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Cat Deely, Jeff Probst and more talk Reality TV

TelevisionEntertainmentCarson DalyHuman InterestSurvivor (tv program)CultureThe Voice (tv program)

Reality TV bestows upon the viewing public a glut of entertainments: dancers portraying flitting hummingbirds trying to seduce a blooming flower; entrepreneurs who've found an extra use for pillow cases by making them into dresses; adventurers threatening to urinate on rice (and beans); even four of music's top performers swirling in big red chairs. And the ratings come pouring in. The Envelope gathered four faces of reality TV (some of whom double as executive producers) — Carson Daly of NBC's "The Voice," Cat Deeley of Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance," Jeff Probst of CBS' "Survivor" and Mark Cuban of ABC's "Shark Tank" — to talk about longevity in the genre, the push and pull of dealing with contestants and the waning power of "American Idol."

(This transcript of the discussion, held at the Times on May 2, has been edited for length.)

You guys are the faces of some pretty popular shows on TV right now. What do you think it is about your shows that audiences have connected with?

Jeff Probst: Its format, usually — the star of "Survivor" is the format. It works. It works all over the world. Same with "Shark Tank," which we watch every Friday night with our kids. You guys disagree?

Mark Cuban: No. No. I agree.

You Can Dance?"

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Cat Deeley: I also think that the format can completely change. What people really connect with are the human stories. It's the human elements. It's the "will they/won't they." It's the, "Can they do it?" It's the, "Will we make it to the next…?"

Carson Daly: You know what it is? It's the authenticity.

Deeley: Yes. Absolutely.

Daly: We love your show because there really was this authenticity to it. You know? And for "The Voice," we almost took a page from that. In our early production meetings, it was, "We want to be authentic and credible," are two big words that we threw around. And that's really what you guys do.

Jeff, you're going on 26 seasons, and you're currently in it.

Probst: It's incredible.

Deeley: (gasps) 26? Oh, my God.

13 years. Two a year. Do you find it hard to find those authentic moments? When people audition now, aren't they savvy to what you guys are expecting?

Probst: Yeah, but your job is to weed out who's putting you on and find the real deal. All these shows to some degree or another have their system, whether it's psych testing or whether it's the way you interview them and how often and when. And you get them where they're a little uneven so that you can make sure that you're getting the real deal. But I think the key to the longevity of Survivor is it's always the same, only different. It's that sweet spot. We never change the format, but we tweak it just enough that it's still familiar, but there's something new to do.

Daly: For us at "The Voice," I mean, it's a show that's done quite well for NBC Universal at a time when they've been struggling. And when they rolled it out to straddle their annual schedule, that was a point of contention for us as producers. Is it too much? Ironically enough, in today's — everybody's so thirsty for content. When we take our break now between fall and spring, it feels like what used to be the annual break. People are ready for it again. Out of sight, out of mind.

Deeley: We once did "Dance" twice in a year and, actually, it did hurt us because we have a smaller pool to draw on, you know what I mean, of trained dancers, that're able to do those kind of things. We struggled to get another set of people and it actually hurt us a little bit, weirdly.

Daly: At first, it's like, how big is the singing pool out there?

Probst: But what I like about "The Voice" is I don't actually think of it as a singing competition show. You guys know which pieces are in play, and you know how to utilize them in the best possible way. But I really don't care if the person ends up having a career. I'm not invested in them to become a star. I'm invested in the process of watching a dream be born or killed.

That's an interesting point about whether it's about the contestant's aspirations and their journey or if it's the success they've reached afterward. I mean, these kids don't get the hit records like "American Idol." What do you make of what people really should be focusing on?

Daly: Listen, it'd be nice if we had a show that produced, you know, hit records. But we don't obsess about it. At the end of the day, you've gotta make a television show and we've seen our ratings. You know, we did something by swapping two new coaches this year, which is pretty early on considering how successful we were last time. Pretty good sized gamble, although we knew we were gonna have to do it. We've got four coaches that aren't in the business of being TV personalities. They have day jobs of touring. So it was a good problem to have to have to swap them out. We did. The ratings are even higher. You have to make a television show too, and you want it to be good, strong, fun, smart, family entertainment that moves, has lots of different peaks of interest, has great talent. But, you know, you look at shows that might put out an artist that infiltrates pop culture and becomes a Top 10. But meanwhile, the ratings of their show are declining. So, you know …

Probst: Who are you talking about?

Daly: Well, I'm just saying. You could have one or the other. But I didn't mention any shows, and I'm not going to.

Probst: I'm going to challenge you. It's OK to say "American Idol," because "American Idol" has been the death star for a decade. It's wiped out more dreams because of its own power. It is inevitable it will begin to lose. "Survivor" is gaining on it, and we've been on 13 years.

Deeley: I also think it's very much down to the individual as well. And actually, there's a whole different reach they can take if they win. And some people want nothing more than to move back home and open a cute little dance studio and be near their family. And those are their aspirations. And then other people wanna go and do movies. And then someone else will wanna go on tour with Lady Gaga or go work in Broadway.

Daly: The question — what does successful mean? What is the litmus for success? How about just working. You know, how about that being successful?

Cuban: It is successful.

Daly: That should be one of the great prizes on one of these big shows is they get…

Cuban: They get a job, yeah.

Daly: …$1,000 and a job. Because they're hard to get.

Cuban: If you wake up with a smile on your face, looking forward to your day, you're successful. Period. End of story. I mean, when I was broke, sleeping on the floor, eating mustard and ketchup sandwiches, and coming home—the lights were turned off—I was still having a blast. Not as much fun as I'm having now, but I was still havin' a blast.

Are you cautious about being too sympathetic or too indifferent to contestants?

Deeley: I don't think you can ever be too sympathetic. The best thing you can possibly do is empathize, if you can put yourself into someone else's skin and feel how they feel. Because what tends to happen on our show is that in those moments, people do get nervous and they don't quite know what to say.

Daly: It makes a huge difference to have a host like Cat that does that. I mean, I wear an IFB [an intercom earpiece to communicte with the director]. I mean, there's business to take care of. But you're so in the moment and present with the person in front of you.

Cuban: Hey, I've been on the other side. I was on "Dancing With the Stars," and let me just tell you, walking out there for the very first time for my first dance. [Laughs.] So I can definitely empathize.

How did host Tom Bergeron make you feel?

Cuban: I didn't even know he was there. I was just terrified. The sweat was pouring down, and it was just all instinct.

Daly: Someone's crying in front of you. Someone's having an off moment. You have to be there for them.

Deeley: Also you have to have a great relationship with your producers and your director because I wear an IFB too, and it's very, very easy at certain moments for them to be like, "You need to go to this shot, and you need to wrap it up, and do these things." And so what's happening is you're being so distracted that you're not—I mean, I've seen it on other shows that maybe aren't doing so well. And they're being over produced. And the host is like this…

Daly: Inundated.

Deeley: They're like a rabbit in headlights, and they're not really listening to the person who's on their knees, crying on the floor.

Cuban: If they don't trust you, the show's not gonna work.

Daly: That's the reality competition part of it, because you have a reality show that's playing out with real-life emotions and things that Americans are keying off of. And they want to see those moments. What are you going to do next?

Cuban: Right. I hate the setup, I hate the setup.

Daly: That moment's got to be live. The competition part has to be when we get, you know, we have to set up the stakes. It's hard for the host to juggle that. It can be.

Deeley: And it just has to be trust, I think, with the producers and the directors at the same time, that you're in it and that they don't try and kill a moment.

Do you prep before the season starts or before each episode or both?

Daly: I do a radio show in the morning, and I always feel like even from when I was at MTV that I always felt sort of at the center of pop culture. It really becomes a lifestyle more than a job. There's prep when it comes to individual artists and knowing them. But I get so vested so quickly when we start shooting our season that I never feel like I'm doing homework. When I'm starting a season of "The Voice," and we call it friends and family, where I do four straight days. And I interview somewhere between 95 and 120 people and their families who have come here to Los Angeles. And you see snippets of that. I love it. I don't even need a piece of paper.

Deeley: I'm exactly the same. And it's also, I like people. And I like finding out about them. The only bit of prep I do actually is the technical stuff. So if we're doing a live show, and I need to know what cameras I'm on, and where I need to lay out my auto cue or write my script, that I'm a complete nerd about. I prep and I prep so that when I'm actually with somebody and I'm talking to them, and they're having a moment, I know what camera I'm going to next or how long I've got before this commercial break.

Probst: In terms of a hosting, I'm with these guys. I always get credit on "Survivor" for asking these great questions, but really, they tell you what to ask…

Deeley: If you listen.

Probst: …if you just pay attention and listen. It isn't always the question. It's listening to the answer. And that guides you on where you want to take the story. I couldn't do the show with an IFB. And on the second, on like, the third day I was on the island with [producer Mark Burnett] at the very beginning, he didn't even know what an IFB was then. But he said, "Hey Jeff, they've got these things out. You can put it in your ear, and I can talk to you." And I said, "Mark, please don't make me use an IFB because the way 'Survivor' seems like it's going to go is it's going to be really organic, and there's going to be the eight or nine people there. And you're going to want to go left, and I'm going to want to go right, and we're both going to end up at the same point." And there was a moment right after the second tribal council we ever did where he came after we were done. He said, "There was one question I wished you hadn't asked." And we were still so fresh. I don't know if you guys will appreciate this, but we were still so new, I said, "Mark, just give me a couple more episodes before you critique it. Let me find it. And he never said another word.

What is the secret there? Do you ever worry, do you feel like you're in safe hands? Do you ever worry that their attention's not fully with your show at a specific time?

Daly: Let me say two things about this as it pertains to a particular omnipotent producer like a Nigel [Lythgoe] or a Mark. When I first met Mark, I thought he was gonna be someone who was going to show up the first day and then I would never see him again because there's so many other show runners and producers. And that's not the case at all. I mean, he is all in, unless he's on location for "Survivor."

Probst: No. I can attest to this because you can't get Burnett on the phone to answer "Survivor" questions.

Cuban: Or any questions, yeah.

Probst: One of his many assistants called to say, "Right now he's on the set at 'The Voice.' I know!" The No. 1 show. The other thing is—I don't know how you guys feel about this, and I am certainly no barometer of reality—but it feels like reality is approaching a crossroads in which it has to evolve again.

Cuban: Of course.

Probst: And you look at these shows. They're all formats from other countries. You know, it feels like networks need to, we need to take a few more chances, break more formats here; rely less on focus groups. I was saying with somebody the other day that "Survivor," much like your show, Cat, "Survivor" was shot in a vacuum out in, over a summer in the South China Sea. And we came back, and we put it on, and the expectations were low. So nobody paid much attention. And then it was a hit, and it did OK. But in the very first reviews were: "People are too mean. Ooh, they ate a rat. These challenges are dumb. And get rid of the host." So all of those things are still on the show today. People are still mean at times; they still have these challenges; the host is still there. But if that show had been focused grouped, would "Survivor" have ever even made it onto the air?

Cuban: And look, we're on Friday nights. And up until "Shark Tank" really created a platform for Friday nights, Friday nights were a waste night. It meant they were just trying to fill space. And when "Shark Tank" started to build audience and build audience and build audience, now Friday nights started to become a family night. Now shows are starting to get platformed on Friday night. But to your point, Jeff, television, particularly broadcast television, is not a risk-driven business. It's a risk-aversion driven business, which is why you see a lot of formats from overseas.

We see how important Emmy nominations are to scripted TV, how does it play with reality TV?

Probst: I don't know that it really does matter. I don't know that it matters to the audience if a show wins in scripted either.

Cuban: No, there's no way it matters to the audience. And I mean, we got nominated [last year] because they switched us into a different non-competitive category. And we didn't win, unfortunately. But everybody on set was so excited. I was like, "OK." It doesn't matter to me, but I realized it mattered to everybody else.

Daly: That's because you're rich. Let's be honest.

Cuban: I still like to win. But it matters to everyone else's resume. And so it was important from that perspective.

Daly: In the television business, it is a big deal whether you won an Emmy or not. We got nominated last year. We were the only singing competition nominated, which, of course, the media made a big deal because of "Idol" and "X Factor." And "The Voice," this newbie show, was nominated. And we were all freaking out. I mean, we're like, "The Bad News Bears," we were stoked.

Probst: I thought your question was, "Does it impact a show?" And I don't think it does.

Cuban: It's going to get you more promotion from the network. They're going to want to say, "This is an Emmy Award-winning show."

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