Inside The Weird Conference Where Your Reality Garbage Gets Made
In a golden age for scripted television and Snapchat, why do we still need reality TV? These producers think they have the answers.
If there’s such a thing as a cameraman’s body type, I imagine Nathan Stoll has it. Tall and fit, he’s the kind of guy who has probably been told, and tells himself, that he’s not meant to be crammed behind a desk. Now 37, he’s spent his whole adult life working in TV, mostly as a cameraman. On the side, he’s an independent reality TV producer. He has been trying for half a decade to find the right idea, one with staying power, whatever that quality is that makes a hit.
I met Nathan in early February at the 18th annual RealScreen Summit—the “definitive global market and conference for the business of unscripted and non-fiction entertainment.” Like a lot of people there, he has seen enough reality TV from a close enough proximity to think: Shit, what’s stopping me from doing this? “I know the game, I can work the camera,” he says. “Why shouldn’t I be coming up with ideas?”
So he’s here with one or two concepts to pitch; other independent producers have come with five, or ten, or, as with one person I spoke to, 18. Like them, Nathan’s life involves a lot of looking around and a lot of hoping. When he meets people, he thinks of them as potential characters; he files them away in his mind and then follows up, and prays that another producer or agent hasn’t already had the same idea, a common danger in this crowded industry.
“Sometimes,” he says, “a network will just be like, ‘Bring us the next Bourdain.’” He rolls his eyes. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, sure, OK, man. I’ll get right on that.’”
This year’s RealScreen is being held at the Washington D.C. Marriott Marquis, where the walls lining the escalators have been taken over by promotional posters. Descending into the hotel’s bowels, one passes pictures of the Duck Dynasty fam, their arms folded, glaring or grinning. There’s the cast of season four of Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars, with new additions MaMa June and Sugar Bear positioned in front. There’s Tamar and Vince, spun off from Braxton Family Values, posing in mock frustration next to the tagline, “He’s her Mr. Right, she’s never wrong.” There’s L.A. Hair and Cutting It: In the ATL (which is also about hair, but in a geographically and racially specialized way). Also Kendra on Top. And #RichKids of Beverly Hills. Many more that I’ve never heard of.
At stake here is the possibility of the next elevator-gracing concept. Over 2,000 producers, performers, agents, buyers, and network execs have all converged, each trying to determine what might be deemed familiar enough yet simultaneously titillating enough to be watchable, repeatedly, for millions of viewers. As one Canadian producer puts it to me at the hotel bar: “You can call it a marketplace of ideas, or you can call it a bullshit convention.”
An American Family, the 1973 PBS show that provided viewers with unprecedented intimate access to the daily life of a family in Santa Barbara, is widely regarded as the most crucial ancestor to modern reality TV. It was serialized semi-anthropology, the first time the dramas of “ordinary” domestic life were turned into gripping, sometimes salacious entertainment. (Ask a baby boomer if they remember the Mexican restaurant scene.)
But when it aired, An American Family was very much an outlier, an experiment. When we talk about reality TV now, we’re usually referring to a cultural ubiquity that didn’t begin until 2000, ignited by the scheming spectacle and high stakes of shows like Survivor and Big Brother.
Today, after tens of seasons and nearly two decades of those marquee shows, there’s a lot of argument over what “reality TV” even means. Plenty of producers try to make the distinction for me between reality and unscripted and nonfiction, with different levels of prestige and factual-ness attached to each (there’s a reason why the producers of the E! network’s I Am Cait emphasized that it’s a “documentary series,” unlike its “reality” Kardashian forebears). RealScreen gives out annual awards, and the categories are dizzyingly specific, ranging from “Shiny Floor Competition Game Show” to “Nonfiction: Social Issues/Current Affairs” to “Reality: Docusoap.”
Reality TV scholarship struggles with the fact that the genre is so nebulous, encompassing news magazine, documentary, and competition traditions. Though An American Family was clearly influential, some look even earlier. Alan Funt’s Candid Camera began in 1948 and ran for decades, putting real and unsuspecting citizens in odd situations so the audience could gawk at their reactions. The ’40s and ’50s also saw the birth of competition shows like The Amateur Hour and Opportunity Knocks, which gave viewers the power to vote on the fortunes of hopeful ordinaries.
By the late ’80s, producers combined the allure of access with lighter, cheaper cameras and a Reagan-born sense of cultural terror—enter Cops, Rescue 911, America’s Most Wanted. Then there was MTV’s The Real World, which jacked up An American Family’s notion of peeping at normal folks by making its subjects a group of total strangers. Its fly-on-the-wall styling and generally guileless subjects seemed revolutionary in 1992 but quaint now. The formula was tweaked and broadened over generations, but all of these shows leveraged the same instinctive appeal: actual lives with actual stakes, captured and broadcast repeatedly. At the dawn of the new millennium, that voyeuristic formula, in all its messy, maligned, big-tented majesty, finally boomed, with unscripted programming dominating primetime and completely sustaining dozens of new cable channels.
Bruce David Klein, the 52-year-old founder of the production company Atlas Media, has helmed over a dozen shows since the late ’90s—what he calls the industry’s “golden age.” We meet in his giant company suite on the hotel’s eighth floor, where he keeps little bottles of disinfectant by the door for all his lucky guests, to keep them safe from germs when they return to the crush of the conference. His biggest hit is Hotel Impossible, now in its sixth season on the Travel Channel. Each episode reignites the drama of hoteliers fighting to save their family business. It’s a great format, the kind of show that’s just like some other shows (the Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible, for instance), but different enough to fill its niche.
Down at the hotel bar, there’s a huge field of people who want what Klein’s got. There are guys like Will Autry, 46 and dapper in his trademark bowtie, who works as a train conductor on the Norfolk Southern line out of Atlanta and scribbles his ideas on a notepad in his jump seat: a show about criminals facing their accusers, another about dads late on their child support, another about military veterans competing in challenges of bravery. There’s Jennifer Walters, from San Francisco, who quit her job at a lifestyle network to follow her own producer dreams. She’s got cooking, she’s got home renovation, she’s got a wacky dude named Berlin whom she’s calling The Bad Boy of Style.
But this generation of hopeful producers faces a market that has maybe, finally, run out of room. At the Marriott, I hear a lot of wistful statements that begin with, Man, it’s not 2008 anymore. A couple years ago, people say, you could show up to the conference as a nobody with a three-minute sizzle reel—honestly, sometimes not even a sizzle, just a little one-sheet about your concept—and sell a show in 20 minutes at the Starbucks in the lobby.
The Writer’s Guild strike of 2007 created a feeding frenzy. All it took was 100 days of no script-writing and a stagnant, hostile environment for scripted TV. Reality ideas rushed in seamlessly to plug holes in schedules, offering shoestring budgets, fast turn-around, and a union-free workforce. There was so much airtime to fill, so little competition, and so many formulas that were already working: chef with outsized personality, former celebrities dating, former celebrities in rehab, house renovation, style renovation, life renovation, weird people, rich people, peopled shoved on an island.
Now there’s Netflix, Amazon, and more moneyed services that define themselves around prestige scripted programming. They’re making the kind of shit you seek out, then brag about having watched. It’s the golden age of scripted, right? From network shows like Empire to streaming critical darlings like Orange Is The New Black and Transparent, TV has suddenly surpassed film as the medium for artistic heft, offering a greater diversity in perspectives and more creative freedom, luring the most talented writers, directors, and stars. The scenes are long and stylized (Don Draper sitting silent and pensive at a bar), the production value luscious (the Mediterranean castles in Game of Thrones or the replica Oval Office in House of Cards), the ideas uniformly heady. The question for everyone here is whether reality will survive television’s renaissance of taste.
2015’s RealScreen Summit was apparently the Sky Is Falling one. What had been new was suddenly old. Trusted formulas were breaking down. The mighty Duck Dynasty, which has run for nine seasons on A&E, finally had a ratings drop. Ditto for mainstays like FOX’s American Idol. A Forbes article quoted an agent who described a malaise that had fallen over everything, the tiredness of an industry confronting what it means to decline.
But this year, there is an atmosphere of tense, resolved optimism. Attendance is up again, the third highest in the Summit’s history, and every panel I go to pushes some version of the we’re-gonna-be-OK mantra. After all, the sky didn’t exactly fall. It’s not like unscripted TV has ceased to be. The Kardashians are all still megastars. And a show like HGTV’s Fixer Upper, about a charming couple remodeling homes in Texas, is a legitimate success story. On a finale night, Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta still pulls solid ratings in its eighth season. Netflix hit big with the unscripted Making a Murderer and now, not surprisingly, everyone’s out looking for mysterious deaths to pitch.
The spin is that good storytellers—everyone here embraces that term—will always tell good stories, and those good stories will adjust to new challenges, across new media. A guy on a panel actually titled “What Just Happened?” puts it like this: “Reality is a genre in its adolescence. Right now, things are changing, but we’ll come out on the other side with a deeper voice.”
I meet Jason Stant at the A&E happy hour, the best, least-middle-school-danceish of all the RealScreen happy hours. Jason is a bit of a self-styled rebel here. His shirtsleeves are rolled up to expose his tattoos, his beard is long, his glasses boast thick black rims. He’s someone who believes in real documentary—badass, gonzo shit where you hunt out intense subjects and implant yourself among their intensity. But there isn’t much of a living to be made in feature docs, so he’s modified his ambitions to become another aspiring independent TV producer, chasing down stories for network consumption. This can be frustrating.
“Look, sure I’m proud of what I make,” he says, “but I’m 41. I’ve got a kid. This is TV. I’m in it to make some fucking money.” Indeed, unscripted budgets are small compared to scripted, which can pull upwards of $2 million per episode, but a production companies standard cut of the budget is 10 percent. Get 10 percent of 10 episodes at $275K per, then get renewed for a second season—that’s more than making a living.
Jason’s got a guy in Louisiana scouting for him, trying to find bayou weirdos and Texas family businesses with personality. By himself, Jason looks closer to home—a buddy who fought in Iraq and is now a military contractor, a guy-with-a-mouth-on-him who runs an exclusive sneaker shop in The Bronx.
Today he met with Red Bull. They’re starting their own network with a ton of money behind it, lots of action stuff, very masculine. That’s Jason’s demo. Last year, the show he was working on about that military contractor came close to being made, but the network pulled out of the deal. It would’ve involved travel to dangerous places, which was part of the appeal, but such intensity comes with a whopper of an insurance policy, and then this French production crew in Argentina lost 10 people in a helicopter crash and got really bad press, and that was enough to spook the network.
Now Jason’s most excited for a show about life in New Orleans. “I met these guys in a strip club,” he says. “The bouncer found out what I do and said, ‘Man, I’m a show.’ That’s sort of an occupational hazard. Most people’s stories suck. So I have to figure out a way to be like, ‘Here’s some free advice: nobody wants to watch a show about some un-famous rich dude skiing.’”
He liked his prospects in New Orleans, though. He met an ordained minister/hustler who was building an empire (of what, I’m not exactly sure), and a dwarf who makes his living posing for photos on Bourbon Street. “It’s gritty,” he tells me, as we sip complimentary pinot grigio on the hotel’s ground floor. “It’s real. I invested weeks filming these guys. I lived it with them. No bullshit.”
Authenticity. This is what networks are claiming to want, and what producers are claiming to provide. But I’m beginning to think authenticity is being equated with novelty.
Jason’s agent has arranged close to 20 meetings for him this weekend. Tomorrow he’s got Esquire, MTV, Fuse, and WE tv—he’s not sold on that one, but he’s open to whatever. He’s feeling good. He says his agent is for real, and these meetings are for real, and if he has a good conversation tomorrow and a good follow-up in a couple of weeks, he could be running a show by year’s end. It can still happen that fast—or at least everyone here seems to know at least one person that it happened that fast for.
The next day I catch up with Nathan, the cameraman, in the delegate lounge. We’re sitting on a couch in the corner, each sipping complimentary green juice. He tells me that, like Jason, he almost sold a show last year. “The contract was signed and everything,” he says. “It was in that Duck Dynasty moment when everyone was chasing the comedy/soap, redneck-with-money sort of thing. And I always loved cars, so I went up to this dirt race track near Albany, NY and started shaking hands.”
The result was called Dirt Track Outlaws. It centered on a family of racers—real gruff, real rednecky. Nathan says that A&E, at that point, was announcing that it had $90 million to throw behind Duck-like content.
“Then all of a sudden, nine of those shows flop, like boom, boom, boom,” he says. “And then that executive got fired. And then that was it.” Nathan pocketed $14,000 for his idea. A&E licked its wounds, admitted its fuck-up, and went back to content like Intervention, the sort of reality TV where the idea is that you don’t think anyone is kidding.
Because the word of the moment is authenticity. This is what networks are claiming to want, and what producers are claiming to provide. It’s an unspecific but crucial designation. Over three days worth of panels, I hear the word spoken like gospel and see crowds of hopefuls smile in silent amen each time.
At the “Finding Game Changers in a Changed Game” panel, Atlas Media’s Klein moderates a discussion about whether or not reality will ever rediscover the vibrant magic of shows like Survivor and Big Brother. “Look,” he says. “Big Brother is a hit because it’s tapping into something in—God help us—human nature.” True, but I’m beginning to think authenticity is being equated with novelty. We’d never seen anything like Big Brother before it hit, so how could it have felt contrived? At this point, it feels like we’ve seen everything. As the panel draws to a close, Eden Gaha, superstar producer behind Survivor and MasterChef, leaves us with this pearl: “Remember, sometimes making it look like it’s not produced is the trickiest production of all.”
In every panel I attend, new shows are held up as examples of a return to real, but I often have a hard time understanding why. This season the FYI network had a hit with Married at First Sight, a show that arranges instant marriages, then follows the stranger-couples for the next six weeks as they decide whether to stick it out. Originally a Danish show, it was broadcast in 27 different countries before coming to the States. Executives tell the crowd that they began calling it the “anti-Bachelor” in the development room—cue knowing titters. The difference, they explain, lies in Married’s fidelity to science over spectacle. The action is orchestrated by a team of experts who appear on screen—a sociologist, a psychologist, a sexologist, and a chaplain—and somehow this bastardized laboratory provides a more authentic portrayal of human interaction? At the very least, the conceit allows the show a sense of gravitas. “It’s a social experiment, not a reality show,” one producer says. “We do not take this process lightly.”
Also lauded for its so-called authenticity is Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid, which is successful enough to have birthed a spin-off, Naked and Afraid XL, which seems like the exact same premise but the people suffer over a longer course of time. I get the appeal—contestants are certainly naked and, if not afraid, at least cold at night. But if the goal is to move away from a meddling, contriving production apparatus, it’s kind of hard to ignore the thought of a bunch of suits in a boardroom saying, “Strip ‘em naked! Throw ‘em in the jungle!”
FYI is also really pumped about Nicole and Jionni’s Shore Flip, which sends Jersey Shore star Snooki to flip houses with her husband, combining three potentially stale formulas. It seems to go completely against what everyone has been preaching. But Snooki’s so good at being Snooki. Everything she says, FYI’s head of development tells the crowd, is a catchphrase, without them even trying for it. That’s authenticity.
As for Nathan, now that his dirt track show’s been canned, he’s most excited about an idea he’s calling Heroin Highway, a series following the sheriff’s department in the little town of Vergennes, VT as they combat the opiate crisis by any means necessary. He shows me the sizzle. It’s good: hardcore music spliced with gruff, sincere cop-talk, even a drug-bust with cool mini-cameras attached to bulletproof vests. It’s got action, but it’s got character. It’s got an honest-to-God issue.
“So this is, like, a one-off?” I ask him. He smiles and leans back into the couch, spreads his arms. “No, dude, think about it. Heroin is everywhere. Different season, different cops.”
Nathan’s sizzle is more polished and ambitious than most that I’ve seen, many of which feature actors playing the roles that real people may hopefully soon fill. It’s got documentary ambition, which is part of what’s being sold. Its would-be stars ostensibly have a purpose beyond the desire for stardom. Sure, the potential hook is an endless heroin epidemic, but maybe this show could help someone. Still, if no network bites, fuck it. Nathan’s also got Dallas By Design, a show about a hot, young fashion illustrator named Dallas looking to make it to the top while staying true to her small-town roots.
That night, at one of the hotel bars, one producer tells me I should write a book called Reality TV Ruined My Life. He wanted to make a show of the same name, which would have followed up with the first generation of reality stars, the ones who didn’t know any better. Licensing clips would’ve been a nightmare, though. He looks young, but apparently he’s been successful at this game for 20 years, so there’s a posse of fledgling producers that orbits him, waiting for morsels of boozy advice. He has a habit of saying, “My heart would go out to you, if I had a heart.”
He tells a story about a YouTube star, famous for opening boxes or something. This leads to derisive laughter and eye rolls. YouTube is another threat to reality TV’s viability, as are Periscope, Snapchat, and all the other platforms that allow for the cheap, instant, and constant broadcast of a person’s life. After all, if production value and plot are the purview of scripted TV, and reality is left chasing some shifting notion of authenticity, what’s more authentic than a person broadcasting themself to 10 million strangers over the internet with no story at all, or no production apparatus beyond their laptop? It’s no secret: young viewers are turning away from cable—according to a 2015 Nielsen report, TV viewership fell 20 percent among millennial consumers since 2014—and internet stars are making compelling content, and that’s not a fun topic to broach in a conference full of cable producers.
But this producer met this YouTube box-opener and figured he should try to butter him up, right? Get in on the action. The guy lit into him: “Why would I want to work with you? People like me don’t need people like you anymore. You’re a dinosaur.” A couple of drinks later, he tells us with a grin, he signed the YouTube prick to a talent deal. Who knows for what, but at least he’s locked down.
Everyone’s laughing by the end of the story. In a weird way, it’s hopeful. The old system, at least for now, remains. The couches in the delegate lounge are still full, and the ideas are still flowing over drinks as business cards are slipped from hand to hand like ecstasy at a festival. Say what you will—people still want to be on TV.