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Daytime Trauma

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

There are 25 television monitors stacked in front of Jim Johnston, but the weary reality television producer cares about only one of them right now.
“Has everybody got their mics?” the producer asks while pacing around a room whose “wallpaper” of cheap-looking soundproofing foam contrasts the treasure trove of pricey technology it holds. “Mics, mics, mics, mics.”
The circumstances call for urgency. The program he’s producing, “Starting Over,” is going to be the first-ever daytime reality program-part soap opera, part “Oprah Winfrey”-styled self-help-and as such, he needs to get an hour-long episode out of every day’s action.
The show’s premise-in which six troubled women of varying ages live in a Chicago mansion until they can resolve whatever it is that ails them-doesn’t always lend itself to thrilling viewing. So Mr. Johnston, the show’s Los Angeles-based story department and the “life coaches” who assign the cast self-improvement tasks-have devised a made-for-TV gimmick that should cause sparks.
At a morning meeting in the set’s brightly colored living room, one of the coaches is conducting a “bitch whistle” session, in the parlance of the crew, during which the women in the house are to use a whistle to call out a particularly difficult housemate named Nyanza. Every time Nyanza is rude, the coach explains, the other housemates are supposed to shrill away.
As expected, an explosion ensues. “You can blow your whistles all goddamn day,” Nyanza booms defiantly. Back in the control center, Mr. Johnston flashes a quick grin.
But there’s a problem: The life coach forgot to hand out the whistles beforehand.
Watching this unfold on the monitors in their drab control room, Mr. Johnston and his underling producers are on the verge of a panic. “Blow the whistle!” one screams, apparently at the life coach, before adding: “Jim, you need to put on a Maytag repairman’s outfit, go in there and say, `Hi, I’m here to fix the washer,’ and, by the way, hand out the whistles!”
For an instant, Mr. Johnston appears to consider it.
The cast whistle war rages on, whistle-less, for more than a half-hour. Eventually, the players scatter into cliques that seethe separately, but with no whistle-blowing. Not only is a device that could have centered an episode ignored, but-because the whistles are the basis of the morning’s fight-the confrontational footage is rendered useless.
Mr. Johnston, bent over with his hands on his knees, looks at the floor and sighs.
Los Angeles-based Bunim-Murray Productions, the reality pioneers behind MTV’s “The Real World” and “Road Rules,” thinks “Starting Over” can achieve daytime supremacy by morphing aspects of the two traditional daytime powers-talk shows and soaps-with reality, the genre of the moment.
“You get the drama of a soap and the info of `Oprah,’ but in a much better context,” says Bunim-Murray executive producer Mary-Ellis Bunim. To illustrate her point, Ms. Bunim points to the saga of one housemate who is trying to lose weight and restart her dating life, a plot line common to “Oprah” and other daytime talk shows. “The difference is that here, we see the other side: She’s a closet eater.”
For the housemate in question, too many ice cream binges could eventually mean being expelled from the house for not taking her stated goal seriously enough. Women can also “graduate” from the house by addressing their problems. One way or the other, Mr. Johnston expects about 25 women to cycle through the six-woman house during the first season.
But the challenges posed by a fluid cast pale when compared with the task of producing five hours of television per week. Most reality shows do either an hour or a half-hour per week. “It’s 195 hours vs. 22 half-hours,” Mr. Johnston says, comparing the experience to his stint producing “The Real World-Boston” in 1997. “It’s gonna be raw; it’s gonna be different.”
That difference has created some advertiser interest in the program, which will be syndicated by NBC Enterprises. “Reality shows are kind of playing out,” says Chicago media buyer Paula Hambrick, who thinks the concept could score with daytime viewers who have flocked to documentary-style story shows on The Learning Channel and the Discovery Channel. “But [the daytime audience] doesn’t watch MTV or `Big Brother,’ and they’re not used to getting an hour of produced television to watch. If it has enough soap opera elements, people will watch it continuously.”
In other words: Reality could score with an audience that has not had a chance to get sick of it.
Back in the control room, located somewhere within the house, the crew is watching 25 monitors with no focal point, looking for anything soapy it can find. It grimaces at one cast member’s bad hair, erupts with laughter when another belches and listens intently to another’s phone call.
Mr. Johnston, who has been running in and out of meetings about how to deal with the whistle situation, returns to see his subordinates hurrying a film and audio crew into a room where, based on the monitor images, it appears a potentially interesting conversation is taking place.
They overhear Maureen, a 62-year-old former bartender, saying: “I’m hurting. I’m hurting, world. I’m hurting.”
“Promo,” says Mr. Johnston, laughing.