What We Learned About the Reality of Unscripted Television at RealScreen West

Real Screen West
Courtesy of Real Screen West

As pilot season wrapped up with upfront presentations in New York City, the unscripted TV biz headed back to Los Angeles for the RealScreen West entertainment conference in Santa Monica, Calif. Here’s a look into the latest reality of reality television.

Reality TV set the stage for scripted diversity: Both Discovery Channel president Rich Ross and ABC exec Jason Sarlanis spoke about the unscripted space’s longstanding acceptance of diversity. “You have to show people true people,” Ross said during his keynote discussion. “They’re embracing diversity,” Sarlanis explained of scripted creatives. “That’s an unscripted technique. I think that’s why you’re seeing a push back to scripted TV. We’re not chasing diversity. We were there way ahead of the curve.”

Despite format changes, authenticity is always key: Referencing trendy self-shot and meta practices, Renegade 83’s David Garfinkle, who is behind hit “Naked & Afraid” and revolutionized the TV dating genre with “Blind Date” sat on the “Trendwatch: Keeping It Real” panel. “It really doesn’t matter, the techniques. It comes back to story,” he said. “Self-shot or whatever, what’s the story?”

Not everything makes for good TV, despite everyone thinking they deserve their own show: The moderator at a Mark Burnett’s keynote discussion joked that the prolific producer should have waited to shave his beard until cameras were around. Burnett responded to the idea that it would have made for interesting TV: “That’s what makes this business stupid.”

The world still isn’t ready to see everything: Though it seems like everything and anything is on the smallscreen these days, some subject matters still aren’t accepted. “One of the risks you take when you’re following real people is it’s tough to tell what you’re getting into,” said panelist Tom Forman of Relativity Television, who produced A&E’s prostitution cancelled docuseries “8 Minutes.”

As the TV landscape evolves, networks are struggling to portion out budgets for scripted versus unscripted programming: “We do get put in a different bucket than scripted,” Sharon Scott of NBC Peacock Productions said of networks portioning out budgets unevenly. “But every one of these companies is having this revelation of how they’re going to approach the future. We’re all going through a revolution, really, together.”

Everyone is searching for the next best thing — and it could hit at any moment: Though Burnett giddily joked about “American Idol” going off the air next year, while “The Voice” is still singing a high note, he was more excited about the prospect of an entirely new hit. Schmoozing with Lifetime and A&E exec Rob Sharenow, Burnett was overheard recalling past RealScreens, noting the conference’s immense growth and immense talent potentially walking through the halls. Burnett couldn’t help but smile, while suggesting that the next prolific producer of the unscripted world could be under the same roof as him at Santa Monica’s Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows.

The “Duck Dynasty” days are a thing of the past: “There was that moment where everyone was chasing that. That was the zenith and now what we’re seeing is the hangover,” said Alan Eyres of National Geographic Channel on the “Trendwatch: Keeping It Real” panel.

Viewers like to see celebrity’s lives more than music videos — at least on TV: MTV’s reality exec Colin Nash said the former music network is not going back to the old days when video killed the radio star. In fact, Nash says YouTube killed the TV video star, which has since been replaced with actual stars: celebrities with great stories to tell. He says music videos are now better fit for an online format, while MTV is thriving off storytelling — and, audiences are still hooked on famous faces telling those stories. Ja Rule’s upcoming family docuseries will put another larger than life family on the millennial cable net, in the vein of “The Osbournes.”

Trivia is back: ABC is very proud of its new summer show “500 Questions” and already sees opportunities for how to improve it for season two, Sarlanis said.

The Kardashians are not famous for nothing: Rather, they are famous for revolutionizing the unscripted landscape, according to many RealScreen speakers who credit the E! family for splashing unabashed soapy stories on the screen, which has consequently inspired juicier storytelling shifts on shows such as “The Bachelor.” Bunim/Murray CEO and chairman Gil Goldschein gave a positive review of the Kardashian/Jenner’s willingness to be open on screen. “That family has continued to increase their payday season to season,” he said, noting their worth for the network. Also important, many agreed that the “KUWTK” franchise gave Caitlyn Jenner a platform to reveal her true self.

The word “reality TV” is outdated, but unscripted is not. “Most people know I hate the word reality TV,” Burnett said during his keynote, emphasizing that unscripted television packs as much story as a scripted drama.

Reality TV isn’t going anywhere: Real-life subjects make for endless new ideas. During his keynote, A&E Networks exec Paul Buccieri mentioned that people are quick to think everything on TV is the same “until it’s not.” Despite criticism of viewers becoming satiated with reality TV, he says there is always a new person, story or idea in the unscripted world.

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  1. John Kannerly says:

    The Unscripted universe still has a few black eyes from secrets and lies concerning producer practices and subject/actor concealments. Hiding truth that is salient to the concept of the show (I.e. A&E salting the storage lockers on “Storage Wars”, inter alia, is very disappointing to longtime fans who feel like chumps for buying the okeydoke for episode after episode, season after season. Show runners must take care to ensure that there is enough reality in reality television so viewers can feel safe enough to identify with the people in the show. Gonzo unscripted is not something toward which the reality space should set it’s sights.

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