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Rewriting Reality’s Script

Jun 16, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Bruce Nash remembers the time years ago when he couldn’t get anyone to listen to his ideas for scripted comedies and dramas because he had been labeled a “reality producer” after creating hundreds of hours of successful reality clip shows such as “World’s Most Amazing Videos.”
Now Mr. Nash has two script commitments at NBC, and last month his first drama project was fast-tracked in development at NBC. “Reality television is opening the doors for me to go into scripted programming,” he said. “I’m an idea guy. I have lots of ideas, and they don’t just fit reality programming. Man does not live by reality alone. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time.”
The biggest hits in television the past few years-from “Survivor” to “The Bachelor” to “American Idol”-have come from the reality genre. Network executives are taking notice and turning to top-tier reality producers to try their hand at developing scripted television series.
To name a few, Mike Fleiss (“The Bachelor”) has a scripted series in development with Amy Heckerling for Warner Bros. and ABC; Mark Burnett (“Survivor”) produced The WB pilot “Are We There Yet?” with Carsey-Werner-Mandabach this year and is actively developing scripted series for fall 2004; Mary Ellis-Bunim and Jonathan Murray (“The Real World”) have a blind script deal to produce a show for Fox; and David Garfinkle and Jay Renfroe (“The Surreal Life”) have a sitcom starring M.C. Hammer in development at The WB.
“All of these top-end reality producers are superb storytellers,” said David Tenzer, a talent agent at Creative Artists Agency, which represents Mr. Burnett and Mr. Fleiss, among others. “If you are a great storyteller in reality television, you can be a great storyteller in scripted television.”
Added CAA talent agent Michael Camacho: “One of the other points of view these folks bring to the party is the ability to create `water-cooler programming.’ They are crafting these stories [in reality] that are compelling and sometimes as interesting as the best dramas that are out there. It’s not just cotton candy. These aren’t just empty calorie shows.”
Networks are pursuing reality producers to put a fresh spin on scripted shows. Mr. Camacho and Mr. Tenzer point out that shows such as HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and MTV’s “The Osbournes” are ushering in a new breed of hybrid shows that toe the line between scripted and unscripted series. “In a couple years scripted television is going to have more elements of that nature,” Mr. Tenzer said.
Adaptable Teams
Reality producers also bring a useful set of production skills to the table. This year The WB shot a pilot for a single-camera comedy called “Are We There Yet?” from Carsey-Werner-Mandabach and Mark Burnett. The entire pilot was shot on location in Barcelona, Spain, and benefited from the crew that Mr. Burnett pulled together for the shoot.
“We were out on the field, and you had a production team that was very adaptable to any given situation that could be thrown at a production,” said Mike Clements, co-senior VP of comedy development at The WB. “We were supposed to be shooting a family vacation that was supposed to take place in the summer, and we were met with what we were told was 120-year record-breaking rain.”
Since many of the crew had worked on Mr. Burnett’s other shows such as “Survivor” and “Eco-Challenge” under much rougher conditions, “It didn’t faze them one bit,” Mr. Clements said.
While The WB passed on the pilot, Mr. Clements said the network has loosely talked about other scripted projects with Mr. Burnett. “We absolutely want to be in business with him because even thought the project didn’t go forward, the experience was unique and mutually rewarding. He’s got this energy and this enthusiasm that is infectious and it makes you want to try something again with him. He’s constantly figuring out a way to just take a simple form of an idea and shake it up.”
Mr. Burnett and Carsey-Werner-Mandabach haven’t given up on “Are We There Yet?” They hope to find it another home for midseason or next summer.
Networks are also looking to reality producers, who are used to producing reality shows on a shoestring budget, to find more cost-efficient ways to create scripted programming.

Two-Thirds of the Cost
“The networks are interested because we produce cost-efficient programming,” said Mr. Garfinkle of Renegade Productions, which produces the long-running syndicated dating series “Blind Date.” “I think that’s really important in the business models now for the networks. We can take a different approach than maybe they have in the past. That’s intriguing for them.”
Phil Gurin, president of The Gurin Co. who produced “Weakest Link” and most recently produced “Test the Nation” for Fox, said he is working with a Scandinavian drama producer, Jarowskij, which has figured out a way to produce scripted shows for two-thirds of the cost of the show’s budget without sacrificing quality.
Mr. Gurin is now shopping that production method in the United States. He said producers can use the method on an original show they create for a network or on a show a network already is developing if it is looking for a less expensive way to make the show.
For many reality producers, creating scripted shows is just a natural extension of their business. Many of them were originally writers and see scripted programming as a way to return to their roots.
“A good producer likes to expand their business and have new challenges and diversity in their business,” said Mark Itkin, worldwide head of syndication, cable and nonfiction programming at William Morris Agency, which represents Bunim-Murray and Endemol. “A lot of these people may have originally come out of the scripted world and took a certain turn and built a big nonfiction business, but they can also do scripted product. It allows them to flex their muscles in a lot of different areas.”
Jerry Bruckheimer is held up as a prime example of a multifaceted producer. Mr. Bruckheimer was a successful feature film producer with hit movies such as “Armageddon” before dabbling in television with the reality show “The Amazing Race” and then building a wildly successful scripted TV division, which includes hit shows such as “CSI” and three new series pickups for fall.
Mr. Gurin said he wants to expand to scripted programming because he’s a writer at heart and that’s why he came to California 15 years ago-to write movies and TV shows. “Most of the successful reality guys probably got into television thinking they were going to be in the scripted business in the first place,” Mr. Gurin said. “When we were all kids you didn’t wake up and say, `Wow, I want to do “That’s Incredible.””’
Mr. Gurin sold a sitcom script to Fox last year. It didn’t go to pilot, but it did get the company into the scripted business.
Mr. Garfinkle said scripted series were always part of the company’s plan. His partner Jay Renfroe is currently writing a feature film. Renegade had a deal with Fox last year to develop a half-hour series and an hour-long series, but neither made it past the script stage.
For other producers, moving into scripted programming is just about making the best shows possible. “I just want to have good shows,” Mr. Fleiss said. “I don’t care if they are scripted. I don’t care if they are unscripted. I don’t care if they are cheap or expensive. I just want them to be new and entertaining.”
Mr. Fleiss said he has a couple of scripted shows in development as well as a couple of scripted feature films.
First-Look Deals
As on the unscripted side, deals for scripted series vary by individual producer. Most are done on a case-by-case basis. However, a few have overall first-look deals at a network that can include unscripted and scripted programming. For example, Mr. Fleiss has a first-look deal for new shows with ABC and a second-look deal with CBS, which also includes scripted shows. Mr. Burnett, on the other hand, doesn’t have an overall deal on the unscripted side
, but has been approached by networks for a first-look deal on the scripted side and is considering that option.
While reality producers admit that creating scripted shows has a huge financial benefit, because a successful scripted series can be more lucrative on the back-end than an unrepeatable reality series, they all say money is not the main motivation-creativity is.
“I don’t necessarily think that these reality ideas are such great ideas,” Mr. Nash said. “They are kind of like discovering the obvious that other people don’t see. I’m more creative than that and that’s why I’m doing this. I want to try to realize my full potential whatever that potential is, and you can’t do it in reality TV. You also can’t get the respect of your peers by just doing reality TV.”