The seventh annual Realscreen West conference saw a great deal of business getting done in Santa Monica: producer Mark Burnett pitched a Sarah Palin’s Alaska-style docuseries on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Discovery Channel president Rich Ross promised to make the net synonymous with high-end docs and Anthony Bourdain cleaned up at the Realscreen Awards.
The conference was this year held at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel from June 1 to 3, and welcomed 1,137 delegates from 15 countries, an increase of 7% over last year’s event.
Kicking off the three-day event was a keynote with Burnett, who discussed with moderator Mike Schneider of U.S. outlet TV Guide his focus on faith-based programming and family-friendly content. The veteran producer was meant to speak with his wife and producing partner Roma Downey, but the latter was ill with laryngitis.
“We believe in God deeply, we try to pray every day, we seek God, put God first,” he said. “And if you look at all of our shows, every show we make, we have more shows on air than any other company and they’re all family-friendly. I don’t make anything my kids wouldn’t want to watch. I don’t make lowest common denominator stuff.”
The producer discussed everything from his History series The Bible – “You can easily p*** off millions of people by getting the Bible wrong” – to his upcoming Ben Hur remake, pointing out that all producers should treat making a network TV show like they’re making Ben Hur.
Burnett also managed to half-jokingly pitch his dream reality show: Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“President Putin, if you’re hearing this, I’m here from Realscreen [West] and I will fly to Russia tomorrow and it’ll be nothing political, it’s not like Bash Russia – it’s a show about your country,” said Burnett, pitching the series to Robert Sharenow, executive VP and GM of A&E and Lifetime, on the spot.
As the conference’s panel offerings geared up, the buzzword throughout the three-day event once again seemed to be “authenticity,” with both producers and network executives vowing to make reality a little more real with earnest characters, narratives and production techniques. A “Trendwatch: Keeping it Real” session discussed the shift away from over-produced reality due to a need for more relatability among viewers, while NBC’s Meredith Ahr and Endemol Shine USA’s Eden Gaha talked about the broadcaster’s new survival series The Island, which is 95% self-shot in a bid to boost authenticity.
Meanwhile, a keynote with A&E and History president Paul Buccieri saw the exec explaining that it only takes one hit to shake a genre out of a perceived rut.
“There is a sameness until there is something different,” he said, adding that there were hundreds of cop shows on TV before HBO’s critically lauded True Detective came along.
The former ITV exec – interviewed in the session by Greg Lipstone, a longtime friend and partner/head of international television and media at ICM Partners – took the reins of the cable network in January but opted not to discuss strategy specifics during the session. History is also pushing into the survival genre this summer with the self-shot series Alone, in which 10 survivalists are dropped into the Vancouver Island wilderness to see who can survive the longest without help.
“It’s a different way for us to get into the survival area,” he said. “I love the fact that it’s all self-shot and these guys don’t know if there are other competitors out there so it’s a battle against themselves.”
Elsewhere, Rich Ross sat down for a keynote conversation with The Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan, explaining that Discovery will dive “headlong” into blue-chip wildlife and natural history in order to compete with “the Netflixes and the HBOs” at the festival-level for feature docs.
“We will have by far the most aggressive documentary and special business on television by next year,” said the exec.
Ross – a former Shine America and Disney exec – also revealed plans to diversify the cable net’s survival, occupational and car-themed reality programming, launch a space-focused science weekend and Saturday morning programming block that will “reactivate” Discovery’s library around environmental and conservation issues, and make headway in the crime and forensics and epic jobs spaces.
Later, delegates took time out of packed schedules to take in Tuesday’s Realscreen Awards (pictured, top), where CNN’s Parts Unknown presenter Anthony Bourdain, Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid and Fox and Nat Geo’s science series reboot Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey were the big winners, picking up prizes for outstanding host, best docuformat and best science and technology program, respectively.
Bourdain was also inducted into the Realscreen Hall of Fame, along with Pilgrim Studios CEO and president Craig Piligian, who – in accepting his award – told the audience: “When you have a bad day, a bad week, a bad month, those things happen but in the end of the day, in this business, it’s really a wonderful life.”
Remaining conference panels continued to cover a range of hot topics, from hiring the right showrunner to handling the demands of talent.
A panel titled “The Showrunner: Soldier, Savior or Spy?” explored the pitfalls – and successes – of working with showrunners, and featured MBN Productions showrunner Billy Taylor and agent Alan Moore, VP of alternative and international television at APA, along with a handful of producers.
Jenny Daly, president of T Group Productions, said that as a showrunner herself, she’d like to be on every production, but can’t be everywhere, and needs to ensure the person she hires is representative of her company as well as the project. Elsewhere, Taylor – when asked which master he served – said he preferred to view the process as a collaboration.
“Hopefully, at the outset, you’re looking at it as a collaboration,” he said. “There are checks and balances. The other production company is checking you, and you’re delivering a cut and then the network’s checking that, and you’re going in, and there’s this back and forth volley. And that’s why we have several rounds of notes.”
Elsewhere, during “Making It to Season 2… And Beyond,” execs discussed why some shows last into multiple seasons while others don’t. Factors that impact a show’s longevity, the panel concluded, included binge-watching viewers who wait until season two is greenlit before they invest in season one, as well as talent demands.
“Once talent becomes indispensable, they become irrational,” quipped 3 Ball Entertainment chief creative officer Brant Pinvidic, who moderated the discussion. Later, Mona Scott-Young - CEO of Monami Entertainment and producer of the Love & Hip-Hop franchise for VH1 – warned producers to be wary of feeding the “celebrity monster ego” and advised that the best cast members treat a reality show as a springboard instead of an “end destination.”
“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.”
Rounding out the conference was the “Grace Under Pressure” panel, which assembled a roster of 10 star producers including Leftfield Entertainment CEO Brent Montgomery, Gurney Productions co-founder Scott Gurney and 495 Productions president SallyAnn Salsano, who each took the stage to regale the audience with a horror story – or highlight – from their producing careers. Did we mention there was tequila involved?