With the success of reality television and the struggles of scripted, you'd think reality producers would be happy to stick with their end of the business. The most successful reality producers are network darlings, own their own companies so they don't have studio hassles to deal with, and are right in the middle of the longest, hottest trend prime time network television has seen in years.
But, in the past month, big-name reality producers have signed deals with networks and studios that they hope will give them the entrée into the scripted world they really want.
Mark Burnett, of Survivor and The Restaurant, and his producing partner Conrad Riggs, has signed an exclusive two-year deal with Warner Bros. to produce scripted shows. Bruce Nash, who this summer had Meet My Folks, For Love or Money 1 and 2, and Who Wants To Marry My Dad? on NBC, just signed a deal to do a reality-inspired scripted drama, The List, also for NBC.
The Bachelor's Mike Fleiss has a deal to do a scripted sitcom for ABC. Phil Gurin, who produces such shows as the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants on NBC and Test the Nation on Fox, did a comedy pilot for Fox (the network passed on it). Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim, of NBC Enterprises' Starting Over and MTV's Real World and Road Rules, have a drama in development at Twentieth Century Fox.
So what's the appeal?
It's the money, for one. But it's just not the financial potential, reality producers say, It's more the intangibles: the fulfillment of childhood dreams, the satisfaction of ego, and the passion to pursue a creative vision.
"You kind of back into reality television. It's not your dream as a kid," says Gurin, president of his own self-named company. "The move to get into scripted is using your clout to move closer to your dream."
Says Nash, "I haven't tasted success in scripted television. I would feel very fulfilled if I had a really successful drama or comedy."
There's status involved. "Reality producers are not considered in the same light as people in the scripted world, and the people in the scripted world all want to be in the feature-film world," observes Ben Silverman, president and CEO of Reveille, a division of Universal Television Group that produces The Restaurant (with Burnett) and NBC's British import Coupling. "That's the odyssey that everyone in Hollywood wants to be on. There's definitely ego involved."
But besides the desire to move up a rung in Hollywood's pecking order, there's definitely more money in scripted if a producer hits it big.
"The thing scripted has at the moment that reality doesn't have is the backend potential," says Chris Coelen, head of alternative television at United Talent Agency.
Successful syndicated shows, usually sitcoms, can bring studios hundreds of millions of dollars and live long on television. Besides recent hits like Friends, Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond, classics like I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H and Cheers can be found on television every day.
While, so far, reality programs haven't been successfully syndicated, there are signs that some of the more popular shows could make their way into reruns. Both Real World and Road Rules can be found in syndication, and Burnett and Riggs say there have been offers on Survivor, although no deal has been made. Silverman believes The Restaurant or unscripted dramas like it could find a lucrative home in syndication.
"Who knows that Survivor doesn't have great backend potential?" Burnett says. "How can you say that a show that rarely gets below 20 million viewers a week can't be syndicated?"
He has a point. Survivor is one of the few reality shows that is a candidate for syndication. This show is popular enough that fans might want to watch it over and over, and it's likely to stay on prime time long enough to provide plenty of episodes. But limited reality series with big surprise finales, such as Fox's Joe Millionaire, are too of-the-moment to have an afterlife.
Money is part of the reason the networks hire reality producers to do scripted television. A reality show is licensed at $500,000 to $1 million per episode. Scripted dramas are licensed at $2 million to $3 each. Networks may hope reality producers can bring a new cheaper reality to scripted dramas.
"There's great opportunity in the marketplace right now," says David Tenzer, a packaging agent with Creative Artists Agency. "One of the nice things about the reality frenzy: It's changed the rules about what kinds of shows you can get on network television.
"There a greater need for lower-cost programming than there was five or 10 years ago," he continues.
But the networks also recognize that the best reality producers know how to tell great stories and have learned through experience how to do it cheaply. And in Hollywood, that's the name of the game.
"I've made my success based on my storytelling ability," Burnett says. "It comes naturally that I would want to tell scripted stories as well, instead of just limiting myself and my company to unscripted, situational dramas."
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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.