Julia Child, one of TV’s original reality stars, taught us the secrets to scrumptious French cooking: Keep it simple, keep it fresh.
It’s a tip today’s reality-show creators would be wise to follow, yet often ignore:
- CBS’ complex, corny “Pirate Master” sank faster than the Titanic.
- Another Eye Network buzz generator, “Kid Nation” — which was part “Survivor,” part social experiment — also tanked.
- Fox’s “The Search for the Great American Band” played out like a tone-deaf cover of “American Idol.”
Six years ago, when audiences’ reality tastes weren’t fully developed, all those shows might have been hits. But half-baked ideas and warmed-over leftovers no longer appeal to pickier palates.
“There was a time you could throw anything at the wall and get it to stick because reality TV was so fresh and new,” says Jayson Dinsmore, senior VP for NBC’s alternative programming and development. “Now that it’s part of the TV landscape, good shows rise to the top and bad shows fail, just like scripted shows.”
Mass auds are unlikely to buy a new reality show unless they’re hooked in 10 seconds, about the time it takes to find the remote control.
NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” had a premise that made Tic-Tac-Toe seem like a game of chess: Pick a briefcase with the most money. Dinsmore says one of the keys for the show’s instant success was opening with just the right contestants, including a guy who brought along his bartender for moral support.
Compare that with Fox’s 2006 series, “Unan1mous,” in which nine strangers, locked in a bunker, decide who will get a huge cash prize by discovering deep, dark secrets about each other, voting via a collection of balls, watching the reward dwindle until … gee, I wonder what else is on?
“It really helps if your title tells you what the show is about or if you can describe it with a one-liner that you can easily promote to an audience,” says producer Jon Murray, who helped create “The Real World” and “The Simple Life.”
Murray has learned the hard way what happens when you offer something not easily boiled down to a sound bite.
Last year, he launched Spike’s “Murder,” in which two teams race to crack a previously solved crime. The twists and turns may have made for a great dinner party, but it failed to nab a significant audience.
“I thought we did a great job, but afterwards I wondered if it was interesting enough to watch them go through the process,” he says. “It was just too hard for the viewers.”
Dinsmore thinks “Pirate Master,” Mark Burnett’s 2007 show in which contestants tried to out-aargh each other, faced similar challenges.
“I loved the idea of the show, but it fell into the world of fantasy,” Dinsmore says. “It wasn’t relatable.”
At least “Murder” had a better shot by being on cable, where programs only need to a couple million fans to stay on the air.
“Kid Nation” may have had more success on a cable outlet like ABC Family or Nickelodeon, where a niche audience may have been fascinated by the “Lord of the Flies” setup. Instead, it opened on CBS to decent numbers last summer, then slowly faded away.
“The idea was interesting, but it didn’t have the broad appeal that would reach viewers from 2 to 80,” Dinsmore says.
Cable also has an advantage when it comes to selling a show. “Project Runway,” which runs on the NBC-owned Bravo channel, didn’t open big in early December 2004, but “they marketed the heck out of that show,” Dinsmore says.
A marathon of reruns around Christmastime became the turning point for a series that’s now one of cable’s most buzzed about series.
Marketing is trickier at the network level, where real estate is harder to secure.
Murray blames ABC for the failure of his 2006 series “One Ocean View,” claiming the network didn’t promote it aggressively enough.
Even more harmful, he adds, was the launch date. “View” debuted on July 31, far removed from end of May sweeps and far ahead of the new fall season, when it could have piggybacked onto an established hit show.
“Look at ‘Moment of Truth,’ ” says Murray, referring to Fox’s successful gameshow in which contestants are strapped to a lie detector and asked squirm-worthy questions. “They started it behind ‘Idol’ so the audience could find it, then once it was established, they moved it to its own night. That’s very smart scheduling.”
Of course, there are only so many “Idol”-type shows out there, and networks have to fill the air with something, even in the lazy days of summer.
“We’ve got to keep the lights on,” Dinsmore explains.