Abrego and Murray Size Up Reality Game-Changers

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Shine-Endemol U.S. cohead Cris Abrego, whose career began at production company Bunim-Murray, reunited with former boss Jonathan Murray, creator of unscripted hits including MTV’s seminal The Real World, onstage at NATPE on Jan. 21. The two spoke with B&C editor-in-chief Melissa Grego about trends in the fast-moving reality business. The following are edited excerpts from their conversation.

What’s the biggest difference in production [of The Real World] from Season 1 to Season 30, aside from the number of cameras?

Jonathan Murray: I think that everybody just left us alone. In the early years of reality TV, nobody understood what we were doing, so if we were doing a show for MTV or someone else they pretty much left you alone. And today obviously there are a lot of people developing…. People look at budgets, they have their idea for what you’re doing. They have some thoughts on how you could do it better.

Cris, your first job was logging tapes at Bunim/Murray, right? What did you learn that you carry with you today?

Cris Abrego: The Real World was shot over five-and-a-half months, six months of living with these kids, thousands of hours of tape. That was a massive amount of volume. It wasn’t like a script where you could edit pages. Back then, you really learn how to structure story, even in the field, but more so in finding editors. We had to start to find editors who were storytellers, not just editors who could cut from a script.…Even to this day when you put an idea together for a show, you think, ‘OK, we’re gonna put some people in a house. Let’s put seven people in a house.’ Seven’s always the number.…I once said, ‘Jon, why did you come up with seven people? Why does that number make sense to you?’ He’s like, ‘Those are all the microphones we could fit in a camera.’ That’s it.

Murray: I also think an odd number has more energy. If you had an even number, for us in the early days that meant three guys, three girls, and they usually ended up forming their own little groups.

Given the ubiquity of reality today how do you approach the casting process now?

Abrego: It’s difficult. I miss the good old days, finding that diamond in the rough in casting, and I’m talking about five years ago because apparently reality television was moving too slow to give everybody their 15 minutes, and so we have the Instagrams and Vine and, of course, YouTube.

Murray: I think we’ve had to become much more thorough in our process. We really want to make sure the person you’re seeing in the casting interview is really who that person is. You want somebody with a big personality, but you also want somebody who’s open to being open and curious about the people they’re going to live with. You don’t want somebody who’s just coming to perform.

Abrego: That’s why for us as a company we like to focus on formats. When you can focus on a format that has a great hook, it can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you as opposed to a docu-series, where it’s carried by a cast or a group of individuals.

Murray: I always say don’t just rely on format, you have to tell the personal story, what’s at stake for them. What have they left behind? What are they sacrificing?

How hard is it to feel like there is going to be a happy accident?

Murray: I think producers who work with Cris and people who work with me, we have the big idea in America that we are coming up with. But trying to get CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox to really take those ideas seriously is hard. They want a show that’s already been on the air somewhere else that’s been a success.…The stakes are so high. And on CBS, NBC, ABC, the budgets are big to make a big tent show. It’s frustrating to see shows like Utopia and Rising Star. In some ways Rising Star I don’t think could ever work in the U.S. because of the time zone situation and Utopia was just really badly cast and executed. It hurts us all when there are missteps like that.

It’s a rocky moment on the networks for reality, and a lot of executive changes—What do you think is going to have to happen to foster success?

Abrego: The bright side for unscripted is we’re so quick to evolve and adapt. When you look at the community of unscripted producers who are out there who are coming up, there’s a ton of creativity out there, a ton of great ideas.