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Pushing the Reality Envelope

Jul 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

He’s been hammered by hurricanes, beaten by police suspects and shot at in Iraq. But Bertram van Munster, veteran producer of the “The Amazing Race” and former National Geographic cameraman, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When everything really goes to hell, that’s when you start filming,” Mr. van Munster said. “The audience has to feel that we didn’t expect something to happen. As long as they can read that on the screen, then you’re on the money.”
Though he tends to keep a lower profile than do many prime-time reality show creators, the Dutch-born Mr. van Munster has been a consistent producer of programming that captures a sense of real-life unpredictability.
As a producer and cameraman for “Cops,” Mr. van Munster shot more than 300 tense episodes. On “The Amazing Race,” he has pushed the reality show envelope with an ambitious worldwide production process. And in the controversial “Profiles From the Front Line,” he brought wartime images to reality TV.
Mr. van Munster sat with TelevisionWeek to talk about “Race,” “Profiles” and his latest hush-hush project in Iraq-a project so secret it might never be seen.
Racing for Reality
When Mr. van Munster came home from MIPCOM in 1999, he complained to his wife, Elsie Doganieri, that there was nothing worthwhile at the conference that year. She replied there was never anything original on television anyway.
“I found that as provocation,” Mr. van Munster recalled. “So I said, `If you’re so smart, how come you don’t come up with an idea? I’ll give you five minutes.”’
Five minutes later Ms. Doganieri pitched him an idea about teams in a race around the world.
The idea had been pitched to networks many times, but when Mr. van Munster and producing partner Jerry Bruckheimer brought the concept to CBS in 2000 their combined pedigree made the ambitious concept seem feasible.
Feasible should not, however, be confused with simple. During the first race, Mr. van Munster recalled getting stuck in a traffic jam en route to set up the course’s next clue and watching in horror as one of the teams sped past him.
“We shoot 13 prime-time reality shows in less than a month and travel [40,000]-50 000 miles when we’re doing it,” he said. “So I take great pride in doing things on the fly. Because then you know you’re doing reality. Real reality. Since it’s a race, we can’t just ask the teams to stop and walk through again with their bag. We either have the shot or we don’t.”
One of the strengths of the show is Mr. van Munster’s ability to craft a cinematic-looking product during an unpredictable shoot. “He doesn’t need to draw a storyboard; he does everything in his head,” said Ms. Doganieri, “Race” co-producer. “He knows where to put the camera 2 miles down the road.”
“Race” is also one of the few reality shows to generate accolades from critics, though some squirm at the occasional bouts of ugly Americanism on display by stressed contestants. “We look for a variety of people from different parts of the country,” Mr. van Munster said. “Put under stress, their emotions and true personalities come out. Sometimes the ugly American comes out.”
Which is an interesting observation. Because some say that when Mr. van Munster is put under stress a hostile side of him comes out as well.
“He’s tough to work for because he’s done it all himself, so he’s very demanding,” said David Hume Kennerly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. “There’s a lot of people who get rubbed the wrong way.”
Conceded Ms. Doganieri: “He does have a strong character and personality. He will push and push and push and he won’t stand for mediocrity. But it makes everybody look good when you have a good production.”
“ `Cops’ Goes to Kabul”
In 2002 Mr. Van Munster and Mr. Bruckheimer struck an unprecedented deal with the Pentagon to have camera crews follow soldiers rooting out suspected terrorists in the Afghanistan countryside.
The show was called “Profiles From the Front Line” (or as one wag put it, “`Cops’ Goes to Kabul”).
“Here was a guy who knows how to tell a story with his camera, who felt this was a story that should be told and-with very few restrictions-found a willing partner with the Pentagon,” said Mr. Kennerly, a “Profiles” executive producer. “The news departments screamed and yelled about this, but quite frankly, they were trying to do the same thing.”
When “Profiles” debuted, some critics praised the show for bringing reality to reality TV. Others, noting its Hollywood styling and unabashed patriotism, slammed it as “a Pentagon infomercial.”
Mr. van Munster argued that by showing battlefield violence, “`Profiles’ was more critical than most of the networks. In one episode, a master sergeant got killed and we followed him from battlefield to the hospital to his coffin,” Mr. van Munster said.
The controversy and the program were short-lived. ABC ran “Profiles” in a suicide mission against “Friends.” ABC canceled the series.
“The networks didn’t have the guts to put it on,” Mr. Kennerly said. “For them, it was reality TV that was a little too real.”
For Rumsfeld’s Eyes Only
If “Profiles” was a mixture of journalism, entertainment and military publicity, Mr. van Munster’s most recent production is much tougher to define. Mainly because nobody is sure exactly what it is.
From April through June, Mr. van Munster had film crews covering the fallout of the Iraq war. Like “Profiles,” the production was in cooperation with the Pentagon. Unlike “Profiles,” the untitled Iraq shoot was commissioned by the Pentagon itself, which has retained all 60 hours of Mr. van Munster’s footage.
Holding the footage for what? Nobody will say.
Mr. van Munster said he was attracted by the opportunity to shoot something with the potential to be of historic value. “I think this material, down the road, will be very important,” he said.
Charles Pe ‘a, director of defense policy studies at Washington think-tank the Cato Institute, speculated on the possible uses for Mr. van Munster’s work.
“This administration is fighting a PR battle over weapons of mass destruction and whether we’re getting bogged down in a quagmire,” Mr. Pe ‘a said. “So maybe they want to frame their own message and own history about their time in Iraq.”
Mr. van Munster bristled at the notion that he shoots propaganda. “Anybody that would have the guts to sit in the car with us will very quickly find out what we did had nothing to do with propaganda,” he said. “When you send me out there, you might get something back you don’t want to see.”
The Biggest Studio
As for future projects, Mr. van Munster says he has about 14 ideas in development. All are reality shows.
“Reality shows are a reflection on the viewers. It’s the perfect mirror,” he said. “Unless you manipulate too much. Then it becomes a formula and the audience goes away.”
A few of the new projects are even based in Los Angeles. It might come as a surprise that for all of his globetrotting L.A. is Mr. van Munster’s favorite city.
“This is the only city in the world that’s all about tomorrow, all about the future and not the past,” Mr. van Munster explained.
And as for the rest of the world?
“It’s like a very, very big studio.”