Once a Cheap Date, Reality TV Bites Into Network Budgets
Programming costs soar with outlandish gimmicks and contestant stampede; NBC may set new show in outer space.
by Warren Cohen

Monday, August 06, 2001

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.