put a positive spin on the constraints.
“You have to be more creative in pre-production,” said Amy Emmerich, SVP of programming for Scripps Networks Interactive’s lifestyle portal Ulive.com, which launched last October. “It’s about finding those passion players, and selling a project that works better as short-form content.”
Many producers and networks have reacted to the rise of digital by conceiving real-time programming designed to drive live tune-in through viewer participation. The “Real-Time Reality” panelists agreed social media is a ubiquitous component in unscripted but it’s still unclear whether real-time equals real ratings.
Eyeworks USA president Brant Pinvidic argued that gauging ratings success based on social media is difficult and noted that shows that generate a lot of Twitter and Facebook activity don’t necessarily see ratings spikes.
“There’s no direct correlation between what’s happening out there and the ratings,” he said. “No matter what happens in social media, it all comes down to checking ratings at 6:15 a.m. It is only about that number. I think at one point, the industry will look at both social interaction and ratings.”
The need for companies to reinvent at a brand level was the subject of the panel “Remake/Remodel.”
TruTV programming head Chris Linn, who left MTV last year to join the Turner-owned cable net, explained that as millennial audiences are moving further into the 18-49 demo, the bar is getting higher for traditional TV to compete with digital for attention.
In TruTV’s case, this has meant shifting away from “conflict-oriented, super-structured and over-produced reality” into reality comedy, docuseries, scripted and competition programs aimed at an upscale male-female audience. Or as Linn put it, programming “for grown-ups.”
Day one’s sessions drew to a close with a panel on celebreality moderated by World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato. The panel boasted a little starpower of its own thanks to the presence of The Voice coach CeeLo Green – on hand to tout his TBS series CeeLo Green’s The Good Life – but it was the behind-the-scenes anecdotes from series such as True Tori, LeeAnn & Eddie and Hey Paula that took up the majority of the discussion.
Lifetime’s True Tori was a big topic at Realscreen West thanks to the real-time nature of the show and its darker subject matter. The series documents the former 90210 star’s troubled marriage, with producers turning around each episode within a week to keep up with the steady stream of tabloid stories that surround the couple.
“It’s the most unusual experience I’ve had in TV,” Lifetime senior VP of non-fiction programming Eli Lehrer explained, adding that greenlighting and producing the show was “terrifying.”
“It felt like a big risk but we had a hole in our schedule and it felt worthy,” he said.
Delegates ended day one poolside at the 2014 Realscreen Awards, which began with a performance by synchronized swimmers the Aqualillies (pictured) and was hosted by America’s Got Talent judge Howie Mandel. Once again emerging as a big winner this year was Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, which picked up five awards. The long-running series, which recently marked its 10th season, took home best editing, directing and music as well as the Docureality prize and the Awards of Excellence – Reality.
Logo’s drag queen competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race won Best Competition – Talent and Studio-Based Program as well as the Best Host/Presenter for RuPaul Andre Charles. Another double winner was Channel 4′s Rebuilding the World Trade Center, which won Best Cinematography and Non-Fiction – Social Issues and Current Affairs Program.
Discovery’s Skywire Live with Nik Wallenda won Digital and Branded Content – Multi-Platform Project; as well as an award for Most Original Concept. Highwire walker Wallenda was also on hand to accept the Realscreen Hall of Fame Personality of the Year award.
Top producers and network execs inducted into the Hall of Fame included Undercover Boss creator Stephen Lambert, named Producer Extraordinaire, and A+E Networks president and CEO Nancy Dubuc, who received the inaugural Television Trailblazer award.
The second day began with a panel featuring producers and network execs who have experienced the unscripted industry from both sides of the fence. Moderated by Ugly Brothers Studios co-founder Tim Duffy, “The Grass is Always Greener” covered an array of topics such as owning IP and how shows are greenlit.
Half Yard Productions’ owner Abby Greensfelder noted that she is faced with large groups of executives in greenlight meetings compared with the one or two execs that would meet with producers when she used to work for Discovery Channel.
She said she’s been able to make Half Yard’s most successful shows largely by flying under the radar. “What I prefer is to sell a show that nobody knows exists, where it’s not expected to do big things, and not everyone is setting up meetings to nit-pick it to death,” she said, referencing her National Geographic Channel series Diggers. “It’ll take a couple of those for a creative renaissance.”
The most contentious panel during this year’s event was also the most youthful. “Raised on Reality: Next Gen Talk Unscripted” was largely a lively debate around The Company co-founder Charlie Ebersol’s insistence that the way forward for the younger generation of unscripted producers is through ‘backdoor’ ancillary business that can grow out of television properties.
He told the panel he had invested $100,000 into a prospective talent’s fly fishing business in order to maximize his stake when it came time to negotiate other revenue streams with a network.
“The biggest thing facing us is that unscripted departments had two execs with buying power. Now they have 17 and the other 15 don’t have buying power. They have ‘maybe’ power. You have to figure out a way around it,” said Ebersol. “What this has created is something else. I don’t take out a television show unless I can spin three businesses out of it.”
A panel on “Global Format Hot Spots” heard that China, Ireland, Israel, Denmark, Turkey and Japan are among the top territories buyers are looking to find the next big unscripted formats.
Star China International Media’s chief representative and deputy general manager Vivian Yin explained the story behind the company’s Sing My Song format – billed as the first Chinese format to be exported overseas – and the market conditions (i.e. massive ratings, government regulations) in China that have shaped the landscape of format buying and creation in that country.
Yin called Chinese regulators’ limiting of the number of international formats a channel can buy to one per year a double-edged sword. “It limits imports but it stimulated national creativity in China,” she said.
A session examining the rise of the “mega-indie” in the new wave of mergers and acquisitions saw Leftfield Entertainment CEO Brent Montgomery, About Corporate Finance president and CEO Thomas Dey, ITV Studios U.S. Group EVP of business affairs Ivan Garel-Jones, High Noon Entertainment EVP of business affairs Brad Miller, and entertainment lawyer and partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan Matthew Thompson lifting the veil behind some of the processes involved in selling a production company, and in getting your company ready for sale.
“There’s no hurry,” advised Dey at the panel’s close. “You be the one to decide if this is a good time to sell. And then get advisors and choose who is the best company for you.”
This year’s event ended with an all-female panel discussion on the challenges unique to women working in unscripted.
Moderated by Nicole Page, a realscreen contributor and senior development executive with Engel Entertainment, “Reality Check: Women in Unscripted” covered topics such as the representation of women in reality shows such as The Real Housewives, pay equity and mat leave.
Spike TV EVP of original series Sharon Levy said she is careful to cast strong women in the network’s shows but she would like to see more HGTV-type reality on TV in which “there’s less women screaming.”
“We’ve got the Housewives, it’s [been] done,” she said. “It’s just time for people to make different shows. What’s most important is originality.”
The panelists also agreed that women in power positions should nurture younger female talent and create conditions that allow all women to achieve a work-life balance – especially when it comes to maternity leave policies.
“Until we’re able to give young, up-and-coming female producers time to chill out and have a baby, we are not breeding showrunners,” said Levy.
In addition to the panels, this year’s Realscreen West also featured a handful of offsite parties.
Tricon kicked off the after-hours events with a party at their Venice office on Tuesday while Getty Images hosted a gathering at storied Santa Monica watering hole, Chez Jay, the same day. In addition, ICM Partners’ Greg Lipstone opened up his home for a party, which saw a variety of producers and agents mingling in the Santa Monica sun.
After a cocktail reception at the Loews to celebrate the Realscreen Awards, Cineflix hosted a drinks reception at Shutters, before many assembled for the big do of the night: Asylum’s mansion party in Encino.