Realscreen came to the home of reality TV for Wednesday’s inaugural Factual Entertainment Forum: The Real Deal yesterday. The intimate setting in the Sheraton Delfina ballroom in Santa Monica allowed for frank discussions about successes, failures and how to make a reality hit.
The event kicked off with a case study of The Biggest Loser, where co-creators/executive producers JD Roth (CEO/co-founder of 3Ball Productions) and Mark Koops (managing director, Reveille), Reveille development/production VP Chad Bennett and Jenny Ellis, manager of alternative programming for NBC Universal, took the crowd through the evolution of the blockbuster. Moderated by Promax/BDA’s Jonathan Block-Verk, the session revealed that the origins of the show stemmed from NBC asking Reveille and 3Ball to create a show in the vein of the plastic surgery reality shows circulating the market at the time, but Roth and Koops wanted to take what they called the old-fashioned route and focus on transformation through exercise and nutrition. Thanks to the trainers, Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper, excellent casting, and successful brand extensions and integrations, the show has become the biggest weight loss property on television and a consistent ratings winner for NBC. Over the course of its evolution, the show also dropped comedic overtones and became more about the cast’s heroic struggles. ‘Every time someone comes out and steps on a scale, it’s a victory,’ said Roth.
In another session, Real Innovation, heavy-hitter producers Gary Auerbach from Go Go Luckey, R. J. Cutler from Actual Reality Pictures, Thom Beers from Original Productions and creator of The Amazing Race Bertram van Munster came together to talk about game-changing reality series, while Discovery Channel’s Gena McCarthy and TLC’s Nancy Daniels offered the network point of view. Moderated by MTV Networks’ SVP alternative programming Aaron Meyerson, the panel also talked predictions. Auerbach thought there was room for a comedic vein of alternative programming, and McCarthy agreed, citing the success of Pitch Men on Discovery. Bertram van Munster admitted that in The Amazing Race he’s creating situations that he believes are inherently funny, to foster unpredictable outcomes. Cutler said he sees something in the realm of high-end access-based reality in the future.
In Reinventing the Real, panelists Craig Piligian from Pilgrim Films & Television, Jonathan Murray from Bunim/Murray Productions and ABC Entertainment’s VP of alternative series and specials, Corie Henson, were very candid and colorful in discussing failures over the course of their careers as well as various ways to keep long-running reality franchises fresh. Piligian found a silver lining in the failed Worst Case Scenario, since its host Mike Rowe went on to host Dirty Jobs, now on its 250th episode. Murray was disappointed with the lack of audience response to The Scholar, where ten high-school seniors competed for a college scholarship. ‘Young people avoided it because it came out in June, when they didn’t want to be thinking about school,’ said Murray, adding that when it came to the show, the youth demo must have been asking itself, ‘where’s the hot tub?’
Over the course of the day, the focus was on the scores of successes from the A-list panelists, from The Amazing Race to Deadliest Catch. The attendees learned that the thread that goes through all of those successes are passionate producers and executives. Howard T. Owens, managing director, co-head of domestic television and head of digital at Reveille, spelled it out during the closing Reality Roundtable session: ‘Go with your passion.’