Reality TV? These Two Producers Wrote the Book
Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim should probably be called the grandparents of reality TV.
After all, they launched the trend with MTV's Real World and Road Rules in the early 1990s, but when reality finally made the leap to prime time in 2000 it skipped a generation. Blockbuster shows emerged such as Mark Burnett's Survivor, Fremantle's American Idol and Mike Fleiss's The Bachelor, but Bunim and Murray had no big network prime time hit.
Now the two think they have found their way into prime time's big time this fall with Fox's The Simple Life. The show features "celebutantes" Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie living on an Alabama farm and doing things the impossibly rich girls have never even imagined, like getting real jobs, punching a time clock, and hanging out at the local gas station. Fox liked the show so much they moved it out of the summer reality glut to a fall launch, where Bunim, Murray and Fox executives expect it to flourish.
But Bunim and Murray's biggest challenge—and biggest risk—this fall is NBC Enterprises' Starting Over, the first new-generation reality show to hit daytime syndication. A group of women, each in the throes of a personal or professional crisis, are housed together and try to work out new lives for themselves.
Starting Over, which includes elements daytime audiences find appealing, is poised either to become a trend-setting hit or an expensive flop, but NBC Enterprises has faith in the two experienced producers. Recently, Murray and Bunim (pronounced to rhyme with you-nim) talked with Los Angeles Bureau Chief Paige Albiniak about their two new shows and how reality TV has changed prime time television forever. The interview has been edited for space.
How did you come up with the concept for Real World and Road Rules?
JM: Real World was an outgrowth of Mary-Ellis Bunim's and my backgrounds. She had spent many years as an executive producer of daytime dramas and I spent many years in documentary and news programming. When you mix the documentary and soap world, you get this reality thing, this real-life soap.
MEB: When you start with writers, sets, directors and actors, it is enormously expensive. We thought if you trained cameras on people who were really interesting, and edited that in an interesting way and cut it to music, what do you have? We did a pilot that was fascinating. We knew within 20 minutes of shooting that we had a series.
You came up with that idea, pitched it around and MTV picked it up?
JM: We didn't pitch it all around. We had been in development working with MTV on a scripted soap, and when that didn't go forward for various economic reasons we said what if we did something like it but did it unscripted and edited it like a drama. We felt that would be cutting edge for MTV because it hadn't been done.
That became Real World. In the second season, we sent two cast members in a Winnebago to pick up a third cast member. Just watching the three of them in that Winnebago together was so entertaining and interesting. A couple of years later when MTV asked us to do a spin-off, we said what about a road show? And Road Rules became the first game reality show. Later, there was Survivor and Fear Factor, but Road Rules was really the first.
Why did it take so long for reality to hit prime time?
JM: Because the networks kept saying, "Oh, that's a cable thing, the prime time audience wants scripted television whether its comedy or whether its drama. They won't go for this stuff." Finally, they did Survivor and Big Brother in Europe and they were both huge hits. Those shows became very successful over in Europe and suddenly the networks were willing to take a chance.
What elements make a good reality cast?
JM: Each person has a unique story and you have to care about them. You care about all of these women in Starting Over. They have humor and passion. They each have a distinctive and interesting look and they are not afraid of conflict. That's the great thing about having a show with women. Women are generally less afraid of conflict than men. They are direct with each other about what they are feeling and that comes up clearly in this show from day one.
MEB: After all these years, I guess we are good at it. We have an instinct about what makes a good cast member. What makes a person compelling television is that they are telegenic, articulate, funny and colorful. We cast for diversity, cast for conflict, all sorts of ways.
What about managing the process when you are doing a strip?
JM: We approached this with the idea that every day in the house had to equal a television show. We've been disciplined in sticking to that.
In Real World we do an outline first, then we actually write a 13-page almost-script from the raw material.
In this show, we're going immediately to what we call "string out, " when the two story people assigned to the show are looking at the material and creating an edit, a first rough-cut. That's approved with notes from the producers and then it goes to the editing team, which has a week to take it from the editing room to a show. It takes about two weeks from the day something happens to the day it becomes a show.
Is that the dirty little secret about reality TV—it's not that real?
The difference between a documentary and a reality show is that the producer thinks through a reality show before he does it from the standpoint of "how is this show going to be entertaining?" "How am I going to get viewers to tune back before each commercial break?" "How is the network going to be able to promote this?" You are thinking about all those things when you are making a reality show.
How different is putting together a reality show than putting together a scripted show?
JM: The difference is that with a scripted show a lot of the work happens in the script. If you can get a great script, then you go shoot it. In a reality show, you cast it first and then come up with the show's architecture. Then you shoot it and go through this long process, similar to the script process, where you make an outline and go through multiple rough cuts to massage and fine-tune the show into being as good as hopefully that great script was.
Do you think this summer diluted the affect of reality shows?
JM: I think this summer showed that unless you come up with something fresh, unless there's a unique quality to it, it's only going to do okay. The ones that are going to be hits are the ones that are truly unique.
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