Nearly 25 years ago, I walked into the offices of The Learning Channel in Bethesda, Maryland, with a 7 minute video we had shot in a hospital emergency room.
The Learning Channel (later to become TLC, like KFC), had just been purchased by The Discovery Channel - which was then one of the first documentary cable channels in the relatively new world of cable.
The video we were showing was a kind of documentary, shot in the emergency room of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. (shot VJ style, of course!). Our then editor, Neil Cohen, has done a stellar job of creating an entirely new style for documentaries - driving music, fast cuts and character-driven personal stories.
The 7 minutes became a pilot and the pilot a series and the series ran for nealry 10 years - spinning off almost a dozen similar series. The first one was called Trauma, Life in the ER - and I like to think (or sometimes I shudder to think) that it was the first 'Reality Show' on TV. It also took TLC from being a Learning Channel to, in the long run, the network that ran Honey Boo Boo (and lots of other reality shows).
Now, it seems, we have come full circie.
Well, nothing in the world of television lasts forever - not even Reality TV. And it would seem that The Discovery Network, which gave birth to Reality with Trauma, Life in the ER, (and took the format to such heights as Sex Sent Me To The ER) is about to wind down the franchise.
Ratings for Reality TV are off by 20% - 30%, and as more and more people cut their cable and begin to migrate to nonlineaer sources such as Amazon or Netflix, we can expect Reality TV to spiral downward even faster and further.
Last week, in a major piece in The Washington Post, David Zaslav, CEO for The Discovery Networks (and the highest paid exec in the cable world, announced that he was turning around the Discovery ship (though these things take time). Said Zaslav:
"“One day we just came in and looked at each other and said, ‘You know, no more bearded guys in the kitchen with f---ing pigs running through the living room,’ ” Discovery head David Zaslav, the highest-paid chief executive in the United States, said one recent afternoon in his eighth-floor office in Manhattan. “Let’s get back to who we really are. We’re about satisfying curiosity. Let’s forget about the ratings right now and let’s chase what the brand is at its best.”
What does this mean?
Well, it means that the biggest brand in the business is out searching for 'the next big thing' in television. It means that the doors are open for a new format.
And what will that format consist of?
No one knows.
But we can make a few educated guesses.
One guess is that the success (the astonishing success) of series such as Breaking Bad or House of Cards (binge watching with long arcs of story and great characters and writing) could also be applied to non-fiction. (And why not?)
We could also guess that the rapid rise of social media might become the groundwork for the 'next big thing' in cable television. (Makes sense to me).
When we launched Reality TV (or a good part of it) with Trauma, we were just dumb 20 somethings (or in my case a 30 something) with a bunch of Hi8 cameras (that's true!), and a stupid idea - but it worked. Got an iPhone? Got a stupid idea?
Cable is waiting.
Most of them will not work, but here's a good rule of thumb - if you don't do anything, you can be 100% sure that you will not succeed.