I recently sat down with reality TV guru Mark Cronin, who has worked on 43 different TV series on 12 different networks. He has created or co-created 38 TV series, the majority of which have seen multiple seasons and spinoffs.
During our Q&A, he shared some insights into what it takes to succeed in this competitive field.
How did you get your start in entertainment?
I went to college for chemical engineering because it had the highest starting salary at that time. But I didn’t like it, so in my free time I was in a comedy troupe, and did theater and a television show.
After I graduated I took a job as an engineer, but I had friends working at MTV and Nickelodeon. They were having a good time, even though they weren’t making as much money as me. It dawned on me that I should try to do something I liked.
So I went about getting into a creative field. I tried everything. Finally, I thought: maybe I could be a comedy writer, but no one was too interested in me. There was this show being produced in New Jersey by Howard Stern. It was really low budget, understaffed and just kind of cobbled together.
I would call regularly, and fax in sketches and jokes. It took me like six months, but I finally got hired as a comedy writer for Howard Stern.
Where do you get the inspiration to create a great reality TV show?
You always have to have your antennae up for a great idea. The Surreal Life is a good example of this. The original concept came from a stuffing commercial! It was an ad in early 2000s where Mr. T, Lonnie Anderson, George Hamilton, and Mary Lou Retton were all in a kitchen making stuffing for dinner.
My agents saw it and suggested it as a concept for a reality show, like “celebrity Real World.” I knew the premise would be riveting TV, and it turned out to be at the forefront of the celeb-reality [shows] we still see today.
Inspiration can come from almost anywhere. You have to have the gut instincts to grab it and the skill to make it real.
What does it take to succeed in this field?
To be a successful reality producer, you have to be a problem solver. You have to come up with new, innovative ways of actually getting a show done.
The problem-solving on Below Deck for Bravo is enormous. We have a yacht, but the production staff can’t live on the yacht ― there’s not enough room. Sometimes we’re traveling between countries and we have to get our crew in and out of customs quickly.
Once you get through all that, you have to get it done on budget. And you have to understand what makes an entertaining show.
So what’s your recipe for getting the audience addicted?
In reality television, you mainly want an amazing cast, one that is really likeable. And also, a cast that’s very honest, who can’t help but be themselves.
One of the worst things you can do is try to fake your way through it or try to pretend to be somebody that you’re not. The audience will smell it out and they won’t like it.
What kind of trends are you seeing in reality TV?
Reality TV audiences have gotten pretty sophisticated. They are craving a more “real” reality and something that shows something grittier.
It used to be the audience loved seeing strangers try to get along, like in Real World. But now they would rather see people who know each other and have stakes with each other in a real way. That’s why we see shows like The Kardashians. Even if the audience knows the show is kind of fake, the cast is connected to each other in real life.
There’s also no question that the future of reality television is low budget. But that doesn’t mean they will be low entertainment or low quality; it just means they won’t be high production value.
Does reality TV influence us?
Absolutely. In many ways, the people on reality television are similar to the kinds of people we meet. There’s not much difference between our friends and our TV friends. What I’m hoping is that we assimilate the positive things and aren’t trying to take on negative traits.
Is reality TV a good way to launch your career?
Being on a hit TV show, you have millions of people listening and watching you ― it’s potentially a very powerful thing. Does it always work? No. Do a lot of people blow it and are unable to capitalize on their fame? Yes.
My best advice to somebody who wants to package themselves as a reality TV star is be enthusiastic; don’t be reluctant about it. And when you’re in front of the camera, be honest, straightforward and fearless. To the extent that you’re terrified of it. Otherwise, it probably won’t be a very successful project.
What do you expect to see as a future for reality TV?
The audience is more sophisticated now. I think they’re ready for social experiments to come back. The audience will also forgive a little bit of a setup as long as what you show them is the true story of what happened.
You see that with Naked and Afraid. Once you’ve cast that initial “the producers have done this to these people” setup, everything that happens over the next month or so, while they’re in the wilderness, is the story of how they try to become friends or not.
What are some of your favorite TV shows and why?
Below Deck on Bravo, premiering September 6. Idiot Test, on GSN, is another favorite. I produce those two and I love them. They’re like my children. Other people’s children? I don’t know.
Watching reality TV is almost like work too, for me. I watch a lot of scripted serial dramas, like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. But in the reality world, it’s just hard to love other people’s kids.