Talent can make a show succeed, but at what cost – literally and figuratively?
During the panel “Making It to Season 2… And Beyond” at Realscreen West in Santa Monica on Wednesday (June 4), execs pored over why some shows last into multiple seasons and why some do not.
Tinkering with a format, binge-watching viewers who wait until season two is greenlit before they invest in season one and talent demands can all impact a reality show’s longevity, and the latter subject led the assembled execs to compare notes on how to work with on-camera characters.
“Once talent becomes indispensable, they become irrational,” quipped 3 Ball Entertainment chief creative officer Brant Pinvidic, who moderated the discussion.
Earlier this year, the New York Post reported that the Kardashians managed to secure a three-season extension deal for their E! series Keeping Up with the Kardashians worth $100 million. That figure was quickly shot down as “grossly inaccurate” by the network.
Without giving specific numbers, Bunim/Murry Productions CEO and chairman Gil Goldschien told the panel the Kardashian/Jenner family has managed to increase their compensation season over season.
“They get it,” he said. “Part of the success of that series is because they are so open.”
While many cast members of hit shows might seize upon success to make demands, the best treat a reality show as a springboard rather than an “end destination,” according to Mona Scott-Young (pictured), CEO of Monami Entertainment and producer of the Love & Hip-Hop franchise for VH1.
“In building out that brand, we were mindful to make it about the brand and not the talent on the show,” she told the room. “This show is not the end destination [for talent]. This is a means to an end. Be smart about that and leverage it into ancillary opportunities.”
Scott-Young warned producers to be wary of feeding the “celebrity monster ego.” Having spent 20 years as a talent manager prior to becoming a television producer, she has no qualms telling a cast member where to go if unsustainable demands could result in cancellation rather than compensation.
“We bench ‘em. We put ‘em on ice,” she said.
Bunim/Murray produced The Simple Life starring socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie for five seasons but ran into problems on the talent front.
“That show could’ve gone on forever but we had talent issues,” said Golschien. “For some, five weeks of working in a given year was too much.”
But there are, of course, cases in which the talent builds the brand and is practically irreplaceable. MTV programming president Susanne Daniels called Queer Eye‘s Carson Kressley an essential talent, while Gena McCarthy, the SVP of programming for FYI and a former exec for Lifetime and Discovery Channel, pointed to Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame as integral to that show’s eight-season run.
“He was worth every penny of what we paid him,” she said. “He earned his salary. He was crawling through sewers and he would remind me of that every single week.”
While talent deals can impact a show’s survival, ratings are the ultimate determining factor. However, if a show has middling ratings, networks are more likely to take a chance on a second season.
McCarthy explained that extreme food show Epic Meal Empire, which was inspired by the YouTube series Epic Meal Time, wasn’t an out of the gate hit, but FYI renewed it and is retooling it with the same talent but in a different form.
Love & Hip-Hop was another season one under-performer but it went on to find success in season two thanks in part to the docusoap’s popularity on social media. Noticing the amount of activity online, producers undertook a concerted social media marketing effort to reach fans they knew were out there.
“There was more chatter than eyeballs,” explained Scott-Young. “There was such a fervor for the show on social media and that’s what allowed it to survive into a second season.”
(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)