At the Renaissance Hotel in Washington D.C. on the last week of January, character-driven reality programming was king. The Real Screen Summit is one of the biggest events for the cable TV industry; a place where producers scramble to meet network executives and pitch their newest and wildest reality TV characters and formats. Reality TV has become so popular, several attendees told me, because cable audiences love eccentric personalities and it’s much cheaper to find a talkative loose cannon than write a plot or produce a documentary.
This year, the envy of all reality-TV producers was the History Channel’s Pawn Star, a chronicle of a family-owned Las Vegas pawn shop that showcases the interpersonal conflicts of the owners and the customers. Porn star puns aside, there was some discussion (or admission) among producers that some of the biggest reality TV stars are becoming more and more wacky just to fulfill their projected TV personas. They react to situations in the show the way they think the audience would expect their TV personalities to react. Have the personalities gone rogue?
A glimmer of hope for those interested in more meaningful documentaries came on a panel discussion called Entertainment vs. Altruism. Evan Shapiro, the former president of IFC TV and the Sundance Channel, said he's noticed that brands and wealthy entrepreneurs are realizing how inspiring documentaries are also worthwhile investments. He now runs Participant Media and said he took his new job, essentially, because the owner, Jeff Skoll, the first president of EBay, believed in creating quality films for the social good. "People are realizing that there's a positive way to tell a story," Shapiro said. " And consumers want to align themselves with companies that tell them."
The lack of discussion about online distribution at the conference gave the impression that the cable TV industry is living in a bubble. I would’ve expected a bit more talk about the imminent showdown with Internet giants like Amazon, Youtube and Apple, all of which are streaming videos and movies on online TV devices. They also are moving aggressively into premium, original content.
That same weekend, video-streaming service Netflix aired its first original series, the political drama House of Cards (apparently they spent $100 million on the first two seasons). Academy Award-winning Kevin Spacey plays a sly House Majority Whip who tells his constituents whatever they want to hear and then turns to the camera with a proverbial wink, explaining how he’s one step ahead of everyone.
Streaming the show on Apple TV, I was even more surprised to see that they released the entire first season at once-- a proverbial wink, perhaps, to 24-hour cable? Netflix is foregoing the publicity from a weekly series in a bet that it can attract more viewers (and customers) by giving them what they want all at once, and letting people like me binge on several episodes in one sitting.
Meanwhile, cable executives are still searching for cheaper reality TV shows to fill the linear programming slots that soon won’t exist; reality TV keeps moving further from reality; and I finished the entire first season of House of Cards in about a week.