Panel: Reality Genre Not Dead Yet

Oct 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Recent media reports suggesting television reality series are losing popularity are overblown, a panel of reality programming panelists said at TelevisionWeek and AOLTelevision’s latest Power Breakfast Series.

At the Oct. 25 “Reality Television: How Far Can You Push the Envelope?” panel in Beverly Hills, David Lyle, chief operating officer and general manager of the Fox Reality cable channel, said it’s not the first time he has heard dire predictions about the future of reality TV.

“It’s as regular as the leaves turning red in New England,” he said of the reality downturn reports. He also said six to eight months after media reports warn of a reality drop-off, the next hit suddenly appears.

Despite the renewed success of scripted series on ABC, reality still holds a place on the schedule, said ABC’s Andrea Wong, executive VP of alternative programming, specials and late-night.

“The unscripted area at ABC is viewed as equally important as comedy and drama,” Ms. Wong said.

Like other kinds of programming, reality “is subject to same ups and downs,” she added, but the genre “is here to stay.”

While reality has been a staple on broadcast and essential to cable networks over the past several years, the genre has not made many inroads into traditional daytime broadcast schedules, with one notable exception being Bunim-Murray Productions’ syndicated strip “Starting Over.”

“We’re half the cost of ‘Passions,'” said Jonathan Murray, chairman and president of Bunim-Murray. “Maybe reality will replace daytime soaps.”

In a discussion on product placement, Nigel Lythgoe, executive producer of “American Idol” and the president of 19 Entertainment, said the integration of the Ford and Coca-Cola brands into the American version of “Idol” has worked, but there is a limit because other branding would have to fit the show’s “aspirational” model. But integrating advertisers into shows is not something he looks forward to, Mr. Lythgoe said.

“If I had my way I’d never do it,” he said.

Although the way viewers access reality programming is changing due to technology, Bertram van Munster, executive producer and co-creator of “The Amazing Race,” said, “We are still in the way, way early stages.”

As a producer, allowing viewers to access reality through new systems is a big opportunity, Mr. Murray said.

“With apologies to Andrea, it takes out the middle man,” he said.

Mr. van Munster said his biggest worry is “looking at a postage stamp,” or the small screen that is available on devices such as Apple’s new video iPod.

“The screen is getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” he said.

The breakfast series included some unexpected attendees, when a group of more than 20 people identifying themselves as members of the Writers Guild of America’s Reality Organizing Committee walked into the panel session to hand out fliers.

The fliers stated that “storytellers,” or editors who often assemble story arcs out of hours of raw reality footage, should get overtime and portable health and pension benefits provided through WGA contracts.

“We want all the things most people in the industry expect,” one protester said.

Mr. Lyle said that there are two elements at work in the committee’s demands.

“Is an editor a writer,” Mr. Lyle said, “and should editors be paid differently.”

He described the editor/writer question as a “union demarcation issue” and the issue of overtime as “a genuine discussion of how people get paid.”