WE tv’s Marc Juris: Unscripted Television is the Medium’s Unsung Hero

And I thought I loved television. WE tv’s president and general manager Marc Juris really lives and breathes the medium. The native New Yorker, whose entire career has spent been creating programming for the masses, told me over lunch, “Sometimes I tell friends I’m busy, but I’m really staying home and watching television.” But he’s not watching Games of Thrones and This Is Us just for the fun of it. “I watch to analyze characters,” said Marc. “I really mess up the networks’ demo. I watch everything from the Housewives to Master Chef to Are You the One on MTV. I want to see what works.”

This week’s lunch at Michael’s was a master class in the art (and trust me, it is an art) of creating – and appreciating – unscripted — aka reality — television. Marc’s proven track record of creating compulsively watchable content for WE tv since joining the network in 2013 and his past successes rebranding networks (in his former gigs he transformed MuchMusicUSA into FUSE Network and reinvented CourtTV as truTV) provided ample fodder for a lively chat on the business of television.

WE tv is home to some of the most talked-about unscripted shows on television including the popular franchise “Marriage Boot Camp,” “Braxton Family Values” and “Million Dollar Matchmaker” with Patti Stanger (more on these shows later). The network is the number one cable network for African-American adults and women on Thursday nights and is building on its successes with increasingly popular Friday night programming which currently ranks in the top five cable networks for women. In an age where viewers have more choices on what to watch than ever before, WE tv had its best year in 2016 and has seen steady growth in its primetime audience for three years running.

Marc, as you might expect, had some very interesting things to say on unscripted (aka reality) television and its place in the zeitgeist. For one thing, get over yourselves reality tv snobs. “The same rules apply for unscripted and scripted [television]. A story is a story – unscripted or scripted,” said Marc. “I’ve learned more about human nature from unscripted [television] than anything else I’ve ever done. People never react the way you think they will.” And here’s another myth he’d like to clear up: “We have not made [storylines] up. It’s almost unbelievable, but you put people in certain situations and you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Marc told me he considers himself “a union rep for the audience” and that he “holds producers to a higher standard than most” which means for a pitch to get the greenlight from him, it has to meet “the four Cs.” He explained that means interesting “characters” distinguishable from what’s already out there, “conflict” that doesn’t necessarily mean drama but is an obstacle that needs to be overcome, “consequences” to the characters involved and lastly, “comic relief.”

That said, there is no one magic formula that works, so forget about those books about writing hit scripts and no-fail elevator pitches. “There is no algorithm to great storytelling. There are no short cuts. Good storytelling takes a lot of love, sweat and tears.” And he’s not talking about the characters – he’s talking about the writers and producers. “The process hasn’t changed since the ancient Greeks. It’s untouched by technology – that’s just changed the platform and distribution.” A good producer, advised Marc, has to be “an intensely curious person – a genuinely curious person” especially on cable television. “We can’t compete with lush budgets [for sets and locations], so we compensate with good storytelling.”

The storytelling that is resonating loud and clear with WE tv viewers is driven by plenty of larger than life characters including former Bravo star Patti Stanger. “I was getting pitched a lot of matchmaking shows,” said Marc. “But there is only one matchmaker and when Patti came to us I saw it as a great opportunity. Today there is so much competition so when there is someone people know, we don’t have to work as hard to establish the character.”

That was clearly the case with “Mama June: From Not to Hot” which delivered 2.3 million total viewers, making the show’s premiere earlier this year the network’s best series premiere ever in total viewers and key demos. The matriarch of the Honey Boo Boo franchise brought along legions of fans from the original series on TLC and that made for a very successful launch. “Mama June is someone who is very relatable and whose story engages and entertains viewers.” Marc told me he was so sure that Mama June’s startling weight loss and subsequent transformation would be must-see television, he stashed her in an Internet-free “safe house” for six weeks leading up to the show’s premiere. “When I saw what she looked like, I wanted [the reveal] to be a viewer moment, not a social media moment.”

WE tv’s “Marriage Boot Camp” franchise is about to premiere its 11th (!) season on October 13 and has made for plenty of watercooler moments. The new season will feature reality stars from “Bachelor in Paradise,” “Teen Mom 2,” “Bad Girls Club,” “Shahs of Sunset” and “Love& Hip Hop: New York.” “People come on that show and they what they are going through is real,” said Marc. “Kendra Wilkinson hadn’t spoken to her mother in three years and they reconnected through the show. Sometimes things get volatile.”

And sometimes a show’s effects reach beyond viewers’ homes. “Unscripted television is underestimated in its place on the entertainment spectrum,” said Marc. “Braxton Family Values” with Toni Braxton has put the singer’s relatable family issues on the small screen. Other examples of reality television’s positive effect on society can be traced back to the genre’s beginnings. “Much of today’s acceptance of [people’s] sexual fluidity is rooted in [what viewers saw on] “The Real World.” “Queer Eye” was also a cultural influence.”

But of course, one the most far reaching and lasting effects of unscripted television is that pretty much everyone walking around – especially those famous folks with millions of Instagram followers – believe they should star in their own unscripted series. “A lot of celebrities think their lives are more interesting than they really are,” said Marc. “A lot of people think they’re the Kardashians.”

Seen & Heard Around the Room

Legendary film critic Rex Reed on Table One … Andrew Stein and Judith Miller on Three … Tony Award-winning producer Jean Doumanian on Table Five … Doug Brunt (Mr. Megyn Kelly) and frequent Today show guest security expert Bill Stanton on Table Seven …. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia at his usual perch (Table Eight) with Judy Price … Jill Martin on Nine … CNBC’s Ron Insana on Eleven … On Table Twelve: President of NBC Universal Marketing Alan Wurztel who, we hear, is retiring … United Stations Radio’s Nick Verbitsky sipping chardonnay on Sixteen … LAK PR’s CEO Lisa Linden with Matt Rich on Seventeen … On Table Twenty: PMK *BNC CEO Cindi Berger … Author/playwright Jill Brooke with New York’s comedy queen Caroline Hirsch on Twenty-one …Coach’s new-ish CEO and brand president Joshua Shulman on Twenty-two …. Estee Lauder’s Deborah Krulewitch on Twenty-three … Drew Reed of Fox Entertainment on Twenty-four … Former NBA commissioner David Stern on Twenty-five … Revolver magazine’s Enrique Abeyta on Twenty-six … David Sanford and Lewis Stein on Twenty-nine.

Congrats to Candace Finn, wife of Michael’s own Danny DiVella, on the fabulous new picture book, John Lennon’s Imagine, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Clever Candace, the imprint’s children’s rights director, was instrumental in getting the picture book featuring illustrations by award-winning artist Jean Jullien and foreword by Yoko Ono Lennon published and spreading the book’s all too timely message of peace and tolerance. It was published in partnership with Amnesty International. Well done!

Follow me on Twitter@DianeClehane

Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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