Let's Get Real

How Bunim-Murray came to dominate reality TV production


The hot genre of reality TV has proliferated to the point where there are now dozens of series where cameras capture the experiences of real people as they battle towards a monetary, professional, or personal goal.

Reality TV has become so commonplace that it's hard to imagine a world without it. But, there was no reality TV on the air until June 1992, when Bunim-Murray Productions created "The Real World" for MTV. "The Real World," which brings seven 20-somethings together in a house where they pursue a group challenge while cameras document their interpersonal fireworks--has since been renewed for its 16th season.

Bunim-Murray Productions of Van Nuys, Calif., has since produced many other hit reality TV shows, including "Road Rules" (20-somethings interacting on the road) for MTV; "The Simple Life" (featuring celebutant Paris Hilton) for Fox; "The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best, " on Fox; the syndicated show "Starting Over," distributed by NBC Universal Domestic Television; and "The Scholar" for ABC primetime.

"Reality TV has grown exponentially, especially over the last four years, to a point where today it seems to be a permanent part of the marketing mix of the network TV schedule across all dayparts," said Joey Carson, CEO of Bunim-Murray Productions. "We've had enormous success with unscripted programming."


"While we're producing distinctly different types of reality TV shows, they all share a common challenge," said Mark Raudonis, vice president of post-production for Bunim-Murray Productions. "We need to edit down tons of unscripted video captured from real life situations in a way that best tells the story and creates a heightened sense of drama. It also has to hold the viewers' attention for that episode as well as the entire season."

"Of all the shows we produce, 'Starting Over' is the most daunting challenge because the production team shoots seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day, generating 30 to 50 hours of video per day," Raudonis said. "After box-loads of videotapes are delivered here and digitized, we have editors working in two shifts to whittle down the more than 200 hours of footage to produce each of five one-hour weekly shows--oftentimes with two weeks or less to our scheduled delivery to the network."


Aimed at daytime's predominantly female audience, "Starting Over" follows the real-life drama experienced by a group of women who move into a house in Encino, Calif. At this house, multiple cameras--including Sony IMX camcorders and Sony PD170 DVCAM camcorders--capture whatever happens as the women work through personal problems, such as losing weight, childhood abuse, or money woes, with the help of skilled "life coaches," such as clinical psychologist Dr. Stan J. Katz.

"There isn't time for anyone to log or transcribe all this footage. Instead, we rely upon outlines from our story producers who sum up for us the key events that happened during production and the main storylines that are emerging, and we base our creative editorial decisions upon their direction," Raudonis said.

"The number of producers, editors, story coordinators, and other production personnel that we have on staff varies depending on how many shows we have in production simultaneously," Carson said. "We have dozens of suites that may be in use at any one time."

During the hiatus between season two and three of "Starting Over," Bunim-Murray Productions uses Apple Final Cut Pro Version 5.0, on Apple Mac G5 dual 2.0 processors, because it offers a new multicam mode for editing the footage captured by multiple cameras simultaneously. The company also wired its entire two-story post facility with CAT-6 Ethernet cable, to give its staff of 50 editors real-time editing performance; as well as give non-editors (such as those in the story, legal, and music departments) the opportunity to browse low-res proxies of all of the footage in (Apple XSAN) shared storage from their Apple iMac workstations.


Another great technical challenge at Bunim-Murray is obtaining and maintaining all the different formats of video playback equipment they use for their various shows. For example, "The Real World" shoots on the Sony IMX (MPEG-2) format at 29.97; and the newest show, "The Scholar," on ABC primetime, shoots on the Sony (disc-based) XDCAM at 30 fps progressive. ("The Scholar" features a group of high school seniors competing in academic challenges for a $250,000 scholarship covering all expenses of attending a top university).

"The Rebel Billionaire" was shot on Sony HDCAM at 1080/30p and aired in high def.

In addition to viewing multiple camera takes of every scene, the action also has been captured by a variety of microphones, including new RF mics from Zaxcom that incorporate disk-based recording right on the belt-pack worn by each of the "cast members."

"Since our cast members are not professional actors, they often forget about technical considerations, such as the tiny microphones clipped near their necks or on their chest. If they play with jewelry, thump their chest, or hug each other, they often cause the audio pick-up from their microphones to be inaudible," Raudonis said. "As a backup, we also follow the action with a boom mic."

For some shows, discreet channels of audio are recorded separately onto an eight-channel Tascam DA88/DA98 digital audio recorder.


Now in its third season, "Starting Over" recently won a daytime Emmy for "Outstanding Special Class Series." Raudonis referred to "Starting Over" as a "S-Oprah" because it's like a soap opera that tackles "Oprah"-type issues.

Contrary to popular belief, the storylines of the reality TV shows produced and edited by Bunim-Murray are not contrived or fueled in any way behind the scenes; nor or any of the cast members portrayed in a negative or positive light through editing.

"We simply cast diverse people who would be in natural conflict with each other--rich/poor, gay/straight, shy/outgoing--and watch while the true interpersonal dynamics unfold before the camera," Raudonis said. "There's always a lot of footage on the cutting room floor. For editors, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack to find those scenes that best advance the storyline. Reality TV is an editor's medium because it relies heavily on the craft of editing to tell the story."