Once upon a time people called certain television programs "reality" shows.
Now they're just shows.
MTV's Real World was the first, Survivor was the breakout... and now each year hundreds of reality programs air on almost every channel.
One of the people responsible for this major shift is Mark Cronin, an extremely successful - and prolific - reality television producer. Mark is widely credited with creating the "celebrity-reality" genre when he created The Surreal Life, a show that established a formatting model many new shows still follow today.
He's been the showrunner (the person with overall creative authority and management responsibility) for forty-three series and founded Little Wooden Boat Productions, the company that currently produces the game show Idiotest on the Game Show Network. And he created and produces Below Deck, currently starting its fourth season, and its spin-off, Below Deck Mediterranean.
So yeah, he's a successful guy.
And he's also extremely candid about how reality TV works. We talked about the nuts and bolts of creating a successful show, and how some of those lessons apply to personal branding and telling the story of your company.
One of the key factors that influences the success of a reality show is "characters," and how you develop them.
You're right. We deal with real people. They're not characters. They're messier than that. But to make a show work we do need to create and develop characters the audience can relate to.
Even in literature, a complex, 360-degree character still isn't realistic because of course the author makes them what he wants the audience to perceive: words are chosen carefully, actions need to make sense inside the world of their character, and that's also true in reality TV.
Keep in mind we capture everything people do. We shoot Below Deck from the moment people wake up until they go to sleep, so in effect we do get the complete person. But then our job is to tell the story of these people: their personalities, their motivations, their actions, who becomes friends with whom... but we need to tell that story with characters that make sense to the audience.
In essence you're distilling all the complexity of a person so that he or she becomes a character that fits into the larger world of the show.
Absolutely. You can basically make a better version of what they are in real life... or, on some shows, a worse version.
That's basically what The Apprentice did with Donald Trump. Of course they protected him. They wanted to present a decisive, strong-willed, serious-minded, extremely successful businessman who can analyze a situation and always makes great decisions... but that's a character.
In real life, no one is like that all day, every day.
Obviously that's what we do as well. We can't show everything a person says or does because some of those things don't advance the story. If a woman has a great sense of humor... since I can only pick a few things, I pick the funny ones. We leave out the boring stuff.
Couldn't that lead to one-dimensional characters, though?
That's another layer. Fifteen years ago you could get away with stereotypical characters on reality TV. You could have stereotypes. Today the audience is more sophisticated. They expect to see a broader view of the main characters. They expect more subtlety. They don't just want to see what people do. They want to understand why they do what they do. They want to see different sides of the people on the show.
That makes our job more difficult, but it results in a higher quality viewing experience.
Our job is to bring the audience along, week after week, hour after hour. Below Deck is 12 or 13 hours of television each season. No one wants to watch one-dimensional characters for that long. Likable people sometimes make mistakes, jerks do nice things once in a while....
So how do you plan the storylines of a season? Or can you?
While you're taping you have no idea which stories will pay off. Say a guy likes a girl. He's flirting with her, he's trying to get the courage to ask her out... but when he does, she might turn him down and that's that. That provides material for one episode, not 12.
We have to track everything and we don't know what will make up the bones of the season. I don't know if people will get fired, I don't know if people will fall in love, I don't know if emergencies will occur... I don't know anything.
So choosing the premise and the cast is the only place where you really exercise "control."
If you do a good job and set up your show right....
Take Below Deck: the yacht is complicated to operate, the crew is often coming together for that charter season and many of them may have never worked together before, the charter guests themselves add another variable...
We like to say "the boat will provide." If I've done my homework then I've set my reality show in a place where there's a steady stream of drama and action.
But you do also have to cast well and represent different personality types. You can't have a big happy family at the start... but I love when a collection of individuals becomes a kind of family at the end.
That's a running theme in my shows. The Surreal Life was the same way. We cast different characters that represented family members and tried to set up family archetype roles in the casting process.
Of course people won't always agree or even like each other, but as they spend time together and do things together and learn to lean on each other, it's a human thing that people bond and learn to trust and rely on each other. That's a fun process for an audience to watch.
Conflict and resolution is the foundation, but so is change. That can't help but happen when you meet new people and have to live with them for a while. It's baked into the cake.
That's why, if you set your show up well, you can sit back and allow the story to occur. You don't have to meddle. If you're meddling you didn't do your homework.
And if you meddle, the audience can almost always sniff that out.
In a way, character development is a little like personal branding. People try to highlight an aspect of themselves.
Here's my advice to someone branding themselves: ask somebody to edit you. Find someone you trust, then sit down and talk about what you've done, what you hope to do... and have them help you sift through all that and decide which are the best stories to tell and who are the best people for you to tell those stories to.
The key is to make your brand consistent. In effect you're like a reality TV producer and you're editing your character. You want to present a cohesive story about who you are.
How do you keep a show fresh?
In the case of Surreal Life, we changed the cast every season. With Below Deck, the industry of yachting involves freelancers who come together for a charter season on a particular yacht and then often disperse and end up on other boats. Sometimes their paths will cross again, sometimes they won't.
Because of that I have a natural situation where my cast rotates. I try to hold on to key people: Chef Ben, Chief Stew Kate... we try to keep the key department head positions steady. That naturally lets us mix it up a little bit and maintain some continuity while introducing new voices.
That's also an advantage because even though we work hard on casting, with returning people I have a good sense of what I have. With new people, to a degree you're always guessing.
How do you know when a show has run its course?
Success in my business means season renewals. The goal is to create and deliver a show the audience will want to watch again. We work really hard to make shows that will keep going.
Sometimes you need to shake things up. Years ago I produce Singled Out. We had two very successful seasons, ratings were going up... yet MTV said we had to shake up the show. I wasn't so sure, but they said, "We know our audience. Young people don't want the same thing over again. You have to come up with ways to make it new."
So we came up with a golden ticket the contestant could give to someone she wanted to save from elimination. That turned out to be really popular.
So while it's tempting to think you can just keep a good thing going, shaking things up is something you always have to think about.
Do you always try to have a number of prospective shows in your pipeline?
Yes and no.
Step one in television is create a hit show. Those don't come along every minute. Fortunately, I've been associated with a number of hit shows. So once I have something that is a hit, I dig in and try to find ways to expand on that hit and make it bigger.
For example, with Below Deck there is a long gap between seasons. It was like we had to rebuild our ratings every year; by the end of each season we were doing really well... but then we'd be off the air for a year.
So I went to Bravo and proposed we create Below Deck: Mediterranean as a spin-off. That meant what was in the pipeline was more Below Deck(s).
So on September 6, Below Deck (the Caribbean version) premieres. Then I go to Croatia to tape Mediterranean.
We're doing the same with Idiotest. We've tried a new version called Political Idiotest. I trying to expand the franchises. I really push that hard.
You did that really well with all your "Love" shows.
I'm definitely proud of my ability to expand on a premise and create more hits.
Strange Love, Flavor of Love, Rock of Love... some of the contestants on those shows became shows themselves, like I Love New York, Daisy of Love... I like to find ways to re-use parts of the chicken.
A television show that is a hit is an incubator. It makes sense to lean in to your popular characters, lean in to what people respond to, and try to give them more. Surreal Life generated the most spinoffs but Below Deck is starting to spin off shows.
If a show is a hit, it's my development pipeline.
That creates production efficiencies as well, I would think.
Sure. When you train staff on a core show, then they're ready to be the core staff on the next show.
That's something people forget. It's not just about making another product -- it's the ability to make a new product and expand the machinery and the personnel.
If you have a core hit that people have helped develop, and the next show is related... everyone can step into the new project without having to have a whole new skill set.
What about when a show isn't a hit?
I did The X Show on FX in late night from 1999 to 2001. It was basically an hour-long talk show for men. Think Maxim magazine on TV: cars, stereo equipment, movies, how to pick up girls at weddings.... It was derived from my days with Howard Stern.
Unfortunately, at the same time The Man Show on Comedy Central was doing better. That always hurt my feelings. The X Show lasted two years and we did 400-odd episodes, but it didn't do as well as I hoped.
At the same time, I got a wonderful infrastructure out of that show: producers, writers, connections... from the ashes of that show we built a great organization and the foundation of everything that followed.
The key with reality TV, just like any business, is to come up with a great idea and either capitalize on success... or learn from what didn't succeed so that next time you and the people around you will do better.