Fear and Loathing in Reality TV: Development Edition

“Fear is the mind-killer.” George Herbert, Dune. 

“Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasure.” Rainer Maria Rilke.

After the attacks in Paris, Beirut, Bamaco, Tunis (and counting), there’s a fair amount of fear around these days. Fear can be handy if you’re a politician. George Bush used it to motivate a war against Iraq, a secular country that didn’t attack America, while choosing to ignore Wahhabist Saudi Arabia from whence Bin Laden and most of the hijackers hailed. Now cohorts in his party are using it to reject the refugees they produced by fucking up that war. It seems that fear can be wielded to justify just about anything. 

But fear also informs the decisions we think we’re making freely. Specifically the stupid/destructive ones. It is certainly rampant in every aspect of Reality television production; its prevalence is so all-encompassing that to do it justice I will serialize this discussion. Let’s call it: Fear and Loathing in Reality TV. For the purposes of this exercise I’ll walk you through the development, production and edit of a hypothetical Reality show called, The Rarin’ Oliveris.
The story starts, as must any story of this ilk, with the owner of a Production Company—we’ll call him Bob—and, because Bob is that kind of guy, his company’s named Bob’s Your Uncle Productions. Bob’s actually a pretty insecure guy. He doesn’t have a whole lot of experience in the industry, and started the company with money from his in-laws, who refinanced their home. Bob sold a series last year which kept things afloat, but until (when!) that gets renewed he needs to keep selling. He needs to make his overhead.
Now, while most people not in the industry assume networks and cable channels produce their own shows, this is not the case. Companies like Bob’s Your Uncle pitch show ideas to networks. When a network buys a show, they basically provide the pitching production company with the budget to produce it.  
Bob recently found out that let’s say TLC is looking for family-oriented shows: stuff with a heart but also a twist. Like, say, the Duggars, without the molestation. As luck would have it, Bob knows just such a family: the Oliveris of Staten Island. The Oliveris have a family rock ‘n roll band that plays gigs around New Jersey. Mom plays keyboard, daughter plays drums, son shakes a mean tambourine, and dad takes lead vocals. Outside of being a band, though, they’re a regular, very tight-knit family. 
Bob’s nervous. Any money he uses to shoot what we call a sizzle reel is wasted if it doesn’t sell. Still, TLC’s looking for this kind of thing, the Oliveris are real over-the-top type Reality characters,  and also … Staten Island. If he doesn’t pitch this, someone else will. So he musters resources to shoot a sizzle. He tries to keep the cost of production down (read: unpaid interns and possibly an underpaid Associate Producer) but still has to drop a couple of thousand dollars in editing. He just hopes he’s made the right decision producing this pitch. 

Bob shoots at least ten of these a year and sometimes he doesn’t sell any of them. So, he spends about $20K on Development a year (and, frankly, this is vastly understating the number of pitches production companies probably make each year). This is a scary amount of money to throw against the wall in the hopes of something sticking.
The day of the Network meeting an anxious Bob arrives with three sizzle reels (he’s modified two other pitches so that they meet the family-with-a-twist spec) and a desperate smile. The network exec’s late; there’s a new Head of Programming at the network and there have been nonstop meetings since his arrival. (Unbeknownst to fearful Bob, the exec herself is terrified that the new boss will toss her like the other execs who’ve recently been let go). She’s sorry but she only has ten minutes. 

Bob bobs his head, of course, of course while calculating internally which pitch to discard – he won’t have time for three. So, what have you got to show me? Bob hits plays on his first sizzle, a pitch about an Alaskan survivalist family. Bob’s on the edge of his seat. This is a strong concept (and is secretly Bob’s favorite) but as he unspools the sample the network exec is constantly checking her email. Shit, he’s really not getting traction with this one. 
Survive! Alaska is a bust. Bob moves onto the The Rarin’ Oliveris. The network exec’s still checking her phone but she seems faintly amused by footage of mom and dad getting into a fight about wardrobe. Bob perks up. The executive looks down at her phone. Fuck. He raises the audio to get her attention. The sizzle cuts to the Oliveris doing a show at a Staten Island church venue. The executive glances up. “Ooh, a church!” she says. As it happens, the new Head of Programming specifically wants more Christian family programming. What would be really good, she says, is if the Oliveris were actually Christians seeking to spread the Word by singing Bible-inspired songs at Christian venues. Would this be possible?
Well, no, not really. The Oliveris are many things, but church-going ain’t one of them. Also, their songs are generally rockabilly with a dash of jazz. But this is the first positive response he’s had all meeting. So Bob, motivated by the fear of what will happen if he doesn’t make a sale, says sure. He has no idea exactly how such a thing may be executed, or even if it can be, but he starts making all kinds of promises he really can’t deliver on.
Bob makes the sale: an eight episode, half-hour series. Only, instead of the show being about a zany Staten Island family called The Rarin’ Oliveris, now it’s Alleluyah Oliveri. And instead of a docusoap about a hard-drinking, cursing, rock ‘n roll family (the reality) it’s a docusoap about a family of big characters committed to spreading the word of God (the Reality). Also the budget is pretty small and they want to premiere the show in about, you know, 4 months. Can you do it Bob? Yes! (This is where, in interview bite, we would have Bob confess that he has no idea how to pull this off!!)

One thought on “Fear and Loathing in Reality TV: Development Edition

  1. D'oh! Don't leave us hanging! I need to know how exactly Bob convinces the Oliveris to go along with the charade (or does he manage to slip in another family?). So many questions! To paraphrase Mike Boogie (to Howie – BB8) 'Get to typin'!'


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