Reality As They Know It
One hectic day in the lives of four power brokers
By Deborah Starr Seibel -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/29/2004 8:00:00 PM
Until now, there has been a natural rhythm and flow to the process of making prime time television: A stable development calendar. A leisurely pace for writing pilots. A period of measured consideration for the pilots committed to film. A "hiring season" for the producers, writers, directors and actors lucky enough to be part of a picked-up series.
And then there was the certainty that another network might be making a show in the same genre—say, a family comedy or medical drama—but it couldn't be like yours because it would have an entirely different script.
But that's history. Welcome to the raucous, unbridled Brave New World of reality television. No longer considered the shabby sibling to highly polished comedies and dramas, reality has turned the process of making television—from pitch to final product—on its ear. And the change is happening at warp speed.
Virtually overnight, reality TV has been tearing its way through the record books. Seven reality series from the 2003-2004 season landed in the Top 20. Next season, according to Carat Programming Group, 22% of the broadcast networks' prime-time schedule will consist of reality shows. (In the season before, it was just 10%.) There are literally hundreds of unscripted shows on cable networks. On page 40, we list 63 new reality shows that are getting ready to launch on cable and broadcast outlets in the next few months. And in the new cloak-and-dagger world of reality development, those are just the ones that we know of.
As the TV industry adapts, a new breed of executives is emerging. We wondered what it was like to spend a day in the life of the power players who make it happen. So we shadowed ABC's Andrea Wong, who has the power to greenlight the next reality series; Mike Fleiss (The Bachelor), the reality kingpin who has seven shows on his production calendar this week; Danielle Eifler, the casting director for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, who trolls for the next batch of volunteer camera-friendly subjects; and Endeavor's Sean Perry, who has clients lined up around the block to pitch the next big idea. Here's a glimpse of their reality.
The Network Executive
Wong's relentless search for ABC's next Bachelor
Ten stories above bustling Burbank in ABC's headquarters, reality honcho Andrea Wong decides which reality series live or die. Her desk—tidy with two inboxes and a neat stack of expense reports—isn't a desk at all, but a large antique pine dining table. "I like it because it gives me the space I need," she says. An oversized monitor, on mute, is tuned to ABC News Now. For the many anxious producers who come calling, a wooden hammer sits on her coffee table, a gift from Home Improvement's Tim Allen, that serves as "a very good ice-breaker" and a subtle reminder that behind her soft exterior, she's a tough operator. The 38-year-old power broker, who keeps a frenzied schedule, quietly taps entries into her notebook computer and calls out the door to her assistant, "Next."
In the world of reality television, Wong picks the survivors. As ABC's executive vice president of alternative programming (as well as specials and late night), she is the last stop, the power buyer who can greenlight an idea, turn it into a series or stop it dead in its tracks. Since 1998, she has been the hitmaker for a network in dire need of hits: The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Extreme Makeover and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
On a typical 15-and-half-hour day, she's up by 5:30 a.m., in track shoes and out the door to hit her West Hollywood spinning class. "It's the time I use to clear my head." Fueled by her on-the-go meal of choice—low-carb Strive Bars—it's back home to shower and make the remarkable transformation from gym rat to network bigwig.
Starting at 8:30 a.m., she'll take a meeting with "The Fonz" (Henry Winkler, who's producing a Happy Days reunion special), take a pitch for a new reality series from David Collins (creator and executive producer of Bravo's ground-breaking Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), have lunch with the new head of ABC Family Channel, attend an in-house discussion about contract negotiations with the Directors Guild of America, revise a promo for the upcoming reality series, The Benefactor, do a phone interview with People magazine, give career advice to an ABC intern and organize an overseas trip to search for new ideas. She won't get home until after midnight, after she's seen, in person, this season's new Bachelor hand out the final rose on the show's last night of taping.
In an industry largely populated with those who make every day Casual Friday, Wong is a standout, often looking as if she has just stepped from the pages of Vogue. On a recent day, she wore a Chanel pink and white boucle jacket, white seersucker pants and pumps with 3-inch heels. "I don't look good in jeans," she says.
Probably without knowing it, her personal style telegraphs the kind of programming she's looking for: tasteful, family-oriented and optimistic. She takes a call from Endeavor's top reality agent, Sean Perry. They have already worked together on Extreme Makeover and the upcoming Mark Cuban reality competition, The Benefactor. The call makes her smile, like a parent talking to an adorable, messy, hyperactive child. "You're begging? What are you begging for?"
But like any good buyer, Wong has perfected the art of saying "no." Her assistant, Natalie Jaquez Coor, passes through another call from a producer, who will get his answer on the phone. "This isn't something we absolutely have to have," says Wong in her steady, reasonable voice. "But I really want to work with you, so could you develop some more ideas for me?"
David Collins, the creator of Queer Eye, comes in person, flanked by two more agents from Endeavor—Rick Rosen and Greg Horangic. In the current paranoid environment of reality-idea piracy, they decline to share the new concept on the record. But as Wong and her vice president of alternative series and specials, Vicki Dummer, listen to Collins' spirited pitch and open the elaborate, high-gloss folders that contain story treatment and set design, you can see that Collins has scored major points.
"Nobody has pitched me anything like this in four years," says Wong, who will take more time to consider it fully. "I love it when producers come in prepared."
The daughter of a Sunnyvale, Calif., high school teacher and a school nurse, she developed a passion for television after spending a summer during graduate school interning at NBC News in New York.
Now, in the midst of this seemingly endless day, she'll try to pass on what she knows to the next generation of television makers. "The bottom line is that you want to be happy," she tells ABC intern Jenny Ramirez. "You spend so many hours of your life working, you better like it."
"Figure out what your passion is," says Wong. "And then be better than everybody else."
The Mike Fleiss philosophy: "We're out of our minds!"
Producer Mike Fleiss strides into the ABC executive dining room, over the moon about what's going to happen at tonight's taping of the final rose ceremony on The Bachelor. Unlike last time, there will be no romantic letdowns, no half-commitments without an engagement ring. Fleiss spots ABC's reality honcho Andrea Wong and delivers the headline tease. "This guy's coming to close the deal!"
Along with Survivor's Mark Burnett, Fleiss, 40, is considered one of reality television's royalty. He's the unapologetic creator and producer of an astonishing array of seven reality series, only six of which he's willing to name: The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, The Will, Gilligan's Island, The Two-Timer and Big Man On Campus. As for the seventh, in the current climate of reality concept piracy, Fleiss knows that loose lips sink shows. But he resents having to be careful. "I hate all the secrecy," he says.
Anyone who has spent time with Fleiss in his sprawling production offices in San Fernando Valley's Sherman Oaks knows why: Fleiss revels in talking about the shows on his plate. Shown the latest cut of the first episode of The Bachelor, this longtime married man and father of two teenagers reacts with infectious guffaws. "The country's gonna go nuts! We're out of our minds! Is it too much for the American people to take? I ask you!"
He's been tinkering with reality television for almost 14 years, when he started working on Fox's Totally Hidden Video. In 2000, he put an indelible stamp on the genre with Fox's infamous Who Wants to Marry A Multi-Millionaire. "I think that's the show that changed TV," he says, "Because it was the first time we took a real person (Darva Conger), plucked her from obscurity and made her into a household name."
Despite his obvious pride, there was a time when he thought the Multi-Millionaire debacle might end his career. Then he got another chance in 2001 with The Bachelor, and his stock soared. "I have a house in Hawaii that I hardly ever go to, and when I do go there, I'm on the phone," he says. "I love my job. Will I be able to keep up this pace in 20 years? No. But right now, it's such a good time. It's really a revolutionary time. We're changing what it means to make network television."
Fleiss doesn't quite fit the Hollywood mold. An imposing man, he favors all-black surfer shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. His corner office is dark, decorated with a black velvet sofa, lava lamps and posters of Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead. And dangling from the ceiling is a straight jacket emblazoned with the logo of his company, Next Entertainment.
So far, The Bachelor, the show that made him has been a double-edged sword. Next to his phone, he keeps a hand-written list of 16 copycat reality series all of which borrow one or more elements from The Bachelor. The list, which is constantly growing, includes Joe Millionaire and Outback Jack. As he runs down the names—"Average Joe is exactly the same show," he fumes—Fleiss pledges to sue them all. He's watching to see the outcome of a related lawsuit, filed by The Contender producers Mark Burnett and Jeffrey Katzenberg, that would stop Fox from debuting The Next Great Champ before Contender premieres on NBC.
But he has little time to dwell on the negative. He's too busy traveling to shooting locations and jumping in and out of one of the 38 editing bays in his office. "Mike, I need you to look at this," says Senior Producer Martin Hilton, working on a first cut of The Two-Timer for ABC. "It takes a hundred hours of tape to make one hour of television," says Fleiss. "You bring it all back here, and you have a million choices. It's a very tricky form of story-telling."
But it's the only form that interests him. "I would never want to do scripted television," he says. "I think almost all of it is horrible, unwatchable."
That's the same language some critics may use to describe his latest creation, Two-Timer whose lead character, a real-life advertising salesman, dates—and lies to—five different women. "I hope the critics hammer me," he says, grinning. "That's what I live for."
Fleiss is more interested in pleasing viewers. Sitting in his edit bay with Two-Timer on the monitor, he revels in the latest cut. "Don't you want to know what's going to happen? You can't stop watching, can you?".
"Sean Perry on the line..."
Across town from Fleiss and Wong, in Beverly Hills, Endeavor's Sean Perry, 39, is on his headset, "I'm jammin', sorry brotha," and juggling four of the 100-plus calls he will have on his phone sheet today. He punches in another line—a network executive. "Barry!…Where is the love?…I'm not trying to take money from you…I'm trying to make you more money." Perry doesn't wait for a response. "I should be the only business person you should be dealing with."
In a business built on hyperbole, Perry can back his big talk with big results: He's in charge of the reality and syndication division for one of Hollywood's most powerful agencies and responsible for selling 22 current or future reality series including ABC's Extreme Makeover, Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, MTV's Punk'd and PoweR Girls, a reality show starring celebrity publicist Lizzie Grubman.
Perry, who swings a golf putter as he knocks out calls, still isn't satisfied. "Get my wife," he bellows to his patient assistant, Eric Levy. Clearly enthused over this morning's progress, he turns to a visitor and says, "I'm three calls away from closing this deal. If you can believe it, mean it, prove it—you can sell it."
Perry can fill any room with his enthusiasm and sheer physical presence. At 6'4" and built like a linebacker, he doesn't look like your typical Hollywood agent. "I'm the only guy wearing a $1,500 suit and cowboy boots in Beverly Hills," he tells his next caller. The boots come in handy. They remind him of his other passion in life after closing deals or doting on his wife and three young children: hunting for boar with a bow and arrow, or elk with a rifle, or anything else he will actually consume on his 35-acre Oregon ranch. "I only kill what I eat," he says, not the least bit apologetic. "If everything goes to hell in a hand basket," he says, showing off pictures of his idyllic northern retreat, "I have a place to go."
Perry won't likely need the retreat soon, given his track record and ferocious drive. A graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, he has fought in the agency trenches since 1989, when he joined ICM's training program. He spent seven years at a boutique agency, Abrams-Rubaloff & Lawrence, starting the reality packaging division. In 1996, he took over development at King World. Endeavor came calling in 1999.
TV is in Perry's genes. He's the son of game show host Jim Perry, who spent a decade fronting NBC's Card Shark and Sale of the Century. And like a hyperactive TV host, Perry seems to control the energy level of any room he's in. "You should be a show," says Alex Duda, executive producer of the syndicated reality dating series, Elimi-Date. Duda and her husband and partner, John Rieber, have come for lunch. "No way," says Perry, whose language is not always FCC-friendly. "I'm not broadcastable."
Every morning, Perry plays beat-the-clock, trying to see how many minutes before 6 a.m. he can leave the house for his 40-minute commute from Valencia, north of Los Angeles. For his morning coffee fix, he passes Starbucks for a "gas station or McDonald's—none of that hoity toity coffee for me."
He handles a half-dozen international phone calls while he's still on the road (many of his reality projects are cooperative ventures with overseas partners), hits the office before seven, cleans out his in-box, watches a couple of tapes, and, "by the time the town opens at nine, I've already knocked out a bunch of my work." He shouts out the door, "Get me Quincy Jones! Send him to me!"
With the networks' shift to reality programming, Perry's job has become even more intense. "Everybody has a reality idea," he says. "So now, if you come to me and say, 'I've got a reality show,' I have to cut through it by saying: 'Who's behind it? What's their track record? What's their passion behind it?'"
For a man so ensconced in the world of reality TV, Perry seems to know what's really real. "Look, a friend of mine is a cop in New Mexico. He makes an eighth of what I make and wears a bulletproof vest to work. Somebody will shoot at him in the next 10 years. It's just the stats. I'm sitting here in Beverly Hills; we just had a great lunch. I've gotta read some stuff, do some contracts. We're making television, and no one's gonna die."
The Talent Scout
Danielle Eifler's job at Queer Eye is to search for the perfect schlub
He confesses, "No, I've never gotten a manicure or a pedicure. Not once...I never use cologne…Well, I use my own scent...I got my TV for $100 bucks from my neighbor…Everyone I know is broke."
Such are the early-morning woes of slob-dom being grunted at Danielle Eifler, casting director for Scout Productions' Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
It's 9 a.m. and the hyper-chatty 28-year-old is videotaping a dingy third-floor walkup apartment on New York's Upper West Side. She pans the smoke-filled living room and zeroes in on its T-shirt and corduroy-clad tenant—a 28-year-old waiter pleading with her from his ripped lime-green sofa to choose him for a makeover by the show's Fab Five.
Bleary-eyed from three apartment visits in Brooklyn the night before, Eifler is casing out every inch of the minuscule disaster area, from the contents of its fridge (a large vat of margarine, some old bread) to the paint-chipped walls. Eifler is also checking out the size of candidates' homes for camera-readiness. This one is a bit small, she thinks.
The home visits get tough. "It's mentally and physically exhausting," she confides. "You're in someone else's space, and I don't want to sound creepy, but if there's a dirty vibe, you take that on."
En route to the office after the half-hour apartment visit, Eifler talks about her job and admits, "It's really stressful. Knowing the success of the show rests on you finding a guy—that's big."
For the actress-turned-"talent" scout, 15-hour workdays are nothing new, especially as the breakout Bravo hit strives to stay fresh—and on the air.
And she's not meeting beautiful people, either.
Back at the office, she grabs a quarter of a bagel from the show's well-stocked kitchen before rushing downstairs to greet the first of 25 makeover hopefuls she will tape in back-to-back five-minute interviews that day.
Eifler's got it down to a science. One by one, the straight guys—varying in sloppiness and nervousness—are ushered in. They hand over home photos, and Eifler mikes them and fires away:
"So how's it going? Where do you shop? So you owned a business at 12. What's that about? Do you have holiday traditions? What's your favorite thing about yourself? Are you willing to change that facial hair? Can I see you without your glasses? Ever considered contacts? Can you handle a group of five gay guys?"
It takes the New Hampshire native about 30 seconds to know if she's got a keeper. "When it's that good, it's like BOOM—that's the one."
Casting is crucial. Although the show is still Bravo's biggest hit, drawing five times the 18-49 audience of its other shows, viewership for this summer's 10-episode season was down 44% to an average 1.04. Eifler spends up to six weeks casting each episode.
She and two assistants spend up to three hours daily plowing through the more than 100 write-ins the show's Web site gets each day from sloppy schmos or their thoughtful (?) friends.
With rare exception, straight guys are out if they're too tall or brawny (Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger don't make clothes in big sizes) or if they or their relatives live too far away. Eifler also wants great stories, humor, quirkiness and a willingness to change.
"We get guys who wear the same socks all week, don't wash their hair or eat tuna out of a can, but if you have no events coming up and your family lives in Oregon, we're going to reject you," she said. (Queer Eye does do special episodes out of town.)
Part of Eifler's job is to find certain types of guys (cabbies, for instance) or men in certain situations. Currently, Queer Eye is trying to cast a couple who are going to be married.
She has recruited more than 130 couples by posting ads to Craigslist, scouring bridal registries, plastering flower shops with fliers and blitzing out more than 50,000 e-mails.
It's tough. But there are upsides, like seeing her scruffy Neanderthals transformed into hunks. "All the guys who've been on send insane thank-you notes," she said. "They really experience something enormously changing, and they truly come out a better person on the other side."
Unfortunately, none of the interviewees this morning are doing it for Eifler.
"The hardest part of my job is the frustration of not finding the piece of the puzzle. It's a matter of turning over a million stones," she says. "After you've turned over 999,000 and you can't believe you have to turn over more, then all of a sudden that stone you turn over is the diamond in the rough—it's the guy." —ANNE BECKER
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