For one week every January, the epicenter of reality TV is Washington.
That’s when network execs, producers, agents — and even non-pros convinced they’ve got the Next Big Reality-TV Thing — descend on the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington to participate in four days of fevered pitching and industry navel-lint gazing.
This year, about 2,000 people made the pilgrimage to the confab known as Realscreen Summit — by far the biggest gathering in the conference’s 14 years. From Sunday evening through Wednesday afternoon, the hotel was locked down, and only Realscreen attendees were allowed in.
History Channel announced that it was bringing its entire programming team to the summit; A&E announced that it would empower its programmers to green-light development for projects on-site. One top Hollywood talent agency sent a team of agents that set up more than 1,000 meetings from the hotel.
“Every single cable network is here — every single one,” marveled one producer.
Everyone came laden with product to sell at market. Santa Monica-based Kinetic Content, the company behind History Channel’s “Harvest” and NBC’s “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,” brought a nonfiction series called “Parole,” profiling young people going through the juvenile parole process — a world typically closed off to the public and media.
The Canadian production company AllScreen Entertainment, partnered with the Naked News Network, said it would bring its pitch for a reality series that goes behind the scenes of the cult Web network, which features women disrobing while delivering the news.
U.K-based Zig Zag Productions (“Politicians Behaving Badly,” “Madonna and Guy: Where Did It All Go Wrong?”), partnered with American Media Inc., said that it would pitch a fly-on-the-wall reality series that follows reporters from various bureaus of the National Enquirer — the gossip publication that broke details about the Monica Lewinsky story,as well as John Edwards’s love child.
Organizers set up a separate room — a sort of speed-dating shark tank for TV pitches. Producers circled the room, moving from table to table; at each table sat a rep for a different network. After a few minutes at one table, a Realscreen organizer announced that their time was up and that they had to move to the next table. If a network suit heard a really hot pitch, the exec had to decide immediately whether to buy the show to keep the producer from pitching it to the competitor, sitting a few feet away.
But over the conference’s run, pitching could erupt anywhere — in the hallway, in the bar. Even in the Starbucks, where two producers sold a show about a guy who hooks up veterans returning from action with producers of military-type TV shows and movies — all in the time it takes to drink a cappuccino.
At an evening party, a private investigator was presenting herself as a fount of reality-TV possibilities. A guy dressed in a pirate suit showed up for the keynote speech to promote his new show idea, based on an actual “pirate ship” somewhere in Florida that has a bar and a dinner theater where they reenact pirate stories while people imbibe. Another guy was shopping ideas: one a reality series about a sea-turtle rescue hospital; the other about a recreational scuba-diving operation run by a “crazy host” who’s an ex-Navy SEAL.
There was even pitching in the bathrooms, where “Jingle Punks” urged that you “don’t flush your music budget down the drain” and promised that if you found a Jungle Punk at the conference and mentioned you heard about them in the toilet, “you will receive a surprise.”
Realscreen Summit — which sponsors the clambake — started as a documentary and “lifestyle” programming confab back in the days when David Attenborough was the gold standard in “documentary” programming, Discovery was a new-ish channel and National Geographic was just launching its international networks. It made sense to locate the conference in Washington. (Realscreen Summit is named after the Toronto-based trade publication that covers nonscripted programming.)
These days, cable-network suits fly in from New York and producers fly in from Los Angeles, but organizers have dismissed suggestions that the summit move to one of those locations because Washington, in relation to the industry, most closely approximates a desert island that still has hot and cold running water.
“It’s nice to take network execs out of their offices in New York and L.A.,” explained Realscreen VP and publisher Claire Macdonald.
“When you have them here, you have much better access than if we were to have the event in one of those cities,” she continued. “We do a West Coast event, and you notice . . . the execs come and do their panel and take a couple of meetings and leave. When they’re here, they come and stay in the hotel for the purpose of taking meetings and being accessible and doing deals.”
But Realscreen is not all buying and selling. Periodically, participants stopped to take a breath and attend a navel-gazing panel discussion about reality television. On Monday morning — the day the news broke that NBC had pulled that night’s episode of its reality series “Fear Factor” that was to feature competitors being tasked with drinking [bodily fluids] — Lauren Zalaznick, chairman of NBC Universal Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media, delivered the summit’s keynote speech. It was sort of a reality-TV pep talk.
“I only wish ‘Idiot Box’ was the worst moniker my industry had to endure,” Zalaznick preached to the choir.
“We occupy a special and brand-new circle of hell, having sometimes been credited with . . . ushering in the end of Western civilization. As a producer and executive . . . I reject easy slams like ‘train wreck’ and ‘guilty pleasure,’ ” she continued.
Reality TV, she said, addresses “real emotional needs” of millions of viewers.
“How do we know for sure reality TV is not vapid? . . . Am I deceiving myself for a quick buck?” Zalaznick asked the crowd.
If you guessed the answer is “yes,” you aren’t paying attention.
Zalaznick’s team recently interviewed loads of reality-TV watchers and discovered that there are two components absolutely critical for a reality-TV series to achieve “hit” status:
1) Me+. (Otherwise known as a character who is an enhanced version of the viewer, or “Hey, that’s me, but a little bit better.”)
2) Emotional connection. (A character who develops in such a way that the viewer can bond with that person.)
And, guess which show they found ranks highest for delivery on these two attributes? “Jersey Shore.”
The next two most-important components are:
3) Rooting. (Self-explanatory.)
4) Extraordinary circumstances. (A.k.a., fish out of water.)
“This is heavy, because it’s uncomfortable,” Zalaznick told the crowd. “Did I reduce everything we do to a formula? Did I reduce ‘gut level’ to data?”
Elsewhere, Nancy Dubuc, president and general manager of Lifetime and History networks, was busy explaining that “women are very promiscuous when it comes to their television viewing — they watch a lot of things everywhere and have no problem moving on to the next thing.”
And, to that end, Lifetime is working on a reality series called “My Life Is a Lifetime Movie,” in which chicks who’ve been in peril are interviewed and their peril is reenacted in “high-end re-creations.” It is, she said, a “wink and a nod” to the network’s well-known chicks-in-peril movie franchise.
“We understand the whole women-in-peril baggage,” she said.
“It’s something we have to re-shape.”