From Walter Winchell to Matt Drudge, journalists have always liked to think of themselves as fascinating, a tendency that seems to be summiting in the dot-com era, when the streaming consciousness of almost any reporter who can hunt-and-peck on the Internet is exhibited as if it were possibly of interest to anybody aside from criminologists and abnormal-psychologists in training.
But hardly anything in the mad march of the self-aggrandizement of the press has been quite as loonily narcissistic as Bunim-Murray Productions’ prime-time project for ABC, a reality-based television series that the producers call “the next revolution in reality-based programming,” now accepting applications from genuine, real-life reporters and editors–not actors–playing themselves … as they create and publish a working dot-com magazine in Manhattan about Manhattan.
The Bunim-Murray web site says the cast members of the TV show will be taped as they build “the definitive Web-based magazine about the hip style and substance that is the city of New York. This weekly, prime-time series follows the lives and struggles of our cast as they cover and uncover stories behind the power brokers of fashion, finance, art, music and multimedia.”
“It’s an hour drama based on the lives of real people, cast with some exciting and unique characters,” said Mary Ellis Bunim, who created MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules , and the current ABC hit Making the Band , with her partner Jonathan Murray. “That’s first and foremost. Beyond that, we hope to provide an insight into the world of journalism in New York.”
“The phone’s been ringing off the hook,” said Mr. Murray.
If you, as a working journalist, want to be part of what is being called “Untitled Project” on the Bunim-Murray Web site, “Your assignment will be to go behind the velvet ropes of the most exclusive parties, the executive offices and unwritten social registers to bring us life as it is lived by Manhattan’s elite.”
The producers say on their Web site that casting for “Untitled Project” begins later this month. Prospective cast members should be ready to “take a risk and make a change in your life …
“Are you willing to put your life on hold and take a chance on an Internet magazine and participate in a documentary, filmed 24 hours a day for the first six months of employment?”
So, just like the T-shirted, kitchen-fighting kids in The Real World and Road Rules , a select group of journalists will be followed through New York by camera crews recording their lives. From the morning editorial meetings to the movie-premiere celebrity hunts to the late-night huddles with sources in the backs of taxicabs, the cameras will be there.
There are seven to 10 slots on the ABC Web ‘zine show up for grabs. Applicants are supposed to have journalism backgrounds; familiarity with New York is a plus. Each must submit a résumé, two clips of 500 words or more, and a 200-word essay telling producers why he or she would make a good cast member. Photographs must also be submitted.
These online journalists are supposed to be reasonably attractive, physically. Ms. Bunim said she wanted the cast to be racially and ethnically diverse. The online magazine’s staff will have a wider age range than the casts of The Real World and Road Rules , which typically run from the late teens to mid-20’s. They would consider staffers in their 40’s and 50’s. Mr. Murray said that he’d be into having a drag queen on the cast.
Casting is set to begin in the next two weeks and continue through the early summer. Applicants who are selected will have to quit their jobs if they are employed. They will get paid, but Mr. Murray and Ms. Bunim declined to say how much. They will also be granted what Mr. Murray described as a “story-rights payment” for giving producers license to make a television show using their biographical information.
Mr. Bunim and Mr. Murray said they haven’t picked a location for the show yet. Silicon Alley is a possibility, they said. They seemed intrigued by the possibility of the workplace being a loft-like space, similar to the home of the inaugural Real World , which also took place in New York. They hope to have the show up and running by fall, with the idea of airing it sometime in the winter or early spring of 2001.
And though it feels like something of an afterthought, there will actually be an online magazine in production, too. As for inspiration, Ms. Bunim and Mr. Murray, who have both lived in New York, said they are fans of New York magazine. Ms. Bunim said she hoped the online magazine would be ” Salon- esque.”
Ms. Bunim’s and Mr. Murray’s show is a clear product of the media’s growing self-consuming interest. The Real World , when started, had a bumper-car-crash fascination that lay somewhere between the Loud family and This is Spinal Tap , and the use of raw video to broadcast rec room fights among the young and beautiful … in Hawaii! … gave the program a strange anthropological and pop-culture power.
But this is something new. Really, it doesn’t matter that the described world of New York online journalism that ABC is planning on recording doesn’t actually exist in the same way that the vast, multi-bedroomed exposed-brick beautifully-populated apartments and coffee shops on Friends didn’t actually exist. But once Friends became a hit, all kinds of beautiful out-of-towners migrated to town believing they could become Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston, the way kids once came to town to become Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. They were so beautiful and had so much money to pay for rent that pretty soon those apartments actually began materializing, and the Friends fantasy became a new kind of New York meta-reality.
But ABC’s “Untitled Project” is supposedly reality-based TV, like The Real World , and Cops . And this show is supposed to create a glamorous Web ‘zine. Some who do this kind of work for a living wonder how ABC can not only sustain a television series but create a magazine as well.
“The psycho-sexual drama within Word alone could power TV shows and docudramas until the end of time,” said Marisa Bowe, the editor of the New York online publication Word.com. “Constant bed-hopping, endless obsessive ruminating about where to spend money. It’s kind of a heartbreaking decision to make when you can buy foie gras at any restaurant in town. How do you make a decision on an existential dilemma like that? It’s very compelling.”
Across the nation, in Seattle, Washington, Michael Kinsley, the founding editor of Slate , laughed heartily when he heard the part about the online correspondents being plunged into “a world of celebrity and glamour.”
“That doesn’t sound like this Web ‘zine,” Mr. Kinsley said. “I have been plunged into a world of the Microsoft corporate cafeteria.”
“It’s sort of a weird idea,” Mr. Kinsley said. “There isn’t enough reality around, so they want to do a reality-type TV show and first they have to go out and make up some reality. It’s a little bit bizarre from that point of view.”
Mr. Murray said one inspiration for the show was Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City,” a column that was created years ago in the 90’s for The New York Observer and then eventually became a favorite on HBO. “We actually had lunch with her last week,” said Mr. Murray.
Ms. Bunim and Mr. Murray said their journalists would search for material that was primarily lifestyle-oriented. “I’m not the assignment editor,” said Mr. Murray, a former TV news producer who attended journalism school at the University of Missouri, “but I could certainly see someone doing something on the lines that form for clubs or restaurants or places to get in. I’ve seen that story done before, and it’s always interesting, the kinds of people who show up for different things.”
Some had a hard time imagining who would want to be a cast member on ABC’s “Untitled Project.” “How are they going to find ten out-of-work journalists in this economy, when everyone’s getting job offers constantly, especially people with real experience?” asked Ms. Bowe of Word. “If they can find ten people, they must be the biggest losers in New York if they don’t already have great jobs.”
Others, however, think finding a cast will be easy. “Are you familiar with the TV show Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? ” asked Steven Johnson of Feed.com, another New York online publication. “People will do anything to be on television.”
“For the most part,” said former New York Post sex columnist Amy Sohn, “we’re ugly and antisocial, so I don’t know who they are going to find.” Mr. Kinsley agreed. “As you know, it’s the bitterness and resentment of better-looking people that spurs us all to become journalists,” he said.
Still, its TV, it’s never been done before, and the show promises to make quite a splash. There’s going to be a natural curiosity surrounding the show’s development. Who’s going to be the first name writer to jump to the show? You can bet these TV web-journalists could cause quite a stir when the show begins taping. Just think of the first time one of them shows up at a premiere or magazine launch, cameras in tow. “It will be an irresistible thing for some journalists,” said New York magazine’s Vanessa Grigoriadis. “Anyone who says this business isn’t driven by ego is full of it.”
And then there’s the question of what will be in the magazine, who will own the rights to the material, who will advertise in it, and what its journalistic standards will be. The cast members’ release clauses in their contracts could easily be as long as the Fairfield County Yellow Pages.
Given Ms. Bunim and Mr. Murray’s track record–they have not failed yet–it’s hard to bet against them. They could, after all, be creating the new city magazine: if “Untitled Project” works, there are plans to launch successive shows and Web ‘zines in Chicago, Los Angeles and beyond. Even Mr. Kinsley seems intrigued. “I’m in favor of almost anything to break up the conventions of television entertainment, which are pretty rigid,” he said. “So what the heck, why shouldn’t they try it?”
Mr. Stevens of Feed.com said he hoped to sneak his way onto the show somehow. “Maybe we could be the wacky Web ‘zine that lives next door,” he said. “We could just kind of stop in now and again.”
Thursday, May 4
Remember the days when we had to use rabbit ears and A/B boxes to watch “Celebrity” Who Wants to Be a Millionaire ? Tonight, fire up the Time-Warner cable and watch it in 21st-century style. Unless you bought a Direct TV dish Tuesday. [WABC, 7, 9 P.M.]
Friday, May 5
Still interested in applying for the “Untitled Project,” that online Web ‘zine show? See what you’re in for as MTV airs a Real World Marathon. [MTV, 20, 8 P.M.]
Saturday, May 6
Fargo . Frances McDormand. William H. Macy. Steve Buscemi. You betcha. [TNT, 3, 8 P.M.]
Sunday, May 7
On NBC, Jason and the Argonauts . One part sailor, two parts fleece. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]
Monday, May 8
Back when Disney and Time Warner got along, they cooked up Celebrity Weddings , an ABC show based on Time Inc.’s In Style magazine.[WABC, 7, 8 P.M.]
Tuesday, May 9
NYTV called up political comedian and New York guy Lewis Black, who has a special running tonight on Comedy Central. In the show, he makes some Rudolph Giuliani jokes. NYTV asked Mr. Black what he thought about Mayor Giuliani’s announcement that he has prostate cancer. Mr. Black had been traveling, and hadn’t heard. “Awwww, God,” Mr. Black said. “Awwww. Oh man. There goes all my stuff. That’s over with. Awwww.” [Comedy Central, 45, 10 P.M.]