Open Mic

Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the Bachelors, the Pawn Stars and All the Rest: Reality Gurus on How to Stand Out in a Crowded Field

Hillary Atkin Posted April 30, 2012 at 7:23 AM

Host Tom Bergeron uttered words that would not normally come out of his mouth on "Dancing with the Stars" during an insightful panel discussion on reality television.

Seems that a bit of unplanned reality disrupted the proceedings at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society's Unscripted Hitmakers luncheon at the Beverly Hilton on April 26.

The fire alarm and strobe lights went off in the hotel’s nearly-at-capacity International Ballroom as Bergeron sat on stage with the people behind some of television’s most successful reality programs.

Mike Fleiss of “The Bachelor,” Conrad Green of "Dancing with the Stars," Eli Holzman of "Undercover Boss," Kris Jenner of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," Brent Montgomery of "Pawn Stars" and Bertram van Munster of "The Amazing Race" were in the midst of discussing their respective shows when they were interrupted by what at first seemed like a stunt worthy of a reality show.

Several dozen people made their way quickly to the exits -- but most stayed put -- as moderator Bergeron tried to assess the situation, which included a PA announcement that the commotion was in fact a fire alarm. With an expletive, the experienced host urged everyone to stay, and it turns out he was right. In short order, the PA system declared that it was indeed a false alarm.

"The headline: Idiot reality people don't leave burning building," Bergeron said, to laughter from the crowd.

What is in fact a bit alarming to those on stage was that ratings have leveled off for reality shows as the genre enters middle age -- or at least teenage-hood -- and producers search for new ideas.

"Competitive shows require a huge audience,” said Green. "It's concerning because such shows rely on being special. It's crowded. The stronger ones will survive, but the challenge is to innovate."

Bergeron asked Jenner, whose family lives not only with camera crews but in the glare of an intense media spotlight, whether there is a line that cannot be crossed.

"We won't do bathroom shots," she said. "We let it all hang out. We're strong personalities and we let it fly. I stop myself from editing. That's what makes it successful."

She noted that the program only shows 22 minutes out of a 24-hour period of moments in the lives of 12 people. "If there's a crazy moment, we see smiles on the faces of the crew,” she said, revealing that the family actually feels strange when they are not around. "I'm always patting my chest to see if a mic is on,” Jenner revealed.

"There's enough weird stuff that comes out of people naturally to keep it interesting," said Fleiss of "The Bachelor" series. "Just look at the number of people who come away heartbroken. It's incredibly high."

As for other low points, he admitted that the season shot in New York was not one of its best, that the main participant was inebriated much of the time and that the crew was burnt out.

"I feel that the audience could sense that, and moving forward, we had more sincere participants, both on and off camera," he said.

Casting is always a key issue for unscripted programs, and for shows like “Dancing” it's a nearly constant process. "The key is the feel of each cast. The danger is homogenizing it," said Green. "We are looking for marquee booking. We have the opportunity to change 12 faces."

"If I don't have a good cast, I have nothing,” said van Munster of “The Amazing Race.” He continually lauded CBS's support of his award-winning program, which wins the Emmy in the reality category almost like clockwork.

CBS has also been successful with "Undercover Boss," whose producer Holzman is launching “The Pitch” on AMC, being promoted during its acclaimed drama “Mad Men.”

"It's hard work. We embedded filmmakers into the offices," Holzman said of the program, which pits advertising agencies against each other to win a prized account. He said he's working on a new show about turning a home recipe into a supermarket product based upon his own experiences with a dessert treat.

"Are you taking jobs away from actors?," Bergeron asked of his panel -- a notion they almost uniformly laughed off, with some positing that the reality genre may have even served to make dramas better in what many have termed a new golden age of television.

"It's a misconception that you don't work as hard [as dramatic actors]," Jenner said, and Fleiss agreed, citing the long hours. "Every person has a strong work ethic and our show employs hundreds of people,” said Jenner.” It makes me feel good -- and we’re having the time of our lives."

Proving once again that it takes a lot to keep up with the Kardashians.