NATPE 2015: Reality Down But Not Out, Say Murray, Abrego

Reality producers and broadcast networks need to take some risks if the genre is going to move past its current slump, said Jonathan Murray, chairman of Bunim-Murray Productions, and Cris Abrego, co-chairman and co-CEO, North America, Endemol Shine Group, during a Wednesday morning panel at NATPE moderated by B&C editor-in-chief Melissa Grego.

“We have innovative ideas that we are coming up with, but trying to get the big nets to take those ideas seriously is hard,” said Murray, who is widely credited with launching modern reality TV with MTV’s The Real World in 1992 and is in its 30th season on the cable network. “They would prefer a show that’s already been on the air somewhere else so they can say it worked there. But I think some of the best ideas come from America.”

Like the rest of the industry, Murray has seen the decline of Fox’s once-unstoppable American Idol as well as the failure of such shows as X Factor, Rising Star and Utopia to catch on. “It’s frustrating to see shows like Utopia and Rising Star come and fail,” he said. “In some ways, I don’t think Rising Star could have ever worked because of the time zone differences, and Utopia was really badly cast and executed. It hurts us all when there are missteps like that.”

Casting also has gotten challenging for the reality genre, said both men.

After The Real World became a quick hit for MTV, Murray would spend hours looking through thousands of tapes to find his next cast members.

“In the early days of The Real World the production assistants would load our car with bins of VHS tapes. After you put that in the machine, within 10 seconds you knew whether you wanted to watch the rest of the tape or not. That person has to grab you, something about them that makes them compelling, whether that’s their look or how they talk,” said Murray.

But today, so many different types of reality shows have been done that it’s difficult to find a breakthrough personality.

“It’s become really difficult to find that diamond in the rough for a series, someone that the audience hasn’t seen before,” said Abrego, who got his start logging tape for Bunim-Murray but quickly climbed through the ranks before departing to produce his own series.

One way to get around that problem is to create shows with such strong formats that don’t need equally strong characters. “When you have a format with strong hook that alleviates the intensity of casting,” said Abrego.

That said, Murray believes strongly in the importance of telling a good story, no matter what the format. In 2009, Bunim-Murray took over production of Project Runway for Lifetime, and also has produced The Simple Life, Bad Girls Club and many other shows over the past 25 years.

“We don’t just rely on the format, we tell the personal story: what people have left behind, what they have sacrificed to be in this production,” said Murray. “Some producers rely just on who’s going to win, who’s going to go home, but you also have to tell the personal stories. I love formats, but I’ve worked with some networks who are so obsessed with their formats that they forget the human drama.”

While the industry is struggling right now to find the next big thing, innovation is often just a single tweak to an existing format. Take The Voice, which was a spin on American Idol, and The Surreal Life, which Abrego created after working on Real World.

“Right when I wanted to leave Bunim-Murray, I saw a commercial in which Sally Jessy Raphael was making Stovetop stuffing for Mr. T and some other celebrities. I thought, ‘that would be wild if they all lived together.’ We thought to put that together as an idea and turned to Jon and Mary Ellis (Bunim, Murray’s former producing partner who passed away in 2004) to see if they wanted to partner up.”

“We didn’t realize at the time that if you make one significant change to an idea, it really becomes something new. Foolishly we turned down the opportunity to produce the show with Cris and his team,” said Murray. “We did the same thing when John De Mol wanted us to produce Big Brother. We were again so offended someone wanted to make a game out of Real World.”

Abrego went on to produce The Surreal Life, which featured C- and D-list celebrities living together, and aired for two seasons on The WB and then moved over to VH1 for four more.

Today, both men said that even though the genre is currently challenged, the next big reality hit might be just one tweak away.

“That’s the bright side of unscripted,” said Abrego. “We’re so quick to evolve and adapt and there’s a ton of creativity out there, a ton of creative ideas. We are in a time of change.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.