Open Mic

Doing Reality Right: Experts in the Genre Check In at Realscreen West 2014

Hillary Atkin Posted June 12, 2014 at 12:52 PM

Two days of panels, pitch sessions, parties and a poolside awards show marked the sixth annual Realscreen West 2014 conference, which set up shop at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel June 4 and 5.

Nearly 1,100 attendees -- a 22% increase over last year, according to organizers -- took part in the confab, which also included luncheon roundtables, "30 Minutes With" sessions plus "Meet an Expert" and "Meet a Mentor" sessions with television network and production company executives in the booming unscripted business.

Things got off to a rousing start with “Refreshing Reality,” a panel discussion on the future of the business, which included executives from TLC, Lifetime, Bunim/Murray Productions, World of Wonder and CAA.

“Right now it’s a great time in reality,” said CAA agent Alan Braun, even while warning that too strong a focus on the bottom line does not encourage the kind of risk-taking that leads to trendsetting programs. “When profits come first and creativity comes second, that hurts,” he noted.

Panels on creating a great sizzle reel, digital programming, reinventing brands and real-time reality also brought thought-provoking discussions on generational shifts in viewing patterns, the disconnect between social media buzz and ratings, taking risks and looking for characters that bring something fresh and special.

The first day’s sessions were capped with a panel titled “Multiple Realities: Producing Celebreality," moderated by World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato. On hand were CeeLo Green and Andrew Jameson of the upcoming TBS series “CeeLo Green’s The Good Life,” Deirdre Gurney, executive producer of “Duck Dynasty,” and Eli Lehrer, SVP of nonfiction development for Lifetime.

A montage of the history of the genre included clips featuring Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, the Osbournes and of course, the Kardashians.

Green said it reminded him of the rich history of celebreality, and that he would like to see such a show featuring Prince.

Lehrer said if he could do a show with any celebrity right now it would be Miley Cyrus, while Jameson said his dream subject would be George Clooney. Gurney didn’t specify a most-wanted celebrity but has a VH1 show coming up with LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian called -- what else? -- “LeAnn & Eddie.”

If you were looking for behind the scenes info, this was the place to be as tales were told about “True Tori,” featuring Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott, and “Hey Paula,” Paula Abdul’s failed reality outing, which Lehrer said sputtered because she didn’t grant producers the access they were promised.

Lifetime’s “True Tori” got much attention due to its darker subject matter, dealing with a troubled marriage and the steady stream of tabloid stories about it. “It’s the most unusual experience I’ve had in TV,” Lehrer said, adding, “It got really real.”

Green’s show is partially scripted and closed-ended, shot during a residency in Las Vegas with his Atlanta homies from decades ago, the Goodie Mob.

“It was inspired by ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ -- the Atlanta version of it,” Jameson said, while Green noted that he found other talents within himself after being a coach on “The Voice.” “Honesty is also a brand,” he said.

Gurney discussed how the hugely popular “Duck Dynasty” -- spawned from a fishing show -- was a hard sell at the beginning because it didn’t have negativity and conflict.

“We kept being asked, what’s the show? We had to convince them it was a feel-good show, but that it could be entertaining,” she said.

Day 2 brought more lively sessions including one called “Raised on Reality: Next Gen Talk Unscripted.” It centered on producer Charlie Ebersol’s opinion that the way of the future for unscripted producers is through “backdoor” ancillary businesses that can come out of television properties.

Ebersol, co-founder of The Company, said he had invested $100,000 in a prospective talent’s fly fishing business in a bid to maximize his stake when negotiating other revenue streams with a network.

“The biggest thing facing us is that unscripted departments had two execs with buying power. Now they have 17 and the other 15 don’t have buying power. They have ‘maybe’ power. You have to figure out a way around it,” said Ebersol. “What this has created is something else. I don’t take out a television show unless I can spin three businesses out of it.”

The session on global format hot spots identified China, Ireland, Israel, Denmark, Turkey and Japan as among the top territories buyers are looking at to find the next big unscripted formats.

In China, regulators have limited the number of international formats a channel can buy to one per year, but that limit has stimulated national creativity in China.

As the conference drew to a close, it was time for “Reality Check: Women in Unscripted.” The panel, moderated by Nicole Page, featured Lori York, a partner and alternative packaging agent at ICM, Sharon Levy, EVP of original series at Spike TV, Marissa Ronca, SVP of original programming at truTV, Pam Healey, GM of Shed Media U.S., Allison Page, GM of HGTV, DIY and Great American Country, and Jenny Daley, president of T-Group Productions.

Many expressed the opinion that being female in a male-dominated industry has been a benefit while others gave credit to tremendous support and mentorship given to them by other women in the business. Each insisted there is no pay disparity in their respective organizations.

“I can create the best male-skewing show,” said Healey. “It’s a crazy job. There’s a uniqueness of being female,” she said, to which Daly interjected, “We’re not all assholes.”

“When you act like the other gender, it’s unnatural,” said Levy, adding that “talent is crazy and women are better at dealing with it. As a woman, one of our strengths could be that we’re more empathetic.”

They all seemed to agree that in unscripted -- it may be sad but true -- crazy is entertaining.