Gil Goldschein, the chairman and CEO of Bunim/Murray Productions, talks to TV Real about the company’s legacy and its next steps.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the reality-TV powerhouse Bunim/Murray Productions. Over the last three decades, the company has made an indelible mark on the television landscape, delivering fly-on-the-wall hits such as The Real World, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, celebrating its 10th. Bunim/Murray has now embarked on an ambitious new project that is a bit of a departure from its reality fare and docuseries with Earth Live, a two-hour event that will be simulcast globally on National Geographic and Nat Geo WILD in 171 countries and 45 languages.
TV REAL: What have been the biggest shifts within Bunim/Murray since its inception?
GOLDSCHEIN: Some of the biggest shifts are in the breadth and scope of the type of programming we’re working on. Look at Earth Live; it is a first-of-its-kind, live two-hour production that’s basically the Super Bowl of nature. When Al Berman came in and pitched the idea, we loved it! It is not necessarily the type of programming that historically Bunim/Murray would have been known for. However, part of our core DNA is that we’re storytellers and great story is what attracts us and is in the projects we want to produce. Also look at Bill Nye Saves the World for Netflix. It’s a talk show with Bill Nye, who is a great personality and what a character—he’s very charismatic and has a wealth of knowledge and expertise. We wanted to create a format to showcase that.
Yes, the company’s founders, Jonathan Murray and the late Mary-Ellis Bunim, are often credited with creating the reality genre as we know it. But it is incumbent upon us to continue to evolve.
We have [embraced the] pioneering spirit that Jon and the late Mary-Ellis had in creating that genre, and that’s really what we’re about. What’s next? What’s the evolution of the genre? How do we continue to push it forward? That’s what drives me, and that’s what drives our entire team.
TV REAL: Earth Live is an incredibly ambitious project. How is it all coming together?
GOLDSCHEIN: It’s very, very ambitious! It’s been in the works for about a year and a half. We’re partnered with Plimsoll Productions out of the U.K., whose expertise is in wildlife. We have put together an A-team of the top talent across the board; the camera people that we’re using are the best in the field and have been doing it for 15 to 20 years. This was Al Berman’s brainchild, and he is leading the charge on this one. We have put together the best of the best. From a technical standpoint, we’re going to be in numerous countries across the world, and there’s a lot that goes into it. We have faith in the team, and everybody is super excited to be a part of a project like this.
TV REAL: The Real World is celebrating its 25th anniversary and Keeping Up with the Kardashians is marking its 10th. To what do you attribute the success and longevity of these shows?
GOLDSCHEIN: It’s really hard to get to a season two; you can’t just take it for granted. There are a lot of people who are excited when a show gets sold and is put on air—and rightfully so—but for us, it doesn’t end there; it starts there. Even while we’re filming a season one, we are trying to do everything that we can to make sure that we are building the foundation to sustain a long-lasting franchise. We take that very seriously. If you look across the board at the shows that we create and produce, not only at those two shows, a lot of them do sustain themselves. We believe in building franchises and that’s something we’ve believed in from the beginning. It doesn’t just happen! If you look at The Real World, the past few seasons have been about recognizing that the world has changed since the inception of the show back in 1992. We looked at how we could switch it up, making it a little bit more thematic for a period of time. With the Kardashians, the success has been about the family’s openness from day one and the relatability within their relationships. But these characters have evolved and are dealing with different issues.
It’s about being conscious about each show and what’s going on in the programming world and the world at large. It’s also about being open to pivoting when necessary, creatively or otherwise. Whether it’s changing the format or allowing other characters to come forward as a focus, this strategy has worked. We work closely with our partners at the various networks, and it’s a collaboration between the talent, the network, our crews and our producers to make sure that we’re constantly putting out content that’s fresh.
TV REAL: Is there a balance when building out a franchise to ensure a certain level of exposure but not over-exposing a brand to the point of audience fatigue?
GOLDSCHEIN: It’s important for the producers and for the networks to analyze the initial series to decide if it is viable to launch spin-offs for. Launching spin-offs just for the sake of launching spin-offs isn’t a good idea for anyone. It’s about looking at, is this show sustainable on its own? Is there a compelling story or compelling characters that can carry it as a standalone show? There has to be enough there, with interesting storylines that can be broken off from the main series.
TV REAL: How has the reality TV landscape changed since when these shows first premiered to where it is today?
GOLDSCHEIN: It started in the early days with The Real World, which was on the air in 1992, years before the broadcast networks got into the reality genre. That style really was “fly on the wall.” The show stayed true to that formula. There was an evolution from the straight docuseries to the more formatted shows in the early 2000s—with Survivor then The Amazing Race, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and the list goes on—that were about the competition. Within the docu world, there started to be more over-the-top characters and worlds that were on a whole other level.
Now, I do think that the pendulum is starting to swing back. Part of that has to do with the tastes of millennials and younger audiences; they seem to want more authenticity and genuine characters. There are so many stories out there and so many interesting things happening in the world that viewers can have access to, and that’s compelling enough in and of itself. This has been developing in the past 18 months or so, and it excites us as a company. That’s how we grew up! We have a separate docu division, but this company was built on franchises like The Real World that are really about docu. We’re excited about where we see the landscape right now and the opportunities within it. The industry as a whole is ripe for more docuseries. We’re going to develop formatted shows as well, but there’s enough room for all of it. From my perspective, it’s great to know that you can sell a pure docu in today’s market. There was a time when buyers might have felt that it was boring or too earnest. It’s a breath of fresh air that we’re in a time when that’s not necessarily the case. Buyers are recognizing that there is some benefit and a market for a docuseries, and it’s not a “no” straight out of the gate.
TV REAL: Bunim/Murray has development deals in place with South Korea’s Signal Entertainment and Canada’s Insight Productions. Is this part of a larger effort to increase the company’s global reach?
GOLDSCHEIN: Absolutely. As storytellers, we’re reaching people beyond the U.S. We have seen, not just in our industry but in the world at large, globalization and a lot more commerce being done across borders and oceans. As a company, I believed early on that we had the ability to grow and be a global player. That was part of a concerted effort and strategic approach to become part of something much larger. That’s why in 2010 we became part of the Banijay Group. We now have sister companies in approximately 20 countries around the world. We wanted to be part of something where even internally we’re sharing ideas. We have the ability to bring projects from within the group to the U.S. and for our sister companies to take some of our projects [out to their markets].
There are certain territories where, because we’ve been in this business a long time, we have built strong relationships, like in Canada and Israel. South Korea is a newer relationship. We’re looking at what’s going on within the industry, and clearly Asia represents a huge opportunity.
I believe in our team and in our ability to tell great stories and create great formats. The days of feeling like there are only a limited number of buyers or just to think domestically is something that personally I have never believed in. Why does it have to be game-over just because a project was passed on in the U.S.? It doesn’t take away from the idea. It might not be right for a particular network in the U.S. right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great format that can be launched in another territory.
What I’m finding very exciting within our industry right now is that there are a ton of opportunities in different territories. There are also other opportunities with different platforms, like SVOD, that didn’t exist even just a few years ago. Given our track record and our expertise, why not have strategic relationships to potentially launch shows in those territories and on these new and emerging SVOD platforms as well?