Reality TV bestows upon the viewing public a glut of entertainments: dancers portraying flitting hummingbirds trying to seduce a blooming flower; entrepreneurs who’ve found an extra use for pillow cases by making them into dresses; adventurers threatening to urinate on rice (and beans); even four of music’s top performers swirling in big red chairs. And the ratings pour in.
We gathered four faces of reality TV (some of whom double as executive producers) — Carson Daly of NBC’s “The Voice,” Cat Deeley of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” Jeff Probst of CBS’ “Survivor” and Mark Cuban of ABC’s “Shark Tank” — to talk about longevity in the genre, the push and pull of dealing with contestants and the waning power of “American Idol.”
Q: What do you think it is about your shows that audiences have connected with?
Jeff Probst: Its format, usually — the star of “Survivor” is the format. It works all over the world. Same with “Shark Tank,” which we watch every Friday night with our kids. You guys disagree?
Mark Cuban: No. No. I agree.
Cat Deeley: I also think that the format can completely change. What people really connect with are the human stories. It’s the human elements. It’s the “Will they? Won’t they?” It’s the “Can they do it?” It’s the “Will he make it to the next …?”
Carson Daly: You know what it is? It’s the authenticity.
Deeley: Yes. Absolutely.
Daly: We love your show because there really was this authenticity to it. And for “The Voice,” we almost took a page from that. In our early production meetings, we want to be “authentic” and “credible,” are two big words that we threw around. And that’s really what you guys do.
Q: Jeff, you’re going on 26 seasons.
Probst: It’s incredible.
Deeley: 26? Oh, my God.
Q: Thirteen years. Two a year. Do you find it hard to find those authentic moments? When people audition now, aren’t they savvy to what you guys want?
Probst: Yeah, but your job is to weed out who’s putting you on and find the real deal. All these shows to some degree or another have their system, whether it’s psych testing or whether it’s the way you interview them and how often and when. But I think the key to the longevity of “Survivor” is it’s always the same, only different. We never change the format, but we tweak it just enough that there’s something new to do.
Daly: For us at “The Voice,” I mean, it’s a show that’s done quite well for NBC Universal at a time when they’ve been struggling. And when they rolled it out to straddle their annual schedule, that was a point of contention for us as producers. Is it too much? Ironically enough, in today’s — everybody’s so thirsty for content. When we take our break now between fall and spring, it feels like what used to be the annual break. People are ready for it again.
Deeley: We once did “Dance” twice in a year, and, actually, it did hurt us because we have a smaller pool to draw on — you know what I mean? — of trained dancers who are able to do those kind of things. We struggled to get another set of people, and it actually hurt us a little bit, weirdly.
Daly: At first it’s like, how big is the singing pool out there?
Probst: But what I like about “The Voice” is I don’t actually think of it as a singing competition show. You guys know which pieces are in play, and you know how to utilize them in the best possible way. But I really don’t care if the person ends up having a career. I’m not invested in them to become a star. I’m invested in the process of watching a dream be born or killed.
Q: That’s an interesting point. These kids don’t get the hit records like “American Idol.” What should people really be focusing on?
Daly: Listen, it’d be nice if we had a show that produced hit records. But we don’t obsess about it. At the end of the day, you’ve got to make a television show, and we’ve seen our ratings. You want it to be good, strong, fun, smart, family entertainment that moves, has lots of different peaks of interest, has great talent. But, you know, you look at shows that might put out an artist that infiltrates pop culture and becomes a Top 10, but meanwhile, their ratings are declining. So, you know …
Probst: Who are you talking about?
Daly: Well, I’m just saying, you could have one or the other. But I didn’t mention any shows.
Probst: It’s OK to say “American Idol,” because “American Idol” has been the Death Star for a decade. It’s wiped out more dreams because of its own power. It is inevitable it will begin to lose.
Deeley: I also think it’s very much down to the individual. Some people want nothing more than to move back home and open a cute little dance studio and be near their family. And those are their aspirations. And then other people want to do movies. And then someone else will want to go on tour with Lady Gaga or go work in Broadway.
Daly: The question: What is the litmus for success? How about just working. You know, how about that being successful?
Cuban: It is successful.
Daly: That should be one of the great prizes on one of these shows is they get …
Cuban: … they get a job, yeah.
Daly: … $1,000 and a job. Because they’re hard to get.
Q: Are you cautious about being too sympathetic or too indifferent to contestants?
Deeley: I don’t think you can ever be too sympathetic. The best thing you can possibly do is empathize, if you can put yourself into someone else’s skin and feel how they feel. Because what tends to happen on our show is that in those moments, people do get nervous and they don’t quite know what to say.
Daly: It makes a huge difference to have a host like Cat that does that. I mean, I wear an IFB (an intercom earpiece to communicte with the director and producer). I mean, there’s business to take care of. But you’re so in the moment and present with the person in front of you. Someone’s crying in front of you, you have to be there for them.
Deeley: Also you have to have a great relationship with your producers and your director, because I wear an IFB too, and it’s very, very easy at certain moments for them to be like, “You need to go to this shot, and you need to wrap it up and do these things.” And you’re being so distracted that you’re not — I mean, I’ve seen it on other shows and they’re being over-produced. The host is like this …
Daly: … inundated.
Deeley: They’re like a rabbit in headlights, and they’re not really listening to the person who’s on their knees, crying on the floor.
Cuban: If they don’t trust you, the show’s not gonna work.
Q: We see how important Emmy nominations are to scripted TV, how does it play with reality TV?
Cuban: No, there’s no way it matters to the audience. And I mean, we got nominated (last year) because they switched us into a different non-competitive category. And we didn’t win, unfortunately. But everybody on set was so excited. I was like, “OK.” It doesn’t matter to me, but I realized it mattered to everybody else.
Daly: That’s because you’re rich. Let’s be honest.
Cuban: I still like to win. But it matters to everyone else’s resume. And so it was important from that perspective.
Q: Do you prep before the season starts or before each episode, or both?
Deeley: I like people. And I like finding out about them. The only bit of prep I do actually is the technical stuff. So if we’re doing a live show, I need to know what cameras I’m on and where I need to lay out my auto-cue or write my script, that I’m a complete nerd about. I prep and I prep so that when I’m actually with somebody and they’re having a moment, I know what camera I’m going to next or how long I’ve got before this commercial break.
Probst: I always get credit on “Survivor” for asking these great questions, but really, they tell you what to ask …
Deeley: … if you listen.
Probst: …if you just pay attention and listen. It isn’t always the question. It’s listening to the answer. And that guides you on where you want to take the story.