Scenes From a Marriage

MTV weds reality to drama, and the union pays off

With tween queen Hilary Duff crooning the theme song in the background, sweeping shots of California’s crystal-blue waters cut to sun-drenched, bikini-clad babes and boy toys. The imagery is so perfect, it’s hard to believe it’s real. But, like, it totally is. Or rather, it’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, a half-hour MTV show about high school friends in the privileged—and gorgeous—beachfront town. Billed by its creators as a “dramality,” a hybrid of reality and drama programming, Laguna paves new ground in the battle for the lucrative 12-34 demo. So far, the gamble is working: Ratings are up, and its producer, Gary Auerbach, is planning more. (Ricochet, a dramality based on the life of a cop psychologist and his cases, is already in development.)

Laguna premiered Sept. 28 to a strong 2.4 million total viewers, making it the highest-rated show in its 10:30 p.m. timeslot with MTV’s 12-34s against competition from VH1, Bravo and E! The only edgy fare that performed better overall that night was FX’s Nip/Tuck, which scored 3.8 million total viewers. After a slight dip the next week, to 1.52 million, the show has steadily gained, posting 2.2 million Oct. 19 and 2.5 million on Oct. 26. With reality continuing to saturate the marketplace, Laguna is an effort to keep things fresh, says MTV Senior Vice President of Production Tony DiSanto, who executive-produced the show with creator Liz Gateley.

The Tuesday-night hybrid resembles popular broadcast teen prime time soaps, including The O.C., from which it’s loosely derived. But there’s a twist: Laguna uses multiple cameras recording at 24 frames per second, just like feature films, and lacks reality conventions, such as a host, title cards and confessional interviews with cast members. Still, its beach-bumming ensemble, an MTV-recruited clique of actual students, shares their real-life teen drama from the end of senior year.

“Because of the beauty of the town, the idea was to tell the story of a real group of kids in their real lives but in the visual language of narrative film and TV dramas,” DiSanto says. “We could easily have gone out and shot these kids’ lives using traditional storytelling techniques, but it was about creatively challenging ourselves and taking chances.”

To produce Laguna, which an industry insider estimates at $300,000-$400,000 per episode, DiSanto brought in Gary Auerbach, who has worked with MTV for 15 years on hits, including Singled Out and Punk’d. Through his Go Go Luckey production company, Auerbach cherry-picked a team of writers, producers and editors with experience across TV genres to execute the singular style.

As with many reality shows, they shot loads of footage in a five-month span and charged a crack team of editors with weeding through and plucking story arcs to “write the script backwards,” Auerbach explains. Each half-hour episode took eight to 10 weeks to cut. “There was inherent drama in their lives. It was just a question of putting it together in a form that was tight and ongoing,” says co-executive producer Wendy Riche, who executive-produced daytime legend General Hospital from 1992 through 2001.

In fact, Laguna seems a natural step in the evolution of reality programming on MTV, a network Auerbach says was “cool enough to try something different.”

Fifteen years ago, the first Real World set the reality benchmark on MTV. Wild-panning camera work filmed a group of twentysomethings living together in a house, with a room specifically designated for taped confessional sessions.

By 2002, the network had tinkered with the formula. The Osbournes, combining comedy and reality, garnered critical kudos. Editors ditched the confessionals, added quirky music and wove footage together so ingeniously the hard-rocking family resembled a 1950s-style sitcom.

But MTV isn’t the only network blurring genres.

Improvised shows like HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Showtime’s upcoming Kirstie Alley project Fat Actress blur reality in the other direction, pretending fictional stories happen in their stars’ lives. “There’s a willingness in the executive suite to take chances and experiment with the genre, and that’s creating a great creative environment for interesting new work,” says Eli Holzman, who heads TV operations at Katalyst Films, the production company owned by Punk’d’s Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg.

Holzman previously ran Miramax Television and developed the Bravo filmmaking reality show Project Greenlight. “Dating shows have to add twist after twist. Then they find themselves twisted to the point where they’ve suffocated themselves,” he says. “There’s a real hunger and need to reinvent.” Given these emerging forms of creative reality TV, the industry stigma formerly attached to it is fading. Reality is no longer seen as “fly-by-night TV,” according to Auerbach.

“I used to work with indie filmmakers who proudly announced they didn’t have a TV. Now I see those same filmmakers sitting in the lobby at ABC and CBS waiting to pitch,” Holzman notes. “Everyone’s looking for the next big thing and reality conceit.”

They may have found it in Laguna. Although the cast graduates at the end of the 11-episode season, DiSanto hopes for a second season, either with the current crew or a new batch of surfer eye candy.

Yet neither thinks dramalities signal an end to either scripted or traditional reality TV. “Everything’s cyclical, and the audience doesn’t care if it’s reality or scripted,” Auerbach says. “At the end of the day, you need a good show with good characters and good storytelling. That’s what people like.”