Unscripted TV steps up game for changing times

It used to be enough for reality producers to confront a contestant with a zip-line over a chasm or give audiences an off-key singer to laugh at. But what succeeded in reality TV 10 or 15 years ago is not what makes the engine run today.

Unscripted television is evolving from its earlier, cruder beginnings into something sharper. Reality audiences and contestants have spent the past decade and a half absorbing editing tricks, storytelling devices and the overall tropes of the genre — which means producers have had to step up their game — or get sent home.

“Whatever’s happening in society, as a producer you have to recognize that and go with it,” says Nigel Lythgoe, exec producer for “Idol” and producer/judge on “So You Think You Can Dance.” This season, “Idol” has undergone a makeover of its own — the show dodges bad performances, and judges’ critiques maybe honest, but they’re not Cowell-style honest.

“It was necessary that we (get) away from this culture of cruel, tough honesty to a much more supportive critique,” Lythgoe says. “People need to move with the times.”

“Wipeout” and “Fear Factor” exec producer Matt Kunitz started in reality television as “The Real World’s” cast coordinator in its early days, and now oversees shows like the rebooted “Factor.” For him, reality shows have had to become more extreme to keep up with savvier auds and contestants.

“I remember in the early ‘Real Worlds’ none of the cast members even kissed; now in Season 25, if they’re not all in the hot tub together in the first episode, something’s wrong,” he says. “They think that’s what they’re supposed to do.”

Contestant self-awareness is something producers have to live with, says Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America, home to “Idol” and “X Factor,” among other unscripted shows. “When contestants arrive in Los Angeles (for “Idol”) they know exactly what to expect, so it’s hard to get that real innocence on camera,” she says. “They know what a reality contestant behaves like, and it’s a bit of a shame.”

But cast members and producers of unscripted series know that supermarket tabloids, social media and gossip websites can build brands — an increasingly important factor for formats looking for overseas sales — and reality stars looking to cash in.

To Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School, “the inmates are running the asylum” these days on reality TV. “There’s a fusion between the audience and the cast/competitors — it’s hard to tell the difference between the two,” he says.

The rise of social media has also seen the weakening of the authority of judges on competition shows, such as “Idol,” “Top Chef” and “Project Runway.”

“People don’t care so much about the power (judges) wield because a (runner-up) on ‘Idol’ often has a better career than the (winner),” he says. “They still have peers and fans. The asylum, it turns out, is more democratic and less manipulated.” Indeed, “Top Chef’s” losing competitors often pop up on cooking shows, and some get advertising endorsement deals.

“The Biggest Loser” is in the middle of discovering what it’s like when those so-called asylum inmates rebel; toward the end of February, several contestants walked off the show after producers introduced a twist that would allow competitors who had been eliminated to return and vie for the $250,000 prize, confirms Dave Broome, president of 25/7 Prods, the production shingle behind the show.

“I don’t know if the incident is an indication of contestants being more savvy or if, in our case, we just have some bad seeds who are on our show for all the wrong reasons,” he says.

Prior to the incident, Broome says he was already noticing that the attitudes of contestants had shifted this season: Instead of treating their trainers as infallible, as had been the case earlier in the show’s run, “they’re more open to giving them a piece of their minds, and we’ve had more conflict on ‘Loser’ than ever. That’s a shift in attitudes — you’re not untouchable any more.”

That means producers have to keep up with audiences who continue to demand different, edgier scenarios. And they don’t always work; “Fear Factor’s” reboot had one episode yanked from NBC over having contestants drink donkey semen. But experienced producers manipulate wised-up contestants in other ways.

“We keep them up all night (on “Idol”) so they’ll be sleep deprived, and we’ll get more emotion the next day,” says Lythgoe. “You manipulate to a certain extent and hope it plays out. That’s good production, as far as I’m concerned.”

Non-competitive reality shows are hardly exempt, though the challenges they face involve a tabloid press that chases down the big stories, such as Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage in “Kourtney & Kim Take New York,” long before they’re revealed on air. But such information can also wind up being publicity that raises curiosity for a show.

It’s all about the journey, says Shari Levine, senior VP of current production for Bravo Media. “People may say, ‘I knew that was going to happen, and let’s see it unfold.’ People really like the journey of reality shows — that’s one reason they tune in.”

Unquestionably, reality television remains a manipulative medium, even as it evolves. But what hasn’t changed is that even as audiences, contestants and participants wise up, there’s an ongoing hunger for these modern-day soap operas — and the best drama can come from any series, any time.

For Lythgoe, one of the greatest reality scenes he remembers is in an episode from the first season of “Survivor.” “When the homophobic soldier (Rudy Boesch) was massaging sun cream into the back of the gay eventual winner (Richard Hatch) — that Machiavellian way the producers went around showing that … they didn’t manipulate it at all,” he says. “That’s what I love about reality TV. You just film what happens.”

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