Skip to main content

Meet the execs who shape reality

Reality television debuted with Survivor
last summer on CBS, after ABC rediscovered the prime time game show with
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.
Now, reality (somehow game shows have been lumped into the genre) is everywhere. As the 2001-02 TV season begins this week, 11 "unscripted" reality or game shows will dot prime time on six networks. All of the networks have reality series in development for midseason as well, and NBC is coming off a successful summer reality run led by FearFactor, Spy TV
and Weakest Link. There have also been failures, lawsuits and allegations of chicanery.

Earlier this month, BROADCASTING & CABLE's Los Angeles Bureau Chief Joe Schlosser organized a roundtable discussion with the top reality executives at ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, The WB and UPN. Constituting the panel were Andrea Wong, ABC's senior vice president of alternative series and specials; Ghen Maynard, CBS's vice president of alternative programming; Jeff Gaspin, NBC's executive vice president of alternative series, long-form and program strategy; Danielle Greene, UPN's vice president of alternative development and current programming; Mike Darnell, Fox executive vice president of specials and alternative programming; and Carolyn Bernstein, The WB's newly named senior vice president of drama development.

The roundtable took place prior to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, but the executives were asked several questions in the week after the tragedy.

The following is an edited transcript:

In light of the terrorist attacks, will reality TV change at your network?

I think we are evaluating that now. I think it may be too early to tell because we are just fresh from this. At the same time, we are evaluating all of our shows and everything we have in development in terms of creative content, to sort of assess … the appropriateness of each of them.

It's a much broader question, [concerning] all entertainment. I think to specify reality is weird. I don't think there is any difference between reality shows and fictional shows in the sense of sensitivity. I don't know how things are going to be affected. I don't know what the differences are going to be. I think the whole world has changed, but especially this country. Now it's really a question of where people's minds are going to be in two weeks, five months or two years from now. I think if you asked the drama or comedy department or anybody else, it would be the same answer: We just don't know yet.

Our approach at The WB has always been to embrace themes like wish fulfillment, positivism and optimism in all of our reality programming, so I think we are in a fortunate position in that we don't need to really change direction because we have always been trying to embrace those themes as opposed to the kind of negativity or mean-spiritedness that some of my counterparts have embraced.

Everything we are doing is not reality TV; what we witnessed in New York and Washington, that's reality TV. What we do is unscripted drama or comedy, and there is a big distinction because, in everything we do in what we used to call "reality TV"—and I don't think that we should call it 'reality TV' anymore, it's produced, it is manipulated, there are games—the only things that are real are people's reactions.

We haven't had any conversations since the attacks happened. I think we are fortunate that the one big show we are shooting, it doesn't have a name, but it's an Endemol project, and it's a family reality show. It's certainly much more uplifting.

Do you think there will be less interest in reality programming after what happened at the World Trade Center?

I think unscripted TV is going to be just as desired as scripted television the same way it was beforehand. When you go back to your viewing, I don't think it makes a difference. When you want to go back to be entertained, that's what you are going to look for. Whether people will want the more humorous vs. the more dramatic, I don't know the answer to that, but I think it will affect unscripted the same way it does scripted.

I'm not good at playing Nostradamus, but I know just as a viewer that we all are going to need an escape from the news events that are going on 24 hours a day right now. I don't know what the audience is going to have an appetite for.

At CBS, has there been any talk of renaming Survivor, given all that has happened?

It's something that a lot of us have thought about. If Survivor
were being pitched right now as a brand-new show, I think absolutely it's something that you would have to think about, because it would seem a little bizarre and unfortunate. The reality is, however, it is a show that is a very established franchise and everybody knows what it means, so I don't think it's a name that has to change.

Is there anything that would now seem inappropriate?

We are going through that process right now and trying to figure that out. I would assume all of the networks are doing this right now, looking at their development, figuring out … what makes sense and what is appropriate in light of last week's events. Also waiting, a little bit, to see how this unfolds.

At the moment, no. Not that we had anything in development, but there were a bunch of pitches for a lot for spy-type reality shows, simulated war games and stuff I wasn't interested in before, and I'm still not interested. There are no plans to really change Spy TV
either. I will tell you there were a couple of stunts in Spy TV
that we changed or canceled for episodes being done right now. They just didn't seem appropriate. … There was one with a car that has to take an off-road route and it turns out to be a fake minefield. It was going to be simulated bombs going off, and we chose not to do that.

How many reality projects have you been pitched since Survivor
hit a year ago, and how many reality projects do you have in development? If you can, pass on the craziest idea you have heard.

It's hard to say how many reality shows I have been pitched. I'd say probably, for a while, there was an average of 15 or 20 pitches a week. A number of them were very imaginative, but the problem was that, a lot of times, they are by people who have never executed anything similar to those concepts.

I've had hundreds, probably thousands of pitches, many of them derivative.

We probably have six to 10 projects in some form of development. I think the hoax stuff [Candid Camera-style prank programming] is the craziest stuff you hear. I think people like coming in and trying to shock us. We laugh and sometimes enjoy it, but then most of the time we say, "We really can't broadcast that."

In the four months since I joined the network, I'd say I have had over 200 pitches, but that's because many people come in with multiple ideas. It's amazing: If I have several people coming in on one day, everybody who comes in has the same pitch. They don't come in different weeks. ... Someone will come in thinking they have something you've never heard before, and you actually heard it 10 minutes earlier.

As for the craziest idea, I was pitched—via email, and I'm glad it came this way—for a show called Convict Island: Basically, convicts are put on an island and have to go through Survivor-like challenges—all for charity. So it had some redeeming qualities. We have about a dozen reality series currently in development.

As far as shocking stuff goes, I've heard some stuff I wouldn't do, but, generally, the stuff we've created is worse than the stuff that is pitched.

How did the international market get so far ahead of Hollywood in reality, and what does that say about U.S. networks?

I think it does say something about us. I've been saying that for years. I think what happened was, when there was That's Incredible
and Real People
and you had other stuff in the late '70s and early '80s, there was a lot more variety on network TV. Sometime in the late '80s and early '90s, when cable was sort of doing its own things, doing reality and cheaper stuff, the networks, I think subconsciously, went to dramas and comedies and decided that that's the more expensive programming, that's what people are coming to us for, and that's what we are concentrated on.

A recent Boston Herald
article said, "The reality trend is going to continue unabated this fall, much to the chagrin of anyone with even a scintilla of good taste." Is there anything to that? Is there anything redeeming about these shows?

Look, I've been a fan of reality television for a long time, so I don't hold that belief. Certainly, when you look at the younger demographic, anything under 30, that's what they grew up on, reality shows.

Look at MTV or even Nickelodeon, there is so much more reality programming out there. As they grow up, they are not growing up with sitcoms and dramas. My kids don't watch the networks. They watch cable. They start with Nick and Cartoon Network, and they are going to graduate probably to some networks geared towards teen-agers like an MTV. At some point, they will hit the broadcasters, but they are not growing up with sitcoms and dramas.

In terms of redeeming value, I don't know. Is there anything redeeming about dramas or comedies? It's to pass the time, and, hopefully, it provides a reflection of what you do and who you are and give you some insight to some things. I think reality television actually does that better than scripted television.

At first, reality series were billed as cheap, alternative programming to high-priced comedies and dramas. Still true?

With the quality of shows and elaborate stuff we are getting pitched, it is hitting a point where it's not cheaper than some dramas and comedies we are doing.

Certainly, costs are going up. The economic incentive is lessening over time because of the demand for producers who can do these shows and their prices are going up. Also, we looked at Survivor
a lot, and it has sort of established a certain benchmark in terms of production values.

We've seen how failed background checks have come back to bite a few networks, with Justin on Big Brother
and Rick Rockwell on Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?. How have background checks changed in the past year, and how does your network handle the task?

It's funny because we were the first to have the issue come up with Rick Rockwell and, in hindsight, it seems relatively minor to what has sort of happened since then. It has now become a major cost factor for us in producing shows. We are incredibly elaborate with it. We have an outside company that does everything for us, then there are lawyers involved, and there are just 50 billion things going on now to do this. ...

You will never perfect it. In the last couple of years, the FBI has had two people who turned out to be spies for over 20 years, the CIA has had spies, and it took until George Bush was running for president of the United States to find a DUI on him. Even government organizations, where security is everything, can't find everything.

We have been very lucky on Survivor
that we haven't had surprises. But, on Big Brother, the Justin situation does exemplify some of the challenges. In that case, one of the administrators in the court system from his home town considered the information that he had been arrested (charges were dismissed) to be information that the public wasn't entitled to and therefore did not tell us. Yet that same person felt that
The New York Times
had a right to know about it.

In the wake of the Manhunt
revelations, in which a producer claimed he was urged to manipulate parts of the show, should reality shows be put under the same guidelines that game shows were placed under after the 1950s quiz-show scandals?

We have not had to deal with the same kind of problems. I think some of it's luck. I can't say that that kind of problem is not going to come up. I think it's a constant struggle, not so much on the programming side but at broadcast standards and practices, which is sent to almost all of our shoots. I think we try to be really, really diligent in trying to present a fair, clean game to the audience, but, unless we have someone on location for every second of shooting, we have to work with producers we can trust.

It's really two separate issues. You've got the fairness issue: With game shows, you've got to make sure that the game is fair and that the contestants all have an equal chance at winning. ... Then there is the other issue, which is how it is presented to the audience. When you are taping 600 or 700 hours of tape and culling it down to a few hours, there is a lot of manipulation going on. You are trying to create the best story that you can.

So I really think it's two separate issues. We have not presented to the audience that everything we are doing is as it happened in the order that it happened. We are saying these are unscripted dramas. The press is saying what they want to say, but we have not presented it that way.

Producers on Survivor, Manhunt
and others have admitted to staging certain scenes and/or adding "beauty" shots after the fact. Sort this out for me.

A so-called beauty shot is OK if it's just that, a beauty shot. When it's not OK is when you are actually saying that something happened and it never did. Or if you are taking the actual contestants and directing them to do something in a certain way, that's not OK. But getting a beauty shot from a helicopter way up high of people running does not change the reality of what happened; it just gives it a bigger feel for the epic-like quality of what it is you are trying to visually communicate.

I'm not a huge fan of staging a situation, but I have been very comfortable with stealing a shot from another time and placing it in a particular show to cover a hole that I might have. We are not re-creating anything, but we are taking something out of context.

Are you afraid someone might die on a reality show? Will it kill off the genre, so to speak?

In terms of shows like Fear Factor, I think the illusion of danger is much greater than the actual danger. That is the point of shows; I think that is the point of Fear Factor
. It's all produced by the same stuntmen that produce all of the stunts in all Hollywood movies and television, and we triple- and quadruple-check the safety on all of the stunts that we do on our shows.

In the end, you're probably more likely to get killed in your car on the way to one of these shows than you are on the actual show. ... I think the likelihood of someone dying of a heart attack because they won a million dollars is greater than getting hurt on Survivor
or Fear Factor.

I'm sort of laughing, because the only injury that we have had, at least that I can think of, was on the most recent Popstars
audition: One of the contestant was so thrilled to have gotten a call-back that he jumped up the air and twisted his ankle. That's probably the biggest issue that we have had so far.

On No Boundaries, we had more safety personnel on-location than we had contestants. Literally. I think there were two people assigned to every contestant for safety precautions.

What is the next trend in the alternative area?

We are getting pitched a lot of fantasy things. I don't know if it's because of the coming Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, but I do think there are a lot of fantasy elements to the stuff that we are getting pitched. Role-playing is a key thing in some of these potential shows.

Where will reality TV be in five years in terms of its importance to your schedule?

The economics will always be somewhat of an incentive to try to keep this form of TV alive. I think for us, with Survivor
The Amazing Race,
it wasn't about "Hey, this is going to cost a little less than dramas, that's why we are going to air it." It was because, competitively, it could stand up with dramas and comedies. I think that, as long as we get fresh visions and people who excite us with good visions, the genre has a good chance of staying alive five years from now.