Reality takes new twist in ’30 Days’

Spurlock, Cutler defend real-world mission

During their appearance spotlighting the FX series “30 Days” at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills on Tuesday evening, executive producers Morgan Spurlock and R.J. Cutler defended their program as a different kind of reality show — one that’s actually based in the truth.

The reason related to a point Cutler made that seems obvious but often gets lost: Reality TV is a term that has become shorthand for a large grouping of unscripted genres, several of which differ from each other more than “The Sopranos” from “The Knights of Prosperity.”

“The only misnomer about grouping (“30 Days”) with reality is that it deals with reality,” said Cutler, who won a 2001 Emmy for the documentary series “American High.” Added Spurlock: “Very few reality TV shows take place in the real world.”

More than most, “30 Days” does. Essentially an ongoing sequel to Spurlock’s 2004 Oscar-nommed doc “Super Size Me,” the show challenges its protagonists (sometimes Spurlock, sometimes not) to live in a situation uncomfortable or antithetical to their natures for a month. The 2005 series premiere, in which Spurlock and his future wife struggle to live on minimum wage, has been credited with helping to convince lawmakers to increase their minimum wages in several states.

Unlike many other reality shows that offer cash or fame at the end, Spurlock emphasized that the “30 Days” experience is its own reward. Pay for the show’s participants is enough to compensate them for their time away from their usual lives but nothing that’s going to make them rich.

“You don’t want people who are coming on a TV show to be on TV,” Spurlock said. “You want someone who is interested in this; you want someone who is brave enough to let their guard down.”

Spurlock recalled that when first shopping “30 Days,” the question broadcast network execs kept asking him was, “Who wins this show?” Spurlock replied that viewers would win just by watching — a pitch that quickly fell flat. The network’s need for an onscreen celebration or catharsis pushed the show toward cable.

Presumably, “30 Days” might have gotten a better reception on NBC today, now that one of the series’ executive producers, Ben Silverman (a last-minute cancellation from Tuesday’s symposium), has just been installed as NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios co-chair. Spurlock, who called himself a fan of all television growing up, nevertheless contended that networks prefer to challenge audiences only through fiction, precisely so they can say it’s not real if sponsors or viewers complain about content.

“For reality shows, (networks) don’t want to go to that world,” Spurlock said, though he noted that other countries have begun adapting the format.

Spurlock pleased fans at the Paley Center by revealing the subject of the third season’s opening episode: Spurlock will work as a coal miner in his native West Virginia. Preproduction has begun with filming to commence in approximately four weeks, though Cutler noted that it takes five months for an episode to go from conception to delivery.

As many as 175 hours of footage are shot, with editing taking up to 10 weeks. Production on a season’s six episodes overlaps, making the series’ execution its own kind of reality challenge.

Spurlock concluded the evening commenting that despite the show’s title, experience has taught him that the key date of each episode comes about three weeks in, as participants who have been living on the edge start to hit the proverbial wall.

“That’s when one of two things happens,” Spurlock said. “At day 21, there will either be a breakdown or a breakthrough.”

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