“The reality of reality is only the good ones survive,” says World of Wonder’s founding pair, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey.
The unscripted shingle, now sitting pretty on its 21st birthday as the quirky golden child of reality TV, has gone beyond surviving within the genre. It now thrives, reaping the rewards of hit franchises such as Logo’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing.”
But even with the success of such unscripted skeins, the shingle’s documentary roots are what give World of Wonder, with headquarters in both Hollywood and the U.K., its edge.
“One of our first projects was ‘L.A. Stories: From the Eye of the Storm.’ We followed people for a year after the L.A. riots,” says Bailey, who founded the shingle with Barbato in 1991. “Because the riots were created by a clip of Rodney King, we gave video cameras to people (gang leaders, cops, teachers and others) and let them keep video diaries for a year.”
Documentary was the genre of choice for Bailey and Barbato, whose bigscreen credits include 1998’s “Party Monster,” because it was cheap and the pair was “into real people.”
“It wasn’t about there being a new business model (in reality TV in the ’90s),” Barbato says. “We were just making what we could make.”
The shingle’s path in cost-effective, docustyle content paralleled the change in both film and TV that was paving the way for the unscripted revolution.
“The means of production were being democratized,” Bailey says. “People now had access to inexpensive, broadcast-quality handheld cameras.”
In World of Wonder’s first American production — “Shock Video” for HBO — the first two installments of the series centered on the handheld cam movement.
Since the shingle’s fledgling days, World of Wonder has debuted countless reality skeins, one-off speshes and feature-length docs on MTV, VH1, Bravo, AMC, Logo and Showtime, as well as several others.
World of Wonder recently bowed dance skein “All the Right Moves” on Oxygen, and fashion doc “In Vogue” on HBO.
Before homosexuality was hip in pop culture with shows such as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Will & Grace” and “The L Word,” World of Wonder dove into the topic in the ’90s with specials such as “The Real Ellen Story” (detailing the coming-out story of the daytime talkshow host), “The RuPaul Show” and “Lesbians Behaving Badly.”
A knack for alternative lifestyle programming has been one of the shingle’s strengths, as programming covers a range of topics from sex changes (“Becoming Chaz”), to religion (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), to porn (“Inside Deep Throat”). However, Barbato and Bailey do not see themselves as trailblazers within the edgier fare.
“We often feature people who others may consider marginal or misunderstood, probably because we consider ourselves marginal or misunderstood,” Barbato says. “We turn the camera on people who are extensions of who we are.”
Beyond showbiz, he and Bailey are strong supporters of the Jeff Griffith Gay and Lesbian Youth Center, an org that provides help to homeless LGBT youth in Los Angeles.
“It’s very near to our hearts,” the two say.)
A strong docu background has also helped the pair steer World of Wonder away from programs that reek of exploitation when it comes to alternative lifestyles.
“We celebrate the freakish and eccentric,” Bailey says. “We always thought of TV as an amazing window on the world. ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ is a celebration of drag and the idea of inventing yourself out of nothing. The idea of normality doesn’t really exist to us.”
Nor does the idea of purely “real” reality TV. Bailey and Barbato both believe that a level of production and structure is necessary in unscripted content.
“We come from the documentary world,” says Barbato. “They’re all about the ‘real,’ the attempt to get closer to the truth. But, docs have to have a beginning, middle and end. Life doesn’t happen in three acts. Whether you’re doing reality, documentary or scripted, you need to tell a story.”
Authenticity is what allows a show to “sink or swim” though, according to Barbato and Bailey, who see the TV pendulum shifting away from highly structured, Kardashian-esque reality programs and back toward more “raw” content in the coming years.
As for the future of World of Wonder, the shingle is pushing into the scripted world, though the genre is not entirely foreign to the docu-centric production company.
“After we did the ‘Party Monster’ doc, we did the ‘Party Monster’ scripted feature, for example,” says Bailey.
World of Wonder is developing scripted TV programming that it plans to pitch out within the next year or two to nets.
“It’ll have our unique, twisted, sick point of view,” says Barbato. “Think dramedy.”
World of Wonder has also dipped its toes into the publishing waters with “The World According to Wonder,” a book slated for a February release that chronicles the history of the shingle and its experience within the reality world.
The World of Wonder founder are aware that some are still “snobbish” to the genre, in spite of constant cross-fertilization between scripted and unscripted with docustyle-scripted series such as “The Office” and “Modern Family.” The pair, however, continue to welcome unscripted with open arms.
“At the end of the day,” says Barbato, “the great thing about reality TV is that it has helped democratize the whole entertainment industry. There are more and more people who get to come to the party.”
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