Reality TV producers dish (and more!) at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon
What do "Deadliest Catch," "The Surreal Life," "Punk'd," "America's Best Dance Crew," "Ghost Hunters," and "Jersey Shore" have in common?
Their executive producers are all a bunch of rowdy cut-ups. Well, maybe except for Jason Goldberg of "Punk'd," who repeatedly called himself a "virgin" when he served as a panelist on Wednesday at The Hollywood Radio and Television Society's Newsmaker Luncheon. It's true that in a crowd in which executive producers fessed up to Macing the talent on their shows, to not caring if The Situation gets beat up by three boxers, and to watching "American [Insert expletive here] Idol," Goldberg, who is Ashton Kutcher's partner, stood out as The Quiet One.
The rest of them, well, they were full of "situations," including host Chris Harrison, ("The Bachelor") who can absolutely hang with the rest of them. The other panelists were: Thom Beers ("Deadliest Catch"), Mark Cronin ("The Surreal Life"), Randy Jackson ("America's Best Dance Crew"), Craig Piligian ("Ghost Hunters") and SallyAnn Salsano ("Jersey Shore").
Jackson kicked off the 65-minute session, before Harrison asked any questions, with one observation: "I feel like I’m on, like, ‘The Real World: Revisited” or something. Like, how was it in the house? It’s my first time here. I’m just trying to really figure it all out." The rest of the session was filled with that brand of humor, as well as a lot of curse words (courtesy of Piligian) and plenty of insight.
Here are some excerpts from the session:
Harrison: Last year’s panel had big broadcast network producers; this panel is hugely successful men and women who have found this niche on cable. Whether it’s “Ghost Hunters: Shot in the Dark” with no ghosts or … Damn genius! ... there’s this audience and gold mine to be found where you have found a haven in reality TV.
Cronin: The cable world has turned out to be a great business in hard times. The networks, who only have ad sales to look to primarily, they’ve had a rough time of it. And cable, which has two revenue streams, were a little less hit by the ad sales problem and have over the past three years been able to keep a pretty heavy slate of original programming. We here on this panel have had a lot of success with the cable outlets because they’re buying, buying, buying.
Beers: I worked for Ted Turner for 11 years. I remember one day he walked in and he said, “You know, boys, I love cable. You can make money on mad cow, on every kind of cow, even the moo.” That’s what Ted said.
Jackson: I also think it’s about finding something in the marketplace. People want to be entertained by TV still. So whether there’s cable, there’s probably 20,000 channels on right now, try to find something that you think people are going to really pay attention and be entertained to, and most importantly the staying power is something that people will get emotionally invested. Even if it’s Jay Wow or whatever it is, to see something entertaining and go, well she’s definitely wild! Definitely on cable, you can be a little more creative. The network is trying to serve a different audience. Look, "Idol" is a giant show, and [Dancing With the Stars"], but these are audiences 5 to 105. That’s not what you get on cable. That’s why those shows are huge and bigger than life. Network serves everyone. And one of the things that I’m happy about with "Idol" and "ABDC", is that it’s great family programming. And even though [Simon] Cowell sometimes thinks it’s kind of corny because from the music side, when someone tells you, it’s one of the few shows I can watch with my whole family. When you’re from the music side, that’s not quite cool, is it?
Salsano: I don’t ever get that.
Harrison: My 6-year-old daughters learn so much from "Jersey Shore," though.
Salsano: It’s more collaborative. That’s what I like. And they can take a bigger chance. It’s not about waiting for the trends to happen.
Piligian: And they actually stay with you for a while. Because when we started "Dirty Jobs" or "American Chopper," I mean, we’re in the seventh season of "American Chopper," that’s [expletive] nuts. Who would have thought those [expletive] morons would have been on seven seasons? We’ve been on since 2002. With all due respect, that’s [expletive] stupid.
Beers: Think about the pitch too. Imagine walking into NBC and going, “I wanna do this thing about these five guys and a truck, driving a straight line at 15 mph by themselves.”
Harrison: That doesn’t sound like a good pitch for anybody. I think they have room at 10 o’clock now, though, right?
Salsano: Top that with the Asian bisexual hooker.
Harrison: That sounds like a good pitch.
Beers: I think that the passion in cable I feel a lot more. I always feel that network people are more interested in protecting their jobs than the television shows. And in cable they are more interested in nurturing.
Goldberg: I completely disagree. I think everyone is looking for a hit. I don’t think it’s about filling slots. Secondly, I give a lot more credit to the network buyers. I think it’s a lot more difficult to get to the mass audience as [Jackson] was saying. And what I’m seeing right now is ideas are working both ways. I think we’re all in it to get hits.
Harrison: Yeah, I don’t think it’s right or wrong. I think you’re serving a different master.
Cronin: Well, both network and cable is serving the ad sales master.
Jackson: Honestly, let’s face it, right? How many people do you need to make a hit? If you’re looking for a small market, that’s not what the network is after. When you have giant advertisers paying you tons of money, you are looking for big hits.Beers: You’re starting to see a parity, though. You’re starting to see the cable numbers going up.
Harrison: SallyAnn, do you worry about that? The shows that you’ve done, you don’t mind anything, but do you ever worry if the advertisers are going to buy this?
Salsano: At the end of the day, everyone wants a hit. But I also think my job is to get whatever is on the field and then you work with the network to put the show together that is gonna make air. So it is a collaboration. Even with a show like “Jersey Shore,” there were all these rules about how we were going to edit it. And finally I got a call from the president of the network saying, “Give me the show you want and let me pull you back. Do not pull yourself back.” And from there, we came to a great product. Did we lose some advertisers? For sure. I have a list in the control that is a mile long. People don’t wanna party, but in the same respect – I wanna party -- the list of people that did sign on for a second season is a lot longer. So at the end of the day, you hate to say it, but everyone’s a whore. My name’s on the end of every show. I sit in the control room on every single one of my shows, 24-7. I don’t phone it in.
Piligian: I don’t. [Expletive] that.Goldberg: I gotta say I never thought I’d look like the virgin. Doing literally the hardest hidden camera show, the edgiest one, I feel like a virgin on this panel. I am blown away.
Harrison: I want to ask you, Craig. Hundreds of shows you’ve produced, if not more, what was the last project that you thought this was it? Home run, money and it was just a turd in the punch bowl?
Piligian: We have a few of them. That’s a tough one. We just strike out a lot.
Harrison: Can and there will there be another “American Idol?”
Piligian: I think it’s a great show. I watch “American [expletive] Idol.”
Harrison: What network is “American [expletive] Idol” on?
Piligian: If I’m watching "American Idol," the world’s watching it. You know what I mean? Cause I could give a [expletive]. I’m interested in [Crystal] Bowersox [expletive] winning.
Salsano: I’m also a fan of "Idol," but there’s gonna be the next thing. All of us, we’re the ones that want to be the next thing.
Jackson: What I love about cable is the creativity. But everyone in this room sings at a birthday party. No offense to anybody else’s shows, but I’ll never be trying to make it to France on $10 with a couple of friends of mine. I’ll never be in the jungle trying to figure out how to get out of Zimbabwe. It’s just not realistic. Everybody sings at a birthday party. You’re all humming along in your car. Music is that uniter, if you will. So someone has to come up with another uniter that is just like drinking water that will make people go, wow, I kind of do that too and I know a little something about it.
At this point, Jackson leaves the Beverly Hilton because he’s due at “Idol Gives Back.” The topic of lower basic cable production budgets comes up.
Salsano: When it comes to budgeting, that’s the biggest misconception. Sure, I can do a show on a really low budget, but I think the network budgets and the cable budges are getting really close.
Piligian: No, they’re not. Unless you’re getting a lot more money than I am per show. [He looks out at the audience]. Lance, where are you? What the [expletive] have you been doing?
Beers: I want Burnett money! [Mark Burnett from "Survivor"]
Piligian: God damn it, Lance, stand up for a second!
Salsano: Sure, if you give any producer $1.5 million, they should be able to make show. Just sayin’. At the end of the day, you give a producer $400,000 to make that same show and we’ll have a produce-off, and any one of us up here will kick ass.
Beers: You give me that $1.5 million and I’ll still make it for $400,000.
Cronin: I think in cable you have to be a problem-solver, you have to be more efficient, you have to figure out more tricks of the trade. It’s a tougher thing to do on a low budget obviously, but in some ways, it makes those shows different.
Things get really good and juicy now with talk of "talent" demands for more money and the hunger for fame, among other things.
Harrison: There are moments in TV -- Justin Timberlake in the “Punk’d” moment, and those moments are harder to come by, in my opinion. The really sincere moments, that the next day everybody’s like, “Holy crap, did you see?” So try to produce those moments with a much smaller budget and a savvier audience, it’s a lot more challenging.
Salsano: That’s the biggest mistake, trying to produce it. More often than not, if you have the idea, it’s all about casting. For me, if you get your people in, and I do these crazy casting weekends, that’s your show.
Cronin: I totally agree. A great cast does the work for you.
Beers: Until they go on strike and ask for $40,000 apiece an episode.
Piligian: Oh yeah, that happens. Those ghost hunters, they want more money.
Beers: They want $40 million an hour.
Piligian: Is Joe Rose in the audience, by the way? That great agent? He handled like six of my ghost hunters. And who is that other knucklehead?
Harrison: Eight years ago, we were doing “The Bachelor..."
Piligian: I can meet them in the dark too.
Harrison: Nobody asked for money.
Piligian: I think it would be better if I meet them in the dark.
Harrison: Now, you’re hosting a show and these people want $15,000 or $20,000 an episode, like Snooki or whoever; it has changed the game.
Cronin: I have manufactured a few celebrities myself and, yeah, it’s expensive.
Salsano: I think that we are a bit too fearful and give in right away. At the end of the day, where is Snooki going? Honestly, they all live in their parents’ basements, and I have to buy them cigarettes. They have no money.
Beers: I’m putting her on a crab boat in the Bering Sea. Crabs everywhere!
Salsano: We’re giving the power to the cast as opposed to being like, “These kids are making $25,000 a night to go shake their [expletive] in Vegas. They didn’t make that beforehand. So I think the power of the fame is that in season 2, they go for the quick fix of money. But when season 3 hits, they’ll do it for dirt as long as they can stay famous.
Beers: The fame takes over. The one thing we always try to talk to the networks about is this, and we’ve been very successful with it on “Deadliest Catch.” At the end of a season, we always dumped a boat and picked up another boat. If the networks have the courage to let you drop one talent, just one, because that keeps everybody off. These knucklehead agents who decide that their guy’s worth $50,000 an episode: hello!!!!! They’re [expletive] truck drivers!!!!!
Harrison: All of a sudden, I’m very happy you don’t have hosts on your show (to Beers).
Piligian: Seriously, in the reality space, they are getting paid a lot of money.
Salsano: Also dealing with people who are such amateurs is what makes it such good reality TV, when you have people you’re just plucking out of their world and the mistakes they make. You’re like, really, you don’t think that would be weird to have “In Touch” in your [expletive] house?
Beers: We are very careful about guys trying to grab the camera, trying to act for the camera; we dump them.
Harrision: In the middle of the ocean.
Beers: No, we recast because it doesn’t work for us. What I love about it is in season 3, they realize it’s not about the money anymore. It’s about the fame. I sit down beforehand and remind them that fame is a mathematical equation where more people know who you are than you know who they are, and if you can keep that level head, you’ll be OK. But you guys are dealing with people that live this world. This is [expletive] crazy, Hollywood.
Cronin: It’s a fight to maintain the authenticity of a cast. Even if they’ve never been on reality television, they’ve all seen so much reality television, even a cast member who’s never done reality television knows the game and knows the interview bites they have to give, and they make some trouble and you get to a place where they’re not being as genuine.
Salsano: That’s where our job kicks in. Before any cast member gets on any one of our shows, I literally interview them myself. If I can’t outsmart them, first of all, I don’t want them on my show. But also you know what to ask. When they say, I’m gonna be the girl that ... get the [expletive] out!
Beers: In season 2 of “The Colony,” the colonists had all seen the first season. And this is a group that’s a post-Apocalyptic world, so it’s an experiment. So we got these young turks now and 30 guys walk in, and they think they’re gonna face down these 30 by being all macho and [stuff]. I had set this whole thing up, so when one of them said, “Hold on a second,” I Maced the [expletive] out of them. Hit them all with [expletive] Mace. OK!
Harrison: In what world is that OK? Not only OK, but it’s great!
Piligian: They signed the release.
Beers: You really don’t want to know how the sausage is made.
Harrison: What did human resources say?
Beers: We literally had to Mace ourselves and put it on camera first to say, “Look, we’re fine.”
Piligian: The best part of cable is the casting process. It’s the most fun. That’s when you’re looking for the characters.
Salsano: And they all procreate so young, so we can all just keep going.
Piligian: We just came back from Vegas, where we did “The Ultimate Fighter 12.” Sit with [expletive] 125 guys that can kick your ass. And by the way, three of them wanna take down The Situation.
Salsano: Fine with me.
Piligian: But what makes these shows great is getting these [idiots] in that want to beat the [expletive] out of each other. I’m sorry if there’s any [idiots] sitting here. But it’s absolutely what you live for.
Harrison: Jason, do you still feel like a virgin?
Goldberg: I do. We can’t do these shows. I do feel like a virgin, I will say again. Casting is really important. For us, it’s about a message, though. We go into a show, there’s a message out of it. There’s a reason we are making these shows.
Salsano: You don’t believe that?
Goldberg: I do believe that. I think the great storytellers are coming, and great storytelling will evolve.
Harrison: Well, don’t you think that’s where the reality genre has gone -- away from the big game show; you guys are a great example of whether it’s heroes or ghosts, or everyday people.
Cronin: I think it’s moving more and more toward super-authentic reality. The heavily formatted shows are not as popular anymore. The audience is over that. I think those devices producers use to create conflict, nakedly like that, I think the audience is turning more and more toward authentic-feeling reality.
-- Maria Elena Fernandez (Follow me on Twitter @writerchica)
Upper photo: Chris Harrison, Thom Beers, Mark Cronin, Sally Ann Salsano, Craig Piligian, Randy Jackson, Jason Goldberg. Credit: Chyna Photography
Lower photo: The panelists have their say. Credit: Chyna Photography