No Hollywood backlot could match the elaborate stagecraft of Fox's summer reality series Murder in Small Town X. The show
invaded the 836-person town of Eastport, Maine, flying in 150 crew
members to rehab 35 empty storefronts on the main street. Then, after
hiding 40 surveillance cameras throughout the area, the producers hired 43
actors to staff the newly functioning shops. All this labor and subterfuge
just to create a backdrop for ten regular-Joe contestants trying to nab a
murderer over eight one-hour episodes. The cost for such
verisimilitude? According to insiders, upwards of $1 million per episode.
Networks were originally drawn to reality shows because they enticed elusive young viewers -- at a
discount. The programs require no A-list actors,
coveted writers or superstar producers, who demand high salaries that wildly inflate production costs and programming license fees. The series typically film at a single location (such as the various houses in
Real World) with inexpensive props and sets (and, in Survivor, insects in lieu of catering).
But these days, the sets and storytelling are becoming ever more exotic,
from CBS's upcoming African Survivor to WB's No Boundaries, which tracks 15 pioneers marching toward the Yukon. As production
costs rise, the networks ultimately pay more for programming Ė and suddenly, prime-time reality shows are no longer a bargain. "It
costs about $800,000 for an hour, where a drama could cost from $1 million
to $1.5 million on average," said Scott Sassa, West Coast president of NBC,
home to the reality shows Fear Factor and Spy TV. "So, it's not dramatically less that we're spending on these shows."
Reality-show producers and network executives cite numerous cost
drivers. The first is travel. When MTV's Real World began, 10 years ago, more than half the small crews were inexpensive local hires. This September, Real World co-creator Mary Ellis-Bunim has shot Love Cruise for Fox, which tracks 16 singles sailing on a windjammer around the Dutch Antilles. The crew of roughly 40 people stayed on a boat for three weeks of shooting. "We had to fly in all the crew and put them up, which was not inexpensive," says Ellis-Bunim.
Each new twist on the genre raises the stakes for the next show. NBC is
developing a series by Survivor creator Mark Burnett that will send someone into space via a Russian Soyuz rocket. "We'll have to buy a rocket, so that
one won't be cheap at all," says Sassa. "But we love the concept, it's
entirely fresh, and we'd love to do it."
A mandate for improved production values is another factor. CBSís
Pulau Tiga Survivor was shot for about $900,000 an episode
with minimal props and stunts. This year's Australian Outback interlude had more
intricate staging, including one contest that featured a giant maze built
out of wood. It also included many more aerial shots from helicopters and
cranes. This fall's Kenya Survivor will cost
$1.6 million per episode.
This summer, NBC's Fear Factor has used special equipment for
underwater shots and deployed jet skis and helicopters to help a contestant
retrieve a key from the trunk of a car suspended over a dam. "It's important for us to deliver
network quality material, not just in story line and drama, but in the look
of the show," says David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, which produces
the program. "Something we hear from the networks a lot is that it has to
have a prime-time look and feel to it."
Casting has become a logistical
Nightmare. In a typical drama or sitcom, an experienced casting
director might call in 10 to 20 actors to read for a part. But reality shows
now have open casting calls in cities throughout the country.
Whereas 5,000 people applied for the first Survivor, more than 50,000
tried out for the most recent installment. CBS had to hire a
casting department of about 40 to read through the applications and
screen contestant videotapes. Networks are also spending more on contestant background checks, which arenít foolproof. Temptation Island, for example, inadvertently picked a couple who had a child, which the program forbids. And on this summer's Big Brother 2, contestant Jason Sebik put a knife to the throat of another housemate. Sebik had been arrested for assault, which CBS investigators failed to uncover.
The final inflationary factor is the competition for
behind-the-scenes production talent in the young genre. "There are so many shows coming out, so
top-shelf producers are driving costs up," said one network official. "The
talent pool is thin so to get the best people, it creates a bidding type
environment." Adds Goldberg, "There is more product being bought and fewer
people who know how to do it and they are in a good position."
Most of the talent comes from the Bunim-Murray school, which has alumni
producers at Fear Factor, Spy TV, The Mole, Temptation Island and Murder in
Small Town X. George Verschoor, executive producer of Murder, recently got a multi-year deal from Fox, and Matt Kunitz of Fear Factor
received a three-year pact with NBC. "We've developed producers that have
been lured to other networks and production companies with huge deals, which
drives the cost up," says Bunim.
The competition is also fierce for casting directors, cameramen and editors.
"If others go after your shooter and sound people and suddenly your crews
have choices of three or four things," says Bunim. "The same guys are
holding out at a very high number, saying they won't work for less."
Of course, even the priciest reality shows haven't gotten anywhere close to
the cost of hit scripted programs. NBC pays $5 million for an episode of
Friends, while ER costs $13 million per show. According to one Hollywood
agent familiar with producer deals, on a hit show, producers can earn six figures per week; reality shows deliver about $20,000 per week
along with a small percentage of any back-end profits such as foreign sales
(syndication hasn't been an option for such shows due to their relatively
few episodes.) "Costs are definitely going up but it's still on a
cost-efficient basis," says the agent.
With the swelling budgets, networks are paring costs where
they can. Although Survivor and many other reality sweepstakes dole out million-dollar prizes, Murder in Small Town X will award only $250,000 . Small-town indeed.
T.L. Stanley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.