Reality vet Mark Cronin puts the emphasis on “real”

Mark Cronin knows a little something about reality shows. The co-founder of 51 Minds, now heading up a new venture, Little Wooden Boat Productions, has a slew of series to his credit. But while the creator of Bravo‘s Below Deck (launching season four on September 6) admits every show has its issues, shooting on a boat poses a unique set of challenges.


Cynopsis: What are the pluses and minuses of working on a boat?
mark croninMark Cronin: The great thing about Below Deck for me is that it’s similar to the type of “house show” I built my career on. Surreal Life, Flavor of Love, Rock of Love,  and many others were great story incubators because everyone was locked together in close quarters. Everything is more intense when big personalities are crushed together – and a yacht – much smaller than an actual house – really crushes them! But, a boat is not a house – and that causes all kinds of complications. For one, the producers can’t get in their cars and go home after work, everyone commutes to and from work, to and from lunch – by boat – sometimes at night, in foul weather, or high seas. We’ve had boat crashes and even one transpo–boat sink! No one was hurt, thank heavens. Another problem is the close quarters leave very little space for our camera people to get their shots and for the audio folks and producers to hide. Also, when “separation” is at a premium, it’s very hard to enforce a strict fourth wall. We make an enormous effort to keep the crew and cast separated since the authenticity of the experience is crucial to the real and raw emotions we capture.

Cynopsis: How do you see the content of reality TV evolving?
Cronin: The trends are clearly more real for less money. Production value is on the decline, not just because of budget, but also because of lack of audience demand. More and more shows will be gritty and authentic – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Below Deck is one of the more authentic shows on Bravo – and it shows – but it is also one that is growing in popularity and co-viewership.

Below Deck (Photo: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo)

Below Deck (Photo: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo)

Cynopsis: How has production on reality shows changed over the years?
Cronin: Over the years the cameras have gotten better and our ability to follow the action and audio from a central control area has in turn gotten better. There has also been an evolution in story logging and tracking for post. We use to log all of the footage of every camera of every show. Now, quality field notes are crucial since logging seems to have almost died out. Also, now you get a much more savvy cast. They have seen lots of reality TV and in many ways that helps them understand what’s going on – but it does have a cost in authenticity. Below Deck is fortunate that Yachties rarely have TVs and almost never cable thus making the cast less self conscious about how they might be portrayed.

Cynopsis: Are there particular skills producers need for reality TV versus other types of programming?
Cronin: Executive producers in reality TV have to be amazing and creative problem solvers. While scripted TV has a fairly standard production method from show to show, it seems like every reality TV show has a unique location, cast type, schedule, crew requirement, staffing structure, edit challenges, etc. Every show and every episode of that show could be different, with a new set of problems to solve. Inventive problem solving skills are a must!

Cynopsis: What are the secrets to launching a successful reality TV show?
Cronin: These days marketing and promotion are hard to come by. A show really has to have the magnetism to pull in eyeballs all on its own. The most important element is characters who are big and just can’t help being themselves. Reality is about the people – the story is about the people. If you have magnetic people, the audience will find you.

Cynopsis: Why are viewers drawn to reality TV?
Cronin: All story driven entertainment is a reflection of life – of ourselves. Reality TV goes directly to the source. It doesn’t need great actors to simulate emotion or truth – good reality IS emotion and truth.

Cynopsis: What do you think is the best example of the genre?
Cronin: Wow – I’m the kind of parent who loves his own kids and really can’t get all excited about other people’s. But, I’ll try… I think Surreal Life and The Osbournes were the original and best examples of celeb-reality. I think Survivor was (and is) the original and best example of competition-reality. I think Below Deck is the best example of workplace-doc. I think Idiotest on GSN is the best game show… See? I really have trouble praising other people’s kids.


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